Seeking info about tone woods

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I'm new to instrument building and would like to learn more about tone woods and their properties. I'm particularly interested in learning if there are good local wood options from my region (Pennsylvania). Anyone recommend a book or other resources where I could dive into this?
 
Thanks Jupiteruke. I've admired your work for awhile, and appreciate the insight.
 
I'm new to instrument building and would like to learn more about tone woods and their properties.

The sound of an instrument is a combination of materials choices and design choices (tapping, stiffness measurement, bracing, thickness, glue, varnish, hardware, etc).

Which means that best choice is to play the instrument; second best is to rely on third party reviews and sound samples; and third best is to guess its potential tone based on the reputation of materials and makers skills


Ukuleles started as simple folk instruments made by cabinet makers. The tradition was all mahogany; expanded to all koa, acacia, mango etc; and recently added spruce and cedar soundboards.


Professional luthiers consensus is that soundboard material and design is the most important part of string instruments. The soundboard objective is stiff and lightweight for best vibration and sound generation.

Bowed instruments (violin, viola, cello) generally use spruce soundboards.

Guitars use mostly spruce and cedar soundboards, and occasionally mahogany for darker tones.


Luthier choice for backs and sides is hardwood to maintain or modify the sound generated by the soundboard.

Bowed instruments use maple for max volume throughout the bow stroke.

Guitar and mandolin makers choose woods like rosewood for lush overtones or mahogany for dryer woodier tone. Options are often explained in their catalogs.

Heretics like me are smitten by carbon fibre for good sound and severe climate durability.


I'm particularly interested in learning if there are good local wood options from my region (Pennsylvania).

For ukuleles, guitars and mandolins, cherry and walnut are becoming popular for the back and sides, but not the soundboard where cedar and spruce are a great match.

Maple is used to moderate the boom of jumbo guitars so would likely be on the very bright side for small ukuleles.


Anyone recommend a book or other resources where I could dive into this?

Internet searches for ‘ukulele tone wood’ and ‘guitar tone wood’ will yield essays by researchers, bloggers, luthiers, and manufacturers.


Here are a few:







Cheers.
 
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Thanks, very helpful and I appreciate the direction for some homework!
 
Focus on local woods is a great decision and follows historical context. Stringed instruments in Europe often used local hardwood maple for bodies and softwood spruce for tops. Ukuleles were all hardwood using local koa in Hawaii, and mahogany on US East coast which was almost local. More recently softwood tops also emerged for ukes, mainly for larger sized ones. I would find an all walnut uke very appealing.
 
Others have posted good reference material, but feel free to reach out if you have any questions. I have a background in dendrology, and have been studying trees since my wildland firefighter days. Part of my teaching in workshops involves talking about trees, and their properties regarding "tone". There is a lot more "opinion" out there than actual facts.
 
Focus on local woods is a great decision and follows historical context. Stringed instruments in Europe often used local hardwood maple for bodies and softwood spruce for tops. Ukuleles were all hardwood using local koa in Hawaii, and mahogany on US East coast which was almost local. More recently softwood tops also emerged for ukes, mainly for larger sized ones. I would find an all walnut uke very appealing.
I was also curious about an all walnut body uke, and have already acquired the the wood for, and plan on making an all chocolate dark walnut bodied baritone soon. I anticipate it will have a woody and boomy sound.
 
I've built a couple all-walnut ukuleles, with good results. Eastern black walnut, that is. I recall trying to find a dark colored local wood that was most similar to koa as far as the numbers go, and walnut was the closest ,using the wood database search feature. Great stuff.
 
Quartersawn lumber is better than plain sawn for tops and backs because it's more dimensionally stable, but it can be hard to source quartersawn lumber. It won't be local to you, but western red cedar is good for tops and it's fairly easy to source in many places in the US as quartersawn lumber because cedar shingles and clapboards are often QS. It's often also available in decent widths with few knots and defects.

There's lots of spruce in the northeast US, but I've had trouble sourcing spruce locally (I'm in New England) except for 2x construction lumber that has a fair number of knots (but sometimes still usable for ukuleles because you might only need a foot of clear board for a top) and often contains the tree center in boards. Plus 2x lumber is typically dried to a higher moisture content than better grades of lumber, so it's good to let 2x lumber air dry after purchase for a fairly long time if it's to be used for anything critical. I'm thinking of ordering spruce soundboard blanks from alaskawoods.com for an upcoming project, but don't yet have experience with them. They also have cedar.

The good news is that sides and necks any decent plain sawn or rift sawn hardwood is generally fine, and you can probably source really nice maple (soft is fine), cherry, walnut, birch, and others in PA.
 
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