The right wood
The right wood for me has to look good and sound good, and be stable enough so that it will last a very long time in the form of a musical instrument, subject to all the use (and abuse) this may encompass..
For soundboards this means stiff, lightweight wood which is perfectly split into billets before it is quarter sawn. I source the finest red cedar (thuja plicata) prefering the wood from Northern Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii). It is very light and even grain in texture, with very thin summer growth lines.
I am not interested in sinker wood, as far as soundboards are concerned, even though it has become popular as a marketing gimmick. Sinker wood is heavier, and more prone to cracking than fresh wood, properly cut and aged. Sinker wood often looks very pretty, though I will not use it.
Spruce (picea): I love using any good spruce. I will define "good spruce" as any which is stiff, light, split and quartered before it is sawn. So I will use European spruce, Lutz spruce, Engelmann spruce, and occasionally Sitka spruce. I have lots of spruce in my shop, from all over the world.
When I hear a luthier say "such and such a spruce is no good" what it tells me is that luthier has just not found good quality wood within that particular species. Undoubtedly there is good spruce, but for whatever reason it eluded his hands. The variation within a given species is extreme. For example, some of the best spruce I ever used was Master Grade Lutz spruce. It was very stiff, and as light weight as good cedar, and it had a sparkly white colour. But I've had other lutz spruce in my hands that was horribly heavy and hard, and I would not want to use it for a guitar. So talking about species alone is really meaningless. Where the wood grows, how fast it grew, and what part of the tree it is cut from, and many other factors will determine whether or not it's suitable wood. An experienced luthier treats each piece of wood as an individual. And so, the properties of each piece of wood are more important than its botanical designation...
Over the years I have used many different ebonies for fingerboards. Much of it came from India, Ceylon, and West Africa. Years ago most of this ebony was good, but I saw the quality decline to the point where I could not rely on it. Then I discovered Macasser Ebony from Indonesia. This was the best quality ebony, in so far that it is the only ebony that is still quarter sawn (more stable) and there is virtually no grain runout, making it stiffer and more stable. The only "issue" with Macasser ebony is that it is not always jet black, and this is the main reason it has until recently been less favored by the big instrument manufacturers (who buy most of the woods). But I like having some lighter brown streaks in the fingerboard. It gives the wood a bit of character.
Back and sides: There are many good woods to choose from. Indian rosewood (dalbergia latifolia) is what I've used the most over the years. But since 2005 I've been using many other rosewoods and non-rosewoods. Here are a few of them, and a short statement about that wood, from a luthiers perspective.
Brazilian rosewood: Gorgeous looking. Get it quarter sawn if possible. Prone to cracking. Sounds amazing. Expensive, and illegal to ship internationally. In stock
Indian rosewood: The pragmatic choice. Looks nice, sounds great. Very stable, and not expensive. In stock
Florida rosewood: You probably did not know about it. It is transplanted Indian rosewood. Very pretty, with all the advantages of Indian rosewood, but a little more money. In stock
Indonesian rosewood: Another variety of Indian rosewood, but with amazing color and grain. More expensive.
Cambodian rosewood: Extremely hard and heavy. Not striking looking, but a good substitute for old growth Brazilian Rosewood. Very hard to obtain legally, as it is poached from the Jungles of S.E. Asia and sold to the Chinese, who covet this wood. I'm lucky enough to have some of it. In stock
Amazon rosewood: Very similar to old growth Brazilian rosewood. Not as striking looking, but still pretty.
Honduran rosewood: Hard and heavy, like old growth Brazilian. Gorgeous grain patterns, and a pinkish brown color. Excellent acoustic properties for many instruments. It helps make a powerfully projecting guitar. In stock
Ziricote: This is one of my favorites. I've been using it a lot in the past few years, and it has become by default back and side wood for many of my non-commissioned guitars, because it does not require CITES export permit. Ziricote has the most striking figure of almost any wood, and tonaly it is an excellent wood.
Bocote: The same genus as ziricote. A beautiful, dark brown wood with striking grain lines. I have some beautiful sets in stock, but most of my clients are too conservative to "risk" buying a guitar made with bocote. In time I hope this attitude changes, because it is such a nice wood. In stock
Pau Ferro: Also called Santos Rosewood or Bolivian rosewood by some, however it is not a true dalbergia. It has a brown color with narrow black lines in it. In terms of sound it is indistinguishable from the heavier dalbergia species. in stock
Maple: An indisputably great sounding wood which imparts a bell like quality to the tone, with a strong fundamental response. For the violin makers, maple helps reduce standing waves and excessive overtones. For the Jazz guitarists, maple is a great wood for helping create a clean, defined tone which is good for complex chord voicings. More and more classical guitarists are discovering the beauty and tone of maple. When nicely figured it is one of my favorite woods to build with. I have fiddle back and quilted varieties in stock.
Walnut: I have built many guitars with walnut back and sides. It's an excellent wood both visually and tonaly. I prefer it to maple mainly due to its gorgeous brown hues. Walnut wood gives great bell-like trebles, and generaly speaking sounds a lot like maple, with all the benefits.
Claro Walnut: This sub-species of walnut grows on the west coast of North America: In stock
Persian Walnut: This is the "original Old World walnut" great colour and figure: In stock
Cypress: Cypress is associated with the flamenco guitar traditionally, but many luthiers are making excellent classicals with it too. in stock
European Pear Wood: I was lucky enough to obtain some beautiful figured pear wood. I am looking forward to trying it. Pear has been a traditionally favored wood by many European luthiers, but it has been slow to catch on in America. in stock
Koa / Australian Blackwood: These are both woods from the genus acacia - which look and sound almost identical to one another. The Koa usually has a bit more color variation and often better figure. The Australian blackwood has a finer pore structure. It is the more practical choice nowadays, as Koa has become extremely expensive. A warm, clean tone with a strong fundamental response is the result, in my experience. Koa in stock
Here are a few pictures of some woods:
Amazon Rosewood (dalbergia spruceana)
Guitar made with Italian spruce and the finest Brazilain rosewood- straight grained, quarter sawn, and colourful. Binding is ebony.
Indonesian Rosewood, before and after the finish.
Quilted Bigleaf maple from Vancouver Island
Why I use any particular wood is a function of its structural and tonal qualities, availability, and marketability. Some woods, like Bubinga for example, look and sound great, but most classical guitar players do not want it. As the traditional woods are becoming rapidly depleted many new species are being used as alternatives. Brazilian rosewood is now an endangered species, and in 2017 all of the dalbergia genus (rosewoods) were given CITES 2 designation, and thus require permits to ship internationally.
Antonio de Torres, who can be considered the father of the modern classical guitar, employed many unusual woods for his guitars. He used Brazilian rosewood when he could get it, but also used locust, maple, cypress, and pear wood for the backs and sides. He built guitars at a time when most of what he used was sourced localy. Imported woods were rare and expensive. Although in modern times this situation has changed, I believe that luthiers will soon be forced to use local materials once again. The exotic tropical woods - the rosewoods and ebonies, may one day be exhausted due to overharvesting. Trade restrictions are making it difficult to obtain, or ship internationally, many of these woods.
Luckily for luthiers and musicians, there are many excellent alternatives to the rare, exotic woods which we've come to think of as standard.