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Tonewood generally refers to any wood used to construct a musical instrument. Many acoustic properties are assigned to specific wood species, but these properties are a large subject and beyond the scope of this article. Generally tonewood is used in the context of woods used in stringed instruments.
While it is true that a luthier may use any wood to build an instrument, certain woods are used in many different instrument families.
- Spruces are often used in the sound boards of instruments from the lute, violin, mandolin, and guitar families. Spruce is particularly suited for this use because of its high stiffness-to-weight ratio. Sitka (or Alaskan) spruce (Picea sitchensis) is a species that is commonly used for this (one variety is “Bearclaw” Spruce. This refers to transverse figuring that resembles claw marks i.e.' from a bear). Another popular variety is Adirondack (or Red) spruce—which attained high praise in the current vintage reissue market as it was used often in the 1930-40's. Red spruce (Picea rubens) is very stiff and imparts a very strong fundamental response making it ideal for heavy, bluegrass "flat-picking" and other energetic styles of playing. Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) and Picea abies (variously known as Norwegian, German, Alpine, Italian or European spruce) are particularly valued for finger-style and classical guitars for its quicker musical response and broader tonal profile.
- Cedars, particularly Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata, not a true cedar), have since the 1950s been used in the tops of classical guitars and to a less degree in steel string acoustic guitars. Cedar responds to lower input levels (string energy) making it ideal for nylon stringed instruments where the string energy is less compared to steel strings.
- Other softwoods, such as redwood have been used to a limited degree.
- Yew was once widely used for lute bowls, but is no longer available due to overharvesting.
- Maple, primarily Flamed but sometimes Bird's Eye is most common tonewood in the construction of instruments of lute and violin family.
- Mahogany may be used in the tops of some guitars as well as the back, sides, and necks of instruments of the mandolin and guitar families. It is a very common neck material due to its stability and lighter weight. Mahogany may be used for the solid bodies of electric guitars, such as the Gibson Les Paul. Mahogany used to be the most popular tonewood but has become restricted since the 2000s due to overlogging. It is now commercially extinct from its native locations. Plantation-grown mahogany is available from a few Asia-Pacific countries where it is grown there sustainably. Other similar sounding woods are used as mahogany replacements, such as Toona, Khaya, Meranti, Agathis, Nato and Sapele. Some of these alternatives are Mahogany family timbers.
- Rosewoods are often used in the back and/or sides of guitars and mandolins. The most sought-after variety, Brazilian Rosewood, Dalbergia nigra, has become scarce and expensive due to severe trade restrictions (embargo and CITES), scarcity and demand. The most widely used rosewood used now is east Indian Rosewood, often paired with a spruce top for steel string guitars and with spruce or cedar for classical guitars.
- Koa is traditionally used for ukuleles. Koa is also used for steel string guitars mostly due to its beauty and compressed dynamic range.
- Ebony is also often used in non-tonewood applications in many types of instruments for fingerboards, tailpieces, tuning pegs, and so forth due to its attractive appearance, hardness and wear resistance.
- Cocobolo used in upper-end clarinets and guitars. Strikingly beautiful with red hues, it is known for its tonal characteristics similar to Brazilian Rosewood. Very dense and heavy, it gives a robust, yet sweet sound with clarity throughout the range.
- Blackwood (Tasmanian/Australian). A seldom seen true Rosewood, with a strong fundamental, very dense wood producing warm, clear, bright sound with good volume. 1
- Walnut is between mahogany and Rosewood in tone and timbre. Strong fundamentals plus some of the bottom end of a Rosewood, to the tone one would expect from mahogany.
In addition to perceived differences in acoustic properties, a luthier may use a tonewood because of:
- Cosmetic properties such as the color or grain of the wood
- Size (Some instruments require large pieces of suitable wood)
Most tonewoods come from sustainable sources through specialist dealers. Spruce, for example, is very common, but large pieces with even grain represent a small proportion of total supply and can be expensive. Some tonewoods are particularly difficult to obtain on the open market, and small-scale instrument makers often turn to reclamation,23 for instance from disused salmon traps in Alaska, various old construction in the U.S Pacific Northwest, from trees that have blown down, or from specially permitted removals in conservation areas where logging is not generally permitted.4 Mass market instrument manufacturers have started using Asian and African woods, such as Bubinga (Guibourtia species) and Wenge (Millettia laurentii), as inexpensive alternatives to traditional tonewoods.
The use of wood in musical instruments varies greatly among the different types of instruments. For guitar making, quartersawn wood is preferred because its added stiffness and dimensional stability. Soft woods, like spruce, may be split rather than sawn into boards so the board surface follows the grain as much as possible, thus limiting run-out.
For most applications, wood must be dried before use, either in air or kilns.5 Some luthiers prefer further seasoning for several years.