What is a Tonewood?
The role and importance of tonewood in the construction of musical instruments
Many instruments are made of wood - and you will often see information on the type of wood an instrument is constructed of, or our teams may talk to you about it when discussing potential options. The reason for this is much like an engine in a car, the construction and quality of the wood an instrument is made from can have a dramatic effect on the quality of the sound and once selected the way the wood is treated is critical. Cheaper instruments tend to have lower quality wood, this can lead to a number of problems and you need to be very careful to select an instrument that suits both your needs and the specifications of the instrument itself.
The term “tonewood” refers to specific wood varieties that possess tonal properties that make them good choices for crafting stringed or woodwind musical instruments. As a rough generalisation, hardwoods are more often preferred for the structural crafting of an instrument, whereas softer woods tend to be used to create soundboards and other surfaces that transmit soundwaves to the air.
Tonewoods are used throughout the musical instrument world - from guitar bodies to tuning pegs on a violin, to the hardened grenadilla bodies used to build beautiful clarinets and of course the beating heart of a piano, the soundboard. This article is designed to help you understand a little better what some of the jargon out there means when referring to these woods!
Why does it matter?
When creating a musical instrument, why should we care about the wood that’s used? Well, wood has a number of properties that mean the choice of timber used will genuinely have an effect on your instrument. As well as being wildly aesthetically different and being a personal preference in terms of looks, the wood used to create an instrument has a large effect on the sound created by said instrument!
It’s also important that you have the right wood for the right component in terms of practicality, and quality of life whilst playing your instrument. A violin tuning peg is designed to jam into place in the instrument - so it’s important that the wood used to create these is a hardwood like ebony, or the peg will slip more often! Additionally, a luthier may choose to use a certain tonewood because of size, stability, grain, or even tradition!
Let’s address some of the most common instruments where choosing the right wood is a big factor.
Is this sustainable?
Understandably in the modern age, a major issue that people may have with looking into wooden instruments is the effect that deforestation has had on the world around us. However, of the tonewoods used to craft such instruments, many often come from sustainable resources and specialist dealers. Spruce is a perfect example of this - while spruce is commonly found throughout the world in mountainous regions, however the price is raised due to the desirable qualities needed for instrument making, such as an even grain in the wood. Many tonewoods are difficult to come by on a regular basis, so many manufacturers have turned to reclamation, using old salmon traps, blown down trees, or old construction materials in the United States. There are also special permits that can be obtained for sustainable removal of wood in conservation areas. Another source worthy of mention is the Fiemme Valley in Northern Italy, where spruce wood has been harvested to a very high quality for centuries, serving to produce Antonio Stradavari’s violins, and in more recent times, the soundboards of Fazioli pianos.
Guitars and Ukuleles
Grouping guitars and ukuleles often display similarities when considering the wood used to make the instrument, and in addition to this, the wood used probably has the greatest effect on the end result! In construction, it’s important to note that the sides and back are built separately from the top, and therefore, often a different wood is used for this purpose. It’s very common for example to see a spruce top guitar with rosewood back and sides - the harder rosewood here being used not only to provide stability for the structural features of the instrument, but also to provide balance between light and mellow tones.
Something else to consider here is the difference between a solid and laminate top, and what this really means practically. Solid and laminate are two terms that are often thrown around quite a lot in the guitar world, so it’s important to have a clear image of what exactly this is referring to. A solid top is very simply put, the top part of the guitar crafted from a single block of wood. The top of the instrument is the most important section to have solid ideally, as this is the immediate surface of which the soundwaves created by the string vibrating will react, giving the best quality sound. A laminate top is as the name may suggest, many layers of wood glued together. There are some sonic differences between the two - generally speaking, a solid top instrument will have a more rounded, enrichened, sweeter tone because of the more resonant qualities of a single chunk of wood. In laminate top instruments, the sound can sometimes get trapped between the layers of wood, which can in turn sacrifice volume.
In terms of choosing a new instrument, some of the most common woods in guitar and ukulele construction are as follows:
Spruce - a lightly coloured wood which gives a sprightly, bright tone, this is one of the most common woods used in manufacturing due to its high versatility and affordability.
Mahogany - with a rich colour, mahogany is easy to spot. It’s a stiff, hard wood that offers a distinctly warm tone.
Rosewood - one of the most highly sought after woods, rosewood is a highly durable wood. Due to CITES regulations, it’s a little harder to find this wood nowadays - however, East Indian Rosewood (EIR) is still fairly available. This wood creates a clear, crisp sound with good consistency across the ranges.
Sapele - This wood is an example of the African alternative options mentioned above. It has extremely similar qualities to Mahogany in both structure and sound, but does deliver more high end quality. It’s a very versatile wood in guitar construction!
Koa - the wood traditionally used in Hawaii for ukulele crafting! This wood has a particularly striking appearance, and requires some attention to bright out the full potential. It’s said by many that this wood particularly mellows over time, but can sound bright out of the box.
Maple - alongside Koa, Maple is a darker wood that offers a crisp, sparkling tone. It shines in the mid-range however, offering a rich warmth to it’s tone that sets it apart.
The soundboard of a piano is a large wooden plate used to amplify vibrations caused by the contact between hammer and string. The string gently vibrates the board, and despite their differences in size and composition, makes the board vibrate at exactly the same frequency. This produces the same sound as the string alone, differing only in timbre. The string would produce the same amount of energy without the board present, but the greater surface area of the sound board moves a greater volume of air, which produces a louder sound. Soundboards are usually crafted with spruce, and are layered with heavy glue. A stiffer board will normally give a brighter sound than a more flexible one - giving the individual instrument a distinctive tone, otherwise known as it’s “voice”.
Typically, harder woods are used to craft woodwind instruments, as they need to be durable and produce a brighter tone. The recorder, or blockflote as it was originally known, is the instrument with the most variety in woods - pearwood, boxwood, rosewood, and grenadilla are all used to build these instruments. The general rule of thumb is that the darker the wood, the harsher the tone, with grenadilla being the darkest.
It’s not uncommon to see composite wooden/resin models on the student instrument market - Hohner has a particularly nice Allegra line which is perfect for beginner students, as it uses a plastic mouthpiece alongside a maple wooden body. This lets the player achieve a desired tone whilst avoiding typical problems such as biting into the mouthpiece.
Intermediate to professional level clarinets are also commonly built using grenadilla wood due to the properties of the wood. Production is made significantly easier by the hard nature of grenadilla - though there are some workshops that produce clarinets with other woods, such as Honduran Rosewood, for a sweeter tone! Hard rubber can also be used in the high echelon end of instrument making, which gives an incredibly consistent tone through the range of the instrument as well as holding tuning incredibly well. A machine is used to insert tone holes in the body and to cut out the inside of the body (this is known as undercutting). Since this process always has a major influence on the timbre of the clarinet, the craftsman carefully makes fine adjustments by hand to produce a top-quality model.
I’m interested in building and crafting instruments. Where can I get even more information?
The world of luthiery and instrument building is incredibly interesting and there are always avenues to get into it as a hobby, or even as a more serious profession. Many local workshops are simply a search away, and there are countless resources available to get started on even minor repair work and crafting. A good place to start learning about wood in general would be woodwork classes, many of which are widely available at local colleges as an evening class.