It all starts with the woods......

There is an increasing trend in ukulele making and guitar making to use woods which look spectacular regardless of the sound they produce.  I don’t follow it.  I evaluate ukulele woods with tests and prototyping before I will use it in my production.   These are the woods I use currently…..

Australian Black Acacia (Acacia Melanoxylon)

Just as the original Hawaiian makers were blessed with the extraordinary tonewood Acacia Koa, in Eastern Australia there grows Acacia Melanoxylon  or Australian Blackwood, also called Tasmanian Blackwood, as it grows very well in that island state.  However, variants of it grow all the way up the east of Australia into the tropical areas.  It is a relatively short-lived tree, a legume, which re-colonises the ground after older trees have died and prepares the soil for the dominant forest trees. It  has almost identical properties to its Hawaiian cousin, Koa.  I use it for almost all my ukulele bodies – top, back and sides.  It is a highly regarded tonewood for guitars as it sometimes has wonderful wavy, shimmering, dimpled and otherwise spectacular grain.  (Only about 1% of trees show this figure)  It also imparts a bright, rich tone when used in guitar back and sides.  It really  comes into its own when used in ukuleles however, when carefully shaved down to the very fine thicknesses I use and braced appropriately it has just the right combination of strength and flexibility to produce the rich full bodied tone I strive for. Straight grained, quartersawn blackwood is very stiff along the grain and produces a bright sound.  The curly, figured blackwood has a stronger lower midrange component and a warmer sound.  You can see plenty of examples of figured blackwood in the photos of the various ukulele models here. 

Blackwood has a good surface hardness and does not require a thick finish for protection from the various strumming techniques used by players.  In fact, it is fine with no finish at all if you want, just a hard wax coating to seal the wood and protect against dirt will do.  There is  more about finishes under FINISHES.
In short, it looks great, a lot like the best Hawaiian Koa, sounds great, and is a sustainably harvested timber. 

Spruce soundboards

My approach was very traditional until a few years ago and I would only use blackwood for the ukulele soundboards.   With its amazing strength to weight ratio and grain structure, spruce is a preferred tonewood for soundboards for everything from pianos to guitars to violins to string basses.   The original Portugese and Spanish precursor instruments to the ukulele used spruce or related pine species this way and I use it in intruments where volume and projection are all-important especially in the larger ukulele models – tenors and baritones.  It combines well with rosewood or blackwood back and sides.  The only disadvantage for spruce soundboards is that it scratches and bruises more easily than hardwoods, and requires protection from a thicker finish or plastic film around the fretboard and soundhole areas where the player’s nails frequently abrade the surface.  The picture shows a sitka spruce soundboard, curly blackwood edge binding and Indian rosewood side on a solo tenor ukulele.

Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata)

There are quite a number of early ukuleles I have made from Western Australian Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata).  Jarrah looks great with its rich red -brown colouring and often spectacular figure.  The sound of my Jarrah ukes is not as “hot” or rich as my blackwood ones.  They sound quite loud with good mid range response and a lot like a high-quality U.S. made Koa ukulele which sounds a little tame to my ear.  This is because Jarrah, being a eucalypt, is prone to instability, movement and cracking when made very thin in ukulele bodies, so it has to be used at the thicknesses used in the factory ukes.  It is very durable and does not need thick finishes. Jarrah works well for guitar back and sides, and along with the rosewoods, acacias, mango wood and many other hardwoods it makes good back and sides in the ukulele family.  Some people like it simply because it is West Australian, however I’ll stress that used properly jarrah is a very decent tonewood.

Satin Box (Phlebalium squameum)

Another wood I have used, and like very much, is a unique Australian wood called Satin Box (Phebalium squameum).  It is creamy yellow colour and has an unusual structure.  In the thin sections I use for ukuleles it is quite translucent, passing much more light than spruce of the same thickness.  It has a clear “crystalline” sound to it.  Ukuleles built from it look a little like the “TV Special” Gibson Les Paul guitars, whose creamy blonde appearance showed up so well on back and white television.  Satin Box also has a unique smell.  Very pleasant, like a fruity, spicy salad dressing. It is a great ukulele wood.   Being a hardwood it needs only a thin lacquer coat.