Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Wal Woods Part 2 - Bodies

The Wonderful World of the Woods of Wal – Part 2, Bodies

In this second feature looking at the woods employed by Wal in building their basses we are going to take a closer look at the woods used for the bass bodies.

Initially, all Wal bodies were constructed from solid ash. Although not as common a tone wood as, say alder or basswood (pronounced BASS - as in the fish or the beer!) it is well known for its tonal properties. It's featured on many classic Fender models and a host of other designs. The wood is considered to give a relatively bright, snappy tone with good sustain.

However, with the introduction of the Custom Series basses everything changed and Wal stepped up into the ranks of what would later be known as "boutique basses". The Custom Series retained the same laminate neck construction (although with a streamlined headstock shape) but the construction of the body was very different. This time a sandwich of different (often exotic) hard woods was employed. At the core was a thick slab of mahogany. Initially this was exclusively Brazilian mahogany but over time as the wood became scarcer, more expensive and subject to increasingly strict export restrictions under CITES (The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species) other sources and subspecies were employed. Notwithstanding the emotional and almost mystical cachet that Brazilian mahogany and rosewood has with builders and players alike this didn't imply any reduction in the quality (aesthetic or sonic) of the woods used.

Either side of this mahogany core would be a very thin veneer of either maple or walnut to act as a visual contrast between the core and facing woods. The outside layers would be a hardwood facing chosen for a mix of aesthetic and tonal properties. The visual effect of the thin veneer is particularly effective on the forearm chamfer and other comfort contours.

A wide range of woods were available as standard on the Custom Series models. Initially these were American Walnut, Padauk, Shedua and Wenge, with a note that sometimes figured examples of Maple could be available, albeit at an additional charge. However since the brand was relaunched by Paul Herman in 2009 shedua has been removed from the list of standard woods, replaced by Zebrano. The reason for this was a pragmatic one. Paul commented, "These two are very similar in they structure qualities – shedua being slightly harder/denser but very close. The up-charge for shedua is because it’s harder to find nicely figured pieces and more expensive too. The natural grain pattern and colours of zebrano make it very striking without having to search to far." Certainly, the shedua basses being produced recently do tend to have very striking grain and flame structures; easily justifying the additional cost, both to producer and customer.

All this begs a question which is debated hotly across guitar and bass Internet forums. Apart from the look, does all this make any difference? Many might contend that all that matters are the strings and pickups. Having played a variety of different Wals with different woods, passive and active electronics (of all generations) it's clear that they all have a certain "Wal sound" to them. The dominant factor in creating their tone does seem to be the unique Wal pickup. But to stop there seems to ignore the wonderfully complex physics going on inside a musical instrument. As much as the nut and bridge transmit vibrations into the body and neck those vibrations resonate through the body, are modulated (depending on the structure of the bass and the materials used) and transmitted back into the strings. These reflected vibrations create complex overtones in the strings which contribute to the tonal subtleties sensed and transmitted through the pickups.

Most luthiers would seem to ascribe to that more complex world view - as did both Ian and Pete. Asked about the difference that wood facings make Paul shared his insights. "The standard bodies all have a central Mahogany core and the facings add character to the overall tone. So regardless of facing choice there is a consistency running through by using the same core timber. As a general rule, the harder facings such as wenge/padauk (wenge being slightly harder) tend to be slightly brighter and punchier giving more attack and reflection - often selected for fretted basses. At the other end of the scale are the softer/less dense timbers like American Walnut, which is favourite for fretless instruments and players who prefer a rounder less aggressive sound."

Ian and Pete also, famously advocated American Walnut as, quite simply, the best wood to use for a fretless. Paul agrees but also concedes that, in a complex world there's no simple formula and American Walnut is by no means the only option. "Yes, in general, but to counter the theory we’ve had some great sounding hard faced (like wenge) fretless basses through here – more aggressive sounding though. Also, you mustn’t forget that the density and grain structure can vary even from one end of a single board to the other. There can be a lot of variables even on two basses with exactly the same spec."

However, tone and aesthetics aren't the only factors for deciding the woods that go into a bass. Each different variety has its own physical properties and some are loved or loathed by woodworkers for these reasons. Some hard woods have a reputation for being able to blunt a newly sharpened plane in one pass. Others produce dust which is simply quite unpleasant (or even hazardous). I couldn't resist asking Paul whether, as a luthier, there were any woods he particularly liked or found difficult. "You can’t go wrong with a nice piece of walnut! Some of the spalted timbers can be challenging to work with as can buckeye burl. These can be soft and can have defects which need to be stabilised but they're visually stunning and that's part of the charm."

A stunning buckeye burl top on a Mk 3 5-string. Worth the extra effort!

And a matching headstock facing.

An example of spalting in maple - the black streaks
are a naturally occurring fungal growth

A stunning Mark III 5-string with spalted beech facings
"Standard" Wal Body Woods (over the years):

Wal is fairly unusual in offering a small number of body styles in a range of different standard body woods, rather than tailoring a single body wood to a particular model within the range. Here is an overview of the woods which Wal have used as standards for bodies across the years.

Mahogany (Swietenia Macrophyllia): a dark reddish brown hardwood which gives a warm tone, this has been consistently used as the core wood for Custom series bodies. As noted above Paul considers that this provides the body's main influence on the tone of a Wal bass, modulated to an extent by the facing woods. Original Wal literature for the Custom series specified the use of Brazilian mahogany however since 2003 the status of swietenia macrophylla has been increased on the CITES (the UN Convention on the Import and Trade in Endangered Species) from Annex III to Annex II making Brazilian mahogany more difficult to source. As a wood it has very good woodworking properties, attractive grain and colour and requires little preparation for finishing. For these reasons it has been used for a very wide range of furniture and other uses - contributing to its over usage and increasingly at risk status. My own Mk 1 Custom from 1985 lists the core as “Brazilian Mahogany”.

Ash (Fraxinus Americana - American ash; Fraxinus Exelsior - European ash): Ash is a temperate hardwood with a pale colour and a high density. It is a well-known and commonly used timber for guitar and bass building with a high density and a relatively bright, sustaining tone. It's good machining and finishing qualities make it a popular wood for a wide variety of woodworking applications. Its grain also looks very subtly attractive under a translucent colour finish.

More recently Paul has begun offering ash as a body core material as a special order option. The contrast with a darker facing wood makes for a striking look.

Ash bodied Pro Series bass in trans-red
An ash core on a Mk 1 walnut faced bass
Martin Elliott's unique solid ash Mk 2 5-string

American Walnut (Juglans Nigra): a temperate hardwood with a dark, straight grained heart wood. The colour tends to be a mid/dark brown which can also have a greyish tinge. It is well known for its good woodworking properties and so has been used for a wide range of practical and decorative applications. It's relatively light density in comparison to some other tone woods leads to a round, well balanced, mellower tone. As noted above, American Walnut has long been a favourite wood for building fretless basses.

Padauk (Pterocarpus Soyauxii - African Padauk): this hardwood has a strong red hue when recently cut. This can mellow over time to a darker red-brown. The sapwood of the padauk is very pale, almost white. This strong visual contrast has been used on some bookmatched Wal facings seemingly giving an appearance of two separate, different woods having
been used to create the top. Being relatively hard, dense wood it typically produced a brighter tone, although not quite as bright and punchy as wenge. An interesting bit of Wal trivia is that, although padauk has an alternative spelling of "padouk" the early Custom series leaflets used neither of these. Rather they consistently misspelled it as "paduak". Aria made the same misspelling on their SB series literature, makes you wonder if that's where Ian and Pete picked that spelling up from!

Shedua (Guibourtia Ehie): More commonly known in guitar making circles as “Ovangkol”, guibourtia ehie luxuriates under a plethora of pseudonyms. Amazaque, Amazoué, Shedua, Hydua, Hyedua, Mozambique... The early Custom series leaflets compromised with "hydua (pronounced 'shedua')". This African hardwood became a staple of the Wal stable throughout the 1980s through to the 2000s as one of the more commonly used facings – my 1985 Mk 1 lists the facings as “African Shedua”. The wood itself is striking in colour. A golden brown colour in the heartwood it shows pronounced and regular dark brown annual lines but, attractive as this is, it isn't its most striking feature. 

The wood often displays quite wild wavy or chequer board flaming which undulates with changes in light angle. Increasing price and scarcity of particularly good quality blanks means that this wood now carried an up-charge. However, this means that in choosing the most select pieces most recent shedua Wals have the most incredible flame patterns. Another feature of the wood is the graduation in colour between heart and sapwood, the latter being a paler grey/yellow colour. This fact was often used to great effect on bookmatched facings to create a pseudo-through neck appearance. Although an exotic hardwood, shedua is considered to be in one of the least threatened conservation classifications - "least concern". The wood is also closely related to another well-known bass guitar tone wood, bubinga, which is another subspecies of guibourtia.

Wenge (Millettia Laurentii): A striking African hardwood, wenge has been adopted by a number of bass guitar makers but more commonly as neck laminates. However the very dark, almost black colour, makes for a very striking facing wood. Very hard and dense it has one of the brightest, punchiest tonal palettes of the standard Wal facing woods. When quartersawn wenge has a very close, straight grain structure. However if sawn tangentially it displays a striking wavy grain pattern which mixes almost black lines with a dark chocolate colour. The level of grain variation will vary greatly from one piece of wood to another and can be very pronounced. The conservation status of wenge has been increasing over recent years with continued logging and loss of habitat. It is currently listed as "Endangered" under the "Threatened" category IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. Bearing this in mind it will be interesting to see how much longer it is easily available as a bass building choice.

Unusual pale coloured wenge

Zebrano (Macroberlina Brazzavillensis): Zebrano is an African hardwood known for its striking grain patterns, particularly when quarter-sawn. The heartwood colour ranges from a golden yellow to a very light brown. However, this contrasts with strong very dark brown streaks and annual lines which produce a stripped effect, reminiscent of a zebra's markings - hence the name, “Zebrano”. The wood is relatively hard and dense and displays similar woodworking and tonal qualities to shedua. For this reason it has taken the place of shedua as a standard Wal facing option as the cost of that wood has risen. That said, zebrano gives just as striking a visual effect as shedua and so still provides Wal buyers with an unusual look which will stand out from most basses. Zebrano has been commonly used as a special order option on Wal basses since the early days of the Custom series basses.
Zebrano body blank

A particularly striking piece of zebrano

Many thanks to Paul at Wal Basses for permission to use a selection of photos from the Wal Basses website demonstrating the various wood which he uses to make his beautiful basses.

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