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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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Bubinga

Bubinga

by Roger Sperline

Originally published as Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #268, 1984 and Lutherie Woods and Steel String Guitars, 1998



Bubinga is a hard, heavy wood which may be suitable for instrument backs and sides. It is as dense as Bolivian rosewood (Machaerium scleroxylon) and seems as hard. The piece I have has a beautiful mottle figure and a general tiger-eye sheen. I chose bubinga because it was available locally, relatively inexpensive, and very hard. I’d only made four classical guitars before trying it. All in all, I think I had good luck.

Several woods are called bubinga, including Guibourtia demeusei, G. tessmannii, Didelotia africana, Copaifera spp., and Brachystegia spp. All are called African rosewood and are reddish-brown. I don’t know which one I have.

Despite having many evenly-spaced coarse pores as red oak has, it has a specific gravity of 0.94. My piece was chosen from many, over half of which had evenly-spaced, generally straight growth rings. It is easy to obtain 8" widths for resawing into guitar backs. What makes a challenge is that the grain interlocks randomly, turning at times over 60° to the direction the tree grew, then turning back. In other words, though the growth rings are smooth and parallel, the runout changes severely from inch to inch. This gives a mottle pattern even in well-quartered slices, and causes some of the pores to penetrate a 3/32" plank. Shellac and varnish go right through some of them.

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Sturgill on Wood

Sturgill on Wood

by David Sturgill

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #2, #6, #9, 1974, 1975 and Guild of American Luthiers Newsletter Vol. 2 #2, 1974

See also,
The David Sturgill Story by David Sturgill



Wood for Instrument Making

I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have had an opportunity to become intimately acquainted with one of the greatest of the American luthiers, Herman Weaver of Baltimore, MD and Washington, D.C. Our friendship grew from the time I first met him in 1940 until his death twenty-five years later. Aside from our warm personal relationship, he took a great interest in my own work and taught me many things from his own background of fifty years experience as a luthier. Many of these things I would have been years discovering for myself or may never have learned.

Herman Weaver, like most luthiers I have known, was also a philosopher, and even this was reflected in his work. He was often unorthodox in his approach to many problems which confront the would-be luthier. While he was a strong supporter of proven traditions, he did not hesitate to experiment and to discard tradition if it was not supported by his own discoveries.

Early in our friendship I started asking him about woods for musical instruments, especially violins. He answered my questions as I asked them, but one day he summed it all up in one paragraph when he said, “wood is something you can learn about, but it is almost impossible to teach anyone else except in generalities. The luthier must have an instinct about woods, he must be able to hold it in his hands and hear in his mind the tones it will produce in an instrument. He must sense the texture and the grain and the character of a piece of wood and I do not know how to teach anyone these things.”

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African Rosewood

African Rosewood

by John Jordan

Originally published in American Lutherie #9, 1987 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume One, 2000

See also,
South American Rosewood by John Jordan



It’s been over a year since my last installment of this series, “South American Rosewood,” and now it’s time to cover African rosewood. At the 1986 GAL convention, I talked to several wood dealers to clarify and verify some of the information presented here. Also, I talked to many luthiers about what important information they felt was missing or incomplete in the first installment. Requests came for more specific lutherie information: How well does it bend? How good a tonewood is it? Does anyone sell back and side sets?

In preparing this article, I’ve tried to find people who have built with a particular variety to see how they feel about the wood. Also, in instances where I know of someone that sells back and side sets for guitar, I’ve mentioned them. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few guitars at the convention made from less common varieties of rosewoods, so I go on with some encouragement.

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Cutting Michigan Maple

Cutting Michigan Maple

by Elon Howe

Originally published in American Lutherie #37, 1994



In 1983, I had the guts to try to repair my dad’s old fiddle. I reglued it, sanded it, sprayed on a varnish — it looked great. I was later advised that I had spoiled the fiddle by doing the wrong things.

Later on, I bought a fiddle kit. It had the wood, a machine cut scroll, four ounces of varnish, and a half-pound of glue. About six months later I turned out my first fiddle and of course it sounded great. Dan Erlewine, who ran a shop north of us at that time, had to admit that it looked pretty fair. He later admitted he was afraid to see what I might turn out because he knew he would have to be honest. He seemed to be relieved that it didn’t look like a shoe box.

At first, information was hard to come by. Finally, we found an address for Hammond Ashley. He recommended a book called The Techniques of Violin Making by Harry Wake. I got to meet Harry at the Arizona Violin Makers’ Association Competition in Tucson — he even bought some willow wood from me.

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