balsa wood instruments

June 24, 2006 at 04:53 AM · I recently read an article in Strings magazine on innovations in violin making and balsawood instrments were mentioned, which got me curious. Does anyone know anything about them? Would you play one? Has anyone here played one? What did you think?

Replies (19)

June 24, 2006 at 01:25 PM · ZZ Top had a set of custom-made (by Gibson) balsa solidbody "Johnny Firesmith" electrics--painted all-white--that looked like big hollowbody jazzboxes.

June 24, 2006 at 01:59 PM · Balsa instruments were discussed and demonstrated at the Oberlin summer workshops and at the last VSA (Violin Society of America) convention (2005, PA). I believe the session at the VSA convention will be published in the Journal later this year.


June 24, 2006 at 07:10 PM · I like to hold my violin very tightly with my neck... i think that Balsa wood would be too delicate for me to play with

June 24, 2006 at 07:11 PM · I meant to say shoulder and chin*****

June 24, 2006 at 11:14 PM · Richard, beware the death-grip clamp syndrome. And yes, you *are* using your neck!

There is no reason to have to clamp tightly--it may lead to difficulties with the spine, nerves or muscles in the future.

June 24, 2006 at 11:35 PM · It's a farce promoted by the plastic-bladed woodworking tools industry. Pay no mind.

June 25, 2006 at 03:08 PM · Bill, I unfortunetally I have to hold harder because I don't use a shoulder rest. lol plus my head weighs a lot so that is the cause of most of the pressure :D.

June 26, 2006 at 11:54 PM · ultra-light design contiues this summer at Oberlin including a balsawood cello

June 27, 2006 at 12:48 AM · Is it sponsored by Plasti-blade again this year?

June 27, 2006 at 04:34 AM · I recently tried a pressed cotton-candy instrument. It was resonant and delicious.

June 27, 2006 at 01:50 PM · Interesting - I found that playing restlessly actually causes my neck tension to drop significantly, because I _have_ to hold a lot of the instrument with my left hand. This is something I spent 20 years trying not to do, and it is a great relief to find a way to do it (albiet differently) that seems to work musically and technically.

The key does appear to be how exactly you hold the instrument with in the first few positions...I am currently holding it between the inside of the first segment of my thumb, and near the first joint of my first finger. (That said, I'm not an expert or teacher, so take my suggestions with a grain or more of salt.)

PS Back on topic, has anyone here actually played one of the basla wood instruments? I can't imagine what it would be like, but I would worry about structural strength. (Intuitively, I guess I'd expect a bright, simple sound with few overtones, but what do I know?)

June 29, 2006 at 06:27 PM · Francis- that's much what I would expect, but the article raved about the amazing sound these instruments supposedly produced, which is what got me curious in the first place - about something I might otherwise dismiss. I'd be curious to play on one.

June 29, 2006 at 07:19 PM · What about those wierd carbon instruments? I don't think they've released the violin yet, but they've come out with carbon cellos and violas. I can't remember the name of the company; Luis and Clark or something in that ballpark. I always wondered how they sound.

June 29, 2006 at 09:52 PM · Baseball bats are ash and go !crack!

Cricket bats are willow and go Kthunkk!

Ash is denser than balsa.

Maple is denser than spruce, but spruce is less dense than ash and more dense than balsa.

The tensile modulus of elasticity (also called stiffness) of wood scales pretty linearly with density. Bending stiffness (which is resistance to bending deflection) is a linear function of elastic modulus and a cube function of thickness, but mass is a linear function of thickness, and so a lower-density wood will have a higher bending stiffness for a given mass per unit area, and therefore will have a higher characteristic frequency and higher characteristic impedance than a more dense wood.

Damping is a sticky wicket, and can vary considerably with moisture content, as well as temperature. There are spectroscopic differences from one species to another, especially at ultrasonic frequencies, where it doesn't matter.

Why is spruce preferred for most all soundboards? Good question. I don't know what the makers will say, but what I will note is that while stiffness scales pretty linearly with density, it is not perfectly linear from one species to another. For instance, oak has a low stiffness to weight ratio, whereas sitka spruce has essentially the highest stiffness to weight ratio of any wood. It is very efficient in bending. Typically, polymers are more damping when they have less stiffness relative to their mass, and so you will probably find that spruce is a low-damping material.

As it turns out, low density balsa, say 4.5 lbs/ft^3, has a very low ratio of stiffness to density, but higher density balsa, say specific gravity of 0.2 (12.5 lbs/ft^3) compares favorably with sitka spruce, coming in somewhere between spruce and maple in terms of specific stiffness (modulus of elasticity divided by specific gravity).

Spruce has a specific gravity (relative to water) of 0.4 which is twice the more dense, favorable balsa.

So, for the same mass top plate, the balsa top plate will be twice as thick, but the bending stiffness will be 8 times greater, and so its characteristic frequency will be much higher.

To properly tune the balsa plate, it must therefore weight less than the spruce top plate.

Local mechanical strength is apt to be a problem, I can imagine some local crushing of the top fibers in way of the bridge feet.

What will it sound like? I suspect pretty good!

June 29, 2006 at 08:54 PM · For you lay people, what this means is we walk a fine line between structural integrity and a violin that only dogs can hear.

June 29, 2006 at 09:15 PM · I haven't played one, but the report I hear is that they're loud, responsive, and very plain, which sounds about like what I'd expect. As a very general concept, sophistication comes from a violin that holds back a bit and delivers what it has differently, depending on how it's treated, not from everything just being dumped in your lap all at once, full blast.

June 29, 2006 at 09:58 PM · Classical guitar tops are sometimes cedro, sometimes spruce; the general description of hte sound of the cedar is "darker."

Jim might be able to tell us what changes to the species of the back might do, for instance a Martin D-28 in rosewood compared to one in mahogany.

I have a charango made of a hard wood with a spruce top; I am chafing at the bit to order one with a cedro body, just to see how that changes the sound.

My ukulele is made of koa--both front and back--it is a fairly dense hardwood (in the mahogany range).

How about violins with poplar backs?

How about violins with other than spruce (or balsa) tops?

It is one thing to look at hte dimensional analysis; it is another thing entirely to hear the variations in the sound.

June 29, 2006 at 10:46 PM · Bill_ I think most instruments seems to be differing materials in the front and back, I always assumed to broaden and flatten the response. Koa being a notable exception especially for ukes, and mahogany more commonly. Bowed instruments are so different from a D-28 I just don't know. Cedar is often described as quick responding and round. Mahogany top as round and dark, but mahogany back as brighter than rosewood, all the descriptions being more likely to mislead than not. I like cedar tops or all mahoganys best, because they give what Darnton described. At least the ones I have do. On the other hand I'm getting ready to go see a Gibson Roy Smeck (Ry Cooder's guitar) that's the usual materials, which will knock me out (in part because of the classical-width neck). I'm better off not thinking about materials at all. Balsa violin is sort of captivating though...

July 23, 2008 at 09:32 PM · BillysBalsaBuddy

Excellent tone wood if dense Balsa wood is used.

2 Explorer Guitar Bodies,2 Basses,2 Rhinestone Explorers,2Fur Explorers, 2 Johnny Firesmiths, and one LP Protype. All of these used Balsa as the main body Mahogany necks.


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