About wood

01_about_wood_1The kinds of wood which have been most frequently used in Europe for making oboes and the majority of woodwind instruments are of the European species, such as boxwood, plum wood, pear wood and other fruit tree woods, except for apple wood (as its shrinkage is very high – much higher than of any other European varieties – and for that reason it is not used for making woodwind instruments, although I know a few surviving historical zinks (cornetts) made from this material).
From the second half of the 17th century until almost the latter half of the 19th century the most popular wood for making woodwind instruments was boxwood. There are different explanations why it was this kind of wood that prevailed.

In the picture: European Boxwood logs and Paulhahn from European boxwood

Boxwood logs
Today we can often hear the opinion that it was because boxwood gives instruments the best quality of sound. However, according to some researchers – and I share their opinion – the reasons  were completely different. Namely, anyone who  has ever had an opportunity of turning /working with boxwood knows that this kind of wood, like no other of the European varieties, can be turned very precisely. So precisely and smoothly that if you have good and sharp turning tools you do not need to use sandpaper for the final finish of the surface. In the 18th century there were no abrasives in the form we know them today. Woodworking and finishing the surface of wood took up makers a lot of time. On a vast majority of historical oboes one can see  turning marks. The truth is that turning certain details in boxwood is simply much easier than, for instance, in plum wood or maple wood, which tend to chip off during turning.

In the picture: Maple, European boxwood, cherry, pear, plum…

Despite that, today, in my opinion, pear or cherry wood, for example, are a better choice for making an oboe than boxwood for some very important reasons. The most important of them is the fact that in the 18th century oboe makers had an access to much better quality boxwood than we can imagine nowadays. The European boxwood (common box) grows extremely slowly and its trunk reaches very small sizes and diameters in comparison with other trees. In the past boxwood was logged mainly from lowland terrains of France and England and at that time its trunks were larger in diameter than the ones available now. Today, as a result of the considerable deforestation and clearance of trees in lowland forests in Europe, boxwood for making instruments is logged in the French Pyrenees and mountainous terrains of Turkey.


Unfortunately, these boxwoods contain a high percentage of so-called tension (reaction) wood. Most frequently, a tree produces such wood when it grows on slopes. Its function is to straighten the trunks. The tension wood is a really big problem, because it is a kind of  tissue whose physical structure is fundamentally different from that of normal wood and thus having disparate physical properties. Its shrinkage is much higher, it is very susceptible to warping and rather unstable. If a wood has a tension wood fraction in it, it always tends to warp and, what is more, even repeatedly. Unfortunately, in such a case it does not matter how long the wood is seasoned. If an oboe is made from such wood, it will sooner or later get warped.

In pictures: Tension wood in European boxwood timbers

04_about_wood_tension-and-normal-wood  05_about_wood_normal-and-tension-wood  06_about_wood_normal-wood

Besides, boxwood is very expensive, out of proportion to its current and real value as timber for making musical instruments. And distinguishing between the sound of an oboe made from boxwood and, for example, the one made out of pear wood is in my opinion impossible, which can be easily proved by experiment. Because the most important thing for the sound of a woodwind instrument is always the bore…

In my opinion, currently the best distributor of European boxwood is Huw Crompton from Great Britain, because he knows very well how to properly prepare this wood, which is especially important in the case of European boxwood.

Durability of wood
The quality and durability of an oboe is inextricably connected with the quality of the material used for building it. One can make a quite well playing oboe from a poorer quality wood (one which is not sufficiently seasoned and not oiled), but then its physical and musical durability is, as a rule, very short. For example, the wood which is insufficiently seasoned begins to change its dimensions in the course of using the instrument, and what is even worse, it changes its proportions, which may result in worsening of the intonation of particular sounds and off-key octaves. The wood which is adequately seasoned and oiled also changes its volume to a certain extent, but not the proportions. It is a fundamental difference.
It is true, then, that the importance of seasoning and impregnation of wood cannot be overestimated. Today, when modern timber drying kilns exist which make it possible to obtain completely dry wood in a very short time after cutting it, many people seem to forget what the process of seasoning is…
Seasoning, as the very name implies, is a slow process during which the wood experiences consecutive changes of  the seasons (temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure changes, etc.). It is extremely important, because at that time the wood is ‘working’, that is, among other things, changing its volume. The more changes occur in the wood before an instrument is made out of it, the more resistant to such changes the future oboe will be. Moreover, during seasoning a lot of complicated processes occur in the wood, which can only be completed in this slow way. They are not insignificant for the musical quality of instruments.

In the picture: Seasoned wood

All the European species of wood (maple, sycamore, cherry, plum, olive, boxwood) require oiling. After seasoning, it is the second most important factor which has a great influence on the quality and durability of oboes. The woods of the above mentioned species are sensitive to water and adequate oiling by the maker  is absolutely indispensible for the oboes which are made out of them. Unquestionably, linseed oil is the best for this purpose, which has been proved for centuries. This kind of oil belongs to the group of drying oils, which is very important, because it permanently protects wood against the adverse influence of humidity. What is interesting, the wood impregnated with oil extremely gains in musical value.
Grenadill and Cocobolo woods, because of their physical properties, need to be oiled exclusively with non-drying oils, that is, almond oil and olive oil. Firstly, because these species already contain their own resinous preservatives which greatly hinder long oiling; secondly, because unfavourable chemical reactions occur between linseed oil and those natural preservatives.

In the picture: Cocobolo wood

Depending on the kind of wood used for making an oboe, the time of waiting for the instrument is different, since particular kinds of wood absorb oil at different pace.
The durability of an instrument is connected with the kind of wood used for its construction, but it would be a mistake to claim that the harder the wood is, the more durable the instrument. For example, boxwood and pear wood belong to the most durable of the known wood species, but definitely they are not the hardest. And this is because the hardness is associated with the density of wood, and if the density is extremely high (Grenadill, Guaiac), then such woods are more susceptible to sudden changes of temperature than the species of relatively low density and hardness. It makes them more exposed to cracking.
It is caused by slow changes in the temperature of the outer layers of the wood in relation to the inner layers. As a result, there occurs high and dangerous tension in the wood.
All the oboes which I construct are made from long-seasoned wood (10, 15, 20, 28 years of seasoning) which is adequately oiled, and, therefore, in the course of time my instruments gain in sound quality.

In the picture: Cross-section of plum wood log – fresh timber

Studying the oboes from museums and private collections for years, I have become certain that the majority of oboe makers of the past centuries used the best quality pieces of wood and attached great importance to the proper impregnation (oiling) of the wood.
Otherwise, very few specimens of instruments would have survived to this day, particularly in playing condition…

In the picture: Classical oboe at a’=430 Hz by George Goulding, c.1790


The species of wood and the sound
There are many myths about the scale of influence the species of wood have on the sound of an oboe. However, every oboe player knows from his own experience, that the species of wood exerts a considerable influence on the tone colour, and that is an indisputable fact. I would describe this influence on the timbre of the sound as a “hue” or “shade”.
However, the crucial factors which have the effect on the tone colour are: the skills and workshop of the maker, the quality of the workmanship, the quality of the wood used and impregnation. Only after that comes the species of wood. By applying extremely subtle modifications in the structure of  the instrument, changing the proportions of the bocal or reed, it is possible to make oboes which sound very similar, although they are made from different kinds of wood.

In the picture: Baroque and Classical oboes


The choice of the kind of wood for making an oboe is an extremely individual matter and sometimes two oboists who play on similar – although made from different kinds of wood – instruments, achieve, despite that, a very similar sound.

Sycamore and Maple wood
This is a relatively soft kind of wood, which has been used for making wind instruments for hundreds of years. Its natural colour is light beige to almost white (sycamore) or beige pink  (maple). It absorbs oil very well and fast and ‘drinks’ a lot of it. This kind of wood does not include any toxins or irritant substances, so it is very safe for allergy sufferers. Sometimes it is difficult to work with; it is especially hard to turn the smallest details. If the maple or  sycamore wood is appropriately prepared (seasoned and oiled for a long time), it gives oboes a pleasant, noble and deep resonance. This species of wood is relatively light and, because of this, it is good for novice baroque oboists (who are not accustomed to using the instruments without the thumb rest), as it is  easier to hold the instrument in hands.

In pictures: Sycamore/oiled and maple/unoiled wood

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Pear wood (Pyrus communis)
Pear wood is a very variable species and the wood sometimes differs in properties depending on the particular specimen and variety. Even wild pear trees which have crossed with cultivated varieties for years are individually different from each other as far as its wood is concerned. I mostly use the wood of wild pear tree. I believe that it possesses the best musical and physical properties for making oboes. Pear wood has been valued for centuries as the wood for making instruments, and it has also been highly thought of in sculpture and woodcarving. Wild pear wood absorbs oil quite slowly. The sound of the oboes made out of pear wood is difficult to distinguish from the sound of the ones made from boxwood – it gives the instruments a saturated, deep and relatively strong sound. Pear wood undergoes warping considerably less frequently than boxwood; it is more stable. Besides, it has a beautiful brown, sometimes reddish brown or grey brown colour, resembling the colour of milk chocolate. It is one of my most favourite woods. It has a faint scent.

In the picture: Pear wood/oiled

Cherry wood (Prunus cerasus)
Cherry wood is one of the woods that have been used for making woodwind instruments since time immemorial. This fruit tree wood gives the sounds a tone colour very similar to pear wood or boxwood. It is quite hard and easy to drill holes in; it is easy to colour, although I think that its natural colour is the prettiest – it is brown amber, and with time it takes on depth of extraordinary beauty. Some wild cherry trees have colourful streaks. Cherry wood easily absorbs oil. This kind of wood has a very distinct and pleasant, sweet fruity smell which is obviously most intensive during woodworking, but it is permanent, and clearly perceptible, particularly during playing the oboe, as the wood is warmed up.

In the picture: Cherry wood/unoiled and oiled15_about_wood_Cherry-wood-unoiled-and-oiled

Plum wood (Prunus domestica)
Plum wood has been used for making all smaller wind instruments for centuries. Its range of  colours is quite wide – from the beautiful cherry-red purple brown to brown reddish-brown to muddy beige. It sometimes has carmine streaks.
Plum wood is very decorative and because of the intensity of colour it resembles exotic kinds of wood. Its colour grows darker with time to dark brown cherry-red. Its characteristic property  during working is that, in spite of its hardness, it is possible to drill even very long holes in it. It is my favourite wood for making oboes d’amore, as it gives them exceedingly noble, deep and dark sound. The tenor oboes made from plum wood sound very good and many historical specimens were built from this very wood, but most frequently the bell of an oboe was made from a different species of wood. It was due to the fact that the trunks of plum trees reach, as a rule, very small sizes and, additionally, this wood has a very wide layer of sapwood which is not used, so it is very difficult to obtain pieces which are suitable for making bells for bigger oboes. Plum wood, despite its considerable hardness, absorbs oil quite quickly and in a considerable amount. It has a faint but characteristic scent.

In the picture: Plum wood/oiled16_about_wood_Plum-wood-oiled

Peach wood (Prunus persica)
Peach wood is very similar to plum wood. It has very similar mechanical and musical properties. It is of yellow orange colour, and in the course of time it darkens to red brown. Since the peach tree trunks reach bigger sizes than the plum tree ones,  peach wood is an excellent alternative for plum wood for the construction of bigger varieties of the oboe, for example, tenor oboes, whose bells can only be made from larger pieces of healthy wood.

In the picture: Peach wood/oiled

European olive wood (Olea europaea)
I do not know any historical oboes made from this kind of wood, although it is known from historical sources that olive wood has been used for making woodwinds since as early as the ancient times. The olive wood is hard, compact and it can be quite easily turned.
During turning it releases a fantastic light flowery scent, which is, unfortunately, not very durable and  disappears after a short time completely.
The sound of the oboes made from olive wood is very similar to the ones made from boxwood or pear wood.  The olive wood absorbs oil rather slowly, but quite a big amount of it. What draws attention to this species is its exceedingly decorative grain patterning; the basic colour is beige with fancifully and very irregularly laid out brown streaks. With time the patterning of the wood becomes a little more uniform.

In the picture: Olive wood/unoiled


European boxwood (Buxus sempervirens)
It is the most popular wood for making the baroque and classical oboes. In the Baroque and the Classicism boxwood was the favourite material for making the smaller (soprano) varieties of oboes. Using it for building the bigger varieties (the tenor oboes, da caccia oboes, or bass oboes) would have been difficult and impractical, because the boxwood grows very, very slowly (the average annual increase in the radius of its trunk diameter  is 1-2 mm) and it has always been very difficult to obtain suitably thick trunks of this tree, both in the past and nowadays. Besides, this wood is characterised by high specific gravity, so, for example, tenor oboes would be simply too heavy for the musician.
The natural colour of boxwood is yellow in various shades, sometimes interspersed with grey streaks. In the Baroque period it was most frequently darkened. The plant as a whole contains a toxic compound called buxine. Nevertheless, its seasoned wood is harmless.
The boxwood absorbs oil very slowly, because it has a very cohesive structure, so it must lie in the oil bath for a long time. Unfortunately, even after many years of seasoning and proper impregnation, it still tends to warp, which is not a flaw after a suitably long process of seasoning, apart from the visual defect (most of the oboists became convinced of that fact). The oboes made from boxwood have a full and quite strong sound. Boxwood is very hard and it is considered one of the most durable woods. In spite of its high density it can easily withstand even sudden changes of temperature and humidity of the air.

In the picture: European Boxwood/oiled19_about_wood_European_Boxwood-oiled

Cocobolo  (Dalbergia retusa)
Cocobolo comes from Central America. This kind of wood is very hard and has a characteristic scent. A Cocobolo tree, just after being cut down (before the compounds contained in it oxidize) is of violet brown colour and during woodworking it gives off a quite strong and rather pleasant smell. After having oxidized it becomes orange brown in colour.
After a few years it can become almost black, but always with a red shade. The smell of this wood is permanent, with a distinct cinnamon note. Cocobolo wood contains a certain amount of natural protective substances (resin), and thanks to that it is quite resistant to humidity; however, this resin can sometimes cause  quite a strong allergy, even during playing the oboe. Cocobolo wood gives the sound of the instrument a nice and quite a strong tone.
Some musicians are great supporters of the sound of oboes made from Cocobolo wood, but there are quite a number of opponents, too. The preference for a particular sound and resonance of an instrument is a very individual question. I am convinced, however, that the oboists who disapprove of the sound of Cocobolo oboes have happened to listen to or play on the instruments made from artificially dried wood, and this kind of  drying deprives it of natural resins (or changes their structure) and so partially softens the tissue, at the same time radically changing the musical parameters. This kind of wood should be oiled, but exclusively with the use of non-drying oils, that is, olive or almond oils; however, it absorbs them extremely slowly.

In the picture: Cocobolo wood/unoiled20_about_wood_Cocobolo-wood-unoiled

African Blackwood, Grenadill (Dalbergia melanoxylon)
This species of wood  is most frequently used for making modern oboes, English horns and clarinets. In the past it was much less frequently used than the ebony (Diospyros ebenum), which is nowadays almost completely extinct. Quite often, however, the African Blackwood , or Grenadill, is commonly but erroneously called ebony. It is a big mistake, especially as there are essential differences between these kinds of wood : ebony is far softer and it does not include resins; it is relatively difficult to turn, but easy to cut and file, whereas African Blackwood, or Grenadill is very easy to turn despite its extreme hardness but it is hard to file and contains a considerable amount of resin, which acts as a natural wood preservative and protects it, to a large degree, against humidity.
Nevertheless, Grenadill wood needs oiling, but it is possible only in a limited amount, and only non-drying oils, such as, for example, almond or olive ones, can be applied for this purpose. Grenadill wood has a characteristic, pleasant and permanent scent, which is, of course, the strongest in the course of woodworking.
On the other hand, ebony gives off quite an unpleasant odour during woodworking. When it is raw and not oiled, it is of brown and dark brown colour. It blackens with time, but it never becomes as deeply black as ebony, whose wood is completely black even in the sunlight.
The instruments made from Grenadill, because of the density of this kind of wood, should be protected against sudden changes of temperature, as they can crack. The sound of the oboes made from Grenadill is strong, but it remains warm.

In the picture: African Blackwood/oiled and unoiled21_about_wood_African_Blackwood_oiled and unoiled

Lignum vitae, Guaiac wood (Guaiacum officinale, Guaiacum sanctum)
The Guaiac wood as a material for wind instruments was already mentioned by Johann Joachim Quantz . However, I do not know a single specimen of historical instruments made from this wood. Perhaps it is due to the fact that it reached exorbitant prices (it was paid for in gold), as it was considered an effective syphilis remedy and even rich people or well-to-do musicians could not afford to commission a flute or an oboe made from that Central-American wood. The Guaiac wood differs markedly from all the other kinds of wood in many properties. It is saturated with oils and resin to such a high degree that it survives, for example, under water  for many years without any physical changes. Also, for that reason, Guaiac wood does not produce any dust during woodworking (during turning long fragrant ‘streamers’ are produced). It has quite a strong and permanent scent; the variety called Guaiacum officinale – with a distinct note of vanilla, and the one called Guaiacum sanctum –  with a sweet floral note. This wood does not require oiling; what is more – oiling is not possible, because Guaiac wood does not absorb oil at all. It rarely warps; it is almost absolutely resistant to humidity and even harder than Grenadill wood (Dalbergia melanoxylon).
I enjoy the sound of Guaiac wood oboes very much, since they have that fullness of sound like pear wood, boxwood or cherry wood oboes, but the Guaiac wood as if adds more power and strength to their sound.
However, because of its density, Guaiac definitely has to be protected against sudden changes of temperature, since it may happen that despite the many years of seasoning it will crack. Besides, the process of seasoning itself is extremely difficult, time-consuming and…partially fruitless (!). That is because, as a consequence of its high density and due to the fact that it is closely bound with oils and resins contained in it, vaporization of the little amount of water which is present in it occurs only in the surface layers. For example, when a piece of  Guaiac wood which has been seasoned for 50 years is cut in two, it must be seasoned again, or else it will crack. For the above mentioned reasons, the time of waiting for the instrument in the case of an oboe made from Guaiac is very long in comparison with the oboes made from other woods.

In the picture: Lignum vitae/unoiled22_about_wood_Lignum-vitae-unoiled

Other materials
Mammoth ivory (Mammuthus primigenius)
The bone that I use for making rings and keys is obtained from the Mammoth tusks from the permafrost terrains in Siberia, thanks to which it is not fossilized and the good quality pieces are physically almost identical with ivory. What is most important, this material is completely humane for obvious reasons.

In my opinion, there is no point in making the rings on the junctions of the oboes from imitation ivory, which is so popular these days, but exclusively from Mammoth ivory. It is true that this material is very expensive, but it radically differs from the synthetics.
Although in the old days ivory was used as an ornament, its main function was to strengthen the body of the instrument in the places which are especially exposed to damages and cracks.
The ivory obtained from elephants’ and mammoths’ tusks is extraordinarily resistant to mechanical damages, whereas the imitations are components of synthetic resins, which resemble the natural material in external appearance, have very little strength, so they are breakable and even less resistant than the wood itself, and, paradoxically, they even weaken the oboe instead of strengthening it.

In pictures: Paulhahn – mammoth ivory keys

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In the picture: Floth with ivory rings


In the picture: Grundmann with ivory rings


In pictures: Mammoth ivory for keys and rings

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