Wood Of The Month
One name for cedar, or Cedrus Deodara of the Pinaceae family, a softwood.
Along with Cedrus Libani (Cedar of Lebanon) this is one of the true cedars, as distinct from those which the timber trade has traditionally called so because odour and timber are reminiscent of cedar. Odour and flavour are often vital clues in identifying a timber — a point which is hard to take seriously if you've ever seen an old repairman chisel a slice off a guitar and chew it.
Hardwood seems an understatement to anyone who has had to work it. Jack Golder will still groan nostalgically when he recalls the blisters he got hand-working the fingerboards for the first batch of Burns Bisons.
This stuff is regarded as true ebony. It is jet black, though on rare occasions you may find a few pale streaks. It's heavy, nearly 1200 kilos per cubic metre. I have a few scraps of it kicking around my scullery/workshop, and they feel like slate, except a bit warmer. It grows best in Sri Lanka where it can reach a diameter of ¾ metre, but flourishes much less satisfactorily in Southern India.
It is a sod to work. Planes can pick up tough bits of wavy grain, and it chips (notably on hideously expensive guitars that are being refretted). It can also develop deep hairline cracks. But when finished up into a gleaming fingerboard or a D'Aquisto tailpiece, there isn't anything quite so stunning. You can see the density of it, and its resistance to working efforts translates into tremendous resistance to wear. I reckon that as an acoustic bridge, ebony transmits high treble better than rosewood (usually substituted for economic reasons only), and I have had better results from bridge piezo bugs on ebony than anything else.
African ebony grows to just over ½ metre thick, and isn't quite so heavy at just over 1000 kilos per cubic metre. Some varieties have brown stripes in the black, but it has the same brittle qualities as Sri Lankan that make a hard wood difficult to work without damage.
It's worth noting at this point that whatever may be said about a timber's appearance, it is always the product of an individual living thing that may deviate from the norm quite significantly. For example I once worked on an Ovation ebony fingerboard that was incredibly streaked and figured, pale browny streaks with touches of gold, and very little black at all. It still bloody chipped though.
You won't find this East Indian fig tree in the commercial timber directories, though it has a local commercial significance. Neither is it likely that you'll come across a musical instrument made of it. What goes on under it has commercial significance, and what goes on on its branches affects us.
It is commonly called the Banyan tree, and it gets this name from the Hindi baniya, or merchant, who would operate in the market set up in its shade and among its big aerial roots like supporting pillars.
The female lac or lakh insect deposits on its branches her eggs and a protective resinous coating. Later, the twigs are broken off and dried out in the sun, killing the insects and leaving "stick-lac". This is cleaned up to give "seed-lac", and then further melted down and purified to give "shell-lac", or the basic constituent of spirit varnishes and French polish. Many traditional acoustic guitar makers will swear by spirit varnish, but bow to the practical choice of cellulose, fearing that alcoholic folkies might breath whisky fumes over their beloved creations and dissolve the finish. Perhaps this is merely the contempt of the artisan for the artist, but spirit varnish is a fragile affair, and its rich beauty won't take much gigging abuse.
Shellac can be bought in stick form in different colours as well as the browny-clear natural, and this is used as a filler, melted into the ends of gaps between fret-tang and slot bottom on a freshly fretted guitar, or into the splits and chips lifted out of the fingerboard surface by the removal of worn out frets. These sticks can be bought from suppliers like Stentor (retail outlet Touchstone Tonewoods) and a flake form can be bought from sculptors' suppliers.
Lakh, by the way, is Hindi for a hundred thousand, usually rupees. F is also for Fustic, or Chlorophora Tinctoria, again of the Moraceae family.
This tree used to be an important source of natural water soluble yellow to brown dye. This type of colouring can be useful to a traditional instrument repairer who might have difficulties matching a splint or patch to original timber, mainly in that the colour can be worked to shade and there is no spirit residue left which might react with a finish and cause fish-eyes or failure to cure. The tree is called moral fino in Ecuador, tatajuba in Brazil, and is found in the West Indies and Central America.
Feature by Adrian Legg
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