Plants Used to Construct Musical Instruments

The art of the luthier and woodwind maker typically begins deep in a forest. Although gourds and nuts indigenous to all areas of the world are used to make small percussion shakers, the plants most often used to construct musical instruments are trees, many of which are beautiful, rare and endangered.

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Instrument makers are seeking environmentally sound woods for instrument construction.

Mpingo

The African blackwood tree (Dalbergia melonoxylon), known in the language of its native Tanzania as mpingo, is a slow-growing, small, twisted tree with dense, nearly black heartwood. The mpingo is one of the most economically valuable trees in the world, according to the Global Trees Campaign, a nonprofit international conservation organization. It is the only wood used, as of 2010, for high-quality woodwind instruments, from clarinets to bagpipes, advises the African Blackwood Conservation Project. Mpingo's dense grain makes the wood easy to carve and drill with precision, beautiful to polish to a gleaming finish, and highly resistant to heat and moisture damage. The African blackwood has been threatened by overharvesting, development and fires, which diminish the number of trees surviving to maturity. It takes 70 to 100 years for a mpingo tree to reach an appropriate stage of growth for harvesting for instrument-making.

Pau Brasil and Fir

The Pau brasil tree (Caesalpinia echinata) is the national tree of Brazil, where it is listed as a threatened species by the national government conservation agency. In the 19th century, Pau brasil was harvested extensively to make textile dyes. As of 2010, its primary commercial use is for high-quality violin bow-making. Pau brasil is the only wood that can endure the shaping and tensioning necessary for a professional violin bow, advises the Global Tree Campaign. Fir trees (Abies spp.) also play an important role in violin bow construction. They provide the sap that cooked down to make violin rosin, explains ViolinStudent.com.

Cedar and Spruce

White or yellow cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) are two of the most common species referred to as tonewoods by instrument makers. Cedar and spruce are soft and vibrate easily, making them ideal for guitar soundboards, advises music professor Peter Kun Frary of the University of Hawaii Leeward. Cedar and spruce tonewoods are harvested primarily in the American northwest and Alaska. As of 2010, leading guitar manufacturers are working in partnership with Greenpeace as the Music Wood Coalition to help conserve and sustainably harvest the remaining stands of these majestic trees, advises EMagazine.

Cherry and Maple

Rosewood, mahogany and koa are all rainforest hardwood tonewood species that have been traditionally used for the sideboards, backs and fingerboards of guitars and other stringed instruments. Concern regarding the unsustainable harvest of these species, as well as interest in supporting local renewable resources, has led some instrument makers to seek alternative woods for these purposes. Canadian guitar maker Art and Lutherie, for example, uses sustainably harvested Canadian wild cherry (Prunus avium) and silver leaf maple (Acer saccharinum) in place of threatened rainforest species.