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Martin Shelton

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Social Circle, GA 30025

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Recorder Woods                                     HOME

The design of an instrument is the most important quality for determination of instrument tone.  That being said, the type of wood an instrument is made of does have an affect on its tone quality.  This is due to the different machining properties of different woods, or even different pieces of the same wood.  A bore or ceiling chamfer or the window edge might be smoother or sharper on a fine-grained, easy-to-machine piece of wood.  Wood with an open grain or pore structure will produce a rougher surface, causing turbulence as the air passes by it.  This rougher surface will result in a warmer, more covered and diffuse tone.  The harmonic structure will also be affected. For instance, rosewood has a very open grain and large pores, giving a full, warm sound rich in overtones.  A smoother surface will result in a brighter, more focused tone, as with grenadilla or ebony. 

In general, maple and sycamore (white) and pearwood (pinkish brown) are less expensive because they lend themselves to machine production and originate in temperate climates. They are usually impregnated with wax to help preserve and stabilize the soft wood.  Maple has a relatively plain and focused tone, with little in the way of overtones.  Pearwood usually gives a more vibrant tone with greater presence than maple. It is rounder and fuller than maple, with a broader tone emphasizing the fundamental, with little in the way of higher overtones. The tone of European Boxwood, mainly used in handmade instruments, (yellowish when not stained) is warm and full.  Castello or Zapatero Boxwood are not true boxwoods, but are used in manufactured instruments (as opposed to handmade instruments).  They tend to play stronger and clearer than maple or pear, with some overtone character.  Tropical hardwoods were little used in the 18th century, but are valued now for their stronger sound with more overtones, as well as their durability and beauty. Olive has a more open sound, somewhere between pearwood and rosewoods in overtone quality, with warmth, lacking much of the higher overtones.  Plum tends toward the stronger, clearer side, but with less strength or overtones than olive or the rosewoods, but more warmth than the imitation boxwoods.  The Dalbergia species contains palisander and rosewood, both of whom comes in many varieties and colors, from almost black to light red-brown.  Palisander and rosewood instruments are strong and rich, with the broadest spectrum of overtones, due to the open grain and pore structure of the wood, as mentioned above. Tulipwood, another Dalbergia, is similar, but with a more striking grain. The characteristic tone is more edgy than boxwood, the overtones tending towards oboe tone.  Ebony and grenadilla are black and heavy, and the tone more silvery and flute like, emphasizing the upper end of the overtone series.  The block or plug is almost universally made of cedar, although Mollenhauer now uses a ceramic composite on some of its instruments.

As much as I try to describe the tonal characteristics of an instrument or the general characteristics of the different woods, the choice is very subjective and personal.  That is why I like to send several instruments for you to try, so that you can decide for yourself by trying them out in your particular playing situation, with your group to get their feedback, or with the help of your teacher.

Listed below are the common names, (genus and species), source, tonal description and density of each wood.

Boxwood-Zapatero (Gossypiospermum praecox)    South America

Dense and firm, easy response


European Boxwood

(Buxus sempervirens)

Central / South Europe

Elegant tone



(Dalbergia melanoxylon)


Precise and elegant tone


Zapatero Boxwood

European Boxwood



(Acer pseudoplatanus)

Canada, Central Europe




(Olea europaea)

South Europe

A very open sound



(Pyrus communis)

Central Europe

Relatively soft, fundamental tone






Central Europe

Firm and resonant


Rosewood (palisander)

(Dalbergia stevensonii)

South America

Vigorous tone, rich with overtones



(Dalbergia frutescens var. tor.)

South America

Easy response, rich sound



Rosewood (Palisander)