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Brazilian Tonewoods

Brazilian Tonewoods

by Roberto Gomes

Originally published in American Lutherie #33, 1992 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume Three, 2004



For a long time I have been wishing to write an article for American Lutherie about some Brazilian tonewoods that have been used here in Brazil for guitar backs and sides. As a maker of Baroque, romantic, and classical guitars, as well as vihuelas, I started to depart a bit from tradition. I began to study more deeply the vast world of Brazilian flora and some other woods that we might substitute for “jacarandá da Bahia,” also known as Brazilian rosewood, Rio rosewood, and Dalbergia nigra.

Here in Brazil, the name jacarandá, or sometimes caviúna is used for all rosewoods, that is, all members of the genera Dalbergia and Machaerium. The name jacarandá comes from a word in the native Tupy-Guarany language, yacarãntã, which means hard wood or hard tree, and caviúna comes from kawiuna, meaning dark green bush.

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Brazilian Tonewoods

by Roberto Gomes

Originally published in American Lutherie #33, 1992 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume Three, 2004



For a long time I have been wishing to write an article for American Lutherie about some Brazilian tonewoods that have been used here in Brazil for guitar backs and sides. As a maker of Baroque, romantic, and classical guitars, as well as vihuelas, I started to depart a bit from tradition. I began to study more deeply the vast world of Brazilian flora and some other woods that we might substitute for “jacarandá da Bahia,” also known as Brazilian rosewood, Rio rosewood, and Dalbergia nigra.

Here in Brazil, the name jacarandá, or sometimes caviúna is used for all rosewoods, that is, all members of the genera Dalbergia and Machaerium. The name jacarandá comes from a word in the native Tupy-Guarany language, yacarãntã, which means hard wood or hard tree, and caviúna comes from kawiuna, meaning dark green bush.

Genus Dalbergia. Apart from the famous Dalbergia nigra, D. violácea, known here in Brazil as “jacarandá do Cerrado,” is the wood that has wrongly been called “Brazilian rosewood hybrid.” It was first introduced by Dr. Eugene Follman of Follman and Sons, a dealer in wood for musical instruments in São Paulo. Follman believed that it was a new kind of rosewood, and I was about to name it D. Follmanense, but further studies led us to conclude that it was a true D. violácea. It is a dark wood, and very much resembles East Indian rosewood (D. latifolia), although it is not as purple, more reddish-brown. Its density is .82G/CM³, lighter than D. nigra’s .87G/CM³, and it is medium sonorous. Unfortunately the trees are small and twisted. D. violácea grows in a type of low-level forest called cerrado where it is very diluted with other plants. “Bulges” of it will be found mixed with other species. In areas where it is well populated it is hard to find mature trees because it has been attacked by people who make vegetal charcoal. It is almost impossible to find quarter-cut sets of this wood. Good-sized trees are only found in the south of the State of Piauí and in the north of the State of Goiás.

D. decipularis (ex-Frutences), commonly known as tulipwood, is almost extinct in wide boards, although Follman and Sons still have some sets. This is one of the most sonorous woods I have ever seen. It really sings! It is denser than D. nigra, with a specific gravity of around .96G/CM³. Its reddish stripes on a light yellow background look very attractive, although departing from the dark colors traditionally found on fine classic guitars. But this is a great tonewood.

The last of the useful Dalbergias in wide dimensions is D. spruceana, known as “jacarandá do Pará.” As the name implies, it grows mainly in the northern State of Pará. It is the most dense of the three, at around 1.10G/CM³. It is very dark with some greenish-brown color, although there is no striking grain figure. Compared to D. nigra it is medium sonorous, but it is more sonorous than D. violácea.

Comparing these Dalbergias to East Indian rosewood (D. latifolia), D. decipularis and D. spruceana are denser, but equal in sonority. This latter claim could be a matter of taste, but what I state is driven by common sense. D. decipularis is lighter in color and D. spruceana is similar in color or darker. D. violacea is equal in color but a little bit less sonorous.

A young Dalbergia nigra tree. All photos by Roberto Gomes.
Ever wonder what Brazilian rosewood leaves look like? Now you know.

Genus Machaerium. The best-known of the Macheriums is M. villosum, known internationally as Santos rosewood. The Brazilian names are “jacarandá Mineiro” (from the State of Minas Gerias) or “jacarandá Paulista” (from the State of São Paulo). It often is a big tree, giving boards that sometimes reach 70CM in width. Like most of the rosewoods it has a sweet smell when cut or sanded. It is a yellowish-green wood, but with oxidation it becomes darker and is almost chocolate brown when old. It is somewhat more sonorous than D. violácea and less dense, with a specific gravity of .78G/CM³.

M. scleroxylon is called caviúna here, and known abroad as morado or Bolivian rosewood. It is a beautiful hardwood, with purple, brown, and black streaks. Like M. villosum, it is possible to find large trees. It also has the same density as M. villosum, about .78G/CM³, but the wood is very different.

The last of the Macheriums, and the most beautiful, is M. acutifolium, called “bico de pato,” meaning duck’s beak, in Brazil. It looks very much like jacarandá da Bahia, although it is not as black, but rather is dark brown with some yellowish and pink shading. It is a rare wood to find, and is the most dense of the Macheriums at about 1.00G/CM³.

Most of the woods listed here are under “forbidden exploitation,” meaning they are listed as endangered species by the IBAMA, or Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente, which is the Brazilian Institute for Nature and Environment. The list includes all Dalbergia species. Nonetheless, it is possible to find them around.

Two views from the coastal road leading to the IBAMA (Brazilian Institute for Nature and Environment) reserve in southern Bahia.This shows the beginning fo the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic rainforest). The ocean is just two miles from the edge of the forest.
Devastation.

Genus Zollernia. The wood that is often called ocelot ear in the USA is known in Brazil as orelha de onça, meaning jaguar’s ears. It is Zollernia falcata, a dense, close-grained, and beautiful wood sometimes resembling D. nigra with a specific gravity around .95G/CM³. It is resinous, but with some care it glues well. Sérgio Abreu, the famous classical guitarist, is now working successfully as a guitar maker. He has built several guitars with orelha de onça with excellent results. The wood has powerful reflection properties although it is not especially “musical.” It is a good Brazilian-rosewood substitute. Another useful wood is Z. ilicifolia, known as mucitaiba.

Genus Platimiscium. There is some excitement going around about the acoustical properties of a wood we call “macacaúba.” The name is from the Amazon-Tupy word macaca’iwa meaning “tree of the monkeys.” The botanical name is Platimiscium ulei and its specific gravity is .80G/CM³. Fransisco Munhoz of São Paulo says that it is a very “musical” tonewood, giving a lot of harmonics and “timbres.” It’s color is like that of a light-colored mahogany. The Institute of Technical Researches of São Paulo claims that the wood’s molecular structure is the closest to that of D. nigra.

There are about 20 species of Platimiscium in Central and South America. The common ones in Brazil are P. ulei, P. trinitatis, and P. duckei.

A dirt road through luxurious vegetation brought my taxi to a locked gate with signs warning that nobody is allowed onto reserve property without an official escort. There wasn't a soul around, so we jumped the fence.
The taxi driver is walking down the road inside the reserve. Notice the height of the trees.
The trunk of this twenty-year-old D. nigra tree is about 10" in diameter. The bark is not wrinkled, which means that there is almost no heartwood, only sapwood.

The Brazilian government banned the importation of all foreign timber in 1982. In 1983, some Amazonian forestry departments did research on over a hundred species of trees growing in the rainforest, with the main idea of finding substitutes for the banned spruces, red cedar, and ebony. The result of this research was the most complete study done about the potential of an enormous variety of woods in Brazil with good and even excellent properties for tonewoods. The ban on importation was over by 1984, so the results of this study did not have time to mature. Due to circumstances such as the huge geographical distances in Brazil, economic constraints, and the ill will or indifference of government authorities, the research is almost fading away, which is a great pity.

One of these studies was the one done by Dr. Harry Van der Slooten. Another, published by the Ministry of Agriculture, looked at 20 promising woods. And British guitar maker Paul Fischer has published the results of his experiments with some Brazilian hardwoods. I hope that in the near future more people will come to help us get deeper into this subject, which is one of the most precious legacies for future generations of luthiers on this planet.

American friends have asked if developing uses for lesser-known tropical woods will help to save them, or just destroy the forest. This is a hard question to answer. Is must be hard for Americans to understand what it is to live in a Third World country. Unfortunately, most of the people here don’t care very much about their natural treasures. Starving, uneducated people are not in a situation to think and act in a healthy way. After centuries of exploitation from powerful nations and corrupt governments, they don’t give a damn. So when I am asked how to save the forests and still use tropical woods, the answer is a painful “I don’t know!”

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Finite Element Simulation of Guitar Top Vibration

Finite Element Simulation of Guitar Top Vibration

by Phil Banks

Originally published in American Lutherie #18, 1989



The use of engineering finite element analysis software to determine modes and natural resonant frequencies of a guitar top can be a useful (albeit lengthy) process which, if used judiciously, can yield useful information to the guitar maker.

As a graduate mechanical engineer and a guitar maker, I’ve always been interested in marrying the discipline of the luthier’s craft with that of science. I got that chance last year at the University of Sydney. While working as a programmer developing a Finite Element package, I was asked to produce a demonstration of the program’s capabilities. I decided to analyze a guitar top.

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A Contrabass for the Pugo Brothers

Cuenca. They Became Self-Made Luthiers in their El Cebollar Neighborhood. They Make String Instruments.

A Contrabass for the Pugo Brothers

These Artisans had to Desecrate Several Secrets Before Making Violincellos, Contrabasses, Violins, and Guitars.

But they did it.

by Juan Carlos translated by John L. Walker

Originally published in American Lutherie #73, 2003



When Angel Pugo was a young boy he developed a phobia that never went away: fear of school. His teachers’ intolerance, according to him, was the reason that caused him to not sit near the blackboard anymore. “Those that went around barefooted were never well considered,” says Angel, now a violin maker.

His father, Miguel, had heaped rondadores, flautas de pan, pingullos, and ocarinas¹ upon his sons while he watched the corn grow on the hillside. After one of his first “traumas,” as Angel calls them, he also hung up his pingullo and headed towards the Conservatory of Cuenca. “They told me that all they did in the conservatory was repeat do, re, and mi, and that it was very boring. But solfège delighted me.”

The musical center’s director looked at him carefully and said, “You are worth it.” This same director, after sitting him in front of a piano, would choose Angel Pugo as a beneficiary of one of the thirty pianos provided by the government of Jaime Roldós Aguilera.²

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Drafting Instrument Plans

Drafting Instrument Plans

by Ted Davis

from his 1984 GAL Convention lecture

Originally published in American Lutherie #4, 1985 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



I feel that for every 1% I put into the Guild, I get back about 120%. And I’m very high on the plan series. It’s an opportunity for repairmen and builders to preserve information about some instruments that would otherwise be lost. By making these plans available to more people, even if they don’t build them, they will see what they look like and what they are. Of course, you will also have the opportunity to build replicas of these fine old instruments. Many of them have historical value, and many of them have monetary value.

I’m sure there are a lot of “neophyte” luthiers in the audience today that would like to contribute to the Guild’s publications but just don’t feel they have the experience. Well, here’s something you can do. I’m sure you know someone that has a fine old instrument that’s a collector’s item, or perhaps you have one yourself, or perhaps the repairman will have one come into his shop. Take a few hours, take the dimensions of it, sketch it, and you can draw it at your leisure.

Drawing an instrument plan is not all that difficult, but it is time consuming. You’ll spend ten, twelve, maybe fifteen hours or more on your first one.

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Pre-bending Herringbone Purfling

Pre-bending Herringbone Purfling

by John Calkin

 

Herringbone purfling s a lot easier to work with if it is prebent before it is glued onto the guitar. This is best done after wetting it first. I always use a brush to spread glue on guitars. I keep a coffee cup of water handy at all times, along with an acid brush with the bristles properly trimmed back to the stiffness I like. I dip the brush, then hold it stationary as the strip of purfling is pulled across the cup underneath it. Soak the purfling well on both sides. This should take only seconds. Then the strip is pulled through a dry cloth. Soaking it for too long will encourage it to come apart as it is bent. Give the purfling a minute to absorb the water, then tape the butt end into the channel it will be glued in later. Wrap it carefully around the lower bout using a couple pieces of masking tape to hold it tight. More tape, as well as care, will be necessary to make it conform to the waist area. The wrap around the upper bout should be as easy as the lower bout. In the photo, you can see how much tape was used as well as the small fan used to dry the purfling before gluing it in place.

All photos by John Calkin

Herringbone will wrap around a moderate Venetian cutaway but do it gently and by stages. To be safe, the purfling can be wet and then sliced lengthwise on one of the glue joints using a single-edge razor blade.

On a tight Venetian cutaway, the purfling must be sliced. On this tight-waisted jumbo guitar, the purfling was sliced from the top end to below the waist area to help coax this half-herringbone purfling to conform to the shape of the guitar. Sliced purfling doesn't need to be prebent but you might wish to wet it as you reach that portion of the install. Slicing the purfling can go awry and destroy it. Buy extra.