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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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Brazilian Guitar Makers

Brazilian Guitar Makers

by Roberto Gomes

Originally published in American Lutherie #33, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004



The guitar has been the main musical instrument in Brazil since it was brought by the Portuguese colonizers centuries ago. In those times, Baroque guitars were the most common string instruments. They had five courses of gut or wire strings. Since then it hasn’t changed much, as we can see in the “Brazilian viola” which is used for a kind of Brazilian country music called musica sertaneja (countryside music). The shape of the soundbox of this viola today resembles more a small classic guitar. Unfortunately there are very few records of those times, making it difficult to make a better study of those guitars and their makers. It’s known that most of the instruments were made in Portugal, Italy, and France.

The first decade of this century brought three immigrant families from Italy: the Gianninis, the DiGiorgios, and the DelVecchios. These families were luthiers in their country of origin and later they founded the main Brazilian guitar factories which became the backbone of Brazilian-made guitars for nearly eighty years. They made mostly classic guitars and some violins, along with Brazilian violas. They also made mandolins, first with vaulted backs like lutes and later with flat backs, which are used to play choro music.

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This article is part of our premium web content offered to Guild members. To view this and other web articles, join the Guild of American Luthiers. Members also receive 4 annual issues of American Lutherie and get discounts on products. For details, visit the membership page.

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