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The Use Of Australian Timbers In Musical Instrument Making


Australian Blackwood

As a violin maker, one seems to be constantly reminded, by people who can hardly be expected to know beyond argument, that Australian Timbers are unsuitable for the work of the luthier.

This is, simply, not true!

What, of course, is true, is that Australia had not been discovered until after the Golden Age of violin making was past. Therefore, the early makers did not have the opportunity to assess for themselves, the truth or otherwise of the suitability of our timbers. But who, now, can say, what their judgements may have been?

I am persuaded to think that they would have been both interested and excited by the possibilities of Australian timbers, to have their resource stocks considerably expanded, and naturally, to attempt their hand at achieving a success with something different.

Assuming that all appropriate species were made available to them, they would, never the less, have to be selective over their choices, and then having completed an instrument, would have assessed and discovered for themselves the mysteries of Australian timbers.

Ringed Gidgee

To establish a 21st century concept of the viability of using Australian timbers, one surely has to understand the fundamentals of how best to make an instrument produce the expected responses, and indeed, to comprehend, precisely, just what those responses should be. All this, of course, assumes that the maker has the hand skills, and knowledge of the craft to execute the task in three dimensions. Still to be completed is the fitting up of the bridge and soundpost, a choice of string type and the fitting of the pegs. Along the entire pathway to completion there are pitfalls for all but the most knowledgeable and skilled and intuitive such that it is small wonder that success so often appears elusive. Then, once success has been achieved, another attempt has to be entertained immediately, just to prove to yourself that your first attempt was not, simply, a fluke. It is ironic that the last choice to be made, that of the strings, can shatter the illusion of anticipated success; but, as it is abundantly clear that without any strings there would bo no sound at all, then clearly the choice of appropriate strings is vital. Finally comes the choice of an appropriate bow and the quality of the hair it contains; no bow, no singing violin sound, and by extension, you should hardly expect a first rate sound from a second rate bow.

Clearly, all the above aspects are surmountable else why should we proceed, but we may perhaps bear in mind that many a maker using Australian timbers, successfully, can just as successfully produce an instrument using traditional European timbers, whilst it has to be said that the reverse is not necessarily true.

Let us then consider some Australian timbers available to us for the various parts of the violin family:

Back and Ribs, Neck and Scroll.

Acacia melanoxylon, ‘Blackwood’. Close grained Tasmanian Blackwood is often highly figured (fiddleback) and is of similar air dried density to traditional Maple. It is unquestionably a sufficiently strong timber for the task and is of great natural colour, which pays big dividends when finely polished, producing an almost three dimensional glow, of great warmth.

Nothofagus cunninghamii, ‘Myrtle’. Surely a close second to Blackwood and some finds can only be described as spectacular. Often found with a grain structure commonly known as ‘quilting’ or ‘curl’, it is particularly suitable for cellos, basses and guitars. Very rarely, it a tree is found with a dynamic black fungal striping which earned it the title of ‘Tiger Myrtle’; the striping is caused by a fungal attack which has not been shown to cause any deterioration in the, more than adequate, strength of the timber.

Australian Myrtle

The Belly.

Athrotaxis selaginoides, ‘King William Pine’.

This Pine is more properly part of the Spruce family but the name was given to it by the early settlers who were doubtless influenced by the presence of pine cones; it should be reclassified! Fossilised King William Pine has been discovered in South America at a more southern latitude than Tasmania, suggesting that there was originally but one growth region but that some died out due to tectonic plate movement. Now its growth is restricted to Tasmania. In the early 1940’s, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation CSIRO received a request from Britain to evaluate King William Pine for the purposes of making component parts for the deHaviland Mosquito fighter bomber, as supplies of Spruce from North America were under constant threat from U-boat attack. Rigourous tests were undertaken and comparisons were made with traditional and Sitka Spruce. King William Pine faired equally well. As far as is known no Mosquitos were ever constructed using King William Pine but that is another story.

King William Pine

King William Pine is a superior tone wood and its pinky brown colour matches well in its natural state with selected back and ribs. It should perhaps be not too thin - neither should Spruce for that matter-and one should allow some little time for ‘playing in’.




The Pegs.

Rhodosphaera rhodanthema, ‘Tulip Satinwood’.

Tulip Satinwood is the material of choice for the pegs. It is fine grained, takes a superior finish and retains a smooth almost waxed feel in the peg box. It
is interesting to record that Stradivarius chose not to use Ebony or Rosewood pegs but preferred Pear or Box, as the denser timbers wore out the pegbox that much more quickly. Presumably he preferred to discard a disposable peg than have to carryout a peg box bushing. Why do musicians continue to demand Ebony or Rosewood pegs?

The Bridge and Soundpost.

Why not try the following for the bridge?

Casuarina fraserana, ‘West Australian Sheoak’.
Hakea suberea, ‘Corkwood’.
Banksia grandis, ‘Bull banksia’.
King William Pine, for the soundpost.

The Fingerboard and Tailpiece.

Asking to be tried;

Acacia Aneura, ‘mulga’,
Acacia cambagei, ‘gidgee’.

Essentially, we have considered the instrument’s component parts. Careful employment of these timbers will surely achieve a fine result, though there are many other timbers which will serve quite as well.

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One Response to The Use Of Australian Timbers In Musical Instrument Making

  1. Glenn Willard on January 23, 2012 at 7:35 am

    I have an interest in Australian timbers and the making of string instruments.I am also an engineering patternmaker with over 30 years experience and have also been an enthusiast of string instruments for about as long.Patternmaking will disappear as a trade as Chinese imports continue to increase.It will not survive at the hobbyist level like many other trades and crafts.I have many skills and much experience in the making of things and I hope to break into luthiery to pass on my skills and see out my working life creatively. Glenn willard.

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