Is spruce wood good for Ukulele? Keep on reading to find out.
Well, spruce wood is one of the best tonewoods for making ukuleles because it is highly resonant. It produces a bright and well-balanced tone, the signature sound for ukuleles. In addition, the sound quality of a spruce ukulele tends to improve as the wood ages.
The Sitka and Engelmann spruces are the best for ukulele construction, but you can also find instruments with Adirondack or European spruces.
Spruce wood is one of the most loved tonewoods by luthiers as they use it to make soundboards and bracings for stringed instruments, including guitars, violins, violas, and sometimes even cellos.
Before we learn more about constructing ukuleles using spruce, let me tell you a little bit about spruce ukuleles.
What Is Ukulele?
The ukulele, alternatively known as uke, is a four-stringed musical instrument created using wood and looks like a small classical acoustic guitar.
The ukulele produces a characteristic mellow sound with a vibe of tropical environments. The ukulele is unique to Hawaii. However, it has its roots in Western Europe.
English speakers pronounce this instrument as “you-ka-ley-ley.”
However, the word’s (ukulele) spelling is an anglicized version of the original Hawaiian pronunciation, “ju-ke-lei-li.”
The parents of the uke are two musical instruments from Portugal – the machete and the cavaquinho, also known as braguinha.
They were developed in Braga, a city in the country’s north.
Ukulele dates From 1879 when the Portuguese immigrants from Madeira left their home island to search for a better life.
What Is Spruce Ukulele?
A spruce ukelele is simply a ukelele made out of spruce wood. It is a member of the lute family of instruments, originally Portuguese but popularized in Hawaii.
Even though we call it a “spruce ukulele,” luthiers use a combination of spruce and hardwood or wood laminate to make the instrument. And the most common ukelele part made of spruce is the soundboard, aka the “top.”
So, why do luthiers use spruce to make ukulele soundboards?
The high stiffness-to-weight ratio is one feature that makes spruce wood ideal for ukuleles. Even though the wood is light and carved thinly to make the instrument, it remains strong.
This is perfect because the wood will retain its shape and strength under the constant tension produced by plucking the strings.
Another great feature of spruce is its high density despite being a softwood. It contains fewer air spaces between its cells, allowing the sound vibrations of the ukulele to resonate throughout the instrument.
Sound and strength aside, spruce ukuleles have a beautiful appearance thanks to the natural beauty of spruce woods.
They tend to have long, even grain that runs uninterrupted along the wood board. In addition, they have a light creamy-yellow look that suits all classical-style musical instruments.
Factors That Affect The Tone Quality Of A Spruce Ukulele
Apart from the spruce wood itself, other features affect the tone quality of the ukulele. These include the size of the instrument, species of the spruce, and craftsmanship. Let me explain.
Size Of The Ukulele
Spruce ukuleles come in four sizes – soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. I’ll only discuss the soprano and the baritone ukuleles to help you understand this point.
The soprano ukulele is the smallest, meaning that it has a tiny internal cavity. As a result, sound has very little space to vibrate; hence its tone comes off as high with very little depth.
In contrast, the baritone ukulele has the largest internal cavity; hence there’s more room for the sound to vibrate. Consequently, it produces a lower pitch with smoother and richer sound depth.
Many spruce species are used to make ukuleles, but the most common ones are the Sitka and Engelmann spruces. The Sitka Spruce produces the highest and richest tone, while the Engelmann has a more mellowed tone that is warm and well-rounded.
The above qualities are just the inherent properties of the spruce tree. They only count for half the credit for making a quality ukulele.
The other half is pure craftsmanship, which begins by choosing a suitable spruce lumber, cutting it, and then crafting it into a ukulele. Let me explain.
Choosing the Right lumber
The best spruce species for making ukuleles grow in colder and high-altitude regions. The consistent cold temperatures cause the trees to grow more densely and the growth rings to be evenly spaced.
The high density makes the tonal quality of the word excellent, and it also guarantees the structural stability of the ukulele. In addition, the evenly-spaced growth rings make the wood aesthetically pleasing no matter how you cut it.
Cutting and Crafting
After sourcing the spruce wood, the boards are cut, and then the lumber is dried to remove moisture and sap. Drying the wood is necessary to maintain the structural integrity of the instrument.
If you use fresh spruce for the ukulele, it will warp, crack, or split as the wood dries naturally.
Air-drying and kiln-drying are two main ways to dry spruce wood. Air drying is the most traditional method used worldwide, but it could take years for the wood to dry properly.
However, it is the safest method that maintains the wood’s structural integrity and tonal quality.
On the other hand, kiln drying works faster, but it sometimes causes structural damage to the wood cells.
This could affect the tonal quality of the ukulele built, so I recommend air drying your spruce woods for making the ukulele.
Which Is Better Spruce or Mahogany Ukulele?
Spruce and mahogany are both excellent tonewoods, but they are vastly different. Spruce is a softwood, while mahogany is a hardwood; therefore, they have highly contrasting physical attributes.
As a result, a ukulele with a spruce soundboard will have a slightly different tonal quality from one with a mahogany top.
Which is better? It all comes down to personal sound preference. In this section, I’ll discuss the different tone qualities of spruce and mahogany ukuleles.
I’ll also explain the differences in appearance, durability, cost, and workability to help you decide which is better.
Mahogany ukuleles have a smooth, subdued tone. You will still notice the high-end frequencies that naturally characterize ukuleles, but the tones have an overall mellow and soft presence. Here’s why:
Mahogany is a hardwood; therefore, it has a denser structure. As a result, it does not vibrate so much, causing the ukulele tone to sound a little muted.
On the other hand, spruce ukuleles project more than the mahogany types. Therefore, they produce a classic acoustic instrument’s loud and “punchy” tone.
The reason is that spruce wood is less dense than mahogany; therefore, it tends to vibrate more. In addition, spruce is flexible, so it vibrates faster, making the tone “feel” louder and brighter than that of mahogany
The visual difference between a spruce and a mahogany ukulele is obvious. Mahogany ukuleles have a dark brown color with a distinctive grain pattern. On the other hand, spruce ukuleles are light-colored with a subtle, even, and straight-grain pattern.
The mahogany ukuleles are excellent if you love a dark rustic look for your instrument. The spruce variety is best if you are into a more classical-looking instrument.
Mahogany ukuleles are more durable than the spruce variety. The reason is that mahogany is a hardwood; therefore, it has a denser and stronger structure.
For this reason, the ukuleles you make will not get damaged easily. Furthermore, the strength allows you to use mahogany to make the instrument’s soundboard, neck, and back areas. These areas of a ukulele experience the most wear; hence, they require a durable material.
On the other hand, spruce is a softwood; hence it is less dense and has a soft surface. Luthiers often use it to make the ukelele’s soundboard and soundboard bracing.
An accidental drop will dent your instrument very quickly if you make the back side and neck of a ukulele using spruce wood. Furthermore, the spruce’s soft surface will not withstand the kind of tension placed on the neck of the instrument.
Mahogany ukuleles cost more than spruce ukuleles. This difference in cost usually corresponds to the cost of the wood itself. Let me explain.
Mahogany trees grow very slowly – a common characteristic of hardwoods. As a result, acquiring wood from them takes a long time, meaning they’re not always readily available. This slight scarcity is part of what makes up the high cost.
In addition, the slow growth makes mahogany wood come out stronger and denser. This means that the ukulele you make will also be strong and remain in shape for a very long time. This guaranteed durability also makes mahogany ukuleles expensive.
On the other hand, spruce trees are softwoods, growing much more quickly. As a result, their wood is more readily available, causing the lumber stores to sell them cheaply.
The quick growth also means that the wood becomes less dense and weaker than mahogany. This makes spruce ukuleles less durable and, therefore, cheaper.
Note: It is common to find spruce and mahogany ukuleles within the same price range. This is especially true for ukuleles with a spruce soundboard and mahogany sides, back, and neck.
It is easier to make ukuleles using spruce wood than mahogany. The reason is that spruce has a soft surface that is easy to cut and shape. Furthermore, the wood pieces are lightweight and easy to glue together.
On the other hand, mahogany has a hard and dense surface; therefore, it is much harder to cut and shape. Moreover, it is a little heavier than spruce; hence, you can quickly get tired as you make the instrument.
Is Mahogany Stronger than Spruce?
Mahogany is generally stronger than spruce wood because it is hardwood. Nevertheless, we cannot express the strength of mahogany or spruce as a single measurement.
We must take individual measurements of several features, then use the information to determine which wood is stronger. The measurements that we use to determine wood strength are
- Hardness: The lumber’s ability to resist dents and scratches.
- Density: The weight of the wood per a specified volume.
- Compressive Strength: The amount of weight the wood can bear parallel to its grain before it ruptures.
- Bending Strength: The weight the wood can bear perpendicular to its grain before it breaks.
Let’s look at these factors in-depth to understand why mahogany is stronger than spruce wood.
The wood industry rates the hardness of wood using the Janka Hardness Scale. This scale determines how many pounds of force (lbf) you need to drive a 0.444-inch steel ball halfway into the wood’s surface grain.
The harder the wood, the more force it will take to drive the ball into the surface fiber; therefore, the higher the Janka rating.
Mahogany has a Janka rating of 800lbf, while spruce wood stands at 510lbf. This means that you need to apply more force to dent the surface of mahogany than spruce.
The density of wood is determined by the amount of wood fiber in its structure. As we know, wood is a porous material with air spaces between its fibers. Some woods have more space than fibers, while others have more fiber than air space.
The wood species with more fibers are often heavier than those with fewer fibers. Moreover, the abundance of fibers in a given wood area makes the wood surface harder.
In this case, mahogany is denser than spruce. Its density ranges from 40 lbs/ft3 to 53 lbs/ft3, depending on the species. On the other hand, spruce wood density ranges between 23 lbs/ft3 and 35 lbs/ft3. So, you can see the difference.
The moisture content of wood also determines its overall density. Fresh wood contains a lot of moisture; therefore, it will be significantly heavier than dry wood. However, moisture in wood weakens the structure instead of adding to its strength. Let me explain.
When wood absorbs moisture, it swells, causing the bonds between its fibers to weaken. Consequently, the overall strength of the lumber reduces. For this reason, it is always best to note the moisture conditions of wood as you specify density.
Note: The measurements specified above describe the wood’s density at 12% moisture content, which is the workable moisture level of wood.
Compressive Strength and Bending Strength
Apart from the number of wood fibers, the strength of wood also varies depending on the grain direction. This means that wood boards are stronger in specific directions than others.
When you examine a piece of wood, you will see lines going in one or several directions – depending on the wood. These “lines” are known as the wood grain, and the direction they face is what woodworkers refer to as “with the grain.”
Any other direction is considered as “against the grain, and when it comes to strength, wood is always stronger with the grain.
Even though wood is stronger with the grain, you cannot always cut, shape, or use it with the grain facing one direction. Therefore, it is always best to determine the weight it can bear “against the grain” before the fibers break or sag.
The Compressive Strength of a piece of wood informs you of the weight/load the lumber can withstand parallel to its grain.
For example, In furniture making, this measurement will tell you how much weight the legs of a table or chair will support before they buckle.
On the other hand, the bending strength of wood is a calculation of the amount of load it can withstand perpendicular to the grain. A good example would be to determine the load you can hang on a wooden peg before it starts to bend.
Here are the bending strengths of the most common mahogany and spruce species:
- Bending Strength – 11500 Psi
- Compressive Strength – 6780Psi
- Bending Strength – 10200 Psi
- Compressive Strength – 5610 Psi
As you can see, mahogany beats spruce in both bending and compressive strengths.
Should You Stain Spruce Ukulele
Whether or not you stain your spruce ukulele depends on how you want the instrument to appear. You should stain if you want to darken the color or make it look like another wood type.
However, If you love the light color of spruce wood and want to maintain it, the best thing to do is apply a clear finish, and you’re good to go.
Even though staining a spruce ukulele is optional, I recommend that you do it for the following reasons:
- Spruce wood is light, but it tends to yellow as it ages. This means that your ukulele will not be light-colored forever. For some people, this slight color change is not a problem. However, a good quality stain will help camouflage or even prevent color change.
- Staining your spruce ukulele will enhance the color and grain of the wood, making your instrument look unique.
- Even though the wood stain might weather and fade over time, it will do so gradually and gracefully. You will not see the finish cracking or peeling like paint or clear wood coatings.
- Staining the ukelele is easy; therefore, you don’t need professional assistance to get it right. Furthermore, the wood staining tools and products are affordable, so you don’t have to worry about finances.
How to Stain Spruce Wood Ukulele
Staining a spruce wood ukulele may be easy, but it will turn out wrong if you do not use the correct products. How you apply the stain will also determine the final look of the instrument.
So, follow the steps below to stain your spruce ukulele like a pro!
You Will Need
- ColorTone Liquid stains because they are designed to finish wooden string instruments like guitars. You can mix different stain colors to create a custom hue for your ukulele.
- Water to dilute the stain and for clean up after the task.
- Cotton Balls and Cloths for applying the stain and clean up.
- Small bowls/containers for mixing the stain.
- Pre-stain wood conditioner
- Gloves, mask, and goggles for protection
Step 1: Prepare Your Work Space
- Move your tools and any other unwanted objects out of the way to create space for your project. This will also prevent you from spilling stains on them.
- Lay down a small towel or newspaper to protect the surrounding areas from spills.
- Open windows and doors to keep fresh air circulating in the workspace. Alternatively, you can set up a temporary workstation outside with plenty of fresh air.
Step 2: Mix the stain
- Pour two ounces of warm water into a bowl and add enough drops of the Colortone stain. You can also use cold water, but I prefer warm water when staining my instruments.
- Stir the mixture and test it on a scrap piece of spruce wood. Ensure that it is cut from the same spruce used to make the ukulele. This way, your results will be more accurate.
- Lastly, add more water or stain if the color intensity isn’t what you desire.
- You can proceed if you get the correct color tint on the first try.
Step 3: Apply Pre-stain Wood Conditioner.
Before staining a spruce wood ukulele, you must consider the end-grain areas. End-grain areas are spots where you cut or shave off tiny wood pieces as you shape the instrument.
These areas have open pores; hence, they tend to absorb more stains than others. As a result, the finish in the end grain areas will appear darker than the rest of the instrument body (blotchy finish).
The best way to deal with this issue is to apply a quality pre-stain wood conditioner before staining the ukulele.
The pre-stain conditioner will penetrate and temporarily seal the wood grain to make the stain absorption rate even. This will prevent the problem areas from absorbing too much stain, thus preventing blotchiness.
- Pour pre-stain conditioner into a bowl, then dip a cotton ball into the product. Afterward, squeeze the cotton ball slightly to release the excess conditioner.
- Apply an even coat of the pre-stain conditioner across the entire ukulele and then let it sit for -5 minutes. Afterward, wipe off excess product.
- Let the conditioner dry for 30 minutes or the duration recommended by the manufacturer for the best results. Afterward, sand the ukulele with fine-grit sandpaper (800 grit and above), then apply another coat following the same procedure.
Do not leave the conditioner on the spruce ukulele for more than 5 minutes before wiping it off. Otherwise, the product will seal the wood and prevent the stain from penetrating properly.
Step 4: Apply the stain
- Place a small cotton ball inside a cotton cloth to make a wiping pad, then dip it into the wood stain mixture.
- Apply the stain on the ukulele using light strokes following the grain direction. Do not blot the stain onto the wood because you will leave too much product on the ukulele. This excess product will cause blotchiness even with the pre-stain conditioner.
- Leave the stain on the surface for about five minutes before wiping off the excess product. If you want the color to be more intense, leave the product on for 10 minutes.
- Let the first coat dry as recommended on the product instructions, and then follow up with another light coat. Ensure that you follow the same application procedure as the first coat and add more coats until you achieve your desired color intensity.
- After the last coat of stain dries, seal the ukulele with a water-based polyurethane or a polycrylic product to keep the stain looking intact. Avoid-oil based clear sealers because they will turn yellow and affect your finish after a while. Also, oil-based clear finishes are much heavier and will add a little weight to the light spruce. As a result, they can easily distort the fine sound quality of your spruce ukulele
Note: Before staining the paint, ensure that you do enough practice on several scraps of pine wood until you achieve the color you desire.
There are six or more shades of oak stains; therefore, you can get samples to try out before making a big purchase and beginning your project.
Here’s How to Stain Your Spruce Ukulele:
Spruce wood is one of the most popular tonewoods used to make string musical instruments. We’ve used it as soundboards for guitars, violins, and even the big cellos! But the burning question remains.
Is Spruce Wood Good For Ukulele?
Spruce wood is an excellent material for making ukulele soundboards and soundboard bracing. You can use the Sitka spruce if you want the ukulele to produce a bright, punchy, well-balanced tone. However, the Engelmann spruce is the best choice if you prefer a more mellow and rounded tone.
If you want to use only one spruce species but still desire different tone qualities, build different-sized ukuleles. The soprano size is the smallest, producing the brightest pitch, while the baritone ukeleles are perfect if you love the mellow tones.
The best thing about using spruce wood for the ukulele is that the instrument’s sound quality will improve as the wood ages. So if your new ukulele doesn’t sound right, give it a few months, and you’ll hear the magic pitch.
Furthermore, the spruce will give your ukulele a beautiful light color. However, you can stain the instrument to make its grain pop and give it a darker hue.
On the downside, You cannot use spruce wood to make ukulele neck, back, or sides. These areas are often subject to a lot of tension, which the soft spruce cannot withstand. So the best thing to do is to use the spruce for the soundboard and make the other parts from hardwood or wood laminate.
Thanks for reading this far, and I hope I’ve answered everything regarding spruce ukuleles adequately. Please get in touch with me in the comments below if you need me to clarify anything.