Substitutes for rosewoods

Construction and repair of Classical Guitar and related instruments
User avatar
zavaletas
Posts: 187
Joined: Sat May 19, 2007 9:51 pm
Location: Tucson

Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by zavaletas » Tue Sep 26, 2017 10:59 pm

While Brazilian has been listed on Appendix I since 1992, as of January 2nd 2017 all dalbergia species of rosewood are now listed in Appendix II, and require CITES permits to import or export. Wanting to avoid all the hassles of CITES importing and exporting permits-- or the problems traveling abroad with such instruments, many people are interested in guitars made with alternative woods. The good news is that there are lots of alternatives, the downside is that only a few-- like maple--are well known. I would be interested in hearing about your experiences with these other woods; and, as weight is a factor in bridges, other than ebony (as there is another thread on ebony vs rosewood bridges) what other woods have you tried, and the results?

James

Zavaletas La Casa de Guitarras
James, Zavaleta's La Casa de Guitarras

lux
Posts: 20
Joined: Tue Sep 19, 2017 6:33 am
Location: Medford, Oregon USA

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by lux » Tue Sep 26, 2017 11:50 pm

It seems to me there are two separately implied questions here:

1. What are some of the woods that make for good-sounding backs and sides, generally speaking? This question implicitly acknowledges that there are different ways for a guitar to "sound good." Historically, there have been three traditional reference woods for backs and sides: hard maples, mahogany (Cuban and Honduran), and rosewoods (members of the genus Dalbergia, which may or may not have "rosewood" as part of the common name). The sound conferred by other tone woods are typically compared to these three reference genera.

2. What are some other heavy, resinous woods that will compare to the sonic characteristics of rosewood specifically? This question implicitly excludes good-sounding tone woods like sapele or California laurel because they invite comparison to the mahogany or maple vertices of the reference-wood triangle. Almost any of the likely tropical substitutes for rosewoods will provide at most another decade or so of supply before they, too, become overharvested and restricted.

As for fretboards and bridges, I suspect that Katalox (Swartzia cubensis) is the sleeper that will become the wood of the future for those components. A lot of us would like to use locally-sourced wood as much as possible. In temperate areas, though, there are few woods that are suitable for fretboards and bridges that are both hard enough and stable enough.

User avatar
James Lister
Luthier
Posts: 7081
Joined: Fri Nov 17, 2006 3:53 pm
Location: Sheffield, UK

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by James Lister » Wed Sep 27, 2017 3:59 pm

I've mostly used either maple or walnut for backs and sides on my non-tropical guitars, but there really are so many options that it isn't a problem in terms either of supply or of tonal quality. The only problem is convincing players that the difference in tone between a guitar with rosewood back and sides and one with non-tropical woods is too small for most players (and listeners) to distinguish in blind tests. Walnut has a slight advantage in being dark in colour, and

Bridges, necks and fingerboards are more of an issue IMO, but certainly not insurmountable. For fingerboards I've used bog oak (which is non-tropical, but not sustainable, so not a long term solution), and Rocklite (a sustainable wood-based product) and been happy with the results with both. Necks are only really an issue if you're concerned about weight - I've used both maple and walnut successfully, and most players don't notice or mind the slightly heavier neck (so far only one player has commented on it).

I used walnut for bridges on my first non-tropical guitars, but they were a bit too light, and although there was no obvious loss of sustain, I was concerned enough to look for alternatives. I now use either laburnum, which has a similar density to Indian rosewood, or I add mass to the tie-block on walnut bridges by using brass sleeves in the string holes (which have the added advantage of reinforcing the holes, which can wear prematurely with softer hardwood bridges).

James
James Lister, luthier, Sheffield UK

Alan Carruth
Luthier
Posts: 2624
Joined: Mon Dec 24, 2007 6:56 pm

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by Alan Carruth » Wed Sep 27, 2017 4:51 pm

The easy way to start in finding reasonable substitutes is to look for other woods with similar mechanical/acoustical properties. Rosewoods are generally distinguished by relatively low damping, high density, high surface hardness, and good stiffness along the grain, so if you're looking for a rosewood substitute that's the suite of traits to pay attention to. This assumes, of course, that the properties that have the most effect on the way the wood vibrates also have the most effect on the sound. This is not a slam-dunk: we can hear some pretty subtle things, and there's always the possibility that some harder to measure property, like the Poisson's ratio, is important. These are physical objects, so the laws of physics should cover anything we need to know: I don't believe in leprechauns.

Anyway, there are a number of woods that are 'local' to me (the USA) that fill the bill. I've spoken of these before on this list, and others, but I'll risk sounding like a broken record anyway.

The samples I've tested of Osage Orange, Maclura pomifera, have been practically drop-in replacements for BRW. It's a common enough tree these days, and is mostly used for fence posts, which are reputed to outlast the holes they're in. It can be challenging to work with hand tools, but the bigger issue is the color, which is very bright orange when fresh. It darkens to an interesting brown over time, but finish really slows that. I have recently had some luck in fuming it with ammonia, which darkens the wood without seeming to otherwise change the properties.

Black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia L., makes a good substitute for Indian rosewood. The pieces I've tested have been somewhat lower in both density and damping than most IRW. It can look very similar to Cypress, but has the rosewood timbre, so the guitar will tend to be a 'Classica Blanca'. It also darkens quite a lot when fumed with ammonia, ending up close to mahogany in value, if not hue. This is also practically a weed where it grows, and a wood that makes very good fence posts.

Oak (Quercus species) tend to have the density, hardness, and stiffness of rosewoods, with higher damping. They bend notably well, as a rule, and I've had good results with all the oak guitars I've made in terms of sound.

There are a number of species I've been wanting to try, but have not as yet. One is Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata. I recently got some that was well quartered but have not had a chance to measure or work with it yet. If density and stiffness are important, it should be one of the best.

Although there are a number of North American woods that are hard and dense enough for fingerboards, few of them are commonly available and even fewer are black.

Common Persimmon Diosporos virginiana is a member of the ebony family, and is sometimes black is streaks, but usually white to grey-brown. It's similar to Macassar ebony in properties, and is fairly wide spread. Texas Persimmon, D. texana, is more restricted in range, and the trees are smaller, but is said to be black.

I've gotten a few samples of 'Soft Shell Almond' that were fairly dark, and very tight grained and hard. Those of you in California might well be able to turn some up. Other 'ironwoods', such as American hornbeam Ostyra virginiana tend to be light brown or cream color, and must be stained or dyed to work well as a fingerboard.

As James hints, bridge material is less constrained in many respects, and it's not too hard to find substitutes if you try.

The biggest issue with all of this is the fact that people listen so much with their eyes. As the 'Leonardo Project' has been demonstrating, when people can't see the guitars they have a lot of trouble telling the difference between woods that are actually much different in properties, such as IRW and walnut. I have found American Black Walnut Juglans nigra to have properties very similar to those of soft maples, such as European maple Acer pseudoplatanus, but walnut guitars are usually said to sound 'dark', while maple sounds 'bright'. I'd love to do some blind tests of that one!

IMO, the biggest physical problem with finding substitute wood is fingerboards, and that may be solvable with some sort of dying process. In terms of B&S woods, the issues are mainly cultural, I think. As such they will probably never be overcome: people will sing the praises of BRW long after the last Dalbergia nigra has been cut down and converted into a too-expensive guitar. Everything else will be grudgingly accepted although it may eventually happen that some folks will learn to appreciate it anyway.

Paul Micheletti
Amateur luthier
Posts: 489
Joined: Sat Jan 16, 2010 12:48 am
Location: San Diego, CA

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by Paul Micheletti » Wed Sep 27, 2017 5:39 pm

Hi James, I picked up a couple of Rocklite fingerboard blanks from the LMI booth at GAL this year. It has a nice ringtone and a good wood feel. But would it be possible to sell a classical guitar with a wood composite fingerboard? I have doubts of my salesmanship to cross that hurdle if it becomes a sticking point. The sad part is that Rocklite is even MORE expensive that Ebony. I do hope the price drops as it gains popularity.

Dave M
Posts: 205
Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2014 1:39 pm
Location: Somerset UK

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by Dave M » Wed Sep 27, 2017 8:11 pm

Alan I don't think this is broken record territory. The points you make about the quality of timber other than the Rosewoods for back and sides needs to be made again and again.
The prejudices need to be fought against. And at least let us guitar makers not continue to support the untruths that players are bombarded with by retailers and others.
Dave

lux
Posts: 20
Joined: Tue Sep 19, 2017 6:33 am
Location: Medford, Oregon USA

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by lux » Wed Sep 27, 2017 9:38 pm

Paul Micheletti wrote:
Wed Sep 27, 2017 5:39 pm
The sad part is that Rocklite is even MORE expensive that Ebony. I do hope the price drops as it gains popularity.
That's going to be the issue with just about all of the likely substitutes for tropical hardwoods. They may be local or made of composites, but they won't be cheaper. The only U.S. wood that naturally darkens to a near-black is Texas ebony (Ebenopsis ebano, not a real ebony, but a plausible substittute). It's right in between Ceylon ebony and Gabon ebony in hardness and seems to be relatively stable with simple air drying. Many other temperate contenders, like mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) require months of alternating soakings, steam baths or pressurized processes to produce a stable fingerboard blank -- a 3" x 5/16" x 20" piece is a "big board" in the relative scope of the mature caliper of these smaller sub-trees. So Texas ebony may be the best prospect for the traditionalists, but it's going to cost more than real ebony...unless you live in southern Texas and can source it locally. Whether exotic or domestic, much of the cost of fingerboard and bridge blanks comes from shipping. Finding something you can source locally would be a real boon for those who yearn to build with an all-regional woods ethic.

User avatar
joachim33
Posts: 205
Joined: Thu Feb 16, 2017 8:21 pm
Location: Skåne

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by joachim33 » Wed Sep 27, 2017 10:06 pm

Many electric guitars have "blond" finger boards. Any on got a clue what kind of wood is used for this?

powderedtoastman
Posts: 274
Joined: Sat Feb 20, 2016 1:15 am
Location: Sunnyvale, CA

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by powderedtoastman » Wed Sep 27, 2017 10:22 pm

joachim33 wrote:
Wed Sep 27, 2017 10:06 pm
Many electric guitars have "blond" finger boards. Any on got a clue what kind of wood is used for this?
Maple for sure!
In my electric guitar days I strongly preferred maple fingerboards, especially with a lacquer finish.
Electric guitar people believe the maple fingerboard to produce a brighter tone, though.. I'm not sure if I really buy it.
I've seen some steel string acoustics with maple fingerboards but they are very rare. I don't think I've ever seen a classical guitar with one... the "traditional" crowd might not like it. But you could "ebonize" it by just painting it. In fact in the 19th century, necks were often painted black, and I believe I've read that fingerboards got that kind of treatment!

On some 19th century guitars with flush fingerboards, you can see the spruce soundboard extending to about the 9th fret, and the upper frets are installed into the spruce.. so heck maybe we could use spruce for fingerboards, but that could be a waste of good wood that we need for our soundboards.

lux
Posts: 20
Joined: Tue Sep 19, 2017 6:33 am
Location: Medford, Oregon USA

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by lux » Wed Sep 27, 2017 10:40 pm

Fingerboard wear is less of an issue with electric guitars since the fret will stop the string without pressing it all the way down to the wood and most electric guitarists learn to play with a rather light touch.
I think a Janka hardness rating of 2000 lbs. of force is the low threshold for most builders of quality instruments that are going to have a design life exceeding 30 years of steady playing. Texas ebony, honey mesquite, Osage orange, and mountain mahogany are all U.S. woods beyond that threshold. Untreated rock maple is rated in the 1400-1500 lb. range. That's a bit too soft for a classical guitar, IMO. It can be treated to make it harder, but I don't know what the data would show. East Indian rosewood is around 2500 and ebonies range from around 2600 to 3000.

mqbernardo
Posts: 724
Joined: Wed Jun 29, 2011 9:30 pm

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by mqbernardo » Wed Sep 27, 2017 11:05 pm

James Lister wrote:
Wed Sep 27, 2017 3:59 pm
I used walnut for bridges on my first non-tropical guitars, but they were a bit too light, and although there was no obvious loss of sustain, I was concerned enough to look for alternatives. I now use either laburnum, which has a similar density to Indian rosewood
what about laburnum for the fingerboard? i have a few blanks i intend to use. i realise its not a big tree so probably not a reliable source of fretboard material but its darker than most european woods and seems to be hard enough. do you notice any adverse effects when you work it?
Alan Carruth wrote:
Wed Sep 27, 2017 4:51 pm
Black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia L., makes a good substitute for Indian rosewood. The pieces I've tested have been somewhat lower in both density and damping than most IRW. It can look very similar to Cypress, but has the rosewood timbre, so the guitar will tend to be a 'Classica Blanca'. It also darkens quite a lot when fumed with ammonia, ending up close to mahogany in value, if not hue. This is also practically a weed where it grows, and a wood that makes very good fence posts.
This is a wood that intrigues me. I´d surely love to try it, its planted everywhere and seems to grow tall and straight. Plenty strong and hard too.

Holm oak is a beautiful wood and could be used for fingerboards. Hard, strong, dark with interesting figure. Unfortunately its not easy to find straight in fingerboard lengths. Folks say its difficult to dry, but it´s stable once it gets there. Plenty of it around here, so thats a plus.

iim7V7IM7
Posts: 151
Joined: Fri Jun 13, 2014 10:41 pm

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by iim7V7IM7 » Wed Sep 27, 2017 11:18 pm

For fingerboards...

---Name(s)---------------Density (lb ft/^3)-----Hardness (lbf)-----Stiffness (lbf/in^2)---
-----Ipe-------------------------69-----------------3,510--------------------3,200,000---
-----Pau Santo------------------70-----------------3,280-------------------2,588,000---
-----Pau Rosa-------------------64-----------------2,940--------------------2,480,000---
-----Machiche-------------------55-----------------2,700--------------------2,745,000---
-----Macacauba-----------------59-----------------2,700--------------------2,837,000---
-----Jatoba----------------------57-----------------2,690--------------------2,745,000---
-----Santos Mahogany-----------57-----------------2,400-------------------2,380,000---
2015 - John Buscarino, 650 mm, Carpathian Spruce/Honduran Rosewood
2014 - Peter Oberg, 640 mm, Western Red Cedar/Black Cherry

lux
Posts: 20
Joined: Tue Sep 19, 2017 6:33 am
Location: Medford, Oregon USA

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by lux » Wed Sep 27, 2017 11:51 pm

mqbernardo wrote:
Wed Sep 27, 2017 11:05 pm
Alan Carruth wrote:
Wed Sep 27, 2017 4:51 pm
Black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia L., makes a good substitute for Indian rosewood. The pieces I've tested have been somewhat lower in both density and damping than most IRW. It can look very similar to Cypress, but has the rosewood timbre, so the guitar will tend to be a 'Classica Blanca'. It also darkens quite a lot when fumed with ammonia, ending up close to mahogany in value, if not hue. This is also practically a weed where it grows, and a wood that makes very good fence posts.
This is a wood that intrigues me. I´d surely love to try it, its planted everywhere and seems to grow tall and straight. Plenty strong and hard too.
Black locust is a little harder than maple (about 1700 lbs.). It has a long history of use as fence posts where it has a reputation for "eating" nails and staples over a period of years. The high tannin content and alkaline pH reaction of the wood are favorable to the formation of iron-tannate precipitates on certain metals (a kind of corrosion). As long as you use stainless steel fretwire you should be okay. I don't think I would use nickel/silver fretwire on a black locust fingerboard, though -- the wood's pH is too high. The chemical reactivity potential of wood with metals is one of those minor issues we rarely think about.

mqbernardo
Posts: 724
Joined: Wed Jun 29, 2011 9:30 pm

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by mqbernardo » Thu Sep 28, 2017 12:08 am

Thanks for the reply. I see I wasn't clear - I'm curious to try locust as backs and sides. Didn't occur to use it as fingerboard (well, I can't find it anywhere so I won't be using it period!) - but you do raise a valid and interesting point. I suspect that with fence posts, being exposed to rain, the high humidity helps with the nail "diet".

printer2
Posts: 300
Joined: Sat May 02, 2015 9:20 pm
Location: Winnipeg

Re: Substitutes for rosewoods

Post by printer2 » Thu Sep 28, 2017 1:38 am

I have used spruce for necks, too soft for fretboards. I have used oak for fretboards and have not had any issues with it. My latest one I have a little bit of live edge which can be placed on the treble side to brighten up the sound. (joke)
Fred

Return to “Luthiers”