Alternative Woods

Of course the possibility to use other woods for building instruments than the most traditional and common choices is possible. It's always easy to use the ”tried and true”, but who says that's the only way to go?

Below some info on various wood species that usually are not used in commersial bass guitar building (at least that I know off), but could be very good substitutes for other woods used in guitar construction.



Beech, European (Fagus sylvatica)

Common names: Carpathian beech, Common beech, Danish beech, English beech, European beech, Fayard, French beech, Romanian beech, Rumanian beech, Slavonian beech, Yugoslavian beech

European Beech and American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) are very similar to each other.
European Beech is consumed more than any other hardwood in the UK. It is considered to be among the best known and most useful commercial timbers in the world, and is always in demand. European beech is available in long lengths, wide boards, and in the form of veneers, and is in the same price class (approx. 1300-1600€/m3) as the lower cost hardwoods.
Could be a very good subsitute for European birch and African mahogany.
Exhibit an attractive flecked figure on quartered surfaces, and broad rays on longitudinal surfaces.
The bending strength qualities of this species in the air-dry condition is very high, far superior to those of Mahogany. Compression strength parallel to grain in the air-dry condition is high. It is fairly hard, stiff, resisting wear, denting, and marring fairly well. It is a heavy wood with high density, a good choise for a fingerboard.



Birch, European (Betula sp.)

Common names: Birch, English birch, European birch, Finnish birch, Swedish birch, Common birch, Silver birch, Warty birch, White birch.

Birch is available in large quantities, but the three leading commercially valuable birches, Yellow birch (B. alleghaniensis), White birch (B. papyrifera), and Sweet birch (B. lenta), are often mixed and marketed together under the trade name Birch. Price approx. 950€/m3.
Strength properties are comparable to those of European beech (Fagus). Seasoned Silver birch is similar to Ash (Fraxinus) in toughness.
Grain deviation, especially at base of boles, is reported to produce a variety of figures which are sometimes used as names for the wood. Thus, the wood is sometimes called Ice, Flame, etc., according to the figure displayed.
Another type of birch wood, Masur birch, is a genetic deviation that's has its own sub-species named Betula Pendula var. Carelica. Small brown pith flecks produce an attractive flecked and swirling figure which is highly prized for veneers for panelling and marquetry.
Fairly easy to work with and a good choice for neck wood because of its fairly high stiffness (except for B. papyrifera).



Hickory (Carya sp.)

Also known as: Bitternut, Bitternut hickory, Hickory, Pecan, Swamp hickory (among others)

Several species in the genus Carya, including Shellbark (C. laciniosa ), Pignut (C. glabra ), Mockernut (C. tomentosa ), and Shagbark (C. ovata ) are often mixed together and marketed under the trade name Hickory because of very close similarities. Hickory is described as unique among temperate hardwoods due its combination of high bending strength, stiffness, hardness, and resistance to shock. It resists suddenly applied loads exceptionally well, and is far superior to Ash (Fraxinus) in that respect. The densest and toughest hickory wood is produced by fast grown, wide-ringed trees. Strength properties are slightly superior to those of European beech (Fagus), but toughness is considerably higher.
Density of such wood is considerably higher than that of Ash, especially in the seasoned condition ,and it retains shape well (a very stable shock-resistant wood).



Hornbeam, European (Carpinus betulus)

Also known as: Avenbok, Carpin, Carpy, Charme, European hornbeam, Haagbeuk, Hagbuche, Hagebuche, Hainbuche, Hardbeam, Hornbaum, Hornbeam, Pine, Quickbeam, Quickenbeam, Quicktree, Vitbok, Weissbuche, Yoke-elm.

Hornbeam is fairly hard, resisting wear, denting, and marring fairly well. Weight is very high, and it has high density (slightly harder than Ash) and stiffness. Strength properties of European hornbeam are comparable to those of European beech, and the timber is considered a suitable alternative to Maple for light industrial flooring.
American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), also known as Blue beech and Water beech is quite similar to European Hornbeam.
Hornbeam would be a very good choice for fingerboards, but is very rear and hard to come by.



Merbau (Intsia palembanica)

Common names: Aizella, Anglai, Borneo teak, Go nuoe, Hintsy, Ipil, Kwila, Lum-pho, Lumpha, Lumpho, Makhamong, Marbau, Merbau, Miraboo, Miraboo laut, Mirabow, Tat talun, Tat-talun, V'ula, Vesi.

An extremely heavy wood and may be difficult to work with when quartersawn as most pieces have interlocking grain. It also tends to dull blades and cutters, color variation between boards is moderate to high. The timber of Merbau is comparable in strength to that of hickory (Carya), but it is less dense. The wood is reported to glue well (except with casein glues) but requires considerable filling. Oily surfaces may cause difficulties. May not be the most stable wood to choose from, but is very stiff and polishes well even without a finish.
Merbau would probably be a good neck or fretboard wood.




Engelmann (Picea engelmanni), Sitka (Picea sitchensis), Red (Picea rubens), Black (Picea mariana), White (Picea glauca), European (Picea abies)

Wood produced by White, Red, Black, Sitka and Engelmann spruce are so similar in structural properties that they cannot be differentaited and are usually mixed and marketed together.
Spruce is the premium wood used for acoustic guitar tops. Spruce has one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios. Bending strength is medium, the wood is soft, and surfaces may dent easily. Weight is moderate (400kg/m3) , and density is average, or medium . Its natural resonance qualities make spruce an ideal choice for musical instrument soundboards.
Not known to be used for solid bodies, but could very well be worth a try.



Sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum)

Common names: Aboudikro, Acajou sapelle, Assi, Assie sapelli, Atore, Bibitu, Botsife, Bubussu, Cedar, Dilolo, Gold Coast cedar, Kwabohoro, Liboyo, Libuyu, Lifaki, Lifari, Lifuti, Lotue, M'boyo, Miovu, Muyovu, Odupon, Oweru, Penkua, Penkwa, Sapele, Sapele mahogany, Sapele wood, Sapeli, Sapelli, Scented mahogany, Tshimaye noir, Ubilesan, Undianuno, West African cedar.

Quarter cut Sapele is reported to yield a ribbon, regular stripe or bee's wing. Other cuts feature various desirable patterns, including fiddlebacks, roe or a mottled design, especially in wood containing wavy grain. Sapele is readily available as either veneer or lumber, with prices ranging from average to valuable. Specified grades of Sapele are also easier to fill. Quartered sapele yields beautiful straight stripes. Flat cut wood produces attractive cathedrals and cantilevered hearts and Sapele pommele, a wild blisterered grain pattern present in some trees. Sapele pommele is a highly popular veneer, and is used by designers for architectural interiors, table tops, and wall paneling. The best grades of Sapele are reported to feature a fine pencil stripe of uniform width.
Sapele is comparable to Oak in strength properties, and is stronger than either African (Khaya) or Honduras mahogany (Swietenia).
Could be a nice looking wood for bodies or tops.



Below a comparsion chart with the wood species mentioned above.


How much does it cost?

Wood prices vary for each type of wood depending primarily on the availability and quality of the piece. The higher the quality of the wood the higher the price (of course), and the more rare a wood is, the more expensive it will be. Price some koa from Hawaii and you'll begin to understand.
I've added some sample prices for woods for each species, these prices are only to be compared to each other, they are not very accurate since the prices may vary a lot from country to country (not to mention continent to continent).

How to choose a wood?

This depends on many factors, including: availability of wood, budget, desired look and feel, desired weight of instrument, etc. Some of the most important things to look for in choosing a wood are:

  • As close-grained as possible
  • No knots
  • No checks or cracks
  • Properly dried, ultimate moisture content 10-15%
  • No color variations

Remember to always check your wood for dead spots. Any slab of timber can come from a bad tree, be diseased, or have an unusual ring structure, all of which could deaden its tone.
Look at the visual appeal of the grain. This is especially important if you will use a see-through stain finish that will accent the grain pattern.

Web Resources

This information is gathered from various sources on the internet, so I just thought I should mention that with a little careful searching, it is possible to find mountains of information related to guitar building on the web. Much of this information will be found on the websites of luthiers both professional and amateur. Often these sites give insight into their building materials or techniques.
Careful use of the major search engines and the newsgroup related websites should provide you with a wealth of knowledge and guidance.

Below a short link-list from which information has been gathered:


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