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Wood Of The Month

Article from Making Music, March 1987


— family Tiliaceae, hardwood.

Also known as American Lime, this wood has had a little attention recently since it appeared in a guitar spec. It occurs on the eastern side of Canada and north America. It is soft, smooth textured, light (somewhere over 400 kilos per square metre) and weak; consequently it is very easy to work or put screws into. It dries with no problems, and its only other connection with music is its use for piano keys. The tree averages around 20 metres high, and 3/4 metres across the trunk. The stuff I've had a chisel to was white, a doddle to cut, but it can go a bit browner.

New Guinea basswood is a local name for Endospermum, family: Euphorbiacease. It is a whitish wood, sometimes yellower than basswood, and very slightly heavier. The grain is more variable and coarser textured, which makes it trickier with cutters and planes — it can get a fluffy feel to it. Both species take glue and paint quite happily, and Jap polyesters have been chucked on basswood liberally without lifting.

Boxwood, European — family: Buxaceae, hardwood.

You can see some of these small trees around Box Hill in Surrey. They grow to a maximum of eight or nine metres and a diameter of about 15 cm. The wood is quite dense at over 900 kilos per square metre, light yellowy coloured, even textured, and has a variable grain. It's half as strong again as oak lengthways, comes in small billets, and needs sharp cutters.

Many woodwind instruments used to be made of it, often stained quite dark, but an occasional tendency to warp badly enough to throw keys out of alignment led to its being dropped in favour of some rosewoods and now the most usual African blackwood. Not ebony, note, which is not resonant, and with which blackwood is sometimes confused, partly due to French makers calling it ebene.

Boxwood is also found in South Africa (known as East London or Cape box), and in the Mediterranean, Asia, and the Far East. These timbers have pretty much the same qualities and colouring as European boxwood, and are just as hard to work. Chessmen are often made of it, as it is a good lathe wood.

African blackwood — family Leguminosae, hardwood.

In Tanzania it's called mpingo, and it is a rosewood species. Its Latin name is Dalbergia melanoxylon. Brazilian rosewood is Dalbergia nigra, and Indian rosewood is Dalbergia latifolia — all three Leguminosae.

The wood is wonderful. My ancient and trusty oboe is made of it, it turns and bores well, and smooths down to a silky, tight-grained surface. It is naturally oily — though not so much as Brazilian rosewood so it will finish up nicely — and this is maintained in a woodwind with regular applications of oil to prevent hairline splits. At the top end of an oboe, these can tip the low register up an octave.

It dries very slowly, and is liable to shakes, or very fine splits within the heartwood. It is not a pure black, rather a very dark brown with black streaks, though older woodwind darken with age and rubbing — I can't find any brown in my oboe now.

I've seen it in fingerboards, but not had to refret one — it has to be easier than ebony, which is notorious for chipping. Like rosewood, it must be drilled before putting screws in. The tree is small, with a main trunk thickness about 20 cm, sometimes bigger. Burma blackwood, Dalbergia cultivate, is less dense and streakier.

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A Classical Style

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Frontline 301 Guitar

Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Mar 1987

Feature by Adrian Legg

Previous article in this issue:

> A Classical Style

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> Frontline 301 Guitar

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