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Non-musical reasons for using alternative tonewoods


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Disclaimer: The words “violin” and “guitar” are used to represent families of instruments.

Currently, some of us on The Pegbox are trying to identify and understand a violin made in Ukraine in 1988 (nineteen eighty-eight).

One mystery is the luthier’s reasons to install a non-ebony fingerboard. There are several obvious possibilities: access to materials, financial factors, tonal considerations, player requirements.

This led me to think about some less obvious reasons for luthiers to use non-traditional or “alternative” tonewoods when making a "traditional" violin or guitar.

Here are some reasons that have guided or limited me when designing or making instruments:

  1. The instrument is made entirely with wood that is native to a certain region such as province, state, small island nation.

       Example: I designed a guitar with North Carolina native tree species: Black Walnut, Red Spruce, and Persimmon. Other designs specify St. Lucian species or Ontario species.

  1. The instrument is made entirely from wood salvaged from one particular building or vessel, such as the client's home or yacht.
  2. The instrument was designed by a non-luthier, visual artist who wanted a piece of functional art.
  3. The instrument was designed to be made from woods of a specific botanical genus.
  4. The client refused certain wood species or colours (natural or dyed).
  5. The luthier and/or client was allergic/sensitive to certain species of wood.

So, we see some valid, reasonable limits on tonewood choices that many people are unaware of, or forget, when surveying a "non-standard"  traditional stringed instrument. 

I hope this knowledge helps you in your future luthier endeavours.

Keep an open mind. Think LATERALLY. Be empathetic. Never assume. 

Thank you for reading.

Randy O'Malley

 

 

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11 hours ago, Don Noon said:

7.  (and I think the most common):  The luthier doesn't have clients waiting, and just wants to do something different.

Amen to that. BOREDOM is also a mother of invention.

I just thought of another reason: Someone spilled wood bleach or wood dye and the luthier can't bear to toss the wood.

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8 hours ago, fscotte said:

I've used Douglas fir for tone bars on mandlin's, and bass bar on a violin.

 

It was much stiffer than my spruce.  And I was able to get the weight down quite a bit as well.

History and Music Connections:

May I suggest that you use those instruments to perform "Flight of The Bumblebee" or "The Black Fly Song", because Douglas Fir was used for the wing spar on the deHavilland Mosquito aeroplane (aka The Wooden Wonder) - go one step further and carve a balsa wood chin rest, or mould one in plywood and resorcinol (see link below)

Wooden it be cool to make an instrument or string quartet or bluegrass ensemble completely out of wood and metal that came from a DH Mosquito airplane that was built near one's hometown? (see link below)

https://www.mathscinotes.com/2020/04/the-amazing-de-havilland-mosquito/

Thanks for reading and sharing.

Randy, out.

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8. Some of the historically favored  species are endangered, restricted, absurdly expensive and/or no longer of quality previously available.

 

Randy, although all of your mentioned reasons are valid, and I support open-mindedness, I think this compound reason is probably the most compelling...

Without a doubt, it is time for luthiers, and especially violin-family customers, to open their minds and actively seek and use alternatives to some woods (particularly ebony and pernambuco).

Cheers.

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58 minutes ago, M Alpert said:

8. Some of the historically favored  species are endangered, restricted, absurdly expensive and/or no longer of quality previously available.

 

Randy, although all of your mentioned reasons are valid, and I support open-mindedness, I think this compound reason is probably the most compelling...

Without a doubt, it is time for luthiers, and especially violin-family customers, to open their minds and actively seek and use alternatives to some woods (particularly ebony and pernambuco).

Cheers.

Absotively, M Alpert. You are a person after my own heart. 

My luthier friends and arborist friends, and I have been trying for years to get violinists and guitarists in North America and Europe  on a 100-mile diet, using salvaged local trees and salvaged wood.    

Some great "alternative" tonewoods are invasive species in many areas: Black Locust in Europe, Norway Maple in North America. Others grow large and abundantly in their native regions Osage Orange/bois d'arc, Tulip Tree, Honeylocust in Eastern North America; Ipe in South America.

Osage Orange makes great hunting bows and also violin bows; plus FBs, pegs and fittings. An article on Osage Orange appeared in the GAL Quarterly back in 1984. Some bowyers and players are now choosing Ipe over Pernambuco.

Also, across Canada and USA, millions of diseased tonewood tree species like Ash and Butternut have been cut down and shredded - but nobody wants a blonde guitar back or open-grained violin wood.

Please read my other posts on trees and tonewoods under Randall The Restorer.

Randy, out.

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Agreed DiTomaso.  My most recent instrument utilized Ipe for the fingerboard.  I didn't ebonize it - but I could have if I wanted it to look traditional.  Ipe is common enough that its utilized for 'flooring'.  It has a high oil content and is even harder than ebony.  The oily nature makes it difficult to glue with PVA - but stringed instruments don't use PVA... The hide glue worked wonderfully on it.  The purveyor of the board 'insisted' that I would never be able to glue anything together using it.

Also - if I am not mistaken -  it takes hundreds of years to grow a tree tall enough to make a double bass fingerboard. It can come from Australia, India or Indonesia - but the West African (Gabon) variety luthiers have utilized for years is all but used up.  

I have a pre-Civil War era piano with ebony keys.  Unlike violins - antique pianos are worth nothing.  They ebony keys will find new life as violin nuts, the 100 year old, 2" thick Maple soundboard will turn into wood blanks and the brass will go to the scrap yard.  It would take quite a few keys to make a fingerboard, though... and the ivory keys will go to the local piano techs.  Lots of good materials available in Grandma's antique piano that would otherwise find its way into the landfill.  

-Chris Anderson 

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On 2/23/2024 at 4:53 PM, Chris Anderson, PhD said:

Agreed DiTomaso.  My most recent instrument utilized Ipe for the fingerboard.  I didn't ebonize it - but I could have if I wanted it to look traditional.  Ipe is common enough that its utilized for 'flooring'.  It has a high oil content and is even harder than ebony.  The oily nature makes it difficult to glue with PVA - but stringed instruments don't use PVA... The hide glue worked wonderfully on it.  The purveyor of the board 'insisted' that I would never be able to glue anything together using it.

Also - if I am not mistaken -  it takes hundreds of years to grow a tree tall enough to make a double bass fingerboard. It can come from Australia, India or Indonesia - but the West African (Gabon) variety luthiers have utilized for years is all but used up.  

I have a pre-Civil War era piano with ebony keys.  Unlike violins - antique pianos are worth nothing.  They ebony keys will find new life as violin nuts, the 100 year old, 2" thick Maple soundboard will turn into wood blanks and the brass will go to the scrap yard.  It would take quite a few keys to make a fingerboard, though... and the ivory keys will go to the local piano techs.  Lots of good materials available in Grandma's antique piano that would otherwise find its way into the landfill.  

-Chris Anderson 

Thanks, Chris.

If you were here right now, I’d hug you.

Randy O’Malley

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On 2/21/2024 at 9:44 AM, Don Noon said:

7.  (and I think the most common):  The luthier doesn't have clients waiting, and just wants to do something different.

Or the luthier was given a “black box” exam at luthier school or entered a “black box” competition like culinary school students and red seal chefs.

That gives me an idea for a violin or guitar association convention.

Thanks, Don. Talking with you always gets the neurons firing.

Randy, out.

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On 2/22/2024 at 2:38 AM, DiTomaso said:

Absotively, M Alpert. You are a person after my own heart. 

My luthier friends and arborist friends, and I have been trying for years to get violinists and guitarists in North America and Europe  on a 100-mile diet, using salvaged local trees and salvaged wood.    

Some great "alternative" tonewoods are invasive species in many areas: Black Locust in Europe, Norway Maple in North America. Others grow large and abundantly in their native regions Osage Orange/bois d'arc, Tulip Tree, Honeylocust in Eastern North America; Ipe in South America.

Osage Orange makes great hunting bows and also violin bows; plus FBs, pegs and fittings. An article on Osage Orange appeared in the GAL Quarterly back in 1984. Some bowyers and players are now choosing Ipe over Pernambuco.

Also, across Canada and USA, millions of diseased tonewood tree species like Ash and Butternut have been cut down and shredded - but nobody wants a blonde guitar back or open-grained violin wood.

Please read my other posts on trees and tonewoods under Randall The Restorer.

Randy, out.

Doug  Cox makes violins from the local woods found near him in Vermont

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