Some historic keyboard instrument timbers used today

Copyright © 2003 CBH

Some of the wood stack at THE PARIS WORKSHOP 12K jpeg
Some of the wood storage at

Many different woods are used in musical instrument making. If you live in Australia, you will probably not find many of these timbers in your local timber yard. The woods shown here are just some of the wide variety used by leading makers involved in recreating early keyboard instruments. The best harpsichords today are often made from similar, if not identical, timber species to the originals. In this regard our Northern Hemisphere colleagues have a natural advantage.

Each timber must be carefully chosen and appropriately prepared for its purpose. Probably even more important than the choice of timber is its quality and treatment—The end result cannot be certain just because a particular species is used! A most obvious example may be the arrogant use of a European spruce soundboard, poorly selected and dried, and insufficiently aged, instead of perhaps a more reliably obtainable “lesser” timber which all other design considerations being equal, would give a more desired end result.

The aesthetic consideration is also important: It may be quite incorrect, for example, or even upsetting to some, to use a highly figured hardwood as a keycovering, no matter how elegant it might seem. There are no Australian timbers found here, not because they are not beautiful or useful, but because generally we have few equivalent species to the European timbers necessary for the traditional construction practices of keyboard instruments, or even violins for that matter. (It took an American flute maker, Professor Felix Skowroneck, to discover and show us what enormous variety and beauty can be found among the natural Australian hardwoods.) What can be made from local timbers may be remarkable, but in all likelihood, meet the perception of neither player nor audience.

One of the largest problems we all face is that wood is just so useful for so many things, and has until now been so plentiful, that far too much has been wasted without thought on items of little use or doubtful lasting value. Conservation must be of utmost concern to everyone. Fortunately, many of these timbers are now farmed and can be regarded as a truly renewable resource. Others can be sourced more efficiently from ethical suppliers with regard to the preservation of our environment, or, in the case of some tropical species now becoming rare, appropriate substitutes found.

All the samples are direct scans of aged, 400-grit sanded surfaces of the actual timber.

Alaskan yellow cedar 1K jpeg Alaskan yellow cedar
Chamaecyparis nootkatensis
Fine, light, stiff & stable, remarkable aroma Italian cases & mouldings
Cypress 2K jpeg Cypress
Cupressus sempervirens
Fine grain, distinctive aroma, highly resistant to fungal and insect attack, darkens to honey color Italian cases, mouldings & veneers
Swiss pine 1K jpeg Swiss pine
Picea abies
Strong & light, stiff, now rare in high quality Soundboards, bracing, large Italian cases
Sitka spruce 2K jpeg Sitka spruce
Picea sitchensis
Strong & light, once used for aircraft Bracing, soundboards
Lime 1K jpeg Lime
Tilia vulgaris
Uniformly fine texture, straight-grained, stiffer than basswood Cases, panels, key levers
Canadian basswood 1K jpeg Canadian Basswood
Tilia americana
Fine, straight-grained, easy to work, comparable to the European lime (linden) Cases, panels, key levers
Poplar 1K jpeg Poplar
Liriodendron tulipifera
Fine, somewhat harder surface than basswood Case parts, trestle stands, turned & fluted legs
Hard maple 1K jpeg Hard maple
Acer saccharum
Hard, heavy, straight-grained, good for steam bending Virginal bridges & mouldings
Alisée 1K jpeg Alisée
Sorbus aria
Fine texture, easy to work Registers, jack bodies, clavichord bridges
Holly 2 K jpeg Holly
Ilex aquifolium
Interlocking grain Jack tongues
American beech 2K jpeg American beech
Fagus grandifolia
Fine, even spotted texture, good for steam bending Bridges, mouldings, registers, turned stands, music desks & lid sticks
American red oak 2K jpeg American red oak
Quercus rubra
Hard, very coarse-textured Wrestplanks
French oak 2K jpeg French oak
Quercus petraea
Hard, coarse-textured, attractive figure Wrestplanks, turned stands, music desks, lid sticks
Boxwood 1K jpeg Boxwood
Buxus sempervirens
Hard-wearing, polishes to a fine smooth surface Key covers
Red alder 1K jpeg Red alder
Alnus rubra
Soft, straight-grained, subtle figure Bentside spinet cases, panels & turned stands
Honduran mahogany 2K jpeg Honduran mahogany
Swietenia macrophylla
Medium texture, open grain, strong cabinet timber of great beauty Fortepiano & clavichord cases; turned stands, music desks
French cherry 1K jpeg French cherry
Prunus avium
Fine, often attractive wavy-grained wood Clavichord cases & stands
American cherry 1K jpeg American cherry
Prunus serotina
Hard, straight-grained, takes polish well Fortepiano cases & panels; virginal key covers
Swiss pearwood 1K jpeg Swiss pearwood
Pyrus communis
Very fine-grained, natural lubrication when polished Bridges, mouldings, keycovers, jacks
French walnut 2K jpeg French walnut
Juglans regia
Straight to wavy-grained with attractive color & figure Clavichord cases & stands; Italian wrestplank veneer & accidentals
Mozambique grenadilla 1K jpeg Mozambique grenadilla
Dalbergia melanoxylon
Extremely heavy & hard-wearing, polishes to a fine surface Reverse key covers, solid accidentals

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