Use of Native and Imported Timbers in Mandolins II

by Peter Coombe

Since my last article in the Journal (December 1996) I have continued experimenting with Australian native timbers.  With the passage of time and the gaining of more experience, one's impressions of the materials change, and this article is meant to update members on my current thoughts.  A number of people have expressed their interest in my original article, so there is certainly interest in gaining more information about our native timbers.  This article, however, does not confine itself to native timbers, but discusses imported timbers as well because I believe that excellent results can be obtained by combining both. In any case, since King William Pine has all but disappeared from the timber market, we are going to have to combine Spruce with our native timbers in the future if we want to use native timbers in our instruments.

Firstly, some new timbers I have tried:

Celery Top Pine Phyllocladus asplenifolius
Tasmanian Myrtle Nothofagus cunninghamii
I have made one mandolin with a top made from Celery Top Pine. Back and sides were of Blackwood. Celery Top Pine is a hard and relatively heavy pine. Made into a mandolin top it proved to be very stiff and certainly less resonant than any of the Spruces or King William Pine. The timber, however, is easy to work with, and carves well.

Initial impressions of the instrument were quite favourable, but after a few weeks and comparisons with other mandolins I made at the same time, proved to be disappointing. Tonal quality was mellow, but in comparison with Engelmann Spruce, seemed to be lacking something. However, it is now clear to me that the top was carved too thick because I am used to carving Spruce and King William Pine, and I failed to compensate sufficiently for the increased stiffness of the Celery Top Pine. Certainly worth another try because some musicians preferred the mellow tonal quality of this mandolin over the Spruce instruments.
Once again, only one mandolin has been made from Tasmanian Myrtle, this time in combination with a King William Pine top. The timber is easy to work. It planes and carves well. However, it proved to be very difficult to bend. Figured pieces broke readily on the sharper bends around the drop on the teardrop shape. The timber is fine grained and takes a French Polish finish extremely well. It is only moderately resonant.

The King William Pine/Tasmanian Myrtle mandolin proved to be a very mellow, warm, sounding instrument. In my opinion, too mellow. In comparison with my King William Pine/Blackwood, mandolins, it was lacking a little in the treble, and was not as lively and responsive instrument to play. Perhaps King William Pine is not the ideal combination because King William Pine is also a fairly mellow sounding topwood. I would like to try this timber in combination with Red Spruce, which is a brighter and more powerful topwood.

Now to recap on some of the timbers covered in my other article:

King William Pine Athrotaxis selaginoides
Blackwood Acacia melanoxylon
I have not changed my opinion of King William Pine. I still believe that it is a very fine tonewood, at least equal to, but different from the very best soundboard timbers that grow on this earth. This applies to carved top mandolins and mandolas which are the main instruments I make. I have spoken to many other instrument makers with mixed reactions. Many agree with me, but some have not had much success with King William Pine, especially in guitars. Certainly, it's physical properties are different from Spruce. It is not as stiff along the grain, it tends to "give" more readily, and will bend much more than a piece of Spruce before breaking. One must bear this in mind when constructing an instrument. I carve my King William Pine tops slightly thicker than Spruce tops, and consider it to be unsuitable for bracing, so use Red Spruce for bracing. The tops are also carved with a slightly higher arch. So far there have been no problems with sinking or collapsing tops, and with an X brace of Red Spruce, the instruments stay in tune.

King William Pine has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is a clear, sweet, mellow, clean tone, unmatched by any other topwood I have tried. Without any doubt, best results have been in combination with Blackwood, although the Jarrah backed mandolins were also very good. All the King William Pine/Blackwood mandolins I have made are lovely sounding instruments. If lovely tone is what you are after, then in my opinion, King William Pine has no equal. My best Spruce topped mandolins sound slightly "brasher" in comparison.

The main disadvantage of King William Pine is that it lacks volume. A Spruce topped mandolin will nearly always have more dynamic range. A King William Pine mandolin will tend to reach maximum loudness sooner than Spruce and if it is played hard, will start to loose tone. Thus in noisy environments, King William Pine topped mandolins tend to get drowned. Volume is important in a mandolin because it is a fairly quiet instrument, so this limitation can be a serious problem, depending on the circumstances. It is important to ascertain from the customer what the priorities are, and how he/she plays the instrument. If the player is a fairly light player, then this limitation is not a problem, but if the player plays hard then I would not recommend King William Pine. Some musicians prefer good tone over all else, and these people nearly always pick a mandolin with a King William Pine top, but if volume is important, they will almost invariably pick Spruce.
Since my original article was published in the journal, I have had great success with Blackwood, and have pretty much settled on Blackwood for the back and sides of mandolins with King William Pine tops and also those with Engelmann Spruce tops. Blackwood is a fairly bright, clear sounding tonewood, especially in the treble and midrange. Bass is brighter and thinner sounding than most of the other timbers I have tried for backs, but this can be compensated by for example, by using a heavier Ebony saddle on the bridge. All in all, Blackwood is my favourite backwood timber at present, especially for mandolins with oval soundholes. It is probably the most resonant timber I have tried, although there is a large variation from piece to piece. The most resonant pieces make lively sounding very responsive mandolins which have attracted extremely favourable comments from musicians. A number have been sent to the USA where I have had very favourable feedback from musicians and one American maker. Extremely encouraging since almost invariably the American makers use Maple for the backs of their mandolins. If only I could tell which were the best Blackwood pieces in the timber yard without having to carve a back!

Imported timbers:

Engelmann Spruce Picea engelmanni
Red Spruce
Engelmann Spruce has become my main alternative to King William Pine. I have tried Sitka Spruce, and Western Red Cedar, but Engelmann Spruce has given far superior results. Engelmann Spruce is very similar to European Spruce tonally, but I can readily get very high quality Engelmann Spruce at a fraction of the price of German Spruce. I did make two identical mandolins, one with an Engelmann Spruce top, the other with a European Spruce top and had great difficulty deciding which of the two I preferred such was the similarity. In the end I decided I preferred the Engelmann Spruce mandolin, mainly because I thought it had a slightly sweeter treble. Engelmann Spruce, especially in combination with Blackwood makes very fine sounding mandolins. I believe that the two tonewoods complement each other - Engelmann being a mellow sounding Spruce, complemented by the lively clear bright sound of Blackwood. I have found Engelmann Spruce to be a much better balanced topwood than Sitka. Sitka has proven to be too bright, the instruments end up sounding very bright and thin, especially when combined with a Blackwood back.
Red Spruce is a recent addition to my list of preferred top woods. It is the topwood used by Gibson on the famous Loar F5 models manufactured in the early 1920's, so comes with quite a reputation as a mandolin topwood. Red Spruce is harder, heavier and stiffer than Engelmann Spruce, but is quite a nice topwood to work with unless it is necessary to cut across the grain. It plains and carves extremely well, but cutting the soundhole inlay on oval soundhole mandolins is tough. I am still gaining experience with this topwood, and am still not sure what backwood best complements it, but it has shown great promise, especially in combination with American Black Walnut (Juglans nigra).

Tonally, Red Spruce is brighter and purer sounding than Engelmann, so perhaps Blackwood is not the ideal timber to use for the back. At this stage I don't know what goes best with Red Spruce, perhaps a topic for a future article. I have only tried Blackwood and American Black Walnut so far and have preferred the Walnut. The Red Spruce/Black Walnut mandolins are F hole instruments and I think they are probably some of the best sounding instruments I have made so far. However, I would prefer to use an Australian native for the backs and Tasmanian Myrtle may be a good choice. Red Spruce has some of the tonal characteristics of King William Pine - i.e. sweet and clear, but it makes much more powerful instruments than King William Pine. I have made one top from King William Pine and another from Red Spruce at the same time, and much to my surprise (because of the different physical characteristics), the tap tones were almost identical. Certainly a timber worthy of further experimentation. Unfortunately, availability of Red Spruce is almost as bad as King William Pine. Difficult and expensive to get, although still available in the USA from a limited number of suppliers in sizes suitable for mandolins.

That just about covers the experience I have had since I wrote the original article 2 years ago. In years to come, look foreword to another update since I intend to continue experimenting with native timbers, and I am sure my impressions will change with more experience.