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Using common, non tropical hardwoods
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Author:  PB+J [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 6:24 am ]
Post subject:  Using common, non tropical hardwoods

I see a lot of whistles and flutes made from tropical hardwoods. It’s obvious why—they are typically very hard, dense, and beautifully colored.

I’ve done a lot of luthiery and have built several dozen guitars. Over time I got tired of seeing many the tropical woods used in guitar making—mahogany, rosewood, ebony—get more rare and more expensive, and then watched over the last twenty years as the same process was repeated with alternative tropical hardwoods. I switched all my building to native hardwoods. Here in North America cherry, maple and walnut and oak are common and they are all useable for instruments. There are some nice composite materials available.

Is there a similar move among flutes and whistle makers to switch away from tropical hardwoods? The power of tradition is strong and yes tropical hardwoods are exotic and beautiful, but sustainability...

PS yes it is of course true that demand for wooden flutes in D is not the driver of scarcity

Author:  fatmac [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 10:03 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

Can't say about what woods are used for flute making, only what I read here, but it usually boils down to tradition, if an oak/walnut flute can sound as good as a 'blackwood', then I would expect to see people buy them.

I believe non wood alternatives are the way to go, personally, as long as they sound good, & the bonus, of course, is ease of care.

Author:  Mr.Gumby [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 10:25 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

Plenty of experimentation going on with Australian hardwoods, among other things, Gidgee and things like that. Some pipemakers use Mountain Mahogany to good effect (but as one told me, 'it's not quite as nice as ebony'). I have seen fruit wood (pear, cherry) chanters , but more often than not as a practice set option and both (stained, often) have been used for baroque flutes etc.. Chris Langan, living in Canada, turned out the odd maple chanter.

One man I knew had turned a flute from bog oak and that seemed to work for him, but apart from that oak would be wholly unsuitable for wind instruments

Author:  Kade1301 [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 12:32 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

I strongly suspect that oak, chestnut and walnut are not usable for some reason (too difficult to work?) because I've never seen them used for recorders. Cherry, on the other hand, is a very popular recorder wood, as are plum, pear and maple (the latter two often impregnated with paraffin). I just recently fell seriously in love with a recorder in banded maple of the most beautiful golden colour - but unfortunately I don't need a Ganassi alto in G :(

Author:  DrPhill [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 12:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

This may be of interest.

Author:  Nanohedron [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 12:56 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

PB+J wrote:
Is there a similar move among flutes and whistle makers to switch away from tropical hardwoods? The power of tradition is strong and yes tropical hardwoods are exotic and beautiful, but sustainability...

If hardness and density alone were enough, I'm convinced exotic hardwoods would never have risen to their present ascendancy in woodwind construction. Stringed instruments, drums, and dry-blown instruments like the uilleann pipes don't have the added burden of breath moisture to directly affect them. The salient point about exotic hardwoods for flutes or whistles is actually not the looks, or only the density, but the oily, highly resinous character of those woods, which makes them comparatively highly resistant to moisture absorption and desorption, and for a breath-operated instrument like a flute or whistle that stability is a huge, huge plus. That's why ebony never lasted long as a flutewood of choice: it's handsome, sure, but it's not resinous, and ebony flutes were notorious for cracking. With uilleann pipes, ebony doesn't present that problem because the UPs are dry-blown.

As you say, in the northern climes there are functionally suitable woods for woodwinds: among flutes, most notably box, and for recorders, traditionally fruitwoods such as pear. But as with almost all northern hardwoods, they aren't resinous, and this is key. I can't speak to others' practical experiences (beyond simple issues of tone, etc.) with those woods, but I can tell you of my own experience with dogwood, a highly suitable tonewood for flutes. Dogwood is hard as nails - I dropped my dogwood flute endcap-first onto a tile floor and it suffered not so much as a nick! - and it's so dense as to hardly show any grain pattern at all. Sounds perfect, doesn't it. Tone and response-wise, it is. BUT: the wood not being resinous, that flute absorbed moisture so fast and so much that I had to wrap the tenons to fit wobbly-loose in the sockets because of the swelling to come, otherwise at the end of playing I couldn't get the instrument apart, and I had a few scary moments with that at the first. Mind you, this was still despite the flute having been pressure-treated with linseed oil, and me oiling it every day. It drank up oil like a fish, but still it absorbed and desorbed moisture like nobody's business, and this also showed in subtle, temporary changes to the embouchure cut's profile if you looked closely. Also note that for all the talk of oiling one's blackwood flutes, really the blackwood doesn't need it in the long term; it just needs to be kept properly humidified. Thanks to its highly resinous character it absorbs and desorbs so slowly that you wouldn't notice it. Totally different story with the dogwood: in comparison, that was like wild mood swings right in front of your eyes. It was for that alone that I was never quite happy with the instrument.

If non-resinous hardwoods are to be used for serious working flutes and whistles, to me it's an article of faith that you have to address the issue of absorption, and that means paraffin impregnation or something on the order of lacquer coating. You can't get away from it if you want stability.

I really don't think oaks would suit transverse flutes because, for all their strength, oak grain is coarse. But I'm thinking in terms of the embouchure cut, and just guessing as to whether that would make a difference. I'm pretty sure maple, particularly rock maple, would be better. Another drawback of dogwood is sourcing: it's extremely slow-growing; the trees are small, so optimal pieces have to be sought, and there's not a lot of it around relative to its growth rate, so it could become endangered, too, if clamored after. If naturally resinous wood were all that were needed, certain pines would do, but of course they're too soft and unsuitable for serious instruments.

In sum, exotic hardwoods are not the prestige choice just for their looks.

Author:  DrPhill [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 1:39 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

Has anyone tried cormel? I am working some into a walking stick at the present, but the pieces are not thick enough for a whistle. The trunk would be, but it is not going to be sacrificed any time soon.

Cormel is very hard, very dense, and seems quite stable. It does absorb a small amount of real turpentine (I wash the timber down after carving).

[Edit: spelling!]

Author:  Peter Duggan [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 2:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

Kade1301 wrote:
I strongly suspect that oak, chestnut and walnut are not usable for some reason (too difficult to work?) because I've never seen them used for recorders.

Nanohedron wrote:
I really don't think oaks would suit flutes because, for all their strength, oak grain is coarse. But I'm just guessing as to whether that would make a difference.

When I was 18, I tried an oak treble (alto) recorder by Herbert Paetzold, but didn't buy it because it was poor, quiet and thin-toned. I've still (36 years later) got the blackwood Paetzold I bought that day, although that wasn't great either till I made a new block for it as a post-grad recorder student in the Hague, but I'd stubbornly set my heart on a Paetzold (for reputation and things I'd read about it) over a number of other good instruments I also tried. So, yes, it's been done, and IIRC oak was a regular option for Paetzolds, but perhaps that was as much the eager experimenter in him (you've seen those plywood square-section super basses?) as a practical consideration...

Native non-tropical hardwoods and fruitwoods that may be ill-suited to wet-blown woodwinds are, however, sometimes excellent for dry-blown instruments like bellows pipes. I love my laburnum smallpipes from Lochalsh Pipes, and Julian Goodacre's another maker who specialises in native woods.

Author:  Nanohedron [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 3:22 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

DrPhill wrote:
Has anyone tried cormel?

The Bulgarians, at least, have. Here's a Bulgarian kaval made of cornel:

Image

From the gist of the website, it looks like that's one of the standard woods to choose from. They also use oak, if the maker thinks it's suitable for the instrument in question. I note, though, that the mouthpiece here is of a different material entirely; either plastic or horn, according to the website.

Author:  awildman [ Sat Jun 09, 2018 5:46 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

I like Geoffrey Ellis' use of resin impregnation. This allows one to use wood that would otherwise not be ideal. I believe it also increases the density of the wood to be more similar to the more traditional woods. It's an added bonus that maple and similar have beautiful color and figure not available elsewhere.

I imagine something like Reviol's Castbore process would similarly assist in overcoming moisture issues and allow for more alternative woods. Plus the light wood against dark resin has a nice visual contrast

As for whether the market will take a drastic shift towards alternative solutions.....probably not for a decade or two (or even longer) until the CITES approved wood starts to run low. And probably not even then as some sort of unrestricted tropical wood or woods will fill the void.

For drier instruments like pipes, there are still many viable alternatives that aren't restricted, like Katalox and the other varieties mentioned above. Probably won't be seeing much local wood there for awhile.

Of course, if alternative woods meant a huge price drop, it might be a different story. Unfortunately, most of the cost is in labor. Dropping the cost on a $8000 set of pipes to $7800 isn't enough to sway the market.

Author:  Kade1301 [ Sun Jun 10, 2018 1:18 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

Peter Duggan wrote:
... (you've seen those plywood square-section super basses?)...



Yes, and they are one experiment that has worked out alright (Paetzold plywood basses are everywhere - look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bfvx5my5qo) - contrary to oak recorders, which have disappeared from the market. "Paetzold's" (Kunath Instrumentebau has taken over the range) latest project is a square-section tenor with the most amazing sound (it carries in a full exhibition hall). So far I've only heard and played the second prototype, but if the series production fulfills its promise, I'll want one! ("Handsome is as handsome does")

Author:  DrPhill [ Sun Jun 10, 2018 2:06 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

Nanohedron wrote:
DrPhill wrote:
Has anyone tried cormel?

The Bulgarians, at least, have. Here's a Bulgarian kaval made of cornel:
.....
From the gist of the website, it looks like that's one of the standard woods to choose from. They also use oak, if the maker thinks it's suitable for the instrument in question. I note, though, that the mouthpiece here is of a different material entirely; either plastic or horn, according to the website.

Interesting, thanks. I had not heard of a kaval, so I listened to some on YT. (Wikipedia lists cormel as a standard timber for kaval).

Author:  PB+J [ Sun Jun 10, 2018 5:11 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

I assume you could use epoxy or maybe super glue to seal the inside of a wooden flute or whistle. I've done some experiments with super glue as a finish, and it works well although the fumes are dangerous. I have a small wood lathe and have turned a lot of bodhran sticks and you can get a hard, very glossy finish very quickly (like under five minutes) with super glue, spray catalyzer and a little wet sanding. But it's obvious why anyone would prefer working with wood that doesn't require that kind of treatment

No doubt there would be other issues, like how much the wood moves with changes in ambient temperature and humidity.

It looks like there's not a lot of experimentation being done with temperate-region hardwoods?

I've made a bunch of guitar fretboards out of "richlite," which is layers of paper in phenolic resin. I think it makes a good substitute for ebony. There's a material called "rocklite" that gets good reviews from luthiers https://www.rocklite.co.uk/

Author:  chas [ Sun Jun 10, 2018 11:13 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

I've used locally sourced (i. e., either from my yard or yards of friends) dogwood, cherry, and plum for whistles. I love working with Osage orange (there's an Argentine wood marketed as Osage, but I prefer the US stuff). I also made a whistle out of some mesquite someone sent me. These are all less dense and less oily than most rosewoods, so they absorb more breath when they're played. Some are not as dimensionally stable with moisture, so they swell. I've figured out most of those, so seal them.

Ralph Sweet worked in maple, walnut, and apple, all of which he treated heavily with tung oil.

Of course, there's European boxwood, plum, and pear (I just found a source for Swiss pear, which I'll order soon), all of which are common woods for recorders. I've also seen cornel (I've seen it called cornelian cherry) instruments.

Osage orange trees get really big, but I don't remember seeing, say, guitar sets for sale. Maybe it doesn't bend well. But it's beautiful stuff, inexpensive, turns nicely (dulls tools pretty fast) and AFAICT is quite stable. It's used for fence posts due to its durability, and I measure the density at around 0.8-0.9. Doesn't finish as well as some tighter-grained and more oily woods, but I still love working with it.

Author:  Nanohedron [ Sun Jun 10, 2018 11:34 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Using common, non tropical hardwoods

PB+J wrote:
It looks like there's not a lot of experimentation being done with temperate-region hardwoods?

I'm not sure exactly what you mean, because flutewise, at least, that would be covering mostly old ground. I think it's safe to assume that working with local materials could hardly be a new idea, and by multiple centuries. Flute makers would have worked with and depended on local materials from the beginning, and the qualities of those materials, and which are the best to use, would be well known (at least to those who are paying attention). Then one day someone gets ahold of a new, previously unknown (or at least previously not utilized) imported wood such as African blackwood, notes that its long-term qualities far outstrip maple, for instance, and with that the game changes. And here we are.

Now if you mean using temperate hardwoods as a substrate to apply modern polymers or the like in various fashions, I couldn't tell you what the prevailing winds (if you will) are. There's always someone somewhere trying to build a better mousetrap. Once we get to the point of introducing polymers, though, I begin to doubt the functional wisdom of continuing with wood at all; might as well cash it in and just go with Delrin or the like, to my thinking. It makes a case for investigating eco-friendly resins.

Oh, and don't confuse ebony with blackwood. For woodwinds, they're not equivalent at all. Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) is resinous. Ebony (Diospyros spp.) is not.

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