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Tonewood is a term of art which generally refers to any wood used in the construction of musical instruments. Many acoustic properties are assigned to specific wood species, but these properties are subjective beyond the scope of this article. Tonewood is used most often in the context of stringed instruments.
Commonly used tonewoods
While it is true that a luthier may use any wood to build an instrument, certain woods are often used in many different instrument families.
- Spruces are often used in the sound boards of instruments from the lute, violin, mandolin, and guitar families. Spruce is particularly suited for this use because of its high stiffness-to-weight ratio. Commonly used varieties are Sitka (or Alaskan) spruce (Picea sitchensis), Adirondack (or Red) spruce (Picea rubens), Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), and Picea abies (variously known as Norwegian, German, Alpine, Italian or European spruce).
- Cedars, particularly Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata, not a true cedar), have since the 1950s been used in the tops of classical guitars and to a less degree in steel string acoustic guitars.
- Maple is traditionally used for the backs and sides of violin family instruments. It is also frequently seen in acoustic guitars and mandolins. Most Fender electric guitars feature maple necks.
- Mahogany may be used in the tops of some guitars as well as the back, sides, and necks of instruments of the mandolin and guitar families. Mahogany may also be used for the solid bodies of electric guitars, such as the Gibson Les Paul. Due to lack of availability other similar woods are used as mahogany replacements, such as Toona, Khaya, Meranti, Agathis, Nato and Sapele. Some of these alternatives are Mahogany family timbers.
- Rosewoods are often used in the back and/or sides of guitars and mandolins and fretboards on guitars. The most sought-after variety, Brazilian Rosewood, Dalbergia nigra, has become scarce and expensive due to severe trade restrictions (embargo and CITES), scarcity and demand. The most widely used rosewood used now is east Indian Rosewood, often paired with a spruce top for steel string guitars and with spruce or cedar for classical guitars.
- Koa is traditionally used for ukuleles. Koa is also used for steel string guitars mostly due to its beauty and compressed dynamic range.
- Ebony is also often used in non-tonewood applications in many types of instruments for fingerboards, tailpieces, tuning pegs, and so forth due to its attractive appearance, hardness and wear resistance. Several varieties of ebony are used. Ebony is often dyed to make it appear blacker than the natural wood.
- Cocobolo used in upper-end clarinets and guitars.
- Walnut is often used for the backs and sides of guitars and mandolin family instruments.
Selection of tonewoods
In addition to perceived differences in acoustic properties, a luthier may use a tonewood because of:
- Cosmetic properties such as the color or grain of the wood
- Size (Some instruments require large pieces of suitable wood)
Most tonewoods come from sustainable sources through specialist dealers. Spruce, for example, is very common, but large pieces with even grain represent a small proportion of total supply and can be expensive. Some tonewoods are particularly difficult to obtain on the open market, and small-scale instrument makers often turn to reclamation, for instance from disused salmon traps in Alaska, various old construction in the U.S Pacific Northwest, from trees that have blown down, or from specially permitted removals in conservation areas where logging is not generally permitted. Mass market instrument manufacturers have started using Asian and African woods, such as Bubinga (Guibourtia species) and Wenge (Millettia laurentii), as inexpensive alternatives to traditional tonewoods.
The use of wood in musical instruments varies greatly among the different types of instruments. For guitar making, quartersawn wood is preferred because its added stiffness and dimensional stability. Soft woods, like spruce, may be split rather than sawn into boards so the board surface follows the grain as much as possible, thus limiting run-out.
For most applications, wood must be dried before use, either in air or kilns. Some luthiers prefer further seasoning for several years.
- Tonewood preparation and grading
- Guitarbench's database of tonewood species
- Woods used in Gaskell guitars (2010)
- Alan Arnold Interactive Tonewood guide
- The Heretics Guide to Tonewoods
- More about Guitar Wood
-  What is Mahogany?
- LuthierBuilt Connecting discerning musicians with musical instrument artisans & their work worldwide
- Tonewoods for guitars
- Taylor acoustic guitar woods