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Use of Australian Native Timbers in Mandolins

by Peter Coombe

After reading the editorial in the June 1996 issues of the Journal I decided it was time I ceased being a passive member of the AAMIM. As an enthusiastic user of Australian native timbers it was time to stick my neck out and write a contribution for the journal, so here goes.

I have been making mandolins part time for just over 3 years and in that time have completed 16 mandolins and 3 Appalacian Dulcimers. My mandolins are based on the Gibson A type - i.e. carved top and back, oval sound hole. I have tried to use Australian native timers wherever possible, and it is noteworthy that of the 4 mandolins I have made that I consider to be exceptionally fine instruments, 3 were made almost entirely from Australian woods. I use Australian woods in my instruments partly on principle, because I believe Australian musical instrument makers should use Australian timbers wherever possible, partly because of the results I am getting, and increasingly because my customers are demanding Australian timbers. In addition, the local timbers are sometimes easier to get and invariably cheaper than importing luthier's wood from overseas.

What follows is a necessarily subjective appraisal of various Australian timbers that I have used in my instruments. I do not have any means of objectively measuring responses, so have to rely, like most of us, on my own ears and the reaction of customers and other musicians. I have been playing mandolin for more than 10 years in a local folk band so am reasonably able to discern differences in tonal quality. In most cases my opinion is closely mirrored by that of other musicians. I have attempted to minimise all the innumerable factors that affect sound quality in musical instruments by using the same basic construction techniques, but with some refinements in the bracing of the top. In addition, as well as the original Gibson A 1, one instrument has been kept as a reference against which all new instruments are judged so I can measure progress or otherwise. I came to instrument making with no preconceived ideas and as a former scientist I was eager to experiment. Thus I have experimented with various Australian native timbers, sometimes in combination with imported woods all in search of the elusive exceptional tone. There is no doubt that one can get very good results from Australian native timbers. The instruments will sound different from the traditional spruce/maple and in the case of mandolins I believe superior.

If one is trying to reproduce a "traditional" sound, then it is probably better to stick with the traditional timbers because you will never find Australian timbers with precisely the same qualities as the traditional woods. You may also have to modify the construction technique to compensate for the different physical characteristics of the wood. I have found an increasing interest amongst musicians in favour of the use of Australian native timbers in Australian built instruments, a trend which should encourage members to use native woods. However, it takes courage to try something different in an instrument that is already well established. One is always mindful of the amount of work that goes into an instrument and nobody wants to make a dud that won't sell. Courage and an open mind is required and one could be richly rewarded. I certainly was.

The Australian timbers I have used are:

  King William Pine Athrotaxis selaginoides
  Blackwood Acacia melanoxylon
  Queensland Walnut Endiandra palmerstoni
  Queensland Maple Flindersia brayleyana
  Ash Eucalyptus regnans
  Jarrah Eucalyptus marginata
(King William Pine Front) King William Pine is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest soundboard timbers that grows upon this earth. I should qualify that, and state that I believe it is one of the finest soundboard timbers for mandolins and Appalacian Dulcimers, because that is all I have had experience with. In my experience, it makes beautiful, sweet, clear sounding mandolins that are preferred over the best spruce-topped instruments by a majority of mandolin players (about 60/40 in favour of King William Pine). Mandolins with King William Pine tops sell well. It is also a lovely timber to work with, planes and carves beautifully and has a pleasant aromatic odour when worked. It is not as strong as Spruce along the grain, so I use Spruce bracing, and carve the top a little higher than my Spruce tops (tip from Graham Caldersmith, thanks Graham). The down side is that it is now a very difficult timber to get, and if you do manage to get some you may have to cope with curly grain, splits and hidden knots. However, well worth the effort.
(Blackwood Back) I have used Blackwood for back and sides and necks in a number of my mandolins and all the Dulcimers. The best combination for mandolins so far has been with Engelmann spruce, but I still have not made an instrument with a King William Pine/Blackwood combination. That particular combination has been used in 2 Appalacian dulcimers with great success and will be the combination used in my next mandolin. Blackwood is a very variable timber with a wide variation in colour, density and hardness and can come in highly figured fiddleback forms. An instrument made with fiddleback Blackwood back and sides can be strikingly beautiful. Blackwood I have found to be a moderately troublesome timber to work with. Timber for mandolin backs will often warp and twist when sliced, so are best cut to size and left for as long as practical before joining and carving. Even then, backs will often curl up their edges when carved. In addition, Blackwood dust is moderately irritating and the harder pieces can be hard on bandsaw blades. Bending qualities in general are good, although once again variable. Fortunately however, Blackwood is readily available, reasonably cheap, and not too difficult to find quarter sawn in timber yards.
(Queensland Walnut Neck) One of Australia's most beautiful cabinet timbers with strong dark grain streaks, sometimes highly figured is now very difficult to get and almost impossible to find quarter sawn. I have only made one instrument with Queensland Walnut back and sides with a Sitka Spruce top. It has been quite a successful instrument, bought by a Canberra mandolin player who is still very happy with it. Queensland Walnut makes very good necks, being moderately hard and dense although I must qualify that by saying that the timber I have has been seasoned for at least 10 years. Queensland Walnut is well known to be a terrible timber for blunting tools and stinks to high heaven when worked. Acoustically, it is similar to Queensland Maple. Bending qualities are poor, absolutely the worst timber I have ever tried to bend. However, the best quarter sawn pieces are difficult to beat, they make very handsome looking instruments.
(Queensland Maple Back) One of Australia's great cabinet timbers, but once again, more and more difficult to get. It is one of my favorites because it is softer than the other hardwoods, so it is easy to work, the dust is not irritating and the timber is easier on tools. Also it is the most stable of all the timbers I have tried. Queensland maple sometimes comes in highly figured pieces, although almost impossible to get nowadays. It has very good bending qualities, although the grain does tend to compress in tight corners. I have made a number of quite successful mandolins with Queensland Maple backs and sides; the best combination has been with King William Pine.
(Ash Neck) I have only used Ash for headblocks and tailblocks, but Ash is on the list for experimentation for backs and sides and necks. It sometimes comes with fiddleback figure.
(Jarah Back and Neck) The biggest surprise of all (to me) has been Jarrah. Jarrah is a very hard, dense, stiff timber and is relatively acoustically dead when tapped. It is still readily available, cheap, not too difficult to find quarter sawn and sometimes comes with fiddleback figure. It is fairly hard on tools and has only moderate bending qualities, and I find the dust quite irritating. However in combination with King William Pine, makes strikingly beautiful sounding mandolins. With a King William Pine top and fiddleback Blackwood bindings quite a handsome combination is achieved. So far I have made 2 mandolins with Jarrah backs, sides and necks and both have exceptional tonal qualities. One of these instruments (illustrated) I am happy to say, is now in France. The instruments are fairly heavy because Jarrah is a very heavy timber and most musicians notice this but get bowled over by the tonal qualities. Both instruments have the typical qualities of King William Pine, i.e. sweet and clear in the treble but also have a long sustain and a lovely, rich powerful bass quality that was not apparent in the King William Pine/Queensland Maple combination. The long sustain is probably due to the stiffness of Jarrah and the bass qualities may be due to the fact that the back was tuned lower than the top (this is my theory anyway). Jarrah is easier to tune lower because it is relatively stronger and heavier. I presently play one of these instruments in the band and it is now my reference instrument. Overall, Jarrah has been a great success.

That is a brief summary of my experiences with Australian native timbers in musical instruments. I hope other members find my comments interesting and useful. Other timbers on my list to try in mandolins are Tasmanian Myrtle and Red Cedar but as yet I have been unable to obtain samples of a suitable size. Since Jarrah has been so successful in mandolins, other hard heavy timbers of which Australia is well endowed, may be worth examining. Suggestions of other timbers from members will be gratefully accepted. Australia, I think is particularly well endowed with native timbers suitable for backs, sides and necks and fingerboards. Timbers such as Blackwood, Jarrah and various other Eucalypts and Acacias are likely to be available for some time to come. The problem as I see it is the supply of soundboard timber. King William Pine is already very difficult to get and I believe that commercial harvesting is about to or has already ceased. It is an extremely slow growing species so is difficult to harvest sustainably. Although I have sufficient supplies at the moment I do not know how much longer I can continue to make instruments with King William Pine. At my age I should have at least 20 years of instrument making in front of me and would like to continue to make instruments of native timber but in the absences of King William Pine it will be difficult. I have purchased salvaged timber but the quality was rather indifferent, with only about 1/3 useful for soundboards. Any suggestions for soundboard timber from members?

In closing, I would like to send a special thanks to Jack Spira for donating quite a substantial plank of King William Pine to me and to Gillian Alcock and Graham Caldersmith for many suggestions and encouragement. Some fine mandolins shall emerge from that plank of King William Pine.