Ukulele Woods A to Z: Coming soon to a guitar near you?

I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at ukuleles in the last few months. Once of the interesting things I’ve discovered is the large numbers of non-traditional woods being used to make ukuleles today. The companies experimenting with these woods are most likely to be the importers of Asian made ukuleles and the intent no doubt is to keep the costs down. These ukuleles are aimed at players who are past the beginner stage but not yet ready for the high end ukuleles in the over $1000 price range. However, there are also some guitar and ukulele luthiers who are experimenting with different tonewoods on high end guitars.

One of the reasons I find this so interesting is that all acoustic string instrument makers need to deal with the decreasing resources and increasing cost of traditional tone woods. I’ve written about traditional tone woods, non-traditional tone woods and unusual materials in guitars. But these ukulele makers are taking things to a new level. Will these materials eventually be available from your favorite guitar company? I don’t know, but it’s likely that at least some of these woods will eventually be found in other instruments. Some already have been used in guitars. Of course a few of these are classic woods and have been used in instruments for centuries.

Here’s a survey of woods or wood substitutes for ukuleles along with some comments.

  • Acacia. Instrument makers only apply the term Koa wood to trees grown on the Hawaiian Islands. Acacia is wood from the Mimosa tree grown on other pacific islands. However, they are from the same family (Fabaceae) and Acacia is sometimes described as Koa grown somewhere other than Hawaii. It is said to sound very similar to Koa but instruments using generally cost less because of demand and supply.
  • Agathis. This wood is from a conifer commonly known as kauri or dammar. The trees grow in the southern hemisphere.
  • Ash (Quilted). Ash used to be best known for being used in baseball bats and before that as a material for bows. Fender and others have used Ash for solid body guitars. Instruments made from Ash are said to have a bright sound.
  • Bamboo. I’ve mentioned bamboo guitars in previous articles. Although there have been prototypes, I know of no product guitars made from bamboo. Ukulele makers are again ahead of guitar makers in using this renewable resource. Wikipedia describes the bamboo used for ukuleles as being “constructed of solid cross laminated bamboo strips not plywood.” I think that means that bamboo strips are laminated lengthwise, side to side, to produce something that is only one layer thick looking down from  above the piece. Pono, Cordoba, Kiwaya and others have bamboo ukuleles or at least have shown them.
  • Beech.
  • Blackwood
  • Black Limba
  • Bubinga. One of those African woods that are used as a substitute for rosewood.
  • Buscote wood. Kala Ukulele company has recently had some Buscote Butterfly models.
  • Carbon Fiber. Not a wood but an alternate material. Blackbird Guitars makes a Carbon Fiber ukulele.
  • Cedar. A traditional top wood for guitars is also used on some ukulele tops.
  • Cherry. The Canadian Godin companies have been using Cherry for back and sides. Now some ukulele makers are using, occasionally for tops as well. Martin has a Model 3 Cherry Uke.
  • Cocobolo. Another rosewood substitute.
  • Eucalyptus
  • Granadillo (Black Cocobolo)
  • Hormigo
  • New ukulele day! // soundboardKoa. The traditional ukulele wood.
  • Kauri (ancient Kauri)
  • Lacewood
  • Mahogany. The other traditional ukulele wood. Mahogany came into use when the ukulele fad spread to the mainland and traditional instrument makers jumped on board. Think Martin or Gibson ukuleles from the first part of last century.
  • Mango (Spalted). Lanikai SM-CE Limited Edition Spalted Mango Concert Acoustic-Electric Ukulele Natural GlossMango is an exotic tropical tree. Spalting is a condition which causes unique coloration patterns in the wood due to fungi. Other varieties of wood have spalting shuch as Maple (below).
  • Maple (including wood grains that are Flamed, Spalted or Figured)
  • Monkey Pod. Lanikai has been putting many exotic wood combinations. Monkey Pod is one of them.
  • Myrtle
  • Nato (A Mahogany-like wood)
  • Ovangkol (A substitute for Rosewood)
  • Padauk
  • Pau Ferro
  • Plastic. (Arthur Godrey promoted a plastic uke).
  • Purple Heart
  • Redwood
  • Rosewood
  • Sapele (Another Mahogany substitute)
  • Satinwood 
  • Spruce
  • Walnut
  • Wenge
  • Zebrawood. Lanikai SZW-C Solid Zebrawood Concert UkuleleAgain, see Lanikai for examples of zerbra wood ukuleles.

The above isn’t even a complete list. See the following sources for more woods and more details.

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