Synthetic fingerboards

March 13, 2019, 8:54 AM · A luthier I know is putting one of these (don't know the manufacturer) on the instrument that he is currently making. Here is a link to one company.

Anyone have any experience with these? Comments? If they work it might reduce the ecological pressure on ebony tree.

Replies (38)

March 13, 2019, 10:32 AM · It appears the surface is sealed. This means that sweat or oil can't penetrate the surface. So where does it go? It must stay on top, which could make the fingerboard feel.....sweaty or oily. Fingerboards actually need some amount of absorbency, like piano keys. Ivory, being porous, feels great because it absorbs sweat and oils, which is why the piano makers have tried to make a porous key.
March 13, 2019, 10:39 AM · With my hands, I can only imagine how much fun a perfectly smooth fingerboard would be.

Like the slip-n'-slide from hell...

March 13, 2019, 10:51 AM · I've used 2 of them. They don't glue well with hide glue and tend to pop off if you do use it. My solution has been to glue a veneer to the fingerboard with an "alternative adhesive" and glue the shim to the neck with hide glue. They seem to shape and wear well, and Kevin Krentz, who is here in Seattle, has them in different weights. I see them as being useful for cello, but not yet for violin. The last cello boards that I got cost me over $200 each and they still need to be seasoned for at least a year before I can use them.
March 13, 2019, 11:29 AM · Thanks Duane - very useful info. I'll pass that on.
Edited: March 13, 2019, 12:33 PM · I agree with Scott that a sealed surface sounds impractical in the heat of battle. I notice that the material is phenol-formaldehyde which is the same essential composition of Bakelite. You see phenolic resins used for jar-caps and a number of other applications calling for a hard, insoluble, inexpensive plastic that holds its shape well. The Corene material may be produced in a way that gives it microporosity (which I'm not sure how they would do that), but if so they would have advertised that. They are able to give the material some kind of roughened surface to help it feel and look more natural.

One interesting fact is that phenol-formaldehyde resins seem to be plasticized or swellable by water. So, a part that is exposed to high humidity for a long time will swell slightly. I guess it is like wood in that sense, but the time scale of the swelling is much slower than wood. Likewise if it is exposed to conditions of extreme dryness, for a long time, it will shrink. I learned this the hard way because I have a glove box in my lab where the moisture and oxygen levels are both well below 1 ppm, and I noticed that over time all of the lids on the jars were shrinking and cracking. We switched to polyolefin containers that do not have this problem. (And for larger containers we just use Mason jars.)

March 13, 2019, 12:47 PM · Ah, so we should move to the Mason Jar fingerboard (Patent Pending)…

Making the surface more natural would not work because the piece is carved and shaped by the luthier - ostensibly leaving the old surface-modified and newly expoosed, base material surfaces. Unless, that is, it comes with a kit to treat the finished product. I don't think that likely either since the modified surface is sure to wear over time.

March 13, 2019, 2:33 PM · Plastic fingerboards? See plastic bow hair thread. These kind of "saving the ebony tree" arguments are false. If there is no demand for ebony wood, or any kind of wood for that matter, there will be even less forests as there are currently, even if many if these forests are just glorified tree-crop fields, they are still ecologically much more valuable than roads, constructions, industrial sites, pesticide-ridden agrictulture, etc. But I agree this debate is not so simple black-and-white, and anyway, entirely out of topic on
March 13, 2019, 2:47 PM · how hard are you pressing down on the strings, Cotton?
March 13, 2019, 4:02 PM · Jean wrote: "But I agree this debate is not so simple black-and-white, and anyway, entirely out of topic on"

Sorry, are you a administrator deciding what should or should not be on I would have thought that our impact on the environment is most certainly an issue that we should consider - as should every person or trade. IMO this is by far the most important issue of the day.

But I do understand the arguments for using Ebony IF it stimulates a healthy industry for people that have little else and also if, as you suggest, it promotes the creation of forested areas. I don't know enough about it but if instead people are raiding tropical forests for the ebony trees then the impact could be negative. I would love to hear an expert on the subject.

And if the administration here think this is inappropriate for the group then I will of course desist.

March 13, 2019, 4:53 PM · Dawson

Trust me—with hands this sweaty, no excess pressure is needed to go for a ride on the waterslide.

There was this time I tried sealing my fingerboard with shellac...
Oh boy. Big mistake. The shellac absorbed a little moisture, but nothing compared to the bare wood. The humid air simply condensed on my fingers and strings instead, creating a thoroughly unpleasant and slippery expeience.
That's how I learned the hard way.

I got the mineral spirits and stripped that right off.

March 13, 2019, 7:01 PM · Interesting page for the status of ebony wood (guitar makers use it too):

Doesn't look good - heck, we've basically extinquished the tree from its source. Most interesting is the number of alternative trees suggested at the bottom of the page - I don't know if any of our luthiers would care to comment. Are we obsessed with Ebony without need?

March 13, 2019, 7:28 PM · "Are we obsessed with Ebony without need?"

Violin making, playing, etc., are highly conservative practices as a matter of course, and the use of ebony is entrenched to the point where its absence is an indicator of inauthenticity.

E.g. In a guide from Shar:

"Fingerboard: Is it real ebony or is it some other type of wood that’s been painted black? Violin makers have used ebony fittings for years because of the wood’s hardness, so if the fingerboard isn’t really ebony then it is much more likely to wear out, warp, crack, or splinter."

March 13, 2019, 7:31 PM · That's what we said about ivory too JR.

And that's also what was said about gut strings.

Things can change if there is either a will, a need - or (as with ivory) a law...

March 13, 2019, 7:39 PM · There was even a published claim recently which tried to make the point that old Italian instruments didn't originally have ebony fingerboards, so it'd be great to consider alternatives, and that for example could be a driver. However I'm just pointing out that conservatism is a reality in this area (as it is in all, we're naturally resistant to change), but arguably more so in the violin world.
Edited: March 13, 2019, 8:04 PM · Gut strings are not a fair comparison. If you've given both guts and synthetics a fair shot, you'd know both have their own desirable qualities and that they are both very different.

Not like ivory vs bone or pernambuco vs ipe or ebony vs whatever.

Edited: March 13, 2019, 8:29 PM · Piano keys were once surfaced in ivory. Indeed, it is a marvelous material. A natural wonder. But we figured that out. And thank goodness. Elephants are natural wonders too. More wonderful even than the piano -- and I dearly love the piano. And no, mammoth ivory may also be a fine, workable material, but it is not the same. The texture is not nearly as fine.

Elise, I think I likely extrapolated beyond actual knowledge when I claimed that the finish on the product was created by the manufacturer. I should walk that back a little. It's quite possible that through normal practices of shaping the fingerboard a skilled luthier can give you a wood-like surface, even as a result of the intrinsic properties of the material (that is to say, without heroic surface-treatment measures such as sanding which is often not favored by luthiers).

March 13, 2019, 8:48 PM · You can't finish a fingerboard without sandpaper, all luthiers would agree.
March 13, 2019, 8:53 PM · All poor luthiers would agree, yes.
March 13, 2019, 9:03 PM · You obviously don't have a clue how fingerboards are finished.
Edited: March 14, 2019, 5:43 AM · I don't recall ever having any problem with plastic piano keys.

Jaco Pastorius never practised on his fretless bass, always on a fretted bass, because the strings shredded the fingerboard, which he'd have to cover regularly with many layers of marine epoxy to protect it.

Do string instruments suffer this problem in miniature?

March 14, 2019, 6:24 AM · Elise, once there's a replacement for ebony fingerboards which I find acceptable, and which has been used widely enough to know that there aren't any problems, I'll be on board.

As Duane mentioned, current versions have some adhesion issues. We don't want these things popping off in the middle of performances. ;-)

They also have some resonance and damping properties which are different from ebony, and strange as it may seem, fingerboard properties can affect the sound of an instrument.

Edited: March 14, 2019, 6:41 AM · Part of the ebony problem is that the brown wood is functionally as good as the black, but they leave it to rot because the black has greater cachet. There has long been a movement afoot for the acceptance of brown oboes and things. But I don't want to tell you what you already know.
Edited: March 14, 2019, 10:18 AM · Elise, didn't you write in another thread that v.commers seem so touchy these days ;-) I was being unclear, but I was only referring to the ecological debate raised in my own comment about the good and the bad of plastic for our environment. That is a big complex debate probably not to be held on (although like you I would still welcome expert inputs). But your original topic of this thread is of course very well on topic for
March 14, 2019, 11:33 AM · Elise don't throw away that patent application too soon. It would not surprise me if the ideal fingerboard material turned out to be a ceramic. As others have indicated the means of attachment to the neck is not a trivial considerations. These problems are solvable. Lots of clever people out there.
March 14, 2019, 3:20 PM · Jean - then I misread you. Sorry, I guess the prickles are rubbing off on me!

Paul: ceramic? I wonder if the fingerboard behaving very differently in extreme humid/temp conditions would make that a disaster. It may be that there is plenty of actual wood for this if we just accept that the fingerboard could be a different colour. And why not? I would love it...

March 14, 2019, 4:19 PM · Elise, of course you're right. My guess is that if the non-wood fingerboard were attached to the neck using an adhesive, the adhesive would mitigate some of that stress. That's one reason why airplane manufacturers switched from using rivets to adhesive to connect fuselage sections together. The seam is continuous and flexible -- much stronger. I would be okay with a fingerboard that isn't pure black. The thing is that nobody wants to be the first/only one. ("Surely there's enough ebony left in the world for my violin.") That's why gear pegs and composite chin rests and other such items are made to be the "classic" black color. But you do see brown tail pieces and pegs once in a while.
Edited: March 14, 2019, 6:06 PM · Hmmm, that's got me thinking about attaching fingerboards with rivets.

If rivets were good enough for WW II aircraft, how could they not have been better than 17th century Cremonese adhesive traditions? ;-)

Just kidding. The latest aircraft have largely switched from rivets to adhesives too.

March 14, 2019, 7:50 PM · Yamaha's using rosewood fingerboards in some of their violins now, even one I have, I just realised. I hadn't paid any attention to it. (This is not to say that Yamaha violins are to be considered as a standard -- just that perhaps the resistance need not be as high as we (I) might have assumed.)

They're still using ebony / ebony composites for pegs and sometimes chin rests though. Here's an example:

Mentioned here:

March 15, 2019, 2:45 AM · Rosewood is hardly less rare than Ebony????
March 15, 2019, 4:18 PM · Lyndon, et al.,

I've often wondered why Luthiers don't use rock maple instead of ebony. It is extremely durable, can handle all sorts and kinds of hand oils, can be dyed, and is in open supply - just ask any fancy restaurant supply. I've got a rock maple cutting board that is over 40 years old, gets daily use with very sharp instrument and barely shows any wear.

March 15, 2019, 4:26 PM · George, the scale that measures hardness and resistance to denting is the Janka Hardness Scale. The Janka number of Hard Maple is 1450, Ebony 3220, Rosewood 2200. Maple isn't hard enough.
March 15, 2019, 4:40 PM · Sri Lankan Satinwood is a beautiful yellow timbre that is just as dense as ebony, I used it for keys on my clavichords instead of ebony, unfortunately it is also rare and endangered.
March 15, 2019, 7:19 PM · Here's an idea: cast iron fingerboards, surface-film painted to look like ebony. That oughtta be dense enough.
March 16, 2019, 7:53 AM · "Rosewood is hardly less rare than Ebony?"

[quote edited for conservation of question marks]

It is somewhat less rare, but Yamaha is probably not choosing Rosewood for conservation, and more likely for cost or availability. The point I was trying to make is that as a major manufacturer is forsaking ebony, so might others.

Regarding conservation, perhaps any good hardwood is going to have similar ecological issues stemming from overuse and 'habitat' loss, sooner or later. Which brings us back to synthetics.

March 16, 2019, 8:27 AM · Perhaps the real problem that, as a general rule, the harder (denser) the wood, the more slow-growing it is. Hence, the more difficult it is to make it commercial and the more tempting to raid nature.

What about wood-based composites?

March 20, 2019, 12:18 PM · I wonder if Bamboo would work? The ecologists love it given how renewable it is. It is super hard, not as pretty as the exotic woods that may be generally considered. Personally I've never used it for any furniture construction.
March 21, 2019, 7:41 AM · What an interesting idea Arnie - but surely all those Chinese luthiers have considered this...
March 21, 2019, 8:33 AM · Just found a great topic on synthetic and alternative wood fingerboards on Maestronet from back in 2009. They also mention that a violin was found that had a bamboo fingerboard!

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