Dandemutande Magazine

The Art and Craft of Building Marimbas

Part 1: Wood Selection

by Stephen Golovnin

Copyright © 1994 by Stephen Golovnin. All rights reserved.

See also Marimba building resources

I first got into the marimba zone when my musical interests took me into microtonal music, or music with more than 12 notes per octave. I used whatever materials I could readily coax sound out of. At first it was steel conduit; later it became plate glass. Both of these are stable and consistent materials, and I learned some things which I was later able to translate over to wood when the time came.

One day I was sitting in the courtyard at The Evergreen State College reading a book on how to build microtonal marimbas, when from a distance I heard the sound of the Maraire Marimba Ensemble setting up. This was the beginning of the end of my microtonal days.

It has been a very strong belief of mine that the joy of playing music is further deepened when you are creating the music on an instrument that you have had some part in designing and building. It was this belief that got me going in building my own marimbas and mbiras and the prime motivating factor behind writing this column, to share that joy with others.

I am going to offer this in a series of articles addressing the various aspects of marimba design and construction so as to allow even the most inexperienced person a fair crack at making a good sounding instrument the first time around. Although at times I have relied heavily on power tools, I have also developed techniques with hand tools and will mention them as we go along.

Now then, instrument builders tend to be an ornery and bull-headed lot, and a bit inclined toward over-identification with their own work, thinking that their way is the best or only way. (I know this may come as a shock to some, but I never was one for breaking bad news gently.) So to counteract this tendency, I would like to invite alternate views to be aired in future articles, further illuminating the multifacetedness of the art. This would be a good place to field specific questions as they come up. You can reach me via Dandemutande.

This is a brief overview of what to look for in selecting the wood for a marimba. It is of course limited in its coverage of the various woods. If anyone out there has had good luck (or exceptionally bad luck) with a particular wood not listed here, write it up and send it in so it can be included in the next issue.

First of all you want to find a store that not only has a good selection of imported and domestic hardwoods but one where they will let you roam unassisted all day long through the stacks as this is usually what ends up happening. The larger places will have all the wood stacked horizontally in large piles accessible only with a forklift. Unless you have a pretty good idea of what you want you'll just be wasting their time sifting through the stacks while the forklift operator waits impatiently. Better to find a smaller store where all the wood is stacked vertically on end, in small piles. Most of this wood will already be S2S, or surfaced two sides, in this case run through a planer that has smoothed out both faces of the board. It's easier to see the grain and judge the quality of S2S wood than of rough wood, which requires a more experienced eye.

First things to look for: Is the wood free from defects, splits, cracks, knots, and excessive warpage? (This last point is not as critical with soprano and tenor notes as we'll be cutting them into smaller pieces.) Does the grain run straight along the board or does it veer off suddenly? And finally, is it quartersawn? Looking at the end of the board, does the grain run perpendicular to the face (quartersawn), 45 degrees (riftsawn), or parallel (flatsawn)?

Why quartersawn? Three reasons.

First, the tone quality is said to be superior. Now I don't hear much of a difference myself between the tone of quartersawn vs. flatsawn, though I'm sure on some level it is detectable. Any quality stringed instrument will have its soundboard made of quartersawn wood to optimally transmit the sound vibrations. But this reason alone is not enough to steer us towards quartersawn.

Second, wood tends to look its best when quartersawn. Unimpeachably true. Flatsawn wood tends to have a wild and unruly grain while quartersawn has its grain lines close together all across the face.

Third and most important, quartersawn wood will stand up to a beating much better than flatsawn wood. It will stay in tune longer and has less likelihood of breaking due to the alignment of the grain. Back when baseball bats were made of wood, the batter would always hit the ball with the grain aligned in the direction of the hit, that is they would hit the ball quartersawn. Not only would this prolong the life of the bat, it would also give more clarity and force to the hit. (If only we could hold our knobs without turning them we could reduce the amount of breakage by holding the grain perpendicular to the marimba!) Whenever I come across a broken note I first check how it has broken and how the grain is running. More often than not it isn't quartersawn.

Still it's not always possible to find quartersawn wood and sometimes they will charge more for it, especially if they are helping you look through the stacks. And sometimes the end grain is obscured by paint, making it difficult to ascertain the grain orientation. And sometimes a furniture maker or another marimba builder has combed the stacks just that very morning, taking all the best pieces. Well this being a non-perfect world, go for the quartersawn if you can find it and if not, get on with your life. There are more important things to worry about.

The second thing to look for is the tonal quality of a particular species of wood. This in part depends on which range of instrument you are building, as higher instruments need more ring, lower instruments need more body, and the whole ensemble needs to be balanced with no one instrument taking over the whole show. Standing the board on end and leaning it to one side so that only one corner is touching the ground, rap on it with your knuckles. Do this to every single piece of wood in the whole store until you get a sense of how different woods sound. You can also pick a smaller piece, five feet long or less, hold it at its nodal point and strike it in the center with a closed fist listening to the boom tone of the fundamental. (Nodal point refers to the point of no vibration which occurs naturally somewhere between one fourth and one fifth of the overall length. Okay, okay, length x .224, if you must know, though this changes once you make the undercut to lower the pitch. Fundamental refers to the main pitch of a note, the lowest and loudest pitch as opposed to the higher overtones which you may or may not hear.) It also helps to have some guidelines to find your way through the wide variety of available woods. Here is a list of woods with their various characteristics.

Padouk (a.k.a. vermilion): Easily recognized by its bright red color (which ultimately fades to dark brown), this is one of the most favored woods for sopranos. Quite ringy with a bright sound and moderate sustain. I have seen it work extremely well on tenors and baritones too.

Wenge (a.k.a. Panga Panga): Dark chocolate-colored wood most commonly used for tenors, though I have seen it used on sopranos, baritones, and basses with exceptional results. More of a husky deep-throated sound, rich and smoky like a breathy alto voice. Tends to have a bit more sustain than padouk, especially in the lower registers.

Mansonia (a.k.a. African Walnut): A blond colored wood with a dry but full-bodied sound. Nice on tenor or baritone. It is a particularly strong yet light wood and would make ideal frame wood as well.

Honduras Mahogany: A generic name for about 100 different species all looking about the same. Used heavily in the fine furniture industry in the last century due to its availability in thick, wide and knot free planks. It is not uncommon to find it a full 2" thick by 30" wide by 12' long. Excellent tonal qualities for a bass, though due to it being a bit softer, it will go out of tune a little easier and I've seen it break under much use. It makes a nice baritone but the sound starts getting weak when applied to a tenor instrument. Whatever you do, don't confuse it with Philippine Mahogany which is a junk wood and will break across the grain very easily.

Ash: A light colored domestic wood that works well on a bass. Excellent for frame wood where strength is important.

Cherry: A reddish brown domestic wood that develops a darker, richer color as it ages. Also good for bass notes and frames.

Zebrawood: A very beautiful exotic hardwood from Africa with alternating thin stripes of dark and light wood. Very expensive, and often it will have cracks running across the grain which is to be avoided. Works well for bass and baritone. It has a high silica content which will dull tools more rapidly.

Oak (White or Red are most common): Although it is a very strong wood, it lacks ring which is needed for the higher instruments. I haven't heard it as a bass but I would think it would stand up well.

Maple: Same as with oak. Both are excellent choices for frame wood where strength is a consideration.

Teak: Used extensively in marine applications because it has a natural wax inside which resists water well. Even though it doesn't sound that good, you can play it in the rain. Like Zebrawood, it has a high silica content.

Purpleheart: An exotic hardwood with a rich purple color. Tends toward a very dry sound in the upper registers but has potential in the lower. Also very expensive.

While we are looking for wood, it is good to keep in mind the music that will be coming from these instruments. If the wood is too hard and ringy, it will start to resemble the sound of a western orchestral marimba (traditionally Brazilian Rosewood), which is a beautiful sound to be sure but possibly not quite the sound you might be looking for to play Shona music.

You can expect to spend $40 to $100 on soprano or tenor notes, $75 to $150 on a baritone, and $200 to $400 for bass notes. We will cover specific widths, lengths, and thicknesses as well as how to estimate how much wood to buy in the next issue.

Reprinted from Dandemutande #4, March 1994

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