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Choice of wood for CITES-proof fittings replacement


BenniArt

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Good afternoon,

 

my name is Benjamin, and after having lurked in this forum's shadows for a while, I, unfortunately, have an issue that demands professional support, and hope to find an answer here. 
I am a violinist and a master's student with my primary residence in Germany, and I have been fortunate enough to be playing on an old French violin made by Charles Buthod. When I went to a very well-respected luthier last summer to receive all necessary documents for international travel, he refused to certify the rosewood fittings on my violin due to, as he put it, the impossibility of being absolutely certain about their particular age and origin, even though he also said that he wouldn't be at all surprised if those fittings were the original ones from the 1840s. If I understood correctly, some types of rosewood are much stricter regulated than others but telling them apart seems rather difficult without any paperwork – I have since contacted the luthier who sold the instrument and he confirmed that no such paperwork exists as far as he knows –, and thus he declined my inquiry and strongly recommended to change the fittings on the instrument if I were to ever travel outside of the EU with it.

I, being very fond of the fittings and afraid of altering the instrument's sound, left the issue to rest for the time being. But now I have been invited to go on tour in the UK on short notice – as a side note, a confirmation whether the UK is as strict concerning CITES as Switzerland would be much appreciated – and changing the fittings appears to be inevitable in the long run, after all.

So with this prelude, I wanted to ask the luthiers (and every other knowledgeable reader) about the optimal compromise for the choice of wood if I want 

a) the instrument to sound the closest to the status quo possible and 

b) to retain the visual charm of the violin.

Concerning the latter, I would much prefer a dark brown tone for the fittings, since it goes along very nicely with the violin's varnish and the chin rest. For reference, I use the brown Dolfinos Vienna chin rest which they say is made out of "European FSC certified wood" (https://dolfinos.com/collections/dolfinos-chin-rests/products/the-dolfinos-chin-rests-vienna) and the current fittings, while I don’t know the actual make and origin, visually most resemble the JSB tailpiece that is described as "Rosewood, Ebony fret, gilded rhomb inlay" here (https://www.violins.ca/fittings/tailpieces/tailpieces_jsb.html), with the pegs – with additional golden ornaments – appearing to come from a matching set. I would like to avoid ebony and any comparably black tone for aesthetic reasons if at all possible.

 

I hope to have provided you with sufficient information to make answering my question possible and will be happy to provide more.

Thanks and all the best

Benjamin  

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If Boxwood looks nice is a matter of opinion. Personally, I find it can look quite horrific against certain varnish colours.
However, the vast majority of boxwood fittings these days are not actually boxwood at all, just random cheap, soft, pale woods from India or China.
These wear and compress very badly in a short space of time, even on the tailpieces, and are essentially a waste of time & money.

Even genuine boxwood doesn't wear anywhere near as well as rosewood or ebony. I think Tempel were pushing plum as a sustainable alternative, but I have no experience of how well these hold up over time.

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Thank you all very much for your answers, and please excuse my delayed response!

@FiddleDoug Thanks for reminding me about the bows! Do you perhaps have any experience with traveling with 'dangerous' bows - my baroque bow is made of snakewood, but has a certified mammoth screw - which are well-documented? With all due respect to the security personell doing their job, I've heard horror stories about traveling with instruments that make me very weary of any potential for conflict with them. 

@Dwight Brown Thank you for the links! Do you think it to be reasonable to reapproach the luthier in question with this information in hand to try to get a certificate for the instrument? It was only the rosewood he was concerned about, speaking of the violin. I could, of course, ask somebody else, but I did pick him because he seems somewhat famous and certainly well-regarded specifically in the realm of material certification, hence my surrender after the meeting.

@Wood Butcher I do have to admit that I've found boxwood to look a little garish with some varnishes. I will make sure to look at the plum fittings, maybe I find some more information on their suitability, thanks!

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26 minutes ago, BenniArt said:

Thank you all very much for your answers, and please excuse my delayed response!

@FiddleDoug Thanks for reminding me about the bows! Do you perhaps have any experience with traveling with 'dangerous' bows - my baroque bow is made of snakewood, but has a certified mammoth screw - which are well-documented? With all due respect to the security personell doing their job, I've heard horror stories about traveling with instruments that make me very weary of any potential for conflict with them. 

@Dwight Brown Thank you for the links! Do you think it to be reasonable to reapproach the luthier in question with this information in hand to try to get a certificate for the instrument? It was only the rosewood he was concerned about, speaking of the violin. I could, of course, ask somebody else, but I did pick him because he seems somewhat famous and certainly well-regarded specifically in the realm of material certification, hence my surrender after the meeting.

@Wood Butcher I do have to admit that I've found boxwood to look a little garish with some varnishes. I will make sure to look at the plum fittings, maybe I find some more information on their suitability, thanks!

I would at least give him a call or try someone else.

DLB

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Benni, I think it might be easiest to get in touch with a colleague recommended luthier in your area.

It is probable they may have already in stock, a wide range of different pegs and fittings, and should be able to explain what may be the best options for your instrument, to preserve the look and sound you are currently happy with.

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  • 2 months later...

I'm a couple months late to this; perhaps you've already resolved it--but I'll take any opportunity to promote CITES alternatives.

 

When it comes to replacements for any ebony or rosewood pieces, Sonowood makes a very interesting product. It's engineered specifically for string accoustical uses, with all the specs like velocity of sound, density, damping, and dimensional stability taken into account. It's densified/compressed maple, spruce, or beech; they've sometimes offered walnut as well. https://swisswoodsolutions.github.io/en/sonowood/

 

There is at least one Stradivarius that's been fitted with fingerboard, pegs, and tailpiece from Sonowood. There was a facebook post by a bass luthier claiming it to be superior to ebony for a low C extension. I'm currently making a frog for German style bass bow out of sonowood maple. I will turn a buttton out of an off-cut later, but for now I can't comment how it turns. It is very durable and dulls tools quickly, but I can get the desired shape; no more difficult to adjust to than different species of wood. The color is a bit more matte than rosewood, but I've always preferred this for fittings anyways. 

Berdani, at least makes pegs out of it: https://berdani-shop.de/en/violin/pegs/french-model?number=VWSWBFM90. I believe there are a few other shops in the Germany area also offering it for various fittings.

Edited by 2001abassodyssey
Typos (Sonowod --> Sonowood; duplications in list)
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You beat me to recommending Berdani. Not only are his fittings very fine, but he is leading the pack in Europe for alternative woods. Benni, you will find whatever you need through Berdani.

All that said, I second the above recommendation - borrow or buy (if possible) a great new instrument made by a living luthier in your country that is already made to be CITES safe. An old fiddle is not automatically better than a new one, and buying an instrument by a living maker supports an artist/artisan. Buying an antique only lines the pockets of a dealer/merchant. 

 

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On 7/12/2022 at 10:01 AM, Dwight Brown said:

I think they relaxed the rules on Rosewood…

It depends on the species.  Rosewood is not a species.  There are a number of species that are commonly called  “rosewood.”  I’m pretty sure that what is known as “Brazilian rosewood” is still tightly controlled.

I think the same is true of “ebony.”  There are a number of tree species that produce the black wood that we call “ebony,” and I think at least one of them is regulated.

And then there is the possibility that a customs inspector might mistake similarly-appearing species for each other.  Are your pegs Indian rosewood or Brazilian rosewood?  Is your bow tip mammoth ivory or elephant ivory ?  Does the species of elephant matter?

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7 minutes ago, Brad Dorsey said:

It depends on the species.  Rosewood is not a species.  There are a number of species that are commonly called  “rosewood.”  I’m pretty sure that what is known as “Brazilian rosewood” is still tightly controlled.

I think the same is true of “ebony.”  There are a number of tree species that produce the black wood that we call “ebony,” and I think at least one of them is regulated.

And then there is the possibility that a customs inspector might mistake similarly-appearing species for each other.  Are your pegs Indian rosewood or Brazilian rosewood?  Is your bow tip mammoth ivory or elephant ivory ?  Does the species of elephant matter?

Brad makes an important point - customs officers are not trained well enough or paid well enough to identify the differences between visually similar woods or other controlled materials, especially in very small pieces found on instruments. All the more reason to select sustainable, readily identifiable alternatives.

The true rosewoods are Dalbergia, the true ebonies are Diospyros. African blackwood, a Dalbergia, is visually indistinguishable from the ebonies.

Switching out your pegs is not going to have a huge impact on performance or sound. Select something with similar mass if you want to minimize the change. If there is a small change, a competent luthier can help you adjust the instrument until you are happy. 

 

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As I understand it the owner of Taylor guitars controls much of the African ebony supply. He told the cutters that he would take any trees they bring in. They used to just leave trees that were not almost completely black just lie where the fell and rot. Evidently just because it has brown in it doesn’t mean it’s not hard and useful.

Eric Meyer has been using mountain mahogany for years. It works very well. I have a viola with some of his pegs. I don’t think boxwood is in any danger and I would think camel thorn would work well for fittings, it makes a nice bow. 
 

My Curtin ultralight Viola has a fingerboard made of compressed wood over a core of spruce. It seems just fine.

I know the clarinet maker Buffet does not let anything go to waste. They make what they call  Green Line instruments using Grenadilla powder mixed with epoxy or some such glue. They are in pretty big trouble as Grenadilla is the same genus as Brazilian and other protected Rosewoods.

DLB

 

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21 hours ago, 2001abassodyssey said:

When it comes to replacements for any ebony or rosewood pieces, Sonowood makes a very interesting product. It's engineered specifically for string accoustical uses, with all the specs like velocity of sound, density, damping, and dimensional stability taken into account. It's densified/compressed maple, spruce, or beech; they've sometimes offered walnut as well. https://swisswoodsolutions.github.io/en/sonowood/

Since they claim that this compressed wood contains no added resins, wouldn't it uncompress somewhat with exposure to sustained moisture (like most wood), as when such a fingerboard is kept wet with perspiration for some time? Any experience with that?

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8 hours ago, Dwight Brown said:

I remember some years ago This Old House put down a wooden floor made from compressed pine they called Diamond Pine. It could be the lignin in the wood acts like a natural glue to hold it together?

DLB

I don't think lignin will "reactivcate" and stick the compresed cell walls together unlike with turtleshell which can be laminated using steam and pressure. Lgnin will allow movement of cellulose fibers when heat/steam is applied and will set when the MC and temp is back to normal just like during bending but I supose here the straw-like cell walls of cellulose are crushed flat (assuming the compression is in one direction only).

Perhaps the process uses longer heating/steaming that results into wood resembling torrefied wood which will not respond to humidity/temperature like fresh wood. I'm not sure if it holds generally bu I was not able to steam out dents (common guitar repair technique) in torrefied spruce I used few years ago. Fresh wood will respond immediately but this didn't move a bit.

Side note: I wonder how much structural strength this wood has with all the crushed wall cells? They primarily compress to get density similar to ebony but what are the rest of properties?

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14 hours ago, David Burgess said:

Since they claim that this compressed wood contains no added resins, wouldn't it uncompress somewhat with exposure to sustained moisture (like most wood), as when such a fingerboard is kept wet with perspiration for some time? Any experience with that?

I've used a couple of fingerboards 3 years ago, they seem to be holding fine. I also boiled a small piece of sonowood maple for an hour or so, it hardly expanded. Strong heat is maybe more of a problem, when you do the ends of fingerboards on a blunt disc sander the last mm swells a bit. 

The colour - and the price- is what's holding me from using it more. That and the fact that I have a lifetime stock of ebony sitting in the backroom. 

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My reasoning behind the idea that lignin reactivated is rather an odd source. I have a pellet smoker for making the most holy of Texas BBQ that is the magnificent brisket! The pellets are made from just wood with no added glue by compression. The makers of the pellets say that this is the mechanism.

All Hail The Great and Merciful Brisket,

DLB

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2 hours ago, Dwight Brown said:

... I have a pellet smoker...The pellets are made from just wood with no added glue by compression...

I suggest that you run some tests on a few pellets.  Try working them with cutting tools.  What are their working characteristics?    Do they hang together, or do they disintegrate?  What happens if you soak them in water?

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15 minutes ago, Brad Dorsey said:

I suggest that you run some tests on a few pellets.  Try working them with cutting tools.  What are their working characteristics?    Do they hang together, or do they disintegrate?  What happens if you soak them in water?

Since they're compressed wood dust, I wouldn't expect them to behave in a way that informs working compressed, heat hardened whole wood

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3 hours ago, Dwight Brown said:

My reasoning behind the idea that lignin reactivated is rather an odd source. I have a pellet smoker for making the most holy of Texas BBQ that is the magnificent brisket! The pellets are made from just wood with no added glue by compression. The makers of the pellets say that this is the mechanism.

All Hail The Great and Merciful Brisket,

DLB

If you think wood pellets are good for smoking meat you should try some chips of mountain mahogany. Don't use your pegs though. That was the only real commercial use for m.m. in the past except for roller skate wheels. I throw some on the coals when cooking steaks or salmon.

 

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