Australian tonewoods| Feature article | Guestpost by Jack Spira
o start with I should say there are many species of potentially useable tonewoods in Australia. Also, it takes time to make enough instruments with a particular species to get a reasonable idea of how it performs. I say this because I don’t want to give the impression that the woods I use are the only or best suited Australian woods for guitar making. They are the ones I have been able to get in reasonable supply and had a good chance try out.
The availability of Australian native woods for guitar making is another point worth a mention. It is only recently that a lot of these timbers have become valued. The Australian timber industry as a whole seems to have mostly focused on cutting low grade engineering, building timber and wood chip.
High grade furniture timber cutting is left to small boutique mills that supply species local to their areas. Things are starting to improve slowly, but it is still largely the case that only regional timbers are available to Australians. Hence, an Australian instrument maker’s experience with native timbers is greatly influenced by where they live.
In my case, I live near Melbourne in the south east corner of the continent. Australian Blackwood and Mountain Ash are two of the most important timber species that grow in this part of the world so I have good experience with these woods. I cannot buy Western Australian Sheoak in Melbourne, I have to source it from Western Australia, 3000km away.
Similarly I cannot get Rose Mahogany, or Prickly Ash which would be available in small mills in Northern New South Wwales. I can get low grade boards of Northern Silky Oak, Queensland Maple and Tasmanian Myrtle in Melbourne timber yards. Although I would have to travel to Queensland or Tasmania respectively to get instrument grade wood of these species.
In recent years a small number of businesses have started up to specifically supply instrument grade wood of a good range of Australian species, which is a very good thing! For the most of the past twenty years that have shaped my experience however, these suppliers have not existed and so my exposure to Australian wood has been defined very much by where I have lived, with occasional interstate forays as money and time has allowed.
It’s worth a few words about the nomenclature as it can be confusing. When talking (or writing) about Australian woods it’s often helpful to use the botanical name. The common names can be confusing as they often include the names of other completely unrelated trees such as Ash, Oak, Mahogany etc.
These names also vary from place to place. Rose Mahogany Dysoxylum fraseranum for instance is commonly called Rosewood in NSW, even though it is completely unrelated to any true rosewood or mahogany trees. Also some very similar names can be used for unrelated trees. A good example of this is Northern Silky Oak (aka Queensland Silky Oak) which is Cardwellier Sublimis.
It is completely unrelated to Southern Silky Oak- Grevillia robusta- and although they have a similar medullary ray figure, the wood is very different. Both will often simply be referred to as Silky Oak. Prickly Ash Orites excelsa from NSW also gets referred to as mountain Silky Oak.
Some of these names kind of make sense. Generally anything with “Oak” tagged onto it will be a timber with large visible medullary rays, which is a feature of the true Oak. Anything with “Ash” in the name will generally be white or very light coloured wood.
Others make no sense to me at all. Queensland Maple Flindersia brayleyana for instance is a large rainforest tree native to the tropics and subtropics of Queenslands east coast. At a casual glance it looks very similar to south American Mahogany, with a slightly pinker colour. How it got to be called Maple is a mystery to me.
A word about Acacias. There are many Acacias common all across Australia. Most are small trees and bushes commonly called Wattle. Some like blackwood grow to millable sized trees and produce nice wood. Hickory Wattle Acacia penninervus and Lightwood Acacia implexa are two. In the dryer and desert areas there are also many acacias. These small trees grow very slowly and to greater age. They produce very hard wood that can be used in place of ebony, examples are Gidgee A.cambaei, Myall A.pendula, Mulga A.aneura etc.
So to the specifics. I’ll start with Australian Blackwood, acacia melanoxylon. Its not black and is no relation to African Blackwood. It’s a commonly available timber throughout most of Australia, to contradict what I was saying before. Its used a lot by the furniture and kitchen cabinet industries. A fast growing and relatively short lived tree.
Blackwood also looks very similar to the Hawaiian wood, Koa acacia koa. It grows over a very wide area, from the south of Tasmania all the way up to the Queensland border and beyond. As a consequence it can be very variable in colour and hardness.
It is most common in the mild high rainfall climates of northern Tasmania and south eastern Victoria, and this is where most of the commercially mills blackwood comes from.
Blackwood is commonly use by a lot of Australian makers as it is so available. It turns out to be a very good tonewood as well. The highly figured logs are rare and getting more and more expensive, not surprisingly as it very beautiful and should be valued. Plain blackwood is still cheap though and pretty easy to get.
It bends very well, although care is needed with the highly figured boards. Its stable enough to be reliable in service. I’ve not found it to be super stable though, so I’d say its important to get it well quarter sawn, and I tend to avoid using it for necks. It’s a bit heavy for that anyway
How it sounds is a very subjective thing! To my ear, I think it tends to have a fair few high overtones, giving it a dry, sometimes reedy or breathy sound if that makes sense.
[Ed.- read more about Australian Blackwood in our tonewoods database... here!]
Mountain Ash, aka Victorian Ash eucalyptus regnans. This is a much bigger tree than Blackwood. Ash grow very tall and can live to a great age. Eastern Victoria was once covered in towering Ash forests. These forests were heavily cleared for pasture and saw log in the early part of the 20th century. Then in 1939 a huge fire swept across eastern victoria destroying many forests and towns in the region.
A lot of the timber around these days is know as ’39 regrowth. Ash was used extensively in Victoria for everything from kitchen tables to railway bridges. The long straight logs yield very strong beams and it is still cut for the building industry. A lot has also been chipped for paper. It is generally available in any Victorian timber yard as Ash, or “hardwood” it also gets sold as “Tasmanian Oak”
There are several closely related trees sold as Mountain Ash, Alpine Ash E. delegatensis being a common one. My experience so far is only with e.regnans . If buying from a timber yard or other retailer it may not be possible to definitely identify the species.
Ash is beautiful wood to work with. Its very stable and very strong, as well as being quite lightweight. It’s the closest Australian native I’ve found that can be used in place of Honduran mahogany. I use it for necks often and have found it very reliable. I would use it for backs and sides much more often than I do, but its colour is not popular.
Being bone white, the blackwood is more spectacular and most customers don’t opt for ash.. It can be highly figured though, and takes a stain very well. Its more commonly used by Australian electric guitar makers who use it in place of a figured maple cap, with spectacular results.
Personally I love the sound of it as back and sides. Its warm and clear at the same time. Not really the same sound as mahogany, but I think anyone who likes a mahogany Martin 000, would like the sound of Mountain Ash.
[Ed.- read more about Mountain Ash in our tonewoods database... here!]
W A sheoak is a tonewood I’ve used quite a lot of over the years. I’ve tried a few of the NSW casuarinas, rose sheoak and bull oak. I’ve found them to be rather heavy and failed to get a good sound with them. They were also a bit difficult to bend.
The W A sheoak on the other hand seems a perfect density, is easy to work and bends well. I have found a marked difference in sound between the well quarter sawn backs, which have the broad medullarys going right across.
Guitars with well quartered sheoak backs have a lot of volume and projection, quite bright, but not as many overtones as blackwood I think, so a more woody, less metallic brightness. The guitars with Sheoak backs sawn on the rift, or the beautiful lace figured ones with grain going everywhere seem to make quieter, more polite sounding instruments.
When bending, it often makes little ticking, cracking sounds. I found this alarming to start with! but it seems to cause no harm. Also the perfectly quarter sawn boards can kink on the medullary’s, so having the sides a bit on the rift can be an advantage, I think. If sanding by machine, it sands well, but can burn the paper up badly if the cut is too deep. It has very small pores so finishing is very easy.
[Ed.- read more about Western Sheoak in our tonewoods database... here!]
Jack Spirka http://www.jackspiraguitars.com/
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