Overhaul and
Grenadilla Wood
Dalbergia Melanoxylon
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 “blackwood”.
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 the source.
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 world.
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 material.
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 Edition, Celle