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is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

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is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Matthew Orifice » Thu Apr 26, 2012 10:30 am

so i just finished building a second long neck dulcimer/ stick dulcimer/ dulcimerish tuned guitar looking thingy. the first had a top of Birch plywood from the hardware store, this one has a top of quartersawn AA spruce. i played them side by side same song same player, they are the same shape; there is a pic of #1 in the other stringed instruments thread under i finally did it.( mostly) with the same guage strings ( i buy my strings in bulk because i can't find the sets i like at the store). Crux of my issue. i cannot say that dulcimer A or B sounds BETTER, they sound different definitely both are somewhere between a guitar and mando, with #1 being more towards mando and #2 being more towards guitar ( they have a 3" body depth bent sides and a semi-ergonomic guitar shape not a usual triangle shape you find on most instruments like this).

so with both woods being equal but different i have to wonder how much of how we chose our woods is based in fact and how much in tradition, i chose the birch because it was available, inexpensive and i needed some for my wife's Cajon face, i'm glad i did and i plan to make more birch topped instruments but i wonder where else we can find voicings we would otherwise not find because "it's not tonewood"
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Chris Reed » Thu Apr 26, 2012 12:17 pm

Look at ukulele making. A partial list of ukes I know of (all topwoods) includes:

Koa
Mahogany and all its relations, including sapele, iroko etc
Meranti
Spruce
Cedar
Pine
Oak
Cherry
Walnut
Alder
Yew
Lacewood
Acacia (eg Tasmanian Blackwood)
A whole bunch of woods unique to Australia like Silky Oak
Sycamore
Poplar
Birch
Maple
Hemlock

I could probably dredge up a dozen more from memory.

All these sing nicely in their different ways.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Alan Carruth » Thu Apr 26, 2012 4:43 pm

I know that it can be very hard to sell guitars that are not made of the 'traditional' woods. It gets frustrating when people play one made out of, say, oak, comment on how good it sounds, and then ask about Brazilian rosewood, or some other endangered/illegal/suspect wood.

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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Matthew Orifice » Fri Apr 27, 2012 7:44 am

these instruments are intended to be starter/ travel pieces so backs and sides are birch ply (2 ply actually so they are actually no "worse" than a laminated side, both have a poplar neck cause they were prototypes (production pieces have walnut or maple). i do woodworking for sale at ren faires and the like. this was more a way for me to build instruments and maybe bring in some cash. i wasn't expecting brilliant instruments hence why i prototyped with the birch ply top on the first one. the spruce soundboard was tried because our first instrument sounded far better than we expected and we wanted to see how much a true "tonewood" top would improve it. (Uke tops through a larger luthier supply store online actually we're not much more expensive than our birch so why not right). we're planning on pushing the limit a bit more and using a vacuum former i built making a polymer body to attach it to, it just confused me some, i expected far more of a difference.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Rodger Knox » Fri Apr 27, 2012 12:07 pm

That's not oak, it's quecus rubra, it's been used in Europe for centuries :lol:
Lot's of things will work, especially on a small soundboard. Build it light, there's a pretty decent chance it'll sound good.
A man hears what he wants to hear, and disreguards the rest. Paul Simon
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Patrick Kirkham » Sun Apr 29, 2012 9:28 am

I think trying to market non-traditional tonewood to traditionalist markets like classical and blues might be a fools errand but...
There is a lot to be said for playing with materials for other markets. Even classical guitars are starting to play with aluminum and CF honeycomb sandwich tops.
Elsewhere,CF tops, backs, even sides and necks pop up here and there. Aluminum tops sides and backs too! Aluminum necks aren't such a good idea as a challenge.
I'm with Benedetto ,in the idea that probably any wood executed with its characteristics in mind, could be used on any part of any instrument, with engineering limitations in mind.
Basswood seems to make a nice acoustic top if you account for its limitations with bracing and finish.
Perhaps the problem with the old aluminum necks detuning strings with temperature change could be fixed with inlaid CF rods.
The last electric I built was Cherry frame, Aluminum channel neck with trussrod and walnut sides topped with maple f.b. and masonite top and back. It has a low end like Johnny Cash and balanced mids and highs.Crisp and defined before I even plug it in. No, not loud, but I can hear what my materials got me for the reaction from the strings envelope.
I think the sky's the limit for materials as long as you keep in mind what it's mass and density are going to do for whatever part you're making.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Matthew Orifice » Sun Apr 29, 2012 2:58 pm

i think after i get this run done i'm going to experiment with a simple box style acoustic lap steel, make it so i can swap out sound boards and see what i get...
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Michael Lewis » Mon Apr 30, 2012 12:48 am

The shape of the box will have some determining effect on the sound, so that is another factor to experiment with.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Matthew Orifice » Wed May 02, 2012 7:41 am

i'm using two shapes, one is an ergonomic shape and so far it's go a surprisingly full sound for such a small box, and we just started with a teardrop shape ( much like a mandola) i'm going to finish up the spruce i have and then start looking for alternativesi have some quartersawn pine i want to try, and we should be getting some cherry in... body wise we are also going to experiment with thermoformed ABS and Kydex bodies. no worse than what ovation has done i guess...
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Seth Ellis » Sat Jun 02, 2012 7:50 pm

Tradition is a funny thing. It can be based in common sense and a wealth of experience, but can also make people fearful to branch out. ;)
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Simon Magennis » Mon Jun 04, 2012 2:23 pm

Tradition just isn't what it used to be.... :D

It depends on what you mean by tradition. If tradition means large manufacturer marketing in the last 40 years then yes. If tradition stretches back a bit further then no. In more distant past (60-200 years) all sorts of local woods were used in different countries. Post WWII in Germany birch, ash, steamed oak even beech were all on the agenda. Maple (European) was the staple of the central european instrument business for a long time. Walnut and various fruit woods were common in some instruments.

Todays common "timber" is plywood but manufacturers prefer to gloss over that just like the furniture talks about oak and cherry and whatnot when it really means chipboard or mdf.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Andy Barnhart » Thu Jul 12, 2012 1:57 pm

I am running into this in woodwinds. NAF makers use all sorts of woods that are just not accepted in traditional European instruments. It's obvious that they sound fine; different, but fine. I have a sweetgum medieval recorder and I will likely always have it because no early music player will ever buy it from me. Maybe a LARP player would as a prop if it were priced low enough, but if you want an instrument to be accepted, there are expectations.

An interesting tangent on this - for making medieval woodwinds, one of the earliest good examples is the Tartu recorder. It was well preserved by virtue of being in a latrine where there was almost no oxygen for several hundred years. It is often copied for use in early music re-enactment. But if you listen to a faithful copy being played you may wonder whether or not it was an accident it ended up in a latrine...
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Simon Magennis » Mon Jul 23, 2012 5:20 pm

Andy Barnhart wrote: (...) It was well preserved by virtue of being in a latrine where there was almost no oxygen for several hundred years. It is often copied for use in early music re-enactment. But if you listen to a faithful copy being played you may wonder whether or not it was an accident it ended up in a latrine...


On a similar note a restorer in a museum wondered if the best preserved instruments which are used as models for Renaissance/Baroque lutes and the like, survived only because no one played them whereas those that sounded good were played till they were unrepairable. We'll never know.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Andy Barnhart » Tue Jul 24, 2012 2:44 pm

And a thousand years from now they will copy the instruments that are screwed to the walls as decorations in bars today. :)

Taking this tangent back on topic, I have also heard it suggested that the wood used in re-enactment is governed more by what survived than what was used (which was likely whatever was handy in many cases). This is especially true in furnishings, but probably less so with instruments. They didn't know they were making it for us; they thought it was for them and if it rotted away in a few hundred years, so what?
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Alan Carruth » Mon Jul 30, 2012 1:58 pm

This gets to be complicated, of course. In many respects the 'usual suspects' are chosen for good reasons, but I also think that some aspects of design have been settled on because of the woods used.

The most obvious example of the correctness of tradition is the almost universal use of softwood for soundboards. If you measure the properties of a lot of different types of woods it turns out that, for a given Young's modulus along the grain, the softwoods tend to be far less dense. What this means is that a softwood top can be lighter in weight than a hardwood one for the same stiffness, and usually much lighter. Since vibrating strings don't have a lot of power this helps a lot in the volume department.

For the hardwoods normally used in backs and sides the differences are more subtle, but may be significant. In the 'matched pair' experiment I did years ago, using oak and Brazilian rosewood for two classical guitars that were otherwise matched as closely as possible, there were measurable differences in the sound that could be linked to material properties. In particular, the oak I used was denser than the rosewood, and had higher damping. The added density of the oak may have contributed to the fact that it produced less sound for a given input of power, and the higher damping was probably a factor in the reduced treble output of the oak instrument. In both cases the differences were small, but seemed to be noticeable to most players and listeners.

As for designs evolving around the properties of the materials, that's harder to prove, but there's enough data to be suggestive. There's a vector diagram in one of the old Catgut publications showing the velocity of a compression wave in softwood in relation to different grain directions. The velocity is highest along the grain, and lowest across it, but the relationship is not all that simple, and the locus of the end points of the vectors follows a curve that is very much like a corner less fiddle, oo a Baroque guitar. If the top thickness is uniform, the velocity of a bending wave should follow the same sort of curve, and that shape would be the equivalent in wood to a round pan of water: a wave starting from the center would hit the edge at the same time all the way around. The exact shape would vary with the stiffness ratio of the wood, but with careful selection of known species you can get pretty close to the 'correct' ratio most of the time. One has to wonder if the shape of the violin was worked out to maximize the potential of 'normal' spruce and maple; woods that were easy to get in north Italy and south Germany, where the instrument originated. Perhaps, if the first fiddles had been made with oak backs the design would be a little different. Carleen Hutchins did several experiments on wood substitution in violin family instruments, and it seems you can get pretty good results so long as you stick reasonably close to the properties of European maple.

The bottom line, then, is that, while there do seem to be reasons behind the traditions in many cases, some of them may have grown out of the traditions in the first place.

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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Jonathan Conder » Sun Aug 19, 2012 2:35 pm

Hi Al! I've decided to try what I find on whatever my next build is. I'm lucky to have a free supply of broken/loose skid (pallet) wood at my new job, and that consists of hard maple, poplar, pine, Douglas fir, cedar, and oak, mainly (plus the occasional scrap aluminum and steel). Receiving large and heavy parts has its perks there, I guess, as some are at or longer than 42", so I have plenty of options on what to attempt. I won't say the outcome will be the most attractive-looking or what i envision in every case, but I have no good reason not to use what I get this way. I love the look of exotic and figured woods, but if they're not in my stash or budget, they'll wait or I'll substitute/improvise. Maybe I've reached a point that if I want a "traditional" instrument, I'll go buy it - I'd rather be creative and have fun building something off-the-cuff. With respect to tradition, though, I'll try to the best of my abilities to adhere to acoustic principles, ergonomics and structural integrity in whatever I do. Beyond that, the yoke's off.

In that same breath, I'm not building with the intent to sell anything, so that works better for me. I just have a big creative itch that needs a good scratching. :lol:
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby John Kingma » Fri Sep 14, 2012 11:16 am

I generally go out of my way to use unconventional woods. I've only built one acoustic guitar and the back and side were made from Hackberry and the top was made from some aromatic cedar that I had left over from when I lined my wife's closet. It gets a lot commenst and it sounds okay as well.

I built about 50 electrics and have used Hackberry and Oak for quite a few of them. No complaints from anyone who had bought any of them.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby John E Giarrizzo » Tue Sep 18, 2012 9:49 am

Hello all.

Enjoying this thread, as I see I am not the only one to use "alternate" wood. I've built violins from all kinds of wood. Oak, Mahogany, Rosewood, Cherry, old kitchen tables, wood I found laying out in a parking lot, an old piano, whatever scrap pieces I found laying around in my workshop, etc., etc. I also have some old skid wood waiting for an instrument. Also make my own fittings. Some wood I have no idea what it is.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Barry Guest » Mon Sep 24, 2012 1:52 am

I can't help but weigh into the "traditional wood" argument with this hypothetical. If the Americas or Australia or Canada had been discovered before Italy, France and Germany et al, the likes of Stradivari and his peers would have used the woods available to them, and not the woods that are considered "traditional" now.

As many of you would be aware, I am Australian, and Australia is a mere pup in terms of civilized settlement. I can just imagine Stradivari working in Sydney in the 18th century and marveling at the beauty of Bunya Nut Pine and Tasmanian Blackwood as his "traditional" choice of wood. Ho hum!
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Andrew Porter » Thu Sep 27, 2012 4:14 pm

I want to believe that a good looking piece of wood regardless makes a good sounding instrument. I haven't enough experience to support this. Anyone else's thoughts?
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