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Thread: Atypical top wood?

  1. #1
    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Atypical top wood?

    A lot of tradition goes into Mandolin building it seems. Today I am wondering about top woods that arenít used or perhaps I should say woods generally not used for too wood. I have seen guitars with all kinds of different top woods to include Cherry Black, Walnut, which I found odd and didnít get to hear so O donít know how successful they were.

    What other than normal woods have people used with success as top woods? Other than Spruces, RedWoods and Cedars? Would Cherry work how about something odd like CottonWood which I believe is a soft hardwood and part of the poplar family. How about lindens which I think are also called basswood? Just curious.
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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Traditions are not merely a consequence of blind adherence to older precedents: they tend to exist for perfectly good reasons. The traditional topwood for a mandolin is spruce (there are several varieties to choose among), and to a lesser extent, cedar (again, more than one kind exists) or redwood (ditto). Some luthiers, often seeking to distinguish their instruments from the crowd, are constantly experimenting with other woods, but none of these has become commonplace in the mandolin market. There are many reasons for that. Some softer woods (e.g., fir) tend to be less stable over time, or produce less dependable results. Some hardwoods (e.g. koa) are strong and stable, but they give an undesirable or an un-mandolin-like tone, at least in the ears of most mandolin aficionados.

    You can certainly make a mandolin-shaped instrument out of any number of different kinds of wood (you don't even have to use wood: you can use metal, plastic, or carbon-fiber). But the chances are pretty good that if you depart from using the traditional woods, you will also depart from the traditional sound of a mandolin. Of course, if that is your musical goal, then there's practically no end of possibilities to explore! On the other hand, if you seek to substitute for a traditional top-wood but still achieve a traditional mandolin tone, then that's a MUCH harder task to accomplish. Outside of using spruce, cedar, and (possibly) redwood, I am not personally aware of any instruments that have accomplished that goal. There may be some who claim to have done it. Regardless, any such success remains fairly obscure, and it certainly has not caught on yet in the community that commissions new mandolins from today's luthiers, nor with larger-scale manufacturers.

    Again, the most popular top-woods are considered the "best choice" for good reasons. Besides, there is SO much variation among the spruces alone that you can get an entire range of tonality just from these.



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    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Koa or real mahogany come to mind.. For different, Yew would be very cool, to me anyway. Very straight grain, pretty color, perhaps a little brittle. Hard to find, especially in Mando size, as the trees are small.

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    One practical aspect that sblock did not mention directly is strength to weight ratio. Also, the closely related stiffness to weight ratio. In order for a mandolin top (or any acoustic stringed instrument top) to perform it's functions well it must be strong enough to hold up to string tension and the associated stress and strain on the wood for years, yet it must be light enough to respond to the dynamic forces exerted upon it be the strings when the instrument is played. Spruce, in general, has a very high strength to weight ratio and also a very high stiffness to weight ratio (Of the common spruces, sitka has the highest average strength to weight ratio while red spruce has the highest average stiffness to weight ratio. Emphasis on the word average because individual pieces can very enormously.)
    So, well chosen spruce gives us a material that is simply easier to use to make strong, light, responsive tops than most heavier woods and also most lighter woods. We can carve heavier, stronger woods thinner to approximate the overall weight and stiffness of a spruce top, but as sblock pointed out we are likely to change the sound of the instrument in some way.

    Mahogany has been used for quite a few guitar tops and some mandolin tops. It has favorable strength to weight ratio and stiffness to weight ratio, but as most people can detect, a mahogany topped guitar sound a little different from a spruce topped guitar. Not better or worse, just different. That is what we can expect when experimenting with alternate top woods; a sound that is different. Whether that is better or worse is in the ear of the beholder.

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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Very cool. I was just curious who has tried some of these other woods and how it went. I find it hard to believe no one has tried. Obviously others are not popular or good but people looking at Mandolins are used to the traditional sound and tones so I am sure that drives choices as well. But I can’t help but wonder.
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    Mandolin & Mandola maker
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Apart from the usual Spruce species, Cedar and Redwood, I have tried King Billy Pine from Tasmania which sounds as good or better than any Spruce, Celery Top Pine from Tasmania which gives a more mellow tone, and plantation grown Pinus radiata. The real surprise was the Pinus radiata. When I first put the strings on, it was don't use that again, failure. After a few weeks it was, this is sounding quite nice now. After a few months it was goodness me, this is now sounding as good as any Red Spruce top. I had it back for some fret work about a year ago and it was wow, this is one of the best sounding mandolins I have made. The problem with this wood is finding a piece that is quarter sawn and not too heavy. I sorted through hundreds of pieces to find the piece I ended up using, and have not found another piece like it since.
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Quote Originally Posted by John Bertotti View Post
    Very cool...I find it hard to believe no one has tried...
    One of the things that I have learned in this business is this:
    I you can think of it, someone has almost surely tried it. If you don't know what the results were that's probably because they were not good and so the material, design, procedure or whatever fell by the wayside.
    Things that work, we tend to keep; things that don't work, we tend to discard, and that is, in fact, how a lot of the traditions of instrument building came about. Also, things that don't work seldom make it into our 'history' so we are doomed to repeat them over and over. This is the reason I usually advise new builders to just do what everybody else does, copy a successful design, and innovate from there instead of trying to once again reinvent the wheel.

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  13. #8
    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    That's what I was looking for. So many have tried other stuff but never really documented it. But it wasn't too long ago that people didn't share information as readily as they do now. I still know some who guard some of their techniques and tricks like their lives depended on it. If the market for a product was that competitive I could understand that but I just don't see it that way with woodworking of any sort. Well, I take that back a bit, who is it that can bend almost any wood like it was a soft piece of rubber and get it to maintain that shape? That might be a secret worth guarding for a while.

    Thanks, everyone!
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Paulownia is supposed to work.
    Didn't David Harvey make an all-mango Gibson F-5? Maybe I made that up.

    A huge number of high-end guitar builders use a "double-top" construction. This is basically veneer layers with a center lamination of Nomex honeycomb, which was developed for aerospace, automotive and other applications where extremely high stiffness to weight ratios are needed due to the design's functional requirements.

    The basic panel (say, nomex with carbon fiber reinforced polymer outer panels instead of wood panels) is too bright. Too "good" from a structural standpoint, the stiffness-to-weight ratio and mass is so low that it's just too different from what we expect from a wood instrument. So adding the veneer outer laminations gives some leeway to customize the structure to have the mass, damping properties, anisotropy, all the stuff we expect from wood instruments and that make them sound the way they do.

    So.... If you want to make a double-top instrument with an amboyna burl cosmetic outer layer over a paulownia/nomex/paulownia lay-up, I'm sure it'd sound almost exactly like a mandolin.

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Paulownia does, in fact have a higher stiffness to weight ratio than spruce... and so does balsa. There have been violins made from balsa that are reported to sound very good, but enough different from traditional violins that they have not been successful. Their market rejection is probably also due in part to their appearance... they don't look like "normal" violins. So, wood can be too light and stiff if the goal is a familiar sound and look.

    I've been using Paulownia for internal parts for years (blocks and linings), and if I could make time to build ukuleles I would like to try an all paulownia uke. It would be feather-light, relatively normal looking, I think it would be strong enough, and it might sound pretty good.

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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Don’t get me started on Mango! I have a Martin 000-18GE I love but am seriously gassing for the new Martin CEO in Mango!
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Didn't David Harvey make an all-mango Gibson F-5?
    Would that be a mangolin?

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  22. #13

    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    There is a reason cottonwood works well as firewood... It burns hot. And even then, be careful - it tends to spit out a lot of sparks.

    It's a splintery wood that seldom dries without checking or splitting, and is a colossal pain to sand - it just keeps furring up.

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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Yea that has been my experience splitting it. Watched it twist a three-point mount into a pretzel and the PTO kept running the darn thing was just big enough to spin lift the back of the tractor up and move it a couple of inches with each revolution. I was in tears laughing so hard! It would burn a bit fast but heated up the house well.
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    Jo Dusepo, luthier Dusepo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Paulownia is the traditional soundboard material for the Chinese gu zheng, so it certainly is a feasible soundboard wood for any other instrument.

    Various species of Pine and Fir are good alternative soundboard woods. I've also seen Meranti, Mulberry, Cherry and many others used. Mulberry is traditional on many central Asian, Iranian and Kurdish instruments such as the Dutar, Tanbur etc..

    Essentially anything with the right stiffness to weight ratio works well. Try the filters on https://www.wood-database.com/ .
    I am a luthier specialising in historical and world stringed instruments. You can see more info at my website.

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  27. #16
    Jo Dusepo, luthier Dusepo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Quote Originally Posted by John Bertotti View Post
    How about lindens which I think are also called basswood? Just curious.
    My understanding is that Linden usually refers to European Limewood (not the fruit tree), but in the USA can also be used to refer to Basswood, which has much the same soft carvable properties as Limewood.
    I am a luthier specialising in historical and world stringed instruments. You can see more info at my website.

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    Jo Dusepo, luthier Dusepo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Can't edit my above post anymore, but here's a good example of a Mulberry soundboard (this is on a an Iranian setar):
    I am a luthier specialising in historical and world stringed instruments. You can see more info at my website.

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  31. #18
    Registered User Simon DS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Sweet, but, ĎOh No! Now I want!í

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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    Would that be a mangolin?

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    Mango only pawn in game of life...

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  34. #20
    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    Quote Originally Posted by Dusepo View Post
    My understanding is that Linden usually refers to European Limewood (not the fruit tree), but in the USA can also be used to refer to Basswood, which has much the same soft carvable properties as Limewood.
    AFAIK, linden basswood and lime all refer to the same species of Tilia. in EU it's mostly Tilia cordata, in US Tilia americana. Soft easy to carve wood, favored by woodcarvers.
    Adrian

  35. #21
    Maurice McMurry
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    The woods known to be the best are the best. I have some boxelder. It has some Pop and Ring. It is very light. It is not strong. I will try it on a music box or wind chime.

  36. #22
    Registered User urobouros's Avatar
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    I had a Paulownia telecaster that was too light. It had the tele tone but didn't feel right. I'd be curious to hear it in an acoustic setting though.

  37. #23
    Maurice McMurry
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    Default Re: Atypical top wood?

    I thought I might try Eastern Red Cedar some day. A contributor to the forum uses it.

    https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/t...tern-red-cedar

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