While many luthiers are now starting to experiment with alternative tonewoods now that rosewood has been listed on CITES I have been building successfully with the indigenous timbers of New Zealand on an environmentally responsible basis for over 25 years. None of these native timbers are listed on the CITES lists or are endangered species. The ecological regulations of New Zealand ensure that native timbers are only harvested on a sustainable basis. The majority of my timbers are not commercial species and the stories behind obtaining these tonewoods are varied and interesting and you can explore them with the wood in the pages below. Many years of building with indigenous timbers as well as traditional tonewoods has taught me that New Zealand not only has some of the most unique and beautiful woods, but also some of the finest acoustic tonewoods in the world, second to none.
I offer two exceptional New Zealand tonewoods for soundboards, as well as traditional spruce.
I have been building with New Zealand native timbers for over 25 years and in this time the most requested species for the soundboard has been the modern kauri (Agathis Australis) that I started working with very early in my building career. It's acoustic properties are superb; it offers a responsive tone alive with rich harmonics and subtleties, combined with excellent sustain and balance, that is truly inspirational. It is well suited to fingerstyle with the clear tone and colours it brings to the music. You can hear samples in the media section.
In 2006, after years of building with this tonewood from salvaged sources, I was given the opportunity to select my very own kauri tree growing in a private forest in Waingarara. It was a rare opportunity and I am grateful to all those who helped make it happen. I personally oversaw the felling and the project was filmed and became a feature documentary that I invite you to see.
Processed and air dried, this timber now forms the bulk of my tonewood for instrument soundboards.
For those interested, the project was recorded as part of a feature documentary film Song of the Kauri.
Common name Tanekaha, the grain is straight and tight with distinctive rings not disimilar to spruce. The properties of this exciting timber yield a bright tap tone and good sustain. Coupled with kauri bracing it produces a wonderfully balanced, bright tone with plenty of volume. My high opinion of this tonewood is such that I have featured it on all my 20th Anniversary models with superb results. Unfortunately, with such a limited supply I have perhaps only a dozen guitar sized sets to build with this wonderful tonewood.
More on the story of the Paraoanui Sinker
The discovery of the Paraoanui Sinker is an intriguing tale that began in early 2010, when one of my sons was returning cattle across the river that borders our property in the Paraoanui Valley. A recent flood and uncovered a small log and my son came home excited about what he had found. I went back with him and soon discovered that it had identification marks, still readable, stamped on the butt end. It was obviously a lost sinker that had somehow been uncovered in the flood and deposited on our doorstep. But how old was it and what species? Hard to tell because of the weathering, I wondered if it might be a small kauri log, left behind because of it's relative small size. An inquiry into the identification marks revealed that this log was felled between 1850 and 1950, so it could be around 70 to 170 years old! The old-timers who knew their native timbers struggled to identify the samples I showed them so I sent samples to the Scion Research facility in Rotorua where they examined the cell structure and compared it on a microscopic level to their data base. It was positively identified as Tanekaha (Phyllocladus trichomanoides), apparently one of the most elastic timbers in the world. Not wanting to see it go to waste I decided to bring the log back to my workshop and process it into billets and test it for suitability in musical instruments. Floating the log down our river, the project involved the whole family. The log was sawn into smaller sections and the billets split with a froe, to minimise grain run out. It yielded a limited quantity large enough for guitars, and more for smaller instruments. The success of this tonewood as soundboards means that I am seeking more of this wood and hope to augment my stock in the years ahead.
Paraoanui Sinker Home Movie
Back and Sides
There are a wide variety of tone woods that can be used for the back and sides of musical instruments. It is an area where luthiers are free to experiment to good effect, and with increasing pressure on some of the more traditional species, it makes a great deal of sense. It has long been my pleasure to use some of the fantastic New Zealand species available to me in the North of New Zealand where I live.
One of the most uniquely beautiful, not to mention oldest (we are not talking hundreds in this particular case, but thousands of years!), is what we, in the Far North, call "ancient" kauri. It is recovered from peat swamps where it has been preserved all this time. However, ancient kauri varies considerably in colour, grain, density and strength, from one log to the next, to sometimes alarming degrees, more than any other timber I have ever known. This makes selection tricky but the more highly figured samples tend, on average, to have a higher density and aside from the associated increase in difficulties bending and working figured woods, it is easily adapted for service as back and sides for musical instruments. I have been building with ancient kauri for many years with excellent results and I have arguably the best selection of highly figured examples you can find. My Signature Series instruments feature ancient kauri back and sides along with the neck. Samples can be seen in the L.J. Williams Signature Series section where you can view actual sets available for new instruments. Also see the Gallery for recently finished instruments.
Taraire (Beilschmiedia taraire) is an open pored wood similar to rosewood and is about the same density. It is representative of a genus, containing about 40 species, that is mainly tropical. The family to which the genus belongs, the laurel family, is also largely tropical. As such, it is not subject to CITES and, as with all my New Zealand tonewoods, is under no import restrictions. This makes taraire a perfect substitute to the rosewood family for back and sides. Taraire is not a commercial species of any consequence as it grows on fertile soil that is now commonly reserved for agriculture. This makes it very hard to obtain. Usually a lighter brown or yellow, I acquired a substantial stock of coloured taraire from a section of a log that was milled on private land many years ago. It has reds and darker browns as well as black streaks which make for a striking instrument.
I use ancient kauri for the necks on my Signature Series instruments but it is not an easy wood to put to this task. It has taken a lot of development over several years before I was confident enough to use it in this respect. It is also rare in the grades that I commonly require and I reserve most of this wood for back and sides.
But where ancient kauri can be fashioned, albeit with considerable effort, into a superb neck most of my instruments feature another New Zealand timber that seems ideally suited to the purpose. The wood is totara, or more specifically, salvaged totara, which I prefer over new wood for it's slightly more favourable properties and for it's richer colour. In my experience it offers all the qualities of Honduran mahogany and more, in fact I think it superior in almost every way.
Totara (Podocarpus Totara) is a special tree to the indigenous Mäori of New Zealand. Close grained and silky smooth, being easily worked with a carving chisel, it is the pre-eminent carving timber of New Zealand and was traditionally used for building and decorative carving. My preferred totara for necks is salvaged heart timber from old sinkers which has a richer colour than the pale pink of younger trees grown in plantation. Most is clean straight grained wood but I do occasionally find some with beautiful figure.