Tonewood is wood that is use for building musical instruments because of its sound qualities (production of resonance). Tonewood can be installed in solid or laminated form.

Requirements

  • For fingerboards, wood is needed that is very dense, hard and dark, and that expands or contracts as little as possible when exposed to moisture. These conditions are best met by the tropical woods of ebony and rosewood, and among the European woods, by walnut and hornbeam.
  • Likewise, necks, sides and backs should be dense and hard and should react as little as possible to moisture. Traditionally, koa, rosewood or mahogany are used. They can be aptly replaced by European Ahorn or walnut.
  • Soundboards must be able to react elastically to tensions so that they can oscillate at the stroke. Therefore traditionally koa, mahogany, spruce or cedar are used.

Grains

A striking grain enhances the visual attractiveness of the wood without changing its timbre. For the texture of some tone woods, a distinction is made:

Flamed

E.g., flamed maple. Especially in trees that grow in the mountains, an anomaly in growth creates a grain that looks like tiger stripes and is called bar texture. The wood fibers do not run as parallel but wavy to the longitudinal axis of the tree trunk, resulting in a strip-shaped pattern. Since such trees can not be bred so far, of course, flamed wood is expensive.

Spalted

E.g., spalted mango. The grain is produced by fungal attack. The fungus is killed when the wood is dried.

Quilted

E.g., quilted maple.

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flamed maple
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quilted maple
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bird's-eye maple
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spalted mango

Treatments

Flamed

To make tonewood look older and more rustic, its surface can be scorched (usually with a gas burner). The longer this treatment lasts, the darker the wood gets. Wood merchants therefore offer their flamed (scorched) wood in gradations such as “light, medium, good, best”. Top, sides and back of the body can be flamed.

Painted

One style of painting that is popular with string instruments is sunburst.

Appraisal

First of all (and speaking from a steel string guitar perspective), let's discard the notion that some species of wood make good instruments and that others don't. The concept of tonewood is a hoax. Of the few things that we can do to a guitar and still call it a guitar, changing the wood it is made of will have the least impact upon the quality of the sound that it produces. The tonal difference between a mahogany guitar and a rosewood guitar is exactly the same as the difference between two mahogany guitars or two rosewood guitars. Can you tell what a guitar is made of while listening to an unfamiliar recording? No one I know claims they can. No one at the blind listening sessions I've attended could reliably distinguish between mahogany and rosewood guitars, or maple and koa guitars for that matter.
Guitars sound like guitars. No matter how poorly or bizarrely they are made, you'll never confuse the natural sound of an acoustic guitar with that of a banjo, a mandolin, a drum or a flute. Obviously, not all guitars sound alike, but even when we think we can distinguish a night-and-day difference, it won't be so extreme that one will sound like a guitar and another won't. We may have a strong preference for one or another, but they will all sound like guitars. If they didn't, they would be called something else.
The tone of a guitar lies more in the hands of the builder than in the materials from which it is constructed. With increased experience, the level of craftsmanship increases. As the quality of the luthier's instruments goes up, the tonal difference between the instruments goes down. There are not only fewer dogs, but it becomes more difficult to build one that stands noticeably above the others. I noted this phenomenon in my mountain dulcimers years ago, and more recently have seen it happen to my guitars.
Psychoacoustics plays such a large role in this matter that it's difficult to discuss tone objectively. (I think that it's called psychoacoustics because trying to figure out stringed instruments will make you psycho.) We hear what we expect to hear, what we have been taught to hear, what we want to hear, and often what we hope to hear. Many luthiers and musicians alike spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars collecting information and recordings and they have come to have a stake in the sanctity of its rightness. They need the vast body of instrument mythology to be correct, and strongly oppose the possibility that it may be bogus. This makes it extremely difficult for a daring luthier to sell instruments that aren't made of standard varieties of wood.

John Calkin: The Heretic's Guide to Alternative Lutherie Woods

Sound Comparison and Quiz

The following five audio samples are from otherwise nearly identical tenor ukuleles of the manufacturer MyaMoe.

Which order of ukuleles 1 to 5 applies?
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Videos

Guitar builder Bob Taylor about environmental problems with tonewoods (2016)

References