Walnut for fretboards?

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Mark Wybierala
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Joined: Fri Feb 03, 2012 10:14 am
Location: Central New Jersey

Walnut for fretboards?

Post by Mark Wybierala »

I'm building a series of ten instruments all based on a Rickenbacker Capri design. ...a few electric guitars, octave electric mandolins and standard electric mandolins. I've built these before as one-off instruments. This is an attempt to go from hobby-est to a semi-pro guitar maker. The prices for preradiused fretboards from LMI have gone up so I'm looking to reduce my initial outlay in cash. I have a number of very old black walnut 2" X 8" wide rough cut boards. Is there anything wrong with using this walnut for fretboards? I won't use this walnut if its going to compromise the end result. My local mill often has bloodwood that I've used successfully before. I just don't hear of walnut being used in guitars. What would be the pros and cons of using walnut?

Alan Carruth
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Joined: Sun Jan 15, 2012 1:11 pm

Re: Walnut for fretboards?

Post by Alan Carruth »

The main issue with walnuut as a fingerboard wood is that it is usually too soft to wear well. It's also pretty open grained, which doesn't help. I've used it a lot on things like dulcimers, which tend to get less wear than guitars, and even they show it fairly quickly.

Back in the day manufacturers used it pretty frequently, often dyed black. I suspect they were using the ancient tannin and ferric acetate method, which works well and is permanent. Unfortunately, if you don't neutralize the acid carefully it can break down the wood. Some of those old fingerboards are simply crumbling away.

Finding a 'local' wood that is hard and dark for use on fingerboards is a problem. You don't seem to be restricting yourself in that respect, but even so there are not many things as good as ebony.

David King
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Location: Portland, OR

Re: Walnut for fretboards?

Post by David King »

Mark, A walnut fingerboard probably won't work very well with a single compression truss rod (the type used by Fender and Gibson). You'll want a wood that doesn't compress easily. Any denser wood would be better. Shagbark hickory/hickory is a good domestic alternative, Osage orange would be better yet. If you plan to use a double self-acting rod (Martin's old or new style) you'll be OK with the walnut. If you can get your hands on a wood like Ipé which often sells for $2-$3 as exterior decking you'll be in better shape. If you want to keep the walnut look then morado/pau-ferro is a good bet but it's a known allergen so control the dust carefully. Bloodwood is great too but it's murder on sandpaper and knives and more often than not is case-hardened and will spring off into uncontrollable contortions when re-sawn. Thoughtful selection of materials is the first indication of a quality instrument which is the only way to make your mark as a builder.

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Peter Wilcox
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Location: Northeastern California

Re: Walnut for fretboards?

Post by Peter Wilcox »

I've made several fingerboards out of softer woods (Peruvian walnut, mahogany) and really can't give you any useful advice. They've worked well for me for several reasons. One unfinished fretboard on an Irish bouzouki has lasted for years, because I almost never play it. :lol:

I've finished two fretless bass fingerboards with polyurethane, no problems, but they've only had light use. I finished a fretted electric bass mahogany board that I've played several times a week for several years, again with polyurethane, and it shows no wear. However, finishing would probably not be a time effective process if you're doing this for profit.

I also made a Strat type fretboard from ipe, but it was very hard on the saws.
Maybe I can't fix it, but I can fix it so no one can fix it

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John Tuttle
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Re: Walnut for fretboards?

Post by John Tuttle »

I have used walnut for fretboards on numerous instruments over the years. While it is true that walnut is softer than many of the standard options, I have fund that the durability is often determined by the player. One customer has a walnut fretboard on an SG concept copy which was built 10 years ago and has been played heavily during that time. The fretboard is handling the rigor far better than the frets which are exhibiting classic gig grooves.

I guess I'd say don't discount using walnut completely. In my opinion it is a viable option for fretboard material.

Clay Schaeffer
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Re: Walnut for fretboards?

Post by Clay Schaeffer »

I would save the walnut for use as neck material and use some tropical hardwood instead - ipe, jatoba, ovangkol, pau ferro etc., for fretboard material. Many of these woods came on the market after carbide tooling was developed that could handle their hardness and sometimes abrasive qualities.
Dark woods hide finger dirt better and are what most expect in a fingerboard.

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