This web page is part of a web site that is no longer actively maintained by anybody at ANU SRES. It has been left on the web due to its apparent popularity (every time we've removed it, people have complained within 24 hours), but is presented AS IS - attempting to contact any individual named on the page is likely to fail, and the SRES webmaster doesn't want to hear about such failures or entertain any communication about updating of the page's contents. You have been warned.
Australian Timbers and Musical Instruments
Table of contents
King William pine.
Timbers with a history of utilisation.
Flutes and West Australian Goldfields timbers.
Australia is blessed with a great variety of tree species, predominantly hardwoods but also some very useful softwoods. Except for the didgeridoo, most wooden musical instruments have traditionally been made using Northern Hemisphere timbers. The conservative nature of musical instrument construction makes it difficult for new materials to gain acceptance, particularly for use in parts that give the instrument its characteristic tone (Bootle, 1983). There is also the added difficulty that little is known about the properties of many Australian species. The tendency has been to stick with timbers that have a long history of usage and a much greater depth of accumulated knowledge. This is changing due to a lessening of the cultural cringe in Australia and the subsequent search for a truly unique Australian identity and also, the more practical desire to add value to native forest products.
While there may be a large number of Australian species that may be acceptable for use as veneers and panelling, the number of species acceptable for use as sounding boards and other components that influence the tone of the instrument is much more restricted. There are some Australian species that have gained acceptance for use in this area, King William pine (Athrotaxis selaginoides) being a notable example.
Figure 1Grand piano with Huon pine veneer laminated to Hoop pine cabinets and a King William pine sounding board made by Stuart and Sons with the Newcastle Conservatorium (taken from Anon., 1998a).
Figure 2.Violin made from King William pine and other Australian timbers (taken from Anon., 1998b).
King William pine
This species is widely used by Australian luthiers for the construction of sounding boards in musical instruments, for example pianos and violins. King William pine transmits sound at 5,500 metres per second the same as spruce which is re-known as producing the best soundboards for pianos and violins (Bucur, 1995). King William pine has been used in both the violin and the piano shown in Figure 1 and 2 respectively.
Timbers with a history of utilisation
Some other Australian species that are, or have been used as sounding boards are Kauri pine (Agathis sp.) for Celtic harps, Hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) plywood for lyres, pianos and violins. Swain (1928) and Bootle (1983) list a number of Australian species that have been or may be suitable for musical instruments. Swain notes a number of Australian timber species that have been used in the past but are not given much mention today, for example Blush Coondoo (Sideroxylon richardii) and Queensland ebony (Maba humilis). There does appear to be a lot of potential, especially in the more arid or monsoonal areas, where there is an enormous, relatively unutilised resource of timber species. Georgina Gidgee (Acacia georginae) with an air dried density of 1330 kg/m3 and Cooktown ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys) are some of the species that deserve further consideration (Bootle, 1983). There are a great number of these dense, slow growing trees which may have potential, but whose suitability has yet to be full explored.
Flutes and West Australian Goldfields timbers
One group of trees from the arid zone that have recently received a lot of attention with regard to their suitability for musical instruments are the Goldfields timbers of Western Australia. These timbers are re-known for their slow growth and very high density and are currently being studied for their use in flutes (Anon, 1997). Timbers suitable for flutes should have high dimensional stability, a high density and a fine structure (Bucur, 1995). Flutes these days are commonly made of metals, for example gold, silver and platinum, however the metal version of the flute has only become the norm since the 1920s. The push for renewable resources and a current nostalgia for the past are fuelling resurgence in demand for wooden flutes (Skowronek and Kealley, 1995). Of the two traditional timbers used to make flutes West Indian ebony is simply not available and the supply of African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) is limited and of poor quality. Professor Skowronek from the University of Washington in Seattle has searched the world looking for suitable timbers that could be used to make thin-walled flutes. He believes that some of the Goldfields species may be suitable for flutes particularly the head-joints, which generate the tone of the instrument (see Figure 3) (Kealley and Clews, 1995). As the different species appear to have different tonal qualities they offer the flautist the opportunity to select a head joint which is better suited to the particular style of music being played (Skowronek and Kealley, 1995). For example Stricklands gum (Eucalyptus stricklandii) has proved to have a tone that is particularly suited to the playing of flute music from the Baroque period.
Figure 3A flute head joint made from Gimlet (Eucalyptus salubris) set against Gimlet bark. One of the many Goldfields timber species that have been found to be suitable for headjoints (taken from Skowronek and Kealley, 1995).
Australia contains a diverse range of timbers that may be suited for musical timbers but whose potential is yet to be fully explored. Traditional species, particularly those from the tropical rainforests, are becoming more and more difficult to obtain. Scientists can chemically alter wood materials to match the acoustic characteristics of these timbers but such products are not likely to gain the prestige or allow the spiritual connection that instruments from natural wood materials are endowed with (Yano et al., 1997). Musical instrument making offers an opportunity for increased utilisation of Australian timber and with sustainable management, can add increased value to the generally undervalued trees of the arid areas of the country.
Anon. (1997) Timbers of the Goldfields. Australian Wood Review. 14: 56-57.
Anon. (1998a) Piano revolution. Australian Wood Review. 18: 96.
Anon. (1998b) Tasmania's special timbers. Australian Wood Review. 20: 34-37.
Bootle, K.R., (1983) Wood in Australia: types, properties and uses. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Sydney.
Bucur, V. (1995) Acoustics of wood. CRC Press, Inc., Boca Raton.
Kealley, I and Clews, M. (1995) Western Australias desert forest. Landscope 10(4): 37-41.
Skowronek, F. and Kealley, I. (1995) Musical timbers. Landscope 11: 48-53.
Swain, E.H.F., (1928) The timbers and forest products of Queensland. Queensland Forest Service, Brisbane.
Yano, H., Furuta, Y. and Nakagawa, H. (1997) Materials for guitar back plates made from sustainable forest resources. J. Acoust. Soc. of Am. 101: 1-8.
[Home][Forest Products][ANU Forestry][ANU]
Copyright 1998 The Australian National University
Author: Forestry Web PeopleComments and Feedback
Date Last Modified: 3 November 1998
URL: http://www.anu.edu.au.edu/Forestry/wood/nwfp/musical timbers.html