How to customise your new build
Lets begin with the back & sides timber
Your choice of tonewood will make a significant difference in the sound your new instrument will produce. The top of the mandolin/bouzouki is usually going to define its tone while the back and sides have a significant impact on the resonance as well as the volume of the instrument. The idea is to find a combination of tonewood that gives you the tonal profile you are looking for.
Back & Sides Tonewoods
Black Limba & Rosewood
When it comes to back and sides of the mandolin family, we start seeing the above mentioned tonewoods being the standard. What most of these have in common is hardness, as the mandolin body is responsible for projection and volume. Lets go over the tonewoods I offer to help you choose your ideal build.
Mahogany is generally one of the densest tonewoods and my first choice for making my standard full range. When put to use as a back and sides material, mahogany will give you an abundance of projection with very defined tones and underlying brightness everywhere. However, it also saturates the tone with warmth in specific parts of the range
Walnut is an excellent tonewood falling sonically between the warm dark sounds of East Indian Rosewood and the bright bell-like ring of Maple. I have been using South American Black Walnut for the majority of my custom builds and have had great response from my customers.
Black Walnut yields excellent balance with tonal characteristics that fall between Mahogany and Rosewood. The trebles have a unique earthy tone which records very distinctively. Often recommended for a flatpicked sound and mellow fingerstyle playing. With its rich brown color and occasional steaks. Black Walnut has a stripy appearance somewhat like Indian Rosewood and light brown to dark, chocolate brown, often with a purplish cast and darker streaks. The photo of the 2 mandolins shows a black walnut build on the right side with mahogany neck.
Although most of us are used to seeing rosewood being the wood of choice for fretboards, bridges and similar, it is also often seen in bodies of mandolins, bouzoukis and acoustic guitars. Rare, expensive but ultimately unique, rosewood back and sides bring a very complex dose of warmth, brightness, and projection.
A native African wood, black limba is about the same as mahogany in weight, hardness and texture. It produces a beautiful, warm rich tone, similar to mahogany, but with maybe just a touch more resonance. Well defined basses, clear trebles, balanced sound throughout the scale and a very lively sound. It has a straight, close grain which is occasionally interlocked or wavy with an even but somewhat coarse texture. It has beautiful grain colours including browns, pale yellow and cream and black. The figure of most cuts is very beautiful and dramatic in character.
Last but not the least, we have maple. While we most often see it used for guitar necks, maple is a great choice for back and sides of mandolins & bouzoukis. It is incredibly dense and strong and is known to produce high definition tones across the spectrum while its projection is almost next to none. I offer a choice of beautifully 'Quilted' and 'Flamed' varieties. The photo below shows both varieties of maple with 5 piece rock maple/mahogany neck.
Now lets choose the top tonewood
The type of tonewood used for the top is one of the most important things to pay attention to. Firstly I will go through the top tonewoods I offer for your new build then I can give some advice which tops work best with back and sides.
Out of all the tonewood types available, spruce is one of the most commonly used. The reason for this is its abundance and the fact that it brings a good balance of tone. It is warm enough, reasonably bright, and it simply works well with most back and sides tonewood choices. A solid Sitka spruce top will get you a pretty good performance overall.
When compared to spruce, cedar is lot less dense. This makes it quieter, less bright, with less sustain. The upshot, however, is that Cedar is much warmer, and takes less time to reach its full tonal potential.
It tends to have a honeyed color and is known for its sonically analogous dark and lush tone, and also for being generally less bass-y and projective than spruce.
The Holy Grail
Adirondack Spruce (Appalation Spruce)
Adirondack is even more dynamic than Sitka spruce, with a higher ceiling for volume. The payoff is the ability to drive an Adirondack top hard and hear it get louder and louder without losing clarity; it’s hard to overplay it. It has lots of headroom to strum the bouzouki/mandolin aggressively without distorting. It also has a high Overtone content. For strumming and flatpicking you can't beat Adirondack Spruce.
Adirondack Spruce was popularized by Martin on many of their “prewar” guitars and remains a revered tonewood by players and collectors alike.
Cosmetically, Adirondack soundboards tend to have wider grain spacing than Sitka or Englemann, and their color occasionally has striping that goes from creamy to light tan.
is relatively heavy, has a high velocity of sound, and has the highest stiffness across and along the grain of all the top woods. Like Sitka, it has strong fundamentals, but it also exhibits a more complex overtone content. Tops made out of red spruce have the highest volume ceiling of any species, yet they also have a rich fullness of tone that retains clarity at all dynamic levels. In short, red spruce may very well be the Holy Grail of top woods
Engelmann Spruce (Western North America)
Engelmann is usually visually distinguishable from Sitka by its creamier complexion. Sonically, Engelmann has a mature tone, and yields a slightly richer midrange than Sitka, which makes a mandolin/bouzouki sound a bit older.
With its high overtone content and strong fundamental tone, Englemann Spruce delivers a warm mellow tone that is well suited for light strumming and fingerpicking. Engelmann is considerably lighter in color than Sitka spruce, lighter in weight, and usually less stiff, resulting in a slightly lower velocity of sound.
It is therefore a good choice for players who require a richer, more complex tone than can be obtained from most Sitka tops, particularly when the instrument is played softly.
Torrefied Sitka Spruce
Already "broken in" for stability and tone.
Torrefied spruce is dimensionally stable (non-shrinking), with the clear tone and warm color of well-aged vintage tonewood. It takes years for a new stringed instrument to break in, to develop its tone and realize its full potential. As tonewood ages, its cell structure goes through changes, becoming much more resonant and responsive. After a few years, you get the payoff: you begin to hear the sound of a vintage instrument.
With the introduction of torrefied woods, professional builders are giving their mandolins/bouzoukis & guitars a head start on tone. The wood is heat-treated in an oxygen-free kiln, making it highly resonant and extremely stable. It's as if the wood is pre-aged. It looks and sounds like wood that's been broken in for many years.
So which woods should I choose?
Notes for Paul to fill in.........