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Considered to be the most abundant hardwood in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, Red Alder has long been used in the region for furniture and cabinetry production — as well as being a popular choice for electric guitar bodies dating back to when the instrument first went into mass production, in the 1950’s. Ranging in color from a light tan to reddish brown, Alder has a soft, lightweight stature — which makes the wood very easy to work, and it finishes and glues well.
Red Alder is usually sold in two different grades: knotty, and clear. Clear grades are most desired by cabinet and furniture crafters. Many such tradesmen compare the wood’s cooperative disposition to that of Black Cherry.
Although technically a hardwood, care must be taken with Alder until finished as its surface can be rather soft (thus, denting easily). The wood is decidedly non-durable, so confining its use to indoor applications and treating the wood with some type of hardening finish (such as lacquer) is recommended.
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Also known as “Satine,” Bloodwood is an exotic South American import that continues to grow in popularity here in the states. It’s dark, savory red tones, untypically do not fade, mute or darken much over time. It is known for its “satiny,” highly-chatoyant finish. While the heartwood typically is comprised of red hues, it is known to have variances ranging from oranges to pale yellows, interspersed. It’s impressive density makes it ideal for an electric guitar fretboard or an acoustic guitar back and sides; wood turners love it, as well, for its fabulous, unique aesthetics and very reasonable price.
The reason this wood continues to grow in popularity in the US with guitar builders, gun & knife manufacturers (handles) and wood turners, is due to the exceptional aesthetics, for which the species is known, and the very reasonable board-foot prices for which these boards generally sell. Boards of exceptional quality will command a premium, but still represent a whole lot of ‘bang for the buck’ for an imported exotic wood.
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More commonly known as “Pale Moon Ebony” to US guitar luthiers and aficionados, this Southeast Asian true Diospyros ebony is, without question, the world’s most difficult, perplexing exotic wood and at times, one of its most visually stunning. (It’s also one of its most sought-after.) The wood is known for the bold jet black ink lines which adorn its creamy, pale yellow base. Both the volume and pattern of its lines are unpredictable, varying greatly from piece to piece. Grains can be straight, wavy or irregular; its texture is fine, with a nice natural luster. Its hardness and density are quite moderate for an ebony.
After being harvested or re-sawn, the wood exhibits a strong tendency to self-destruct — often changing shape, cracking and checking — if not quickly coated in wax. Although it’s not currently viewed as endangered, the wood has always been in short supply in the US, despite an unquenchable demand from custom guitar builders and wood enthusiasts, alike. Other than the difficulties in drying, it has good working properties; it machines, turns, glues and finishes well.
Because of its noted self-destructive tendencies, the wood is coated in wax almost immediately after being harvested. Given this, what little makes it to the US market arrives with very high moisture levels, necessitating further drying. (This is where it gets tricky.) Experience has shown that the best drying results are obtained by leaving the wood coated in wax and just patiently allowing it to air dry. Any attempts to speed up this process are very risky as the wood usually winds up punishing the impatient! Even when dried very slowly, the wood can still change shape. It’s not unusual, at all, to find pieces with major surface checks and cracks that occur even while under wax. For this reason, you see significantly more craft-sized pieces than larger, resawable boards (which typically command a premium price). Recutting boards will speed up the drying process, but attentive care must be taken to prevent warpage of the cut pieces. Importation to the US has been through very limited, select channels on an irregular basis for a number of years.
This wood is most always in short supply, while the demand remains constant. Rare Woods USA is very pleased to be able to offer a limited amount of larger boards and billets of this spectacular exotic wood. Lumber orders to Southeast Asia can sometimes take 12 to 18 months or more to fill, ship and receive. With the recent banning of rosewood and ebony exportation by the Laotian government, we’re not sure how soon we’ll be able to restock (if at all). For the last several years, US importation of Black & White Ebony has been exclusively from Laos.
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Goncalo Alves is known at least as commonly by its popular nickname, “Tigerwood” — given for its orange-hued primary color, and the dark striped (black or dark brown) which often decorates its surface. Its great durability, impressive strength, stiffness and hardness, generally cooperative working properties (although it can be difficult to glue, due to a high natural oil content), large tree sizes — which yield sizable boards — and regular supply, are factors which contribute to making Goncalo Alves a very popular choice among Central & South American woods made available to domestic markets in the US.
Grains can be wavy, interlocked or sometimes straight; its texture is fine, with a good natural luster.
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Although not a true Diospyros ebony species, Katalox earned its “Royal Mexican Ebony” nickname due to its great density (which actually supersedes all true ebonies, in that regard) and the fact that, as it ages, it turns considerably darker than when its initially cut and dried. It is known to be generally very durable, making the wood ideal for a variety of applications — although it can be very difficult difficult to re-saw (density) and glue, due to its typically high natural oil content. The grains can be straight, irregular or interlocked; it’s texture ranges from fine to medium, with a nice natural luster.
Despite its somewhat uncooperative working characteristics, Katalox’s stability and handsome appearance make the wood a popular choice with guitar luthiers and fine furniture craftsmen, alike. Its heartwood is among the most durable of all the exotics in the world, but the sapwood can be susceptible to bug holes.
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African Mahogany is a wood that continues to grow in popularity — so much so that this new millennium has seen its various species be replanted into tropical regions in Central America, as well as becoming a contemporary plantation roster addition. Depending on its origin, growth conditions and specific strain (“African Mahogany” encompasses four different Khaya species), it color can range from a pale pink or muted orange, to a somewhat darker reddish- or golden-brown. It can also have darker striping, and, aesthetically, it can be further enhanced through figuring (ribbon; wavy diagonal; mottled) and varying levels of chatoyance.
Its grains are typically either straight or interlocked. It works, turns and finishes easily, and beautifully, although boards which feature interlocked grains can occasionally pose tearout issues when planing, joining or resawing.
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Ambrosia Maple is a general term attached to a variety of Acer (true maple) species whose boards included colorful bug “trails” — caused by a fungus carried by the Ambrosia Beetle which penetrates the tree sap as the beetle eats into the tree, and it spreads both through the worm hole and up and down in the tree (carried along by the sap) and causes discoloring of the wood in streaks. The two primary species which draw the beetle’s attention are Acer rubrum (Red Maple) and Acer saccharum (Sugar Maple), although — with there reputedly being more than sixty different Acer species indigenous to North America — this unusual phenomenon is certainly not confined to just the two. Weight and density can vary greatly — depending upon the actual species — the typical varieties of maple figuring can also be present, often creating some very unique, visually spectacular specimens.
Like any other maple, it is easily worked; generally cooperative through all phases. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine — since bugs have, quite obviously, already penetrated the wood’s surface — that the wood is decidedly non-durable, although it is generally stable enough for use in furniture and guitars. Its surface is typically darker than most sap maple (often featuring secondary / additional discolorations and other long streaks), although it retains the same high degree of natural luster.
The scientific explanation is that the impregnated Ambrosia Beetle burrows into the maple tree (presumably for a safe place to deposit larvae), carrying fungi on its feet into the wood — which serves as food for the insect’s offspring, when they hatch. The fungal residue left behind as it digs into the maple can cause discoloration throughout the wood, via the tree’s sap, in addition to the dramatically contrasting (mostly) blue and (sometimes) green trails which surround the small tunnels they chew. The beetles prefer wood that is not soaking wet, but that is in the beginning stages of drying. Once kiln dried, they will not re-infest.
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Birdseye Maple is another title which does not, necessarily, denote a specific Acer species — although the bulk of what is sold is Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) — but rather a unique figuring that occurs in maple as a result of numerous small- to medium-sized knots accumulating in the wood. It remains one of the most coveted and sought-after of all figured maple varieties.
Although it has never been scientifically proven, the prevailing school of thought is that the figuring is reportedly caused by unfavorable growing conditions. As the tree attempts to access more sunlight, buds begin to sprout in its trunk — to try and grow more branches, to access more light — but the tree lacks the requisite nutrients to support the growth and the new shoots are aborted, resulting in “birdseyes” (small knots) embedded in the tree’s wood.
There can be very large variances in birdseye size and content. Boards with larger concentrations of birdseyes are, obviously, more sought after and thus command greater prices than more sparsely decorated pieces. When sanded and finish-sanded, boards featuring somewhat larger birdseyes can have an almost 3D look — like brown bumps, sitting up on a light golden surface.
There have been tearout issues associated with birdseyes, as sometimes these tiny knots can wind up leaving tiny voids. There are also justified concerns that the tiny voids may occur sometime after the wood has been put into service. Because of this, some electric guitar luthiers shy away from using Birdseye Maple for fretboard wood, as slotting the frets can prove adventurous (if not downright painful:-)). Others, who do use it, will apply a finish coat of some type of protective lacquer over the fretboard when completing the neck.
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Morado is known by many names. Pau Ferro, Bolivian Rosewood and Morado are the most common. The wood earned its “… Rosewood” nicknames (by which it is commonly known) because its colors and density are similar. It has a medium brown base typically augmented by black streaks or grain lines, and sometimes even purple, tan and golden secondary hues, and sometimes a purplish tint, overall. Although it can have varying grains, straight-grained pieces are generally very easy to work, and the wood turns smoothly and finishes well. It is considered quite durable, although it can be subject to insect attack.
Morado is a popular Brazilian Rosewood substitute and is thought to be about as similar in properties to rosewood as any non-Dalbergia-genus species possibly could be. Its grains are tighter than a typical rosewood specimen, and it is thought to have a more distinctly percussive tap-tone than that of Brazilian. Its tonal response is said to have tight lows, present mids and a clear, singing high end response.
Despite the comparisons, it should be noted that the (much more prevalent) Machaerium-genus species of Pau Ferro has less density, hardness and weight than an average rosewood.
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The Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron Tulipifera) tree is the tallest of all Eastern US hardwoods; the wood it yields is some of the least dense. Yellow Poplar is characterized by a light muted cream color, often with mineral-stained streaks typically of gray and/or green. (Sapwood is ivory- to white-colored, easily distinguished from the heartwood.) Although, traditionally, Poplar has been long considered a “utility” type of lumber, the wood’s straight, uniform grains and medium texture affords it very cooperative working properties, and it glues and finishes well when finely sanded.
Yellow Poplar is moderately durable, in spite of its inherent light weight and low density, which has seen it commonly used for crates and pallets throughout the US.
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Amazon Rosewood has been considered a good substitute for Brazilian Rosewood though its beautiful appearance and desirability as a tonewood should allow it to stand out in its own right. Color tends to a darker reddish brown than its counterpart. Though slightly lower on the Janka scale, Amazon Rosewood is significantly heavier than Brazilian Rosewood. Its density contributes to challenging workability, while the oil content makes for difficult gluing. The effort is rewarded by its fine lustrous polish and superior tonal qualities.
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Denser than East Indian Rosewood, Honduran Rosewood is well known for being the preferred wood for Marimba bars, with its ringing, well-rounded tonal properties. It compares well to Brazilian Rosewood (many claim it actually superior), producing a well-balanced acoustic guitar, with great projection and strong lows and highs. (In fact, during the ’50?s and ’60?s, the great flamenco guitar crafters considered it to be the only acceptable substitute to Brazilian Rosewood.)
Honduran Rosewood’s grain lines are unusually tight and straight (though sometimes wavy or interlocked). The color ranges from a medium tan to a brownish brick red color, medium brown (sometimes with a purplish tint) or even a medium to dark burgundy, with occasional dark brown or black ink lines. Due to the wood’s density and high oil content, it can be difficult to cut, machine and glue. Its texture can range from fine to medium; (not unlike Braz Rw) it is porous, and those pores are usually medium- to large-sized. As would be expected — given its oily nature — the wood has a rich natural luster.
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Engelmann Spruce is typically a high-altitude mountain evergreen tree, indigenous to the mountainous regions of western North America, with scattered, isolated distribution in surrounding lower-level areas. The wood is prized among many acoustic guitar luthiers, for its superior resonance and tonal response qualities when used as a soundboard (acoustic guitar top). Its color can range from a light off-white to cream.
It is straight grained and has a fine, consistent texture, which makes it generally easy to work — although common-grade pieces may contain numerous small knots, and the wood can be difficult to stain. Its excellent stiffness-to-weight ratio has made it historically useful in a variety of construction and utility applications, benefited, also, by a virtually limitless domestic supply.
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Ziricote is one of the most popular, visually striking exotic woods in the world. Renowned for its “landscape” or “spiderweb” grain patterns, its colors range from medium to dark shades of brown (occasionally with either a green or purplish tint), and are accentuated by intermingled bands of unpredictable, irregular black growth rings. Sapwood is easily distinguishable by its dull off-white to pale yellow hue.
Although it is a fairly dense wood, its typical straight (though sometimes slightly interlocked) grains and fine to medium-fine texture give it cooperative working properties, as it cuts, turns, glues and finishes smoothly.
Ziricote is a close relative (and neighbor) of Bocote, with both being Central American woods of the Cordia genus. Its radical, often-dramatic grain patterns have given the wood somewhat of an ‘elite’ status among international exotic woods enthusiasts.¬† While it has never been an inexpensive wood, recent revelations of epidemic poaching across Mexico have resulted in a greatly reduced supply and sharp price increases on wholesale and retails levels.
Unless action is taken to stem the tide (of poaching), Ziricote and other Central American woods could very well be the subject of actions from CITES in the very near future.¬† Interestingly, the bark of the Cordia dodecandra tree and the wood have medicinal properties: the tea which is derived from their infusion is used in traditional medicine in Mexico, to treat coughs, diarrhea and dysentery.
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