The New 2015 Irish Flute Combo
(The Folk Flute)
Note: Since I last edited this page, the commercial availability of Mopane has diminished. This is due in part to overharvesting after its discovery by larger commercial interests. Some governments have now imposed quotas on its harvesting. For the itinerant flute maker, it means this wood is harder to get than even Blackwood. The tree fortunately grows like our Black Locust and is in no danger of extinction. Its just that the larger trees have more or less been cut, apparently. If I can continue to keep a supply of it, I will continue to use this wood. I've left the text of my original page describing Mopane below more or less unedited from the original version (August 23, 2007).
I first promoted the use of this wood as an appropriate alternative to the traditionally used African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) for use in woodwind instruments. I first tried out this wood in the Spring of 1997, and so far have been very impressed with the properties of this wood. Further investigation has revealed that unlike Blackwood, this species is relatively common and widespread.
There are few wood alternatives that match Blackwood both structurally and acoustically. I once turned a Cornemuse Bourbonnais chanter in D out of Mopane - 24" long and only about 22mm in diameter in the middle. Usually, such a piece of wood will relax a bit after turning, and show some minor warping, which is revealed by placing the piece of wood between centers a few days after turning. Boxwood and Ebony exhibit this aspect, as well as Blackwood, to a lesser extant. However, the Mopane chanter exhibited no evidence of movement after a week in its turned form.
Mopane is ideal, acoustically, for flutes. The tone is as rich as Blackwood, as powerful, but is a little bit warmer. It resembles the tone of the old Cocus wood used on flutes until that wood became commercially extinct. I am happy to have a wood that rivals Blackwood in its tonal qualities.
Mopane is becoming more available as wood dealers begin to stock it. (See note above - this is no longer the case!) What I have seen is of high quality and is usually defect free. On the other hand, I am finding it harder to get premium quality blackwood. The best squares usually contain a minor defect here and there - small defects such as worm holes are easily dealt with by filling, and aren't structurally significant. However, cracks found in a turned piece render a flute joint as unmarketable. I am finding that I have to turn a larger batch of wood - knowing that a certain amount of it will be rejected after the work has been done, and that I am doing the grading in the finished product!
According to a PBS special aired in 1996, the problem with Blackwood isn't that the trees are disappearing. Instead, the intense heat from agricultural burning of the savannas, which doesn't kill the trees, does crack the wood, and renders it useless for musical instruments.