A couple of words about materials
Of the 141 lutes listed in the Raymond Fugger inventory (1566) we know the materials from which the shells of 101 were made and only 38 of these are of European origin. The various imported materials used (whalebone and cane, ebony and ivory, snake- king- brazil- guaiac- and sandalwood) are almost all to be found in surviving instruments from throughout the lute’s long history, and well reflect the taste for the exotic of one of the richest and most powerful families in Europe.
But the use of European woods speaks a different language and reflects a solidly established tradition which only occasionally allowed some exceptions: maple and yew, together with the spruce employed for soundboards, were the basic materials of alpine origin for generations of lutemakers who themselves stemmed from a well defined alpine area, plus, south of the Alps, cypress, which for a long time was the most widely used wood for Italian plucked string instruments – lutes and guitars, psalteries, harps and harpsichords.
Cypress, by the way, is the best wood for making ‘uds, according to Ibn-at-Tahhan, 11th century, confirmed by an anonymous source from the 14th century, from the Isfahan region.
Beyond these, we know that Lucas Maler used ash, and walnut occasionally appears in guitars and Neapolitan mandolins. That in spite of the wide variety of available suitable materials the old masters stuck to these few (we, modern lutemakers, are obviously more prone to experimentation) may partly be due to conservative traditionalism, but this praxis was definitely justified by the fact that they well knew which materials would give constant high quality results. Bird’s eye maple seems somehow to find a place between two tendencies, satisfying at once aesthetic and acoustical needs. All in all, the feeling is that a distinction was made between instruments for playing and for exhibiting, where the workmanship quality was, indeed, constant, but the discriminating factor for the lute player was not necessarily the rarity or the exoticism of the materials employed.
I always employed top quality materials that kept me good company in the workshop for at least 4-5 years, but often much longer, and the ingredients of glues, waxes and varnishes have always been exclusively of natural origin. The right place for ivory is in the mouths of elephants, and I never used any of it. Likewise, I always tried and limit the use of tropical woods to the absolute minimum. Used with due understanding, the traditional European woods always had only advantages to offer in meeting all our demands, today as in the past.