Also known as Yellow Cypress/Cedar, Nootka Cypress/Cedar, Alaskan Yellow Cedar has the distinct aroma of peeled potatoes when worked. Trees are typically 100 to 120 ft tall and 4 to 6 ft in diameter. The heartwood is definitely yellow in appearance, though it will darken with age. As a tonewood, it compares favorably with Port Orford Cedar. The grain is usually straight, but wavy variations are out there.
Lighter than Douglas Fir, yet as stiff if not occasionally stiffer, the highly aromatic Port Orford Cedar is actually a Cypress. Reaching heights of 200 ft., these trees can be found along the coast of southern Oregon and northern California. Tonally, Port Orford Cedar sits comfortably between Sitka Spruce and Western Redcedar. Paler in color that Western Redcedar, this relatively straight-grained tonewood can also sport curl, a particularly stunning variation. And did I mention that it smells great?
Though soft enough to dent with a fingernail, WRC can match or exceed Spruce in it’s stiffness to weight ratio, though this stiffness is typically notable along the grain only. This may explain why WRC can be “overdriven” more readily than Spruce, and is sometimes avoided by more aggressive players. WRC is lighter than the Spruces, so a WRC soundboard can be left a bit thicker to compensate for it’s shortcomings in across-the-grain stiffness. The Western Redcedar is native to Oregon, Washington and British Columbia with smaller forests found in parts of Idaho, Montana and Alberta. It is a magnificent tree growing to heights of 200 ft. with diameters as big as 13 ft. and often reaching ages of 1000 years or more. Reddish-brown to brown in color with straight grain.
Heavier than Spruce, Cedar and Redwood, yet possessing one of the highest stiffness to weight ratios of all the softwoods, Douglas Fir is an often overlooked tonewood. This mighty tree, at 330 ft. is exceeded in height only by the Coast Redwood. Douglas Fir forests range from central British Columbia to central Mexico, extending eastward as far as west Texas. Color ranges from pale yellow to reddish-tan, and the grain is straight. While this wood is typically not as aesthetically pleasing as one of the Spruces, and is a bit heavier, it is definitely worthy of consideration.
The largest of the evergreens, the Redwood (or Sequoia - both terms are accurate) can attain heights of nearly 380 ft. and is native to southern Oregon extending as far south as central California. The tallest tree in the world, Sequoia sempervirens, and the largest tree in the world (by volume), Sequoiadendron giganteum, are both Redwoods, though the latter is sometimes referred to as Giant Sequoia. The reddish hue and distinctive fragrance of the lumber of this tree make it easily recognizable. Wood from felled, older trees is desirable for it’s increased cross-grain stiffness. Commonly straight grained, figured or flamed Redwood is quite beautiful in appearance.
Sitka Spruce is a softwood renowned for its very high stiffness (or strength) to weight ratio, both across-the-grain and along-the-grain, making it a popular all-around choice for guitar soundboards. This tree is native to the Pacific coast of North America in forests ranging from Oregon to Alaska and has been measured having heights greater than 300 ft, though trees ranging in height from 140 to 160 ft tall are more common. Colors range from off-white to pale yellow and, while being straight grained, variations known as bear claw can be visually stunning. With so many guitars being made over the decades having soundboards of Sitka Spruce, this softwood has become something of a benchmark by which other tonewoods are compared.
The leaves of the Bigleaf Maple can easily span 12", hence it’s name. These trees are found in the Pacific coastal region of North America, ranging from southern California to Alaska’s southern border. The largest of these trees resides in Oregon and measures 8 feet in diameter and 88 feet tall. Softer than Rock or Sugar Maple, Bigleaf is sometimes referred to as Quilted or Curly, Tiger, Flamed or Fiddleback Maple due to the prevalence of a couple of 3-D phenomena that can occur in the grain pattern. When present, flatsawing will reveal the quilted pattern, where quartersawing is necessary to reveal the curl (Curly, Tiger, Flamed, Fiddleback). Though these patterns can be seen in other species of Maple, Bigleaf Maple is known for having the highest grades available.
5 foot diameter, 60 foot high Walnut trees are less common today in their native habitat of Oregon and California than they were 100 years ago due to the high demand for this lovely wood. Claro Walnut works easily and can be seen in everything from turned wooden bowls and carvings to rifle stocks and high-end furniture.
With grain patterns ranging from straight to wavy to highly figured and colors going from sandy brown through orange-brown to olive, Oregon Myrtle is one of the most visually interesting tonewoods available. Found along the coastline from southern Oregon to central California, Oregon Myrtle is easy to bend (a delightful characteristic, especially when building Venetian cutaways) and seemingly hypo-allergenic (some reports of skin sensitivity). It is a pleasure to work with and always interesting to look at.
From the big island of Hawaii comes this unusual golden-brown hardwood, sometimes seen with streaks of reddish-brown or black and having straight, wavy, figured or even flamed grain patterns. Like Oregon Myrtle, Koa is easy to work and is not known to produce any adverse health conditions. It is not unusual to see an all-Koa (back, sides and soundboard) instrument.
Stronger, denser and heavier than it’s close cousin Brazilian Rosewood, Cocobolo is a gorgeous wood, though it can be difficult to work with. Having relatively straight grain with colors ranging from yellow-orange to reddish-brown, this Central American Rosewood has a reputation for being both notoriously allergenic and cantankerous to glue. That said, it makes stunning looking guitars!
Indian (also called East Indian) Rosewood grows in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Indian Rosewood can range from golden brown in color to dark brown with purple hues. Straight grained Indian Rosewood is well regarded for being very easy to work and bend, and has become the standard in acoustic guitar back and sides, though figured wood is gaining in popularity.
The information above has been collated from various sources, including:
There are many factors at work that can and will affect the numbers shown, but these are a useful guideline for comparison. Definitions and simple explanations follow: