Sunday, 28 February 2021

A Wonderful Confusion

The question of whether the material that a woodwind instrument is made from affects the sound and what might be called the playability of the instrument is a topic that appears with great regularity on fora as different as on-line discussions and the scientific press. This often takes the form of comparisons of the characteristics of instruments made from wood, metal, or plastic, but does indeed often also discuss the merits or otherwise of different wood types as well.

Those within the Irish wooden flute community will be familiar with arguments about boxwood versus blackwood versus cocus, and I think every musician's experience is that the material does indeed make a difference, but how to characterise that difference, and how to demonstrate scientifically that it actually exists is another matter.

As a flute maker, timber is by necessity one of my major concerns, and in fact any woodwind maker will spend a lot of their time sourcing, buying, seasoning and preparing it. This post however is not so much about the nature of wood as a material, but rather about how much, or in many cases how little, we as makers actually know about it. So to begin, a brief history lesson.

Broadly speaking, the first woodwind instruments were made from natural tubes, and some very sophisticated instruments, mainly in the East, still use natural tubes today. In the West however, tubes made by boring out solid wood began, even by the early medieval period to become standard. Right from the beginning there seems to have been a realisation that harder, denser wood gave a better sound, and woods of choice would have been fruit woods such as apple and pear, but also boxwood. Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), is found in England,  but the makers preferred wood from further east. Rendall says:

The better qualities come from Italy and Spain, the best, the mottled Abassian boxwood, from the shores of the Black Sea. The English variety, while tougher, has a fatal propensity to warping.

In terms of the flute, it is around the time of the development of the baroque flute, towards the end of the 17th C., that we begin to see what are generally called exotic woods appear. It is no coincidence that this corresponds with the great expansion of European trade to the Americas and the Far East around this time, and I'm inclined to believe that these woods were not initially imported with woodwind making in mind, but rather for the furniture, treen, and even dyeing trades. In fact it is thought that much cocus and grenadilla was obtained as a side product of sugar importation. Rendall, speaking of wood used in the clarinet trade, says:

Cocuswood ( Brya ebenus ) was long a popular material with English players and makers. It has every good property. It is very hard, resonant, easily worked, durable, and its high resinous content makes it very resistant to moisture and atmospheric changes. The best qualities come from Jamaica - it was long exported as dunnage in sugar ships- but is now very scarce. ( Dunnage? loose wood, matting, or similar material used to keep a cargo in position in a ship's hold)

It is these exotic woods, and the high level of confusion about their source and even identity that I want to discuss in this post.

When starting to research this topic, perhaps not surprisingly since I'm dealing largely with 19th C. flutes, I began with a source from that period.



This book is a classic, and has often been reprinted ( the image above is from the 2nd ed.) and for anyone involved in craftmanship of any kind, particularly that concerned with the restoration of any type of object made in the 19th C. I highly recommend it.
Note that this first volume deals with the basic materials used in manufacture, and interestingly deals specifically with the the very woods under discussion.
On a first reading, I was forcibly struck by two things. Firstly there was no certainty about what the woods actually were, and secondly and even more surprisingly, no certainty as to where they came from. Remember the date of publication -1843 (2nd ed. above was 1846) places it at the zenith of wooden flute simple system manufacture. But read for yourselves... here's an entry of interest to us.


BLACK BOTANY BAY WOOD called also African Black-wood, is perhaps the hardest and also the most wasteful of all the woods; the billets are very knotty and crooked, and covered with a thick rind of the colour and hardness of boxwood; the section of the heartwood is very irregular, and mostly either indented from without, or hollow and unsound from within; many of the pieces have the irregular scrawling growth that is observed in the wood of the vine. The largest stem of Black Botany-Bay wood I have ever seen, measured transversely eleven inches the longest and seven and a half the shortest way, but it would only produce a circular block of five inches, and this is fully two or three times the ordinary size. The wood when fresh cut is of a bluish-black with dark grey streaks but soon changes to an intense jet black. Of the few sound pieces that are obtained, the largest maybe perhaps five inches, but the majority less than two inches diameter. It is most admirably suited to eccentric turning, as the wood is particularly hard, close, free from pores, but not destructive to the tools, from which when they are in proper condition it receives a brilliant polish. It is also considered to be particularly free from any matter that will cause rust, on which account is greatly esteemed for the handles of surgeons instruments. The exact locality of this wood has long been a matter of great uncertainty. It has been considered to be a species of African ebony but its character is quite different and peculiar; I have how ever recently heard from two independent sources that it comes from the Mauritius, or Isle of France. Col. Lloyd says the wood is there called Cocobolo Prieto; that is not the growth of Mauritius, but of Madagascar to the interior of which island Europeans are not admitted and that it is brought in the same vessels that bring over the bullocks for the supply of food. The stonemasons of the country used splinters of it as a pencil for marking the lines on their work. It makes a dark blue streak not readily washed off by rain.

I have only met with one specimen of this wood in the numerous collections I have searched, namely in Mr Fincham's: he assures me that his specimen grew in Botany Bay and was brought direct from thence with several others, by Captain Woodruff, R.N.  As I have recently purchased a large quantity imported from the Mauritius, it is probable that this wood, in common with many others, may have several localities. It would be very desirable for the amateur turner that the wood should be selected on the spot, and the better pieces alone sent, as a large proportion is scarcely worth the expensive shipment but the fine pieces exceed all other wood for eccentric turned works.


One thing about the above account, which makes me as a maker with forty years experience of African blackwood, very suspicious, is the description of the colour of the fresh wood. I've never seen fresh blackwood that was even remotely of that description. 

Admittedly, in 1843, what we now call African Blackwood was not in great demand by the woodwind industry, but cocus was at that stage the major wood in use for flute making...or was it. Holtzapffel ( whose name, curiously, translates as Applewood ) again...

COCOA WOOD It is really singular that the exact localities and the botanical name of the Cocoa wood that is so much used, should be uncertain: it appears to come from a country producing sugar, being often imported as dunnage, or the stowage upon which the sugar hogsheads are packed: it is also known as Brown Ebony, but the Amerimnum ebenus of Jamaica seems dissimilar.

(Here the account goes on to describe specimens, with their local but not Linnean names, from various wood collections which are similar to Cocus.)

He finishes with

The cocus wood of commerce is not easy to trace to any of the trees of the West Indies, the cocoa plum is Chryso balanus icaco which forms only a shrub; Cocoloba uvifera, or mangrove grape tree, grows large and yields a beautiful wood for cabinet work, but which is light and of a white color. In appearance and description it comes near to the Greenheart or Laurus chloroxylon which is also called Cogwood.

So far we have two types of cocus, apparently separated by their geographical origin, and one of them is also known as grenadille...but then...

GRENADILLO, Granillo, or Grenada Cocus, from the West Indies, is apparently a lighter description of the common cocoa or cocus-wood, but changes ultimately to as dark a colour, although more slowly. It is frequently imported without the sap. The tree yielding this has not been ascertained, the Bois de Grenadille of the French, is also called red ebony by their cabinet makers.

Is this a third wood or not? Interesting as well is the statement that basically it was not known what tree yielded this timber, and in fact no IDs are given to the other Cocus varieties or to the African Blackwood/Botany Bay wood. Yet despite Holtzapffel's assertion that the botanical name of cocus was uncertain, the species of trees that we now know as cocus and the other woods under discussion here had been known to science for some time. Cocus we now know as Brya ebenus, but that specific name was allocated in 1825, and that of African Blackwood, Dalbergia melanoxylon seven years later in 1832. Remember that Holtzappfel was published in 1843. Rockstro, much later in 1890, and even in the 1928 2nd edition doesn't use specific names either as a means of separating different wood types. It seems that botanists and craftsmen weren't having much of a conversation in the 19th century. Even more surprising is that John Jacob Holtzapffel was the elder brother of Jean Daniel Holtzapffel, a flute maker working in Strasbourg and Paris from 1812-1850. To be fair though, the first volume which deals with the woods was written by his brother Charles. I've only seen one flute by J. D. Holtzapffel, which was the original instrument of Breton virtuoso Jean Michel Veillon, and it was made from a black wood...probably ebony.

So there seems to be a pattern emerging regarding the most famous of the flute making woods. Most authors make the distinction between two types of cocus. That from Jamaica was considered the best, and that from other areas of the Caribbean not quite as good, and this type was sometimes called Grenadilla, or some variation of that name. Let's see what  Richard Sheppard Rockstro has to say.


The Cocus-wood of Jamaica gives a splendidly brilliant and powerful tone. This wood is extremely hard and resinous, and being therefore particularly non-absorbent, it retains its form under the influence of heat and moisture better than any other wood that has ever been tried, but it is prone to cracking, and owing to its great density, it interferes somewhat with the flexibility of the tone. It has an exceedingly handsome appearance when newly turned and polished, but it becomes dark, dull, and generally unsightly after being in use for a few years, and the application of French polish only defers the catastrophe for a little while, the ultimate result being worse than when the wood has only received its natural polish.

and again

Cuban and south American Cocus-wood or Grenadille. This material has for many years been employed for the manufacture of flutes. It is excellent for tone production, though its sound is scarcely so brilliant or so powerful as that of the Jamaica cocus or so sweet as that of box. Of all known woods it is no doubt the most suitable for flutes, and it is now almost exclusively used. It is nearly as non- absorbent as the Jamaica wood though less dense and not so liable to splitting but it is not by any means free from that risk, and it is not always permanent as regards its caliber, though a flute in my possession made it this wood by Messrs. Rudall Carte & co. in 1874 which has been in constant use ever since, is now even better than when it was new. The bore of this flute has remained quite perfect but the nature of the world having been somewhat mollified by age and use, the tone of the instrument has become more mellow and flexible without being less powerful than at first. I am bound to say that this is an exceptional case. Cocus-wood is found by some persons to produce serious irritation of the lip which necessitates the use of a silver or gold lip plate. 

Let's finish our look at cocus with what you might imagine to be from the horse's mouth, an account from a working, and reputed, flute maker, Ronnberg. 

Some flutes I make of granadilla (sic). You hear of cocoa flutes. There is no such wood used. It is all granadilla, the brown and the black. The wood comes from the West Indies, principally from Jamaica. The brown wood can be bought here for $45 or $50 a ton; the black is not in the market

It seems that the real problem here is not cocus, but grenadilla/granadillo, and is grenadilla in fact a type of cocus? To add to the confusion, at some point - and it will take more research to find out when - the woodwind trade began to also refer to African blackwood as grenadilla.

My next step in trying to clear all this up was to consult some of the many wood ID sites that can be found on line. One really interesting and useful one is Hobbit House run by Paul Hinds. Here's what he has to say about Grenadilla.

This is another one of those woods where I have considerable confusion, possibly because of similar names, possibly because of a plethora of species. In any event, I will attempt to get more information.
Uh, well ... OK, I HAVE attempted to get more information and what I have ended up with is a splitting headache. This name seems to be used for just about more unrelated woods than any other name I can find, and that's saying something, given the wild overuse of some common names.
The number of species using this name runs to the dozens (and from at least 6 or 8 different genera that I'm immediately aware of, and possibly quite a few more) and the number of alternate common names for various woods that use this name runs to at least 200.
I just don't know what to make of it; what's shown on this page is anything I find that the vendor chooses to list as granadillo.
One of the woods that is generally listed as granadillo is Dalbergia granadillo and while that species is also sometimes called cocobolo, "cocobolo" is generally used in the USA only with Dalbergia retusa and that's how I've handled it on this site.

If you go the Granadillo page on his site you'll see some great photos of many different woods that are grouped under this name. What really intrigued me when I first saw them were the images of one "Granadillo" which botanically is Platymiscium yucatanum ( right down at the bottom of the page). To my eye this looks incredibly like good quality cocus. Could it be that this wood is the Cuban/South American cocus of the earlier authors? It certainly has the right geographic distribution. Wouldn't it be fascinating to discover that it was used at least to some extent? There's only one way to find out.

You'll notice that there are both images and links to other images of the microscopic structure of the end grain of all these various timbers. This is really the definitive method of identification and differentiation, and is doable by someone with a basic knowledge of botany and a simple microscope. 

We could learn a lot, perhaps, by doing such work on some of the old flutes that pass through our hands, and since the process involves microscopically thin sections of wood, is not invasive, and could usefully be applied to even instruments in museums. 

Links, References, and Acknowledgments.

1/ I'm indebted to Michael Lynn for drawing my attention to the Ronnberg interview which was published in "Woodwinds in Early America" by Douglas Koeppe. Brother Francis Publishers.  Texas. 2015

2/Thanks to Paul Hinds for his permission to quote and link to his site. The relevant link is http://www.hobbithouseinc.com/personal/woodpics/granadillo.htm

3/Another useful wood ID site is https://www.wood-database.com/cocuswood/

4/ The Clarinet - Some Notes on its History and Construction. F.G. Rendall 3rd ed. London/Ernest Benn NewYork/W.W. Norton & Co. 1971.

5/ Turning and Mechanical Manipulation. Charles & John Jacob Holtzapffel. Published by the Author. London 1843















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