Wood for Guitar Back & Sides

Traditionally the wood for the guitar backs and sides was Brazilian or Indian rosewood. Both types of wood were used with either spruce or cedar tops. In general things become traditional because they work. Because of the scarcity of some traditional wood for guitar back and sides it has become necessary to use some non-traditional species of wood for this purpose.

Luthiers are using more different types of wood for guitar back and sides today than ever before. Some work nicely and produce great sounding instruments. Some do not.  I use two non-traditional species of wood for  guitar back and sides regularly. I use them because  I like the effect they have on the sound as well as the way they look. And fortunately these guitars have become popular with clients.

When choosing a wood for guitar back and sides there are some important characteristics that need to be considered. Choosing wood without careful consideration can produce disastrous results. Utilizing different building methods such as laminating your guitar sides may make it possible to use otherwise unsuitable wood.

Occasionally, I will experiment with different combinations of wood.  Occasionally there are surprises, but most times I end up going with what works. There are many more instruments built using the traditional wood combination of rosewood with spruce or cedar than any other combinations. There is a reason for that.

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Guitar Back and Sides

guitar with maple sidesSides look best of course if they match the back. When purchasing backs and sides always try to purchase a matching set. It will be difficult to find a good color match from another piece of wood.

Wood for Sides

Its a no-brainer that sides should bend without breaking. This is especially true if you bend sides with a heat at full thickness. Laminating may allow you to use a wood that otherwise will not bend at full thickness with heat since it is quite a bit thinner when you are bending it. Learn how to laminate sides and linings in the members section.

If you laminate your guitar sides you can also get away with using flat sawn or figured wood. Since the laminating process creates a very stiff and stable set of sides.  Since the outside wood is glued to one or two other pieces of wood on the inside wood movement is negligible as laminated the sides are will not experience dimensional changes as much as solid wood caused by humidity.

Wood for Guitar Backs

brazilian rosewood guitar backThe wood on the back and sides add flavor to the sound of the guitar. I think of it like the spices in a recipe. The top sets the tone for the instrument like the main ingredient in any dish. Although the back and sides will not make meat taste like fish if you will,  it can improve the taste of the meat and make it more interesting.

Wood selection for backs and sides depends on  a few things:

  • the effect it will have acoustical with the top
  • the cut of wood ( only quarter sawn wood is recommended0
  • the intended color scheme and grain
  • how well it bends

Try to resist the temptation to use highly figured wood or flat sawn wood for the back of your guitar. Although these may look cool they are often problematic down the road if not immediately.  Highly figured wood tends to be unstable which is something to avoid on a piece of wood 14-15″ across.

Flat sawn wood is not recommended. Flat sawn wood can be easily identified by the flame like pattern in the grain. Of all the cuts of wood flat sawn is the most prone to warping and cracking. It also  moves the most from humidity changes.

Much of the Brazilian rosewood available today is flat sawn. Brazilian rosewood has a tendency to crack when quarter sawn. Using flat sawn Brazilian will increase the chances of cracking. It may be tempting because it looks cool but this is a recipe for problems down the road.

Never use burls, crotch pieces, and spalted woods for the back of a guitar. Again, these look really cool but are highly unstable. Spalted wood also has a tendency to be punky (rotten, soft and brittle). Spalted wood does not have desirable acoustic properties either. It will sound muted and dead as if you had cardboard for a back.

Laminating Guitar Sides and Linings

laminating the guitar's sidesThe sides and linings on all my guitars are laminated. It is simply better than just bending sides with heat. Its more work initially but you only need to make one set of molds. Once the molds are made you are good to go and can make as many guitars as you like with them.

Laminating guitar sides is not new.  Others had done it before me.  I don’t do it just to be different. There are many good reasons to do it. It is perceived  by some as being an inferior way of bending sides. This is simply not true. The sides are laminated for strength, weight reduction, stability, and consistency from guitar to guitar to name just a few. Get more information on the benefits of laminating guitar sides here.

Wood for Laminates

laminating liningsThe outer laminations for sides can be any traditional wood such as Indian or Brazilian rosewood. For the inner laminates on sides I use a lighter wood typically a tonewood. I have used  sitka spruce, Alaskan yellow cedar, cypress, larch and pear wood. They all work  well.

I find that with a spruce top I prefer Alaskan yellow cedar, sitka spruce, cypress or larch for the inner laminates. For cedar topped guitars I find pear wood, larch and cypress work nicely. I have used all these woods with both spruce and cedar. These are just my personal preferences. You may feel differently so try them all. There is no right an wrong.

Linings are typically made of mahogany, Spanish cedar or even basswood. I make mine out of mahogany. Mahogany is a great wood for linings. It is also very forgiving when it comes to glue lines between the laminates. Mahogany lining when laminated look like solid wood, there are no visible glue lines.

In the store you will find the finest grade veneer available for both sides and linings.