Origin and Usage
The botanical name itself
tells much – Grenadilla, the wood from which your
woodwind instrument is built, belongs to the Dalbergia
family, together with other famous woods such as Palisander
or Kingwood, and “Melanoxylon” simply indicates
Under this name the Portuguese discoverers, constantly
searching for new ebony-like woods, brought the wood to the
Royal court. In doing so they imported this wood, which
stands next to Ebony as the darkest of woods, if not
completely black. French titles such as Ebene de Mozambique,
which are also applied to Ebony itself, sometimes indicate
Grenadilla grows in the dry forests of southeast Africa;
above all in the east African savanna grasslands, where
the most important sources our found.
Grenadilla is especially treasured for the making of
woodwind instruments due to its hard, smooth surface, and
its strong resistance to the absorption of moisture.
Portuguese musicians were themselves the first to employ it
for the making of instruments.
Extraction and Ecology
In the thinly populated
growing districts of the light savanna of eastern Africa,
specialist tree finders scout out suitable Grenadilla
trunks. This is fraught with difficulty, not so much in the
search itself, for Dalbergia Melanoxylon grows abundantly,
but rather in the selection. The trees can withstands long
dry periods without problems, however they resemble large
shrubs, growing at the outside to 10 metres in height and up
to 60 cm diameter, with in the main irregular, crooked and
tightly wracked stems. Assessment based on size alone often
deceives: especially fine-looking specimens will grow above
the internal water transport systems of termite mounds.
Unfortunately they turn out invariably to be hollow.
Nevertheless the seekers are able to find more then
sufficient suitable trees to satisfy the demands of all the
instrument builders and other hardwood craftsmen of the
The selected trees are felled by local work teams with power
chainsaws, trucked out to assembly points, then on occasion
to sawmills but more usually directly to ports for delivery
overseas. At one of these places a specialist handler
assesses the trunks or sections, and grades the selection
according to suitability for final usage.
In our case the
consignment is shipped to Hamburg, where the wood is
specially cut into square-cut blocks which are then
delivered to the manufacturer.
Conservation is not a fearful problem in the case of
Dalbergia Melanoxylon, since it easily seeds itself and the
forest naturally regenerates itself quickly. A threat is
posed however by the use of the wood for fuel: Grenadilla
has an especially good heat value and can be burnt when
freshly cut without need for kindling due to its high oil
content. Fortunately the population density in these areas
is very low.
Attributes and characteristics of Grenadilla wood
Grenadilla is not “black as ebony”, as in
the fairy-tale Snow-White. It exhibits a gradation from
brown through dark purple to deep violet or blue-black. With
a density of up to 1.25 g/cm³ Grenadilla is the heaviest,
and also the hardest and densest wood known to woodwind
instrument building. The working of the wood is, as might be
expected, correspondingly difficult. The end result repays
all the trouble. The dense structure results in an
ivory-smooth and softly reflective patina, which responds
finely to polishing.
The chief quality of an instrument made of Grenadilla is
only discovered in the playing. Once dried and seasoned the
wood absorbs very little moisture indeed, and holds its
shape precisely through the wide range of humidity brought
about by alternate playing and rest.
Oboe and Clarinet making at Püchner house
The woodwind instrument maker obtains his wood from specialist
importers and saw mills in the form of rough-cut square
blocks. When cutting the blocks the saw worker takes careful
account of the final dimensions of the instrument joints, in
order to ensure the most efficient use of this valuable raw
Before the wood is laid out to be dried and seasoned the
blocks are drilled with a longitudinal rough bore hole to
assist more equal drying from within. The process of natural
drying lasts a minimum of 15 years at Puchners, although the
chosen period differs from firm to firm.
The working of the individual instrument only begins after
the seasoning phase is complete. The wood sections are now
turned, refined, polished and impregnated with linseed oil.
Precision reproduction machines are now used to cut the
toneholes and post-locating holes, and the mechanism is
installed for the first time. After the keywork installation
is completed it is all removed again. Once this is done the
individual wood joints are fitted together to make a single
instrument. Next follows the crucial work, the final turning
of the interior bore, which is the soul of the instrument
and which will authoritatively determine its quality.
The mechanism has meanwhile been polished and plated, and
once fitted with impact-damping corks and leathers and
provided with pads it is reinstalled for the final time.
After conclusive tuning, testing and voicing of the
instrument, during which the requirements of the musician
are always paramount, the oboe or clarinet is ready to be
discovered by its eventual player.
We wish to thank Firma Nagel, Hamburg for their friendly
help in providing parts of the above text and Jonathan A C
Small for his translation into English.
Further reading: “Wood as raw material for musical
instrument making”, Dr.Hans Georg Richter, Moeck