Peter Coombe Mandolins and Guitars
Use of Imported and Australian Native Timbers in Mandolins
by Peter Coombe
Last updated 25th December 2016
Australian Native timbers
Australia has a wealth of native timber species, ranging from gigantic Eucalyptus of temperate rainforest, to tropical rainforest timbers, to desert Acacias. Much of the forest is still old growth forest, so the timber available can be of very high quality.. However, increasingly because of legitimate conservation needs (and woodchipping and fires) some of these timbers are now rare or difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, some of these now rare timbers include some of the best tonewoods. I believe Australia possesses in her native timbers some of the best tonewoods in the world.
Australian Native Timbers
King Billy Pine: Athrotaxis selaginoides
Also known in Australia as King William Pine. King Billy Pine is an extremely slow growing species that grows only in the mountains of north west and south west Tasmania. The timber is light pink to yellow pink, very close grained, soft, and with a characteristic aromatic odour when worked. It's appearance and softness is similar to lighter coloured Cedar, but it is stronger than Cedar.
King Billy Pine is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest soundboard timbers that grows upon this earth. In my experience, it makes beautiful sweet clear sounding mandolins that many musicians prefer over the best spruce-topped instruments. It is also a lovely timber to work with, planes and carves beautifully and fills the workshop with a pleasant aromatic odour when worked. It is not as strong as Spruce along the grain, so I use Red Spruce or Douglas Fir bracing, and carve the top a little higher than my Spruce tops (tip from Graham Caldersmith, thanks Graham). However, King Billy Pine is no longer harvested commercially and it is now almost impossible to get clean quarter sawn pieces suitable for soundboards, hence prices are a little higher for mandolins with King Billy Pine tops. Currently I do have a very good supply of this timber because I purchased a log some years ago before they stopped logging the trees. It is a great shame that this species has been shamefully wasted over the last two centuries.
I do have quite a bit of experience with King Billy with my Goldfinch model mandolin. Some examples of this model have been stunningly good mandolins, but I have found that the results are a little variable, probably because the wood is of variable quality. Many pieces have hidden knots, and it is difficult to get a good clean piece that is quarter sawn and with little or no runout. The best sounding timber to use for the back in my experience is Blackwood. Over the years I have steadily improved my Goldfinch mandolin so much so that recent models have been significantly louder than my Spruce topped instruments, but still with the typical sweetness and clarity of King Billy Pine. The best examples sound beautiful, but also have great projection, and can be heard when played with other instruments. These instruments almost invariably are made from the stiffest pieces of King Billy and Blackwood, so can be carved a little thinner. Unfortunately it is now difficult to get perfectly quarter sawn King Billy Pine at it's maximum stiffness.
Although King Billy Pine has been a great success, I have found it pays to warn customers that it does have a characteristic sound and feel that is different from Spruce. Customers expecting a Spruce sound are likely be disappointed. It also does not like to be played hard (unlike Red Spruce) , so customers with a heavy touch are also likely to be disappointed. However, musicians with a delicate light touch (many women) love the sound of King Billy Pine because it responds superbly to this style of playing.
Blackwood is a large tree that grows in Tasmania and Victoria and on the Tablelands of New South Wales and Queensland. The wood is a golden brown to reddish brown with longitudinal darkish streaks, fairly hard and takes an excellent polish. Rare pieces can have a lovely fiddleback (curly) figure in the grain. It is extensively used for furniture in Australia so is readily available in quantity and quality, although the fiddleback pieces are increasingly more difficult to get.
I have used Blackwood for back and sides and necks in many of my mandolins. The best combinations so far have been with Engelmann Spruce, and especially King Billy Pine. King Billy Pine together with Blackwood produces lovely sweet, mellow, smooth, but also loud and clear sounding mandolins. Stunning instruments. It also goes extremely well with Engelmann Spruce, the tonal qualities of the two timbers complement each other.
Blackwood is a highly variable timber with a wide variation in colour, density and hardness and rare pieces can be highly figured. An instrument made with fiddleback Blackwood back and sides can be strikingly beautiful. Blackwood is very closely related to Koa, so the appearance and tonal qualities are almost identical. I have found Blackwood to be a moderately troublesome timber to work with. Blackwood dust is slightly irritating, and the harder pieces can be difficult on bandsaw blades, and very difficult to carve. Some pieces are extremely hard, and often the most difficult pieces to work are the most attractive. For these I use abrasives and power tools rather than a blade to carve since it is impossible not to get tearout with a blade. Unfortunately that produces copious quantities of dust. Bending qualities in general are very good, although once again variable. Fortunately, Blackwood is readily available, reasonably cheap, and not too difficult to find quarter sawn in timber yards. It is a popular wood amongst Australian Luthiers and is used by the Maton guitar factory for guitar backs and sides.
Queensland Walnut is a large tropical rainforest tree that grows in the coastal districts of northern Queensland. It is one of Australia's most beautiful cabinet timbers with strong dark grain streaks, sometimes highly figured, but now very difficult to get and almost impossible to find quarter sawn. The best pieces have a strikingly strong grain pattern that is often also highly figured. At one time it was used to make high class furniture, but is now only used for decorative veneers. The timber is a distinctive dark brown, streaked with grey or black. It is a fairly hard, heavy and strong timber.
I have only made three instruments from Queensland Walnut, one with a Sitka Spruce top, one with an Engelmann Spruce top and one with a Swiss Spruce top. All have been very successful instruments, the Sitka Spruce instrument was purchased by a Canberra mandolin player who is still very happy with it; the Engelmann Spruce instrument I played myself for some 18 months.
Queensland Walnut makes very good necks, being heavy and strong and also stable. The timber I have is more than 30 years old, so it is very dry and precious. Queensland Walnut is well known to be a terrible timber for blunting tools and has a dreadfully strong stink that permeates throughout the workshop when worked. Acoustically, darker sounding and not as resonant as Blackwood but with a very solid bass. Bending qualities are variable, some pieces have been absolutely the worst timber I have ever tried to bend, other pieces bend readily. However, the best quarter sawn pieces are difficult to beat, they make very handsome looking instruments. Queensland Walnut is used by the Maton guitar factory for guitar backs and sides.
Queensland Maple is a tropical rainforest timber that grows in the northern coastal regions of Queensland. It is a large tree with a very large trunk but is not a true maple. At one time this timber was one of the prime cabinet timbers of the world, and was extensively used for furniture. However, once again, it is now rare and more difficult to obtain. It is one of my favourites because it is softer than the other hardwoods, so is easy to work, the dust is not irritating, and the timber is easier on tools than others. It also finishes very nicely. It is the most stable of all the timbers I have tried, including the true Maples. Queensland Maple sometimes comes in highly figured pieces, although almost impossible to get nowadays. Very good bending qualities, although the grain does tend to compress in tight corners. The timber ranges from brown with pinkish tints to a full pink (similar to Big Leaf Maple), and is fairly light in weight with a silken lustre.
I have made a number of quite successful mandolins with Queensland Maple back and sides, the best combination has been with a King Billy Pine top, but Engelmann Spruce also works well. The instruments in general have been loud and fairly bright. Queensland Maple, like the true Maples does take some time to show it's best tonal qualities. Currently I use Queensland Maple mostly for necks, and neck and tail blocks, primarily because of it's stability and lower density than the other hardwoods. Used by the Maton guitar factory for guitar necks (because of it's stability) and backs and sides of guitars. I am also now using it for guitar necks.
These trees grow in the higher rainfall areas of Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) grows into a massive tall tree with a tall branchless trunk; the largest flowering plant in the world. The height of these trees rival that of the Redwood giants of California. The timber is hard and strong and light in colour. From the butt of the tree, highly figured fiddleback forms of timber of great beauty can often be found. The timber is used extensively in Australia for furniture, and floorboards. It is not possible to distinguish between the 3 species of Eucalyptus that is marketed as Tasmanian Oak or Victorian Ash just by looking at the wood. Most of the commercial wood is cut on the quarter because it tends to split when not quarter sawn (and sometimes also when quarter sawn) so has to be carefully selected if it is to be used in a musical instrument.. Bending properties vary greatly, with some samples impossible to bend whereas other pieces bend satisfactorily. I suspect the differences are due to differing species of Eucalyptus.
A few years ago I came across a large plank of Tasmanian Oak that was obviously from a very large tree. It showed no sign of splitting, and was big enough for a one piece back with room to spare so I thought I would try it in a mandolin back. The mandolin has a Carpathian Spruce top and is a tone monster. Probably the best sounding and one of the loudest oval hole mandolin I have made. Encouraged by this result, I then made an A5 mandolin with a back from the same plank. Once again, a superb sounding mandolin. Tasmanian Oak certainly is an excellent tonewood that has not been fully appreciated by Luthiers. I love the sound of these two mandolins so will be using more Tasmanian Oak in the future. The A5 in particular has the clarity of Maple, but also has warmth that is lacking in Maple. Overall a very clear clean tone with more depth than the best of my Maple mandolins. Since completing these mandolins I have made a mandola, an other mandolins, and two guitars from Tasmanian Oak with similar results.
Tasmanian Myrtle, or Myrtle Beech or Australian Cherry (don't you hate those common names!) is a medium to large tree that grows in the higher rainfall areas of Tasmania and Victoria. It is often found as a small under storey tree in tall open forests. The timber ranges from a rather bland pink to a reddish brown. The grain is fine and even, is normally straight, but sometimes quilted with a lovely sheen when polished. The timber is used in fine furniture and floorboards. Myrtle is a very nice timber to work with, is moderately heavy and hard, planes and carves very well, and the dust is not irritating. Figured pieces, however, can be difficult to bend, tending to break or the grain lifts easily. Tiger Myrtle is a much sought after rare form of Myrtle that is the result of a fungus infection. The fungus does not seem to affect the structural integrity of the wood and Tiger Myrtle makes a stunningly beautiful instrument.
Myrtle is one of my favorite mandolin backwood with Spruce tops. However, it does not work as well with King Billy Pine, this combination making exquisite sounding instruments with little volume or headroom. However, with Spruce I believe it makes mandolins that sound equal or better than any Maple mandolin I have made. Some Maple mandolins have had better clarity, but Myrtle has a warmth, sweetness and smoothness that no other timber has. European Maple can sound just as sweet, but is brighter and clearer and lacks the warmth and overtones of Myrtle. In my opinion a superb tonewood that only recently has been discovered and appreciated by the international Luthery community.
Blackheart Sassafras is a native of Tasmania. Of all the native Australian timbers, Sassafras has the most contrast and the most variability in figure. The black heart is a fungus infection that infects the centre of the tree and turns the wood a dark brown. The result spalting can give spectacular colours and patterns throughout the trunk of the tree. In ideal conditions the tree can grow up to 45m in height and 1m in diameter and reach ages of 150 - 200 years. It is found in most areas of Tasmania except the drier areas on the east coast. Nowadays over 80% of forests containing sassafras trees are in reserves so the wood is becoming difficult to get and very expensive.
I started using sassafras relatively recently, but the results have been excellent. So far the best combination has been with European Spruce or Red Spruce. The sassafras mandolins have a solid, well balanced sound with a nice warm quality similar to Myrtle, but with more clarity and brightness in the mids and treble. The wood being moderately light, the instruments are also loud and very responsive. The wood is easy to work, bends easily, does not need pore filling, finishes beautifully and is moderately light weight. A good piece of Black Heart Sassafras can make a spectacular looking mandolin that also sounds excellent. In terms of sound, it is one of my favourite hardwoods. However, it is not without it's problems. The fungus infection is down the centre of the tree, so the best figure and colours are in the centre of the tree, but that is where most of the knots are because that is when the tree was young. The spalting can progress to rot so it is not uncommon to find soft spongy wood in the black heart. Thus Black Heart Sassafras is very difficult to get quarter sawn, knot free and thick enough for an arch top mandolin. Sassafras wood also does tend to absorb moisture readily, almost sponge like, so adequate humidity control is essential. It is a first class backwood for guitars, sounding similar to Mahogany, but guitar sets are very expensive.
Australian Red Cedar is a large forest tree that grows from southern Afganistan through southern Asia and Australia. The trees can grow up to 60m in height and 3m in diameter. It is one of Australia's few native deciduous trees. The timber is a dark reddish brown and is highly valued as a furniture timber. In Australia it grows in subtropical forests of Queesnsland and NSW but has been grossly over exploited such that hardly any of the large or very large trees remain and is effectively commercially extinct. The wood is soft and light, with large pores, and is easily worked. Australian Red Cedar wood suitable for musical instruments is very difficult to find, but it has been used for guitar necks and is light enough to use for tops.
I have only made one mandolin with an Australian Red Cedar back and sides. It is a member of the Mahogany family, and the sound is similar to Mahogany i.e. warm bass, mellow tone. The mandolin was very light weight and the sound has a light quality to it.
Jarrah is the principle timber of Western Australia. It is a very hard, dense, stiff timber and is relatively acoustically dead when tapped. The timber is a beautiful deep red, or pinky red in colour and is used in high class furniture and all sorts of construction work and used to be extensively used for railway sleepers. It is still readily available, cheap, not too difficult to find quarter sawn, and often comes with fiddleback figure. It is very hard on tools and has only moderate bending qualities; I find the dust quite irritating.
Jarrah, in combination with King Billy Pine, makes lovely sounding mandolins. A King Billy Pine top, Jarrah back, and fiddleback Blackwood bindings produces quite a handsome combination. However, the instruments are quite heavy because Jarrah is a very heavy timber, and most musicians do notice this and don't like it. Tonally, Jarrah is very strong in the bass. Mandolins made from Jarrah have a strong rich sounding bass which imparts an overall fuller tonal quality on the instrument. I do not use Jarrah any more because of the weight problem and being a Eucalyptus species, the wood is not particularly stable.
Extremely hard and heavy desert Acacia species that I use for tuning knobs, bindings and fingerboards on my Goldfinch mandolins. Makes very attractive tuning knobs and excellent bindings. Sometimes can have fiddleback figure (ringed Gigdee). Bends reasonably easy if you are careful. Fine grain texture that polishes up well. It has an attractive dark reddish brown colour under an oil finish that compliments Myrtle. Is used as an Ebony substitute by many Australian Luthiers and also by the Maton guitar factor. Significantly harder than Ebony. Fingerboards made from Gidgee are not likely to wear out.
Another extremely hard and heavy desert Acacia that I use for tuning knobs and bindings. Reddish gold in colour and not as dark as Gidgee, but has a very attractive golden shine under an oil finish. Makes attractive bindings, but is stiff and difficult to bend.
A hard timber from northern NSW and Queensland with the colour of yellowed ivory. Bends easily so makes excellent bindings. Very difficult to get.
Yet another hard heavy Australian desert Acacia that makes great tuning knobs. Reddish brown in colour with some lighter streaks. Not as hard or as dark as Gidgee and is much easier to machine.
Moderately hard and heavy conifer that can be used as a soundboard timber. I have only ever made one mandolin from this wood. The mandolin was an F soundhole mandolin with Blackwood back and sides. The sound could be described as mellow, but I preferred the sound of a Red Spruce/Walnut mandolin I had at the time so have not used it since. Has also been used as a soundboard timber in violins and harps.
Red Spruce, more often nowadays called Adirondack Spruce, on average is the hardest and densest of all the Spruce species I have tried, although there is a great deal of overlap since there is a lot of variation between different pieces of timber. Red Spruce is usually carved a bit thinner than Engelmann or Sitka. The best pieces can make light and very responsive mandolin tops. The timber planes and carves easily. Red Spruce is one of my favorite top woods for F soundhole mandolins, and is used in the new Custom oval hole model. Tonally it is bright, sweet, and has great clarity and power. I prefer to match it with some of the warmer sounding hardwoods such as Walnut and Myrtle, particularly Myrtle and Sassafras. The best Red Spruce topped mandolins will sound beautiful when played soft and delicately, but will respond with power and projection with no loss of tone when played hard. Red Spruce has �bite� - i.e. the ability of an instrument to cut through the noise of other instruments. It does, however, take time and playing to reach its full potential. Red Spruce tends to sound very bright, thin and metallic when the instrument is brand new, but over a minimum period of 6 months of playing the metallic character disappears and the tone becomes deeper and more complex. A mandolin with a Red Spruce top will also tend to �go to sleep� more readily than the other top woods - i.e. if not played for a while the tone deteriorates. The more the instrument is played the better it will sound, and if you play hard it will probably sound even better. Undoubtedly one of the great mandolin soundboard timbers (was used in the Loars), but it is more difficult to get and more expensive than the other Spruce species from North America. I purchased many mandolin tops in the late 90's and still have enough left to last for quite a few years.
Engelmann Spruce: Picea engelmannii (North America)
Another native of North America, Engelmann Spruce is an excellent all round
top wood for mandolins. It has a fuller more rounded sound than Red Spruce, and
many instruments have a �silky� sound quality about them that is missing from Red Spruce. However, it does not have the "bite" of Red Spruce or European Spruce, so a mandolin with an Engelmann top can get drowned when played with other instruments. The timber is white and often rather bland. It is light, fairly soft and easily dented, although not quite as soft as King Billy Pine. I have tried Engelmann Spruce with Blackwood, Big Leaf Maple, Rock Maple, Queensland Maple and Queensland Walnut, all with excellent results.
Sitka Spruce: Picea sitchensis (North America)
Personally I don�t like Sitka Spruce in my mandolins. The first Engelmann Spruce
mandolin I made sounded so much better than my best Sitka mandolin that I decided not to use it again. In comparison to Engelmann, Sitka in my mandolins sounds bright, thin and �dirty�. Other Luthiers have used Sitka with good results, but it doesn�t work for me.
Blue Spruce: (North America)
I have only made one mandolin from Blue Spruce. The timber is very similar to
Engelmann Spruce, but has more pronounced medullary rays which makes it quite
attractive in a mandolin top. Tonally, Blue Spruce is similar to Engelmann Spruce, but a bit brighter and thinner sounding. The one mandolin I made with a Black Walnut back has a superb sounding treble, but I thought the midrange and bass was a bit thin. Myrtle may have been a better match than Walnut. However, this mandolin was returned to me later for a refret and the tone had really filled out to a well balanced instrument, but I thought my Red Spruce topped mandolin sounded a lot better.
European Spruce: Picea excelsa, Picea abies (Europe)
Many guitar makers consider European Spruce, and especially Spruce from Germany to be the best soundboard timber in the world. I would certainly not disagree with this. I have found a supplier who cuts trees from high altitudes in Switzerland, and the quality of this Spruce is just superb. Light and stiff, fine grained, and an absolute pleasure to work with. Tonally, European Spruce is somewhere in between Red Spruce and Engelmann Spruce. More power than Engelmann, with some "bite", but with the even tonal qualities of Engelmann. I am using a lot of European Spruce from Switzerland because I really like it's tonal qualities. Don't let anyone try and tell you that the quality of tonewood today is not what it was in olden days. Swiss alpine Spruce cut today is of superb quality.
More recently I have been trying some European Spruce harvested in
Romania in the Carpathian mountains (the so called Carpathian Spruce).
This Spruce so far has been superb in terms of sound quality, but it is
not quite so easy to work with and not as pretty as the Swiss Spruce.
However, I will be using much more of this wood in the future because I
really like the sound I get from it. The sound is quite unique,
different from alpine Swiss Spruce and much more like Red Spruce, but
with improved warmth and clarity of tone when new.
Black Walnut: Juglans nigra (North America)
Black Walnut is a moderately hard, moderately dense hardwood from North America. It is very similar to the Australian native Queensland Walnut. It is reasonably easy to work and stable, and is the best bending wood I have tried. Most of my Walnut mandolins have had Red Spruce tops and this combination has been one of my great success stories. Walnut imparts a darker tonal quality that complements the qualities of Red Spruce, similar to Tasmanian Myrtle. However, it is brighter and not as sweet as Myrtle, and the instruments tend to sustain and ring more. I have not used it recently because I prefer the sound of Myrtle.
On a trip to the USA in 1999, I purchased a quantity of Californian Claro Walnut
(Juglans californica). It is similar to Black Walnut, but has a greater variety of figure and colour in the grain. Results from this species is very similar to Black Walnut.
Hard Rock Maple: Acer saccharum (North America)
Rock Maple is a hard and dense light coloured timber from North America. It is one of the traditional timbers used for mandolin backs. The timber is very fine textured, bends easily and takes a mirror finish. It sometimes comes in striking birdseye figure. Birdseye Maple is the most difficult timber to work with I have ever come across. Birdseye Maple does make very nice pickguards, and I use Rock Maple for light coloured bindings. I have limited experience with this species having only made 4 mandolins from it. The first was an A5 with Red Spruce and I consider it to be a failure (very loud and bright, and with a hard tonal quality), so unfortunately it put me off this wood for some years. The second was an oval hole with Engelmann Spruce top, the third was an oval hole with European Spruce top, and the most recent was an oval hole with Engelmann Spruce top. The three oval hole mandolins are very nice sounding instruments, particularly the latter one. This Engelmann topped instrument has superb tone - very sweet, clear treble and woody bass with plenty of volume. The European Spruce topped instrument was similar, but not quite as warm sounding as the Engelmann instrument, and with less overtones. Very pure tone. Both mandolins have similar qualities - outstanding clarity, and a solid smooth feel to them (difficult to explain in words). I very much liked the tone of the Engelmann instrument, but when I took it to a session, it got drowned in the noise and I had difficulty hearing myself. Not so the European Spruce instrument. For me, Rock Maple is the best timber to use if clarity of sound is important, or if you want lots of fundamental with little overtones. It does have more clarity than Myrtle, but lacks the warmth of Myrtle, and the woody sound does take a while to manifest itself. Certainly worthy of more experimentation.
Big Leaf Maple: Acer macrophyllum (North America)
A native of the west coast of North America, Big Leaf Maple is softer and not as dense as Rock Maple. The wood I have is a pinkish colour. It is easy to work, takes a stain well, and bends easily. Of all the Maples, this species can come with the most spectacular figure - either fiddleback figure or quilted. I have only made 4 mandolins from this timber so have limited experience with it. Three mandolins have an Engelmann Spruce top and are loud, clear and with the �silky� quality that Engelmann often has. The 4th has a European Spruce top and it is one of the loudest and most responsive oval hole mandolins I have made, but I was a little disappointed in the tone.
On a trip to the USA in 1999, I purchased a quantity of highly figured Big Leaf Maple, and recently purchased a large plank of quilted Big Leaf Maple that will be used for one piece backs. Lovely timber, but I do prefer the sound of European Maple.
European Maple: Acer pseudoplatanus (Europe)
A traditional timber for the backs of the violin family of instruments. This Maple is harder than Big Leaf, but much softer than Rock Maple. It is a superb wood to work with. In comparison to most of the hard Australian hardwoods it is like cheese to cut and carve, and is by far the easiest of the Maples to carve. The wood is very stiff and light, so mandolin backs are light and very responsive. The mandolins I have made from this species have all had European Maple tops and have been excellent or superb sounding instruments. Easily my favourite from the true Maples. It is a very clean and sweet sounding wood, with more overtones than Rock Maple and has good volume. Sounds great with Red Spruce or European Spruce, probably the cleanest sounding backwood I have used. A superb tonewood (no surprise), but is a bland white colour and quite a difficult timber to stain, and very expensive.
More recently I made three A5 mandolins with a Red Spruce top and European
Maple back sides and neck. The first mandolin was easily the best
sounding mandolin I have ever made, and made me think seriously whether
it really was worth using anything else in my F soundhole mandolins!
It was so damn good that in my opinion it was the best sounding mandolin I
have ever had in my hands, bar none. At the time I thought it may
have been a fortunate fluke, but blow me down if the second instrument
sounded even better, and the third better again! Not all that much better, but better
nevertheless. Rest assured, I have drained the bank account and now have very good stocks of this amazing tonewood,
quietly drying the workshop, and will be using lots of it in the future. Pity it does
not have the beautiful natural colours of the Australian natives.
Ebony: Diospryus sp (Africa, Sri Lanka, Indonesia)
Ebony has traditionally been used for fingerboards on the violin family of instruments and other stringed instruments. I use it for fingerboards, Peghead overlays, bindings, pickguards, tuning knobs, and bridges. Ebony is a hard dense timber that can come as a solid black, or dark brown, or black or brown with lighter streaks. Ebony dust is very irritating. Very expensive and becoming more and more difficult to get. Currently I have good stocks of black Ebony, mainly because I spent crazy amounts of money (won a prize for the biggest spender at the timber yard one year) on some large planks of African Ebony some years ago. When that is gone there is no more.