A variety of tonewoods are used for crafting wooden flutes – generally woods that have a high degree of density. Choice will usually depend on the players needs, but financial considerations and availability also play their role. Some tonewoods, most noticibly cocus wood and some varieties of rosewood, are now very hard to find and therefore very expensive.
This page offers information about the tonewoods that are most commonly used for making flutes – some of which have risen to more prominent use due to the scarcity of the classic tone woods such as Cocus wood (unfortunately no longer available), African Blackwood and certain varieties of Rosewood and Boxwood.
Martin Doyle has commented on the general tonal properties of each timber in the context of what each one might produce when fashioned into a flute. We begin with the classic African Blackwood – perhaps the most popular tonewood due to it's density, durability and exceptional tone.
African Blackwood (also known as Grenadilla) is often the first choice of Irish flute players due of it's exceptionally bright tone and power. An often spindly hardwood tree that takes at least sixty years to mature, African Blackwood grows in Eastern Africa where it is known as Mpingo. The timber is extremely hard and heavy, and makers of woodwind musical instruments prefer it to ebony because of its fine tonal and acoustic properties, extreme stability and resistance to saliva. Due to overuse, the availability of suitable quality African Blackwood has declined in recent years although there are now local organisations in East Africa dedicated to its management and sustainability. More info »
- Musical properties: Strong, bright and focused with plenty of volume.
- View: Martin Doyle six key flute in African Blackwood »
- See also: African Blackwood Conservation »
Cocus wood is a dense tropical hardwood native to the West Indies that is also known as Jamaican ebony. A flowering tree, the best known species to yield cocus wood is Brya ebenus which is horticulturally known as the Jamaican Rain Tree. Cocus wood was used heavily in England and France during the 19th century for making flutes and other woodwind instruments. It has been harvested virtually to extinction and nothing seems to have been done to preserve this beautiful wood for future use. Possessing exceptional tone, Cocus wood is renowned for its brightness and also for rich tonal 'colour' in the form of subtle overtones that are of greatly valued by musicians.
- Musical properties: Softer tone than African Blackwood but lively with plenty of potential for power. Has the ability to get a lot of bounce on the notes. A broad range of hormonics and colour in the tone.
- View: Martin Doyle D flute made of cocus wood »
- (Please note that cocus wood is no longer available.)
Before African Blackwood and Cocuswood became available in the 19th century, woodwind instruments were often made of European boxwood – a small evergreen tree native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa, southwest Asia, from England south to Morocco and east through the northern Mediterranean to Turkey. Boxwood has a fine grain structure and is a lighter timber that offers a sweeter, mellower voice than the hardwoods, but is prone to warping. It's natural colour is a pale yellow that slowly darkens to a rich honey colour, and it often has darker veins running through the grain. More info »
- Musical properties: Simple, sweet and very musical like a singing voice. Melodious tone with the ability to produce clear, crisp notes.
- View: Martin Doyle Flutes made from Boxwood »
The name rosewood is used to refer to a number of richly hued timbers, often brownish with darker veining but found in many different hues. Possessing good tonal properties and being very suitable for turning, all rosewoods are strong, heavy and develop an excellent polish. It is a timber valued for instruments such as flutes and guitars but is also used for billiard cues, the black pieces in chess sets, handles, furniture, luxury flooring etc. In general, supplies are now poor through overexploitation. Rosewood is a member the large genus Dalbergia to which other notable woods suitable for instrument making are also belong: African Blackwood, cocobolo, kingwood, and tulipwood. More info »
- Musical properties: Softer tone than African Blackwood but still quite loud. A focused, well rounded tone with the capacity for clear and distinct notes.
The mopane (aka mopani) tree only occurs in the far northern areas of southern Africa. It is a hard, heavy and oily timber that is termite resistant which makes it very useful as a construction material. Outside of Africa, mopane is increasingly being used for musical instruments, particularly woodwind, as suitable quality African blackwood has become harder to find. The tone is as rich as African Blackwood, as powerful, but warmer, resembling the tone of the Cocuswood. Its high density and good workability make it an attractive alternative to Blackwood, especially in very dry and humid countries, where Blackwood has a tendency to split. More info »
- Musical properties: Strong tone with the capacity for good volume.
- View: Martin Doyle D flute in Mopane »
Most commonly tulipwood is a timber yielded from the tuliptree that is found on the Eastern side of North America and in some parts of China. The colour spectrum of the tulipwood can vary from yellowish-green to reddish-brown which makes it quite interesting visually, and it can also vary from being quite a pale toned timber to being quite dark. Tulipwood that has come in to be used by flutemakers is a different species from Latin America – particularly Brazil, Colombia, Guyana and Venezuela. Commonly known as Brazilian tulipwood, it is a very dense high-quality wood with lovely figure that is commercially used as furniture inlay and for small turned items. An Australian tulipwood also exists, the common name of which is Harpullia. Certain varieties of Harpullia are widely planted as a street tree along the eastern coast of Australia. More info »
- Musical properties: Light and clear tone.
Honduran Rosewood grows only in Belize and occurs in fairly large patches along rivers including the drier inter-river areas. It is typically pinkish brown to purple, with alternating dark and light zones forming a very attractive figure, and a medium to fine grain. Denser than Indian rosewood, Honduran rosewood is well known for its good tonal properties and capacity for strong projection. It is one of the heavier hardwoods and compares well to Brazilian rosewood. Honduran rosewood is very similar visually and tonally to the rare Southeast Asian rosewood; the grain lines are unusually tight and straight, yielding a subtler beauty with less figure than Brazilian rosewood or Cocobolo.
- Musical properties: Can vary from having a soft to a hard tone depending on the piece of timber.
Cocobolo is a tropical hardwood that grows in Central America. The heartwood is typically orange or reddish-brown in color with darker irregular figurings weaving through it. An oily timber, Cocobolo's heartwood changes colour after being cut and stands up well to repeated handling and exposure to water. A very hard, fine textured and dense wood, Cocobolo is easily machined although its oiliness tends to clog abrasives and fine-toothed saw blades. Due to its density and hardness, even a large block of cut Cocobolo will produce a clear musical tone when struck, and it can be polished to a lustrous, glassy finish – making it very suitable for flutes. More info »
- Musical properties: Softer tone than African Blackwood but broader – closer to Cocus wood but with a narrower range of harmonics.
Maple wood is used to make numerous musical instruments and is particularly popular with luthiers. Maple is somewhat harder than woods such as Mahogany and therefore offers a brighter sound. Maple wood is favoured for the back, sides, and neck of most violins, violas, cellos, double basses and many guitars, (acoustic and electric) are made from maple. Maple is also often used to make bassoons and sometimes for other woodwind instruments and Martin Doyle has used maple to make both C and D flutes over the years. Drums kits are also made from maple as they favored for their bright resonant sound. More info »
- Musical properties: Soft and very sweet.