Wood. Well it is important, right? Oh,it is. The type and selection of wood affects the sound of the musical instrument, so I thought to my self ” I better sit down and learn as much as I can about them”.
This proved to be a very interesting subject, so I dedicated a lot of time to research and understand types of wood, and I wrote this article to become part of an article series to serve as a guide for people looking to buy an instrument in the mandolin family.
So here are the contents of this article:
- Understanding Solid and Laminate Wood
- Identifying wood on mandolins
- Translating Marketing Talk
- Wood Options for the Top of the Mandolin
- Wood Options for the Back and Sides of the Mandolin
I do not claim to have recorded everything nor to know everything there is about woods usage for musical instruments as I am not a luthier, so please use the comments at the end to suggest any changes and correct any mistakes.
Solid or Laminate?
The most important material in the construction of a mandolin is the wood. For lower priced mandolins an important question is whether the top and the body of the mandolin is made from solid wood or laminate.
Solid wood: Solid wood means that the part (top, sides, back) are made from single pieces of wood.
Laminate is wood in which sheets of wood are layered on top of each other. Usually a thin layer of more expensive wood is placed over several layers of cheaper wood which saves money.
Identifying Wood Types
How do you tell if a mandolin is made from solid wood or laminate and what wood is used? Here are some tips:
- Are you shopping in a store? Ask the salesman & examine the mandolin.
- Are you shopping on-line? Read the specs and if needed research them.
Shopping in a Store
In case you are shopping in a store, the easiest thing to do is to ask!
A good salesman should be able to tell you if an instrument is solid top or not and what woods were used for the top, back and side. You can double check what the salesman tells you by examining the mandolin.
A simple way of telling if a mandolin’s top is solid, is by looking at the wood grain line around the sound hole.
If the top is laminated: The line should end right at the edge, and NOT run through the piece of wood.
If the top is solid: The lines should run through the piece of wood around the sound hole.
Finally, before buying it is suggested to read the instrument specifications, either using the store web site or even better by looking at the luthier’s web site.
When you are shopping on-line, you start by reading the instrument description, hopping you can find there the important info. But the problem is that not everything is clear.
Here is how to translate the marketing talk
- Spruce = laminated
- Maple = laminated
- Solid Spruce = what it says
- Solid Maple = what it says
- Carved = could be carved entirely by machine
- Hand Carved = at least touched or finished by a human at some point
- If it says neither carved nor hand-carved = pressed into shape, not carved (using heat/steam over a mould)
- If a mandolin instrument is “solid top, hand carved” shops will never reticent about shouting the fact. It is more what they don’t say you have to watch for.
- Solid wood is almost always advertised, therefore if you do not see it mentioned, it means that the wood is laminated.
Now, in case the sales page does not describe much, it is advised to refer to the luthier’s web site, where you are more likely to find detailed specifications. In this case, do not afraid to e-mail the store and ask for serial numbers, which can then be sent to the luthier, so in case they keep a database of instruments made, they will be able to provide you detailed specs.
Woods for the Top (Soundboard) of the Mandolin
The most important piece of wood on a mandolin is the top, else called soundboard.
Acoustically, this is the part of the mandolin that produces the sound. The quality or colour of the sound is estimated to depend 80% on the soundboard and 20% on the sides and back.
Whereas a mandolin made completely (top, side and backs) from laminate will not have a good sound, a reasonably good sounding mandolin can be made from a solid top with laminate sides and back.
The next question is what wood to select for the top? Two options are mainly used, Spruce and Cedar.
There is no difference in quality between the two woods so the choice is one of preference. Spruce tends to sound brighter and clearer while Cedar is warmer and more direct. Both types of wood will improve over time but a cedar will sound closer to its mature sound at the beginning while the spruce will sound more raw and have a more dramatic improvement over time.
The choice of wood is an issue if you want a certain type of sound but at the lower price range it is a far less important issue than whether the top is solid or not (see above).
Sitka Spruce is the most dense wood to use and this is apparent to the sound which is very balanced with tight response .
Sitka Spruce is considered to spread out more tonality in the high registers and have crispy bass character.
Engelmann Spruce falls somewhere in between sitka and cedar. It’s higher cellular resin content brings in a deep richness in tone but slightly more balanced than cedar.
Engelmann Spruce is considered a bit more woody sounding than sitka.
Red Spruce (Adirondack)
Red Spruce is typically a creamy white, with a hint of yellow and/or red.
Red Spruce compares very similarly with Sitka Spruce in terms of mechanical properties, with the two species having perhaps nearly identical sound.
Norway Spruce, frequently sold under more “sophisticated” names such as German Spruce, Yugoslavian Spruce, European Spruce etc. is typically a creamy white, with a hint of yellow and/or red.
Norway Spruce compares very similarly with Sitka Spruce in terms of mechanical properties, with the two species having perhaps nearly identical sound.
Cedar is a relatively uniform light pinkish to reddish brown; colors tend to darken with age. Random pockets of gum and natural oils are commonly present. Grain patterning and figure tends to be somewhat bland.
Cedar generally is a very ‘woody’ sounding species. Quite punchy and warm. In classical guitars, cedar gives this Spanish sound, if you know what I mean.
Rosewood for The Sides and Back of the Mandolin
The sides and backs of acoustic mandolins were traditionally made out of Brazilian or Indian Rosewood. Nowadays, other woods are frequently used as these are hard to find.
Brazilian Rosewood is an endangered species as much of its habitat has been converted to farmland.
Since 1992 it has been illegal to harvest and export Brazilian Rosewood and only old stock Brazilian Rosewood or wood harvested from stumps (generally considered of lower quality) of trees cut down before 1992 can be legally used. Thus, Brazilian Rosewood is very expensive and only those makers with access to old stock are still able to use it.
While there is much debate over whether Brazilian Rosewood produces a better sound than Indian Rosewood, Brazilian Rosewood is considered a beautiful wood due to its swirling grain.
Indian Rosewood is the industry standard for a well balanced and rich sounding tonewood. It is considered to have excellent response in all frequencies with defined sustain and no boom-iness. Indian Rosewood has a straighter grain than Brazilian Rosewood.
With the increasing rarity of Brazilian Rosewood and limits to the supply of Indian Rosewood (it is not endangered but the large trees needed for instrument grade wood take 150 years to grow), other forms of wood are being used more frequently for mandolin backs and sides.
Another wood belonging to the Rosewood family is the Madagascar Rosewood. Itself now endangered and illegal to harvest, a luthier need to have a stock of older wood to be able to make an instrument.
Heartwood generally ranges from a light yellow-brown to a darker orange or reddish brown. Darker black streaks are common, and can produce a grain figure known as “spider-webbing” or “landscape,” also found on Brazilian Rosewood.
Honduran Rosewood is known for its acoustic properties, possessing an excellent tap-tone, making it well-suited for acoustic instruments, including mandolins.
Heartwood color can range from a deep brownish-purple to a light-brown. Most common is a brownish-mauve color.
Cocobolo can be seen in a kaleidoscope of different colors, ranging from yellow, orange, red, and shades of brown with streaks of black or purple. Sapwood is typically a very pale yellow. Colors are lighter when freshly sanded/cut, and darken with age.
Cocobolo is one of today’s most prized lumbers for its outstanding color and figure;
Ovangkol or Shedua or Amazique as named by woodworkers not in the luthier business, has varying shades of yellowish to reddish brown with darker brown, gray, or black stripes. There is good availability for Ovangkol and generally found in the price mid-range.
Other Woods for The Sides and Back of the Mandolin
Honduran Mahogany is one of the ‘woodiest‘ sounding tone-wood. It is warm and loud and maybe kind of “thumpy” with nice bass and warm trebles.
Heartwood color can vary a fair amount with Honduran Mahogany, from a pale pinkish brown, to a darker reddish brown. Color tends to darken with age
Paduak (pronounced ‘pad-OOK’) is similiar sounding to mahogany but a little tighter trebles and balance.
Paduak color can vary, ranging from a pale pinkish orange to a deep brownish red. Most pieces tend to start reddish orange when freshly cut, darkening substantially over time to a reddish/purplish brown (some lighter pieces age to a grayish brown)
Flamed Maple, also known as fiddleback maple, curly maple or tiger maple, is a crisp and and very tight-sounding hardwood.
Flamed Maple is light cream colour with intense cross-grain flame figure. Flamed Maple is not actually a species, but simply a description of a figure in the grain—it occurs most often in soft maples, but is also seen in hard maples. It is so called because the ripples in the grain pattern create a three dimensional effect that appears as if the grain has flames along the length of the board.
It is not completely clear what environmental conditions (if any) cause this phenomenon, but there are different grades of flamed maple, which greatly effect its price. Ideally, the criteria for determining value is based upon: color (both uniformity and lightness—whiter is preferred), frequency of the flames (tight, closely-spaced flamesare preferred), and intensity (more depth is preferred).
Flamed Koa is probably among the most stunning hardwoods on the planet.
It produces wonderful warm presence in tone and lacking the boominess of mahogany but similiar in volume output. Expensive due to it’s rarity.
Color can be highly variable, but tends to be medium golden or reddish brown, similar to Mahogany. There are usually contrasting bands of color in the growth rings, and it is not uncommon to see boards with ribbon-like streaks of color
- Solid wood from Orcas Island Tonewoods
- Tonewoods from the woods database
- Laminated wood from wikipedia
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