Timber Species for Tenor Ukelele Tops

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Timber Species for Tenor Ukelele Tops

Post by NotTheMama » Sun Mar 26, 2023 2:17 pm

I've searched the forum for this topic and found related discussions long ago. Even so I thought a new post on the subject may be good.

I am a novice Luthier (2 Tenor ukuleles, see profile picture). Previous builds featured lots of mistakes, building of jigs, problem solving and working by numbers. But the process was enjoyable enough and I have enough bits left over to make a couple more so that's what I decided to do.

Many luthiers on websites etc. say that nothing but Spruce or Cedar are suitable for tops and seem to feel the same about Mahogany, Oak etc. for sides, back and neck. These timbers are either extremely expensive or virtually unobtainable in Australia. For my first two Tenors I bought some Bunya pine veneer from a merchant in QLD, but I ruined one, so I used some Western Red Cedar that my dad had in his shed. Sides backs and fretboards are Blackwood. Necks are Victorian Ash/Tas Oak. They turned out pretty good! and those two little suckers are loud. I feel that any problems with the sound are more due to the lack of skill of the luthier than the choice of materials.

It seems that those that swear by Spruce and Cedar etc. argue that these are the "tried and true" traditional materials used by old guitar and lute makers, but I figure that those materials were chosen largely because that is what the old craftsmen had readily available nearby. Which is exactly the reason I chose Bunya, scrap cedar, blackwood and ash.

I made a similar decision for the finish... Tung oil and bees wax, rather than French polish.

For my next build I am thinking about using some Radiata Pine (no knots) which I had lying around and have already sliced into veneers - even though I have some Huon Pine Veneer and some Cedar that I can use. So, I am wondering what people think of Radiata Pine as a top wood. While you are at it perhaps you can add your thoughts about different types of finish. I am pretty happy with the result that I got with oil...

Looking to reading your opinions

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Re: Timber Species for Tenor Ukelele Tops

Post by kiwigeo » Sun Mar 26, 2023 2:33 pm

Trevor's "shed guitar" had a 5 piece radiata top. Trev the best person to chime in with the low down on radiata.

https://goreguitars.com.au/guitars/#Ste ... nd_Samples
NotTheMama wrote:
Sun Mar 26, 2023 2:17 pm
So, I am wondering what people think of Radiata Pine as a top wood.

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Re: Timber Species for Tenor Ukelele Tops

Post by Dave M » Mon Mar 27, 2023 3:42 am

No that is really not the case. Spruce wasn't readily available in places like Spain but was actively sought out as being the best material for the job. And that is because it has the greatest stiffness to weight ratio of pretty much any timber species. That means that you can make your top lighter but still take the stresses, and lighter generally means louder, which, certainly with nylon strung guitars is important.

Back and sides is a different game. The early Spanish makers used cypress because it was indeed available locally and cheap. The move to rosewood was probably about it looking better and to some extent giving a different timbre.

However as Martin says other softwoods can and have been used successfully if the design is right.

Good luck with the build.

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Re: Timber Species for Tenor Ukelele Tops

Post by Allen » Mon Mar 27, 2023 7:11 am

Folk instruments such as Ukuleles have use of many more options for soundboards. Most were not particularly difficult or expensive to source for where the instrument was built. So mahogany, koa, mango in Hawaii are traditional for body and soundboard.

Australia has heaps of local timbers that the rest of the worlds luthiers are envious of. Also quite a few imports that have been planted such as Monterey Cypress and Sequoia.

It comes down to what your intent for the instrument is to be....making for yourself or gifting to someone. Use whatever floats your boat. Same goes for the finish you choose.

Wanting to build one for sale? My advice is to go with something more "accepted". Then if for sale what is your market? The high end market is going to be quite particular about what they will plonk down the cash for.
Allen R. McFarlen
Cairns, Australia

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Re: Timber Species for Tenor Ukelele Tops

Post by peter.coombe » Mon Mar 27, 2023 10:05 am

I made a mandolin with a 3 piece Pinus Radiata top, and recycled ash for the back and sides. At first I did not like the sound, but after a few months it developed into one of the best sounding mandolins I have made. Got it back for some fret work some years later and it sounded even better. The main problem was finding a suitable piece of pine that was quarter sawn and not heavy like most Pinus radiata. I sorted through hundreds of pieces at Bunnings before I found a good piece. It is stiff and heavy, much like a heavy piece of Red Spruce, so treat it like you would a dense piece of Red Spruce and it should work well. When tapped the top sounded just like a piece of Spruce. I made it into a black top so people cannot see it has a pine top, and it was amusing to see the jaws drop when I told told them was pine.
Peter Coombe - mandolin, mandola and guitar maker


Re: Timber Species for Tenor Ukelele Tops

Post by NotTheMama » Sat Apr 01, 2023 12:25 am

Very interesting! Thank you all for replying.

Trevor Gore the builder of the guitar with radiata to has published a couple of books and recently been on O'Brien's YouTube Channel talking about this subject. He boils things down to stiffness and density. All else being the same, top woods will have different sounds due to differences in those two properties. But it also means that (within reason) tops made from different species can sound very similar if they thickness is adjusted to compensate for the difference in physical properties. From then it's a matter of preference and taste.

Since my first two - I've spent a bit of time building a DIY thickness sander and I also have some cedar, huon pine, oregon and the radiata that I've ripped 3mm veneers from and can now sand to 2mm or below. I've just finished rough sanding the radiate down to 2mm - it looks stunning but sounds a bit dull when I tap it. I might rough sand the cedar, oregon and huon pine down to 2 mm and compare and contrast for myself before choosing one over the others. I am not sure that I am up to "tuning" the tops, we'll see.

Incidentally my "Frankenstein" sanding machine is built out of bits and pieces I had lying around held together by some 3D printed parts. It has some unique features that I have not seen on the Web. and its working quite well. I also built a temperature controlled bending iron that I think has come up a treat. I may post about both here one day - No step by step videos, but rather the description of what I see are the unique features (there are dozens of videos on how to make a thickness sander).

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