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Wood Of The Month

Article from Making Music, June 1987


Gmelina arborea, family Verbeneceae, hardwood.

Not a tree that has any obvious contemporary association with musical instruments, TRADA nonetheless list this as one of its applications as well as boat decking, doors and panelling, clogs and carving, and light construction.

Much crawling around and climbing in the reference library failed to produce a specific musical example, but Dr. John Brazier at the Princes Risborough Laboratories delved into a 1922 timber book to elicit that it was used for organ pipes and "sounding boards".

Gumhar grows widely throughout India and Burma, though not prolifically, and is especially thin on the ground near Burmese rivers where the local boat-builders have been at it. In good conditions in Burma the tree can grow to 30 metres high and about ¾ metre thick, but it grows less well in India.

The wood is light, about 480 kilos per cubic metre, yellowy-brown, oily-feeling and smooth. During initial drying it shrinks a lot but stays intact, and once this is over it is regarded as very stable with no further shrinkage — hence its old prized status for soundboards. More recent timber directories do not list the musical instrument applications, suggesting that this usage may have become purely local. But, as luthiers and manufacturers turn increasingly to less expected woods, I wouldn't be surprised to see it misspelt in a U.K. catalogue sooner or later. And you could get a lot worse.

Gaboon, Aucoumea klaineana, family — Burseraceae.

This is an African hardwood, sometimes known as gaboon mahogany — totally incorrectly as it is not related. But, given a decent coat of finish, it could look enough like it to satisfy a mass producer of down-market solids who was running low on Lauan or Nato, other mahogany substitutes.

The tree grows big — up to two and a half metres thick — in the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. It is light at 430 kilos to the cubic metre, and consistently pinky-brown, slightly striped when quarter sawn. It is fairly weak, dries easily with few problems, works quite well but can get fluffy. If it is not going to pose nicely for a guitar front, or a mid-to-down market cabinet, or chest of drawers face, then it gets chopped up for blockboard or plywood. Even in the latter event, I suspect it ended up in a few very cheap Les Paul copies.


four species of the Juglandaceae family (which includes Walnut and Pecan) and today is St. Thud's day and there will be no snideys.

The four true hickories are named mockernut (Carya tomentosa), pignut (Carya glabra), shellbark (Carya lacinosa) and shagbark (Carya ovata).

Also sold as hickory are sweet pecan or pecan hickory (Carya illinoensis) and bitter pecan or water hickory (Carya aquatica).

In a drummer's stick case (Carya bag) may be widely varying weights of hickory within the same stick size, and this reflects the heavier true hickory (well over 800 kilos per cubic metre) and the lighter pecan (around 750 kilos per cubic metre) as well as variable growth rates. The tighter the growth rings, the tougher it is.

Hickory and pecan are both much better than ash for bashing things, bending strengths, and shock absorption. If you have not yet tried oak sticks, do so, and you will appreciate this last point as your wrists tingle. Though pecan is the less tough of the two, it is still way ahead of the competition as a striking tool handle, or indeed a golf club shaft.

There is quite a lot of initial drying shrinkage, but very little tendency to warp or twist.

You may hear it called red or white hickory, and this simply concerns the colour of heart and sapwood rather than a difference between species. It all comes from the USA, and the name is shortened from powcohicora, a sort of Virginian hooch made from hickory nuts. This name reflects the original genus classification Hicoria, now reclassified as Carya.

There is an extremely technical way of distinguishing between pecan and true hickory, involving microscopes, parenchyma, pores, and learned diagrams with which we need not bother. Drummers choose sticks by feel, and quite right too.

Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, Betulaceae family, a very hard wood.

It is called charme in France where most commercial growing takes place, but still shows up in England where the natural landscape hasn't been flattened by the agri-biz. It is a stronger timber than oak, and similar in toughness to ash, but has a much higher bending strength and stiffness, and is much more resistant to splitting. The tree can grow over 20 metres tall and to a thickness over 1 metre with a fluted and characteristically elliptical trunk. It weighs in dried at well over 750 kilos to the cubic metre, and is used for piano actions and violin bridges, so you've probably seen its dull white colour with occasional flecks or grey streaks. It is quite difficult to work, but finishes smoothly and will take stain well.

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

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Making Music - Jun 1987

Feature by Adrian Legg

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