Guitar necks offer the luthier many variations of wood species from which to choose. With the exception of classical guitars, traditionally, acoustic guitar neck wood was the same material as the back and sides of the guitar. Look at many of the old (and new) Martins, Gibson’s and other popular guitar and that is what you will see.
Quite often handmade guitars depart from this tradition and they experiment with different woods, looking for just the right combination of strength to weight ratios and something that will cosmetically look great.
Wood Strength Factors:
Some of the factors that affect the strength of the wood are, wood hardness, grain pattern and cut of the wood.
Sometimes, but not always, the hardness assists in the strength factor of the wood. If you were to compare Rosewood to Basswood for instance, a Basswood neck would fail far quicker than that of a Rosewood Neck.
Other woods have a high strength to weight ratio, making them ideal candidates for wood neck construction. Specifically the Mahogany Species have a very high strength to weight ratio and that is the reason so may manufacturers use Mahogany.
As with back and top wood, it is equally important that the grain in a piece of neck wood be as close to vertical (quarter sawn) as possible. If you have a piece of wood where the grain is running almost horizontal in lieu of vertical, the quarter sawn wood will be at least 50% stronger.
Cut of the Wood:
This relates to the topic above for the most part. In your search for the perfect neck wood, look for good, quartersawn stock, free from defects such as knots, pitch pockets and other deformities.
Since it is hard for the beginning luthier to understand everything there is to know about wood species we will give you information about color, workability, dangers involved with dust, hardness and more. This is not a comprehensive list at this time, but we will build it into one as time permits.
We have divided the list into two different areas. One for domestic hardwoods and one for exotics. Please understand that the comments we provide are based on personal experiences and since wood is a natural material there are a lot of variables from one set of woods to another. The only way you know for sure is by actually building an instrument from a particular wood species.
Sub-Species: Hard Maple,Rock Maple or Red Maple
Coloration: Light tan with light brown streaking. Is often stained with sunburst finish.
Grain Variations: Curly, Pleated, Birds’ Eye, Quartersawn
Weight: Medium Heavy. May make guitar slightly neck-heavy.
Workability: Difficult – very hard wood – hard on machinery.
Finishing: Easy – closed pore wood, needs no grain filled.
GLS Comments: This is very difficult wood to work with. If you are planning on using either curly or pleated Maple on your guitar backs and sides, strongly consider using this on the neck as well.
Grain Variations: Burled, Quarter-Sawn
Coloration: medium to dark chocolate brown with some cream colored streaking. Hardly ever stained.
Workability: Moderate – medium hard wood – burled can be hard to work with.
Finishing: Moderate – open pore wood, needs grain filled.
GLS Comments: Black walnut is my favorite guitar woods. It is very strong and makes great neck wood. Being a medium dark wood it goes well with the Rosewoods.
Sub-Species: Honduras or Genuine
Grain Variations: Curly, Pleated, Ribbon Cut
Coloration: Light reddish brown – is often stained.
Strength: Has a great weight/strength ratio and is often used for neck wood. Guitars tend to be well balanced.
Workability: Easy – medium hardness – easy to chisel and sand.
Finishing: Moderate – very open pore wood, needs grain filled.
GLS Comments: If there is one wood that you should consider for a first building project, it is Honduras Mahogany. It is inexpensive, easy to work and finish and give you a great product.
Species:East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia)
Coloration: Medium reddish brown to dark burgundy.
Weight: Heavy. This will definitely give you a neck heavy guitar
Strength: Good strength to weight ratio, though not as good as Honduras Mahogany.
Workability: Moderately Difficult – quite hard wood – not easy to chisel and sand. Wood resins pose health risks and gluing problems.
Finishing: Moderate – very open pore wood, needs grain filled. Resins need removal before you attempt finishing operations.
GLS Comments: Since the Rosewoods give you a neck heavy guitar, be aware of this. Many musicians do not like this because in a sitting position the neck continuously wants to swing down.
Grain Variations:Ribbon Cut
Coloration: Tan to light orange.
Strength: Great strength to weight ratio
Workability: Very Easy. This wood is very easy to chisel, plane and sand. The grain is very monolithic and is one of the best woods you will ever work with.
Finishing: Moderate – very open pore wood, needs grain filled. Much the same as Honduras Mahogany.
GLS Comments: This is one of the all time great neck woods for fine classical guitars. It is used on all Ramirez guitars and many other fine instruments. I haven’t used if for steel strings – it may lack some of the needed strength for the acoustic guitar.