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Cipriano Almeida Barros, L., Luiz Longui, E., and Muszynski, L. (2021). "A quest for a sustainable alternative wood species to produce world class clarinets," BioResources 16(3), 6292-6312.


Clarinets are made with a variety of materials, e.g., plastic, graphite, porcelain, or even metal. However, the most commonly used material to make clarinets is wood. Today, African granadilla or African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) is the most popular and most widely used species by leading international companies in terms of clarinet production, because of its high density, color, fine texture, and exceptional durability. This species is also used to manufacture flutes, oboes, and bagpipes, making African blackwood one of the most valuable tree species in the world. However, the focus on the usage of a single species puts considerable pressure on a rare and endangered wood species. Therefore, this work aims to identify viable alternatives to African blackwood in terms of manufacturing clarinets as well as providing a similar combination of instrument characteristics that musicians and companies believe contribute to the value of the instrument, e.g., acoustics, aesthetics, and price.

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A Quest for a Sustainable Alternative Wood Species to Produce World Class Clarinets

Lívia Cipriano Almeida Barros,ª* Eduardo Luiz Longui,ᵇ and Lech Muszynski ᶜ

Clarinets are made with a variety of materials, e.g., plastic, graphite, porcelain, or even metal. However, the most commonly used material to make clarinets is wood. Today, African granadilla or African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) is the most popular and most widely used species by leading international companies in terms of clarinet production, because of its high density, color, fine texture, and exceptional durability. This species is also used to manufacture flutes, oboes, and bagpipes, making African blackwood one of the most valuable tree species in the world. However, the focus on the usage of a single species puts considerable pressure on a rare and endangered wood species. Therefore, this work aims to identify viable alternatives to African blackwood in terms of manufacturing clarinets as well as providing a similar combination of instrument characteristics that musicians and companies believe contribute to the value of the instrument, e.g., acoustics, aesthetics, and price.

Keywords: Woodwind instruments; Music; Endangered species; Tropical wood; African blackwood

Contact information: a: Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Rodovia João Leme dos Santos, Sorocaba – SP 18052-780 Brazil; b: Instituto Florestal, R. do Horto, 931 – Horto Florestal, São Paulo – SP 02377-010 Brazil; c: Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331 USA;

* Corresponding author:


The clarinet is a member of the woodwind family and is one of the most popular musical instruments in the world. The earliest clarinet was created by Johann Christoph Denner during the 1700s in Germany. It was made entirely with wood, except for the metal keys (Hoeprich 2008).

Contemporary clarinets consist of five parts: the mouthpiece, barrel, left-hand section, right-hand section, and bell (as shown in Fig. 1). The most common key system found in clarinets today is the Boehm system clarinet, which was developed between 1839 and 1843 by Hyacinthe Klosé and Auguste Buffet. This key system is played by the majority of musicians in the world (Hoeprich 2008).

Fig. 1. Parts of the clarinet: the mouthpiece, barrel, left-hand section, right-hand section, and bell

While contemporary clarinets are also made with a variety of materials other than wood, e.g., plastic (in various colors), graphite, porcelain, ebonite, hard rubber, or even metal, wood remains the most commonly used material, and African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon Guill. and Perr. a species of the Fabaceae family), is the most popular wood species for clarinet-making. African blackwood started to dominate the clarinet market at the beginning of the 20th century when the commercial export of this species began from Mozambique and Tanzania (Jenkins et al. 2002). Other species are used, but on a much smaller scale.

Some characteristics that make African blackwood the favorite species for making clarinets is the black color of the heartwood, its wood density, its toughness, and the durability of the heartwood (Lincoln 1986). The heartwood of this species has high durability against both termite and fungal attacks (Nakai and Yoshimura 2020) and high durability in terms of dimensional stability, characteristic required for clarinets to resist to high level of moisture and, therefore, to keep the clarinet quality (Wegst 2006). According to Lincoln (1986), “its oiliness, resistance to climate change, and ability to take an exceptional finish makes it preferable to ebony for making high-quality clarinets.”

African Blackwood, is also known as Grenadilla, Mpingo, Mozambique Ebony, and Pau Preto. According to Barstow (2020), this species is found in: Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia (Caprivi Strip), Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa (Limpopo Province, Mpumalanga), South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (as shown in Fig. 2). However, it is only possible to find enough trees of sufficiently harvestable size in East Africa (Ball 2004). Specifically, Mozambique and southern Tanzania are the two places where most African Blackwood comes from. Besides its economic value, this species has cultural importance in Tanzania because it is considered a national tree (Kenyon 2011).

Fig. 2. Distribution of African Blackwood across the world (Barstow 2020; Ball 2004)

Apart from clarinets, African Blackwood is also used to make flutes, oboes, and bagpipes, making it one of the most prized trees in the world. This species can have an export value as high as US$ 18000 per cubic meter. However, the use of this particular species to make clarinets puts considerable pressure on a limited resource. According to Jenkins et al. (2002), every year approximately 7500 to 20000 African Blackwood trees are harvested to produce musical instruments. In 2004 and 2005, it is estimated that as much as 96% of the timber logged in Tanzania was illegally harvested (Harrison 2008). It is estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 clarinets are sold annually in the United Kingdom and that most of these are made from African Blackwood. Currently, global clarinet production is dominated by a small number of manufacturers that produce over 65,000 African Blackwood clarinets and oboes annually (Jenkins et al. 2002).

The manufacturing of clarinets demands high quality-part of wood without any defects or imperfections. These requirements make the production of clarinets extraordinarily wasteful because many trees are harvested to make only a few clarinets, making this an unsustainable process. Each clarinet requires billets totaling a volume of 0.0015 m³. However, the waste from hidden defects can run as high as 25%, increasing the volume of billets used to manufacture each instrument to up to 0.0019 m³. Therefore, the manufacturing of clarinets and oboes likely accounts for anywhere between 120 m³ and 190 m³ of exported billets annually (Jenkins et al. 2002). Instrument makers lose some of their perfect African Blackwood pieces during the machining process at the factory; it is estimated that up to 20% of their workpieces are lost (African Blackwood Conservation Project 2018).

Furthermore, African Blackwood plantations are not economically viable due to long rotation time (Gregory et al. 1999). A harvestable-sized tree has a minimum age of at least 80 years old, since this species grows very slowly (Jenkins et al. 2002) and a minimum diameter at breast height (DBH) over 24-cm, regulated in Tanzania (Nakai 2020). Regional experts do not believe current exploitation levels are sustainable, although this information needs to be verified (Ball 2004). This means that the raw timber materials for the most valued woodwind instruments comes from an unsustainable source. Therefore, it is necessary to preserve this tree and manage a sustainable harvest to keep African Blackwood as an option for commercial timber. Right now, African Blackwood is not threatened with biological extinction, but illegal harvesting, deforestation, and unsatisfactory fire management could make it commercially out of reach in the near future (Ball 2004). Consequently, African Blackwood has already disappeared from parts of its former range in Eastern Africa, and the rate of deforestation is increasing. Commercial stocks of African Blackwood have been exhausted in various parts of Tanzania (Jenkins et al. 2002). In addition, this species has already been recorded as rare in Mozambique through intensive exploitation. According to Scott Paul from Greenpeace, “If we lose some of these species, we are going to lose the sound” (Perry 2008).

Many organizations are working on the conservation of this species: Daraja Music Initiative, also known as “Clarinets for Conservation”, African Blackwood Conservation Project, Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative (MCDI), and Fauna & Flora International, as well as the Tanzanian government (Ball 2004; Palmer 2016; Nakai et al. 2019). Most of these organizations work to support rural communities to sustainably manage their forests by training communities to responsibly harvest timber and connect communities and buyers.

Therefore, it is necessary to identify viable alternatives to this rare and endangered wood species for the manufacturing of clarinets. In order to be successful, the search for sustainable alternatives to African Blackwood to be used for manufacturing of clarinets must carefully consider the physical, mechanical, and aesthetic properties of the replacement, as well as the readiness of the music local community to accept it.

Research Aims

The aim of this article is to identify alternative wood species used to produce clarinets and to determine the instrument characteristics that musicians and companies believe contribute to their value, e.g., quality sound, aesthetics, and price.



The information presented in this study was collected from three types of sources: literature review, direct interviews with experts in the field, and online surveys distributed via email.

Literature review

In the first stage of the literature review, specialized journals and books focused on topics related to musical instruments were identified through a university library network ( This review turned up more than 60 articles and 20 books about musical instruments in general and about clarinets specifically. The general topics reviewed included clarinet history, clarinet manufacturers, the variety and innovations about materials used to make clarinets, the physical and mechanical properties of the utilized wood species, and the physics of woodwind instruments.


Interviews with 47 experts in the field were conducted via email (40), telephone (3), and personal contact (4).

The institutions contacted included clarinet manufacturers, musical instrument museums, and conservatories. Their locations are listed in Table 1. Manufacturers were contacted in order to identify the wood species and other materials used to make modern clarinets as well as the physical and mechanical properties of the wood species that companies believe are important for clarinet production. Museums were consulted in order to collect historical information about clarinets. Music schools and conservatories were contacted to gather general information about clarinets played by professional musicians and to connect with clarinetists, both professors and students, who were then targeted with surveys.

Online survey

Clarinet teachers, clarinet renovators, repair shop owners, clarinetists, and members of clarinet associations were contacted to answer an online survey sent via email. The list of invited individuals and institutions is presented in Table 2. The objective of this survey was to gather specific information about clarinets not otherwise found in the reviewed literature, e.g., the opinions and knowledge of musicians, manufacturers, and repair shop owners on clarinets and the materials they are made of. In addition, repair shop owners were asked about the use of broken clarinet pieces.

The questionnaire was implemented by using a free version of an online survey service (Survey Monkey), available at The questions were related to durability, factors associated with clarinet quality and depreciation, as well as types of wear or damage that make clarinets permanently unusable. An additional point addressed was the importance of the brand, aesthetics, quality, tradition, and price in the choice of instrument, as well as brand preference. The list of questions is presented in Table 3.

Table 1. List of Institutions Contacted for Interviews and their Location

Table 2. List of Institutions Contacted for the Online Survey and their Location

Table 3. Questionnaire

The online surveys were sent to 200 people, including musicians, members of associations, music teachers, and repair shop owners. The response rate was calculated using the formula shown in Eq. 1,


Information analysis

The information collected from the three different sources (literature review, interviews, and online surveys) was processed and combined to provide a list of sustainable alternative wood species to produce clarinets.


The results include data about the characteristics of clarinets that musicians and manufacturers believe contribute to their value, such as sound quality, aesthetics, and price. These data also include information about alternative species used to make clarinets and how their key characteristics compare to African Blackwood.

The results from the three different sources (literature review, interviews, and online surveys) are presented separately.

Literature Review

Based on the literature review, some conclusions could be made about the variety and innovations of materials used to manufacture clarinets. Considering the variety of materials used to make clarinets, African Blackwood is the most used species for clarinet production, although other species are used on a smaller scale. According to Hoeprich (2008), “Occasionally ebony wood (Diospyros melanoxylon) is used, and in the past, cocus (Byra ebenus), boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) and various types of rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) have been popular […] Ebonite, developed to have a density similar to that granadilla [Dalbergia melanoxylon], is cheaper and unlikely to crack”. According to Wegst (2008), besides African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) and Macassar ebony (Diospyros celebica) are also preferred for clarinet production. These woods are used because of their high density, fine grain, and good dimensional stability under the influence of moisture.

One clarinet manufacturer innovated its clarinet production process by starting a Green-Line project, the objective of which was to limit the use of African Blackwood in their clarinets and oboes. According to Hascoet (2020), this company developed a patented process for fabricating instruments with a wood plastic composite, in which wood powder from this species, generated as waste from production of solid wood instruments, is combined with carbon fiber (95% to 5% ratio, respectively). While this production method still uses African Blackwood to make the Green-Line clarinets, it results in less “waste” of overall wood material than the regular process.

There are many clarinet companies around the world, and some of them were contacted in this research. According to an online compilation, the 30 best-known companies are listed in Table 4 (Ranker 2018).

Table 4. List of Clarinet Companies


Interviews provided information about the history of clarinets and the materials used to make a clarinet. According to the interview with Palmer (2015), a museum educator at the MIM (Musical Instruments Museum), almost all clarinet makers used boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) in the past. However, during the late 1800s, clarinet makers started to use African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), because its durability and tone quality were much better than boxwood. In addition, during this time, clarinet makers were adding additional keys and tone holes; consequently, they needed a stronger wood to support the new weight of the clarinet. Currently, other species are used to make clarinets, e.g., Honduran rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii). However, its density, one of the most important wood properties in terms of quality of the tone, is lower than that of African Blackwood (Rossi 2015).

Considering the physical and mechanical properties of a wood species that manufacturers believe are important for clarinet production, Jousserand (2015), a research engineer at the Buffet Group, states that the dimensional stability, especially in the tangential and radial direction, is one of the most important properties of clarinets. Additional important properties include impermeability to air and supporting the weight of the keywork. Since African Blackwood has all these characteristics, it remains the most widely used species to make the highest quality modern clarinets.

Online Survey

The online survey was sent to 200 individuals, of which 73 responses were received by November 08, 2015. Therefore, the response rate was calculated using Eq. 1, and found to be 36.5 %, which was considered satisfactory.

The first question involved the service life of a clarinet. The responses ranged widely: respondents believing that the service life of a clarinet is at least 3 years but can be as long as 200 years. The average of all responses was 100 years. Some responses were more nuanced; one respondent replied “I have played on a 50 years old clarinet. Still worked, but not the greatest sound”. It is reasonable to assume that these results depend on the usage, clarinet care, properties of the wood species, and manufacturing techniques.

The belief that clarinets can be played for as long as 200 years, as expressed by some respondents, is contradicted by Jenkins et al. (2002), who reported that professional quality clarinets may maintain their high performance for approximately six years. The reason for this is that the moist spray blown inside the instrument by the player causes the internal surface to become wet. Under normal circumstances, wetting would cause the wood to swell, but the internal surface of the clarinet is restricted, and the suppressed swelling generates stress that may lead to damage. With time, the repeated wetting of the internal surface of the instrument also deteriorates the quality of the wood, even if extremely careful cleaning and conservation procedures are applied. This is different from some stringed instruments, e.g., violins, which, given the appropriate maintenance, could be played for hundreds of years without appreciable loss in quality. Even if the number of musicians remains the same, the relatively short life of the clarinet guarantees a steady demand for replacement instruments. Despite the relative short life, wood materials are still necessary for high quality clarinet manufacturing. Therefore, the alternative wood species with both high durability and sustainability is highly required in the future.

Table 5 shows the factors believed to contribute to clarinet depreciation. The principal factor is damage to the body of the clarinet. One factor that contributes to clarinet depreciation, according to the survey, is exposure to temperature extremes, i.e., rain and dry weather, and human saliva, which will increase the amount of moisture present in the clarinet. Additional factors addressed were damage to the keys due intense usage, inadequate care and maintenance, wearing down of the tone holes, and not being played for a long period of time.

Table 5. Factors that Contribute to Clarinet Depreciation

According to Jenkins et al. (2002), wood deformation or cracking, as well as keyhole breakage, is produced by stresses between the inside and the outside of the instrument. This stress is due to the fact that when blown into, the air inside the clarinet varies in humidity and temperature; for this reason, the material needs to constantly resist the stresses of playing. Clarinet maintenance is especially important to avoid cracks or breaks in the wood or the breakage of the keys. Factors that are believed to make a clarinet permanently unusable are presented in Table 6. The most popular responses are serious mechanical damage and excessive dryness.

Table 6. Factors That Will Make a Clarinet Permanently Unusable

Clarinets are permanently unusable if they fall and break, causing mechanical damage. In addition, if the wood becomes excessively dry, it could result in changes in bore size, which causes permanent deformation and crooked keys. The keys could wear out because of continuous usage. Large cracks in the wood cannot be repaired. In addition, warping or rotting of the wood can also make the clarinet unworkable. Favorite clarinet brands named by the survey respondents are listed in Table 7. Most respondents selected Buffet Crampon, a French company which has produced clarinets since 1825.

Table 7. Favorite Clarinet Brands of the Participants

Considering the survey answers, the favorite clarinet manufacturing company was Buffet Crampon. A small number of large manufacturers monopolize the production of woodwind instruments, producing several thousand instruments annually. There are also a number of small-scale manufacturers that make a few hundred instruments annually. According to Jenkins et al. (2002), there are four global large manufacturers of clarinets and oboes, with the largest manufacturer producing just over 30000 wooden clarinets annually. On the basis of wood use, the second largest manufacturer probably produces approximately two thirds of this number of clarinets and oboes combined.”

Responses concerned with the importance of brand name/reputation, aesthetics, musical quality (tone), tradition, and price for selecting a clarinet are presented in Table 8. For musicians, music quality and brand are very important, while price is named as “important”, and tradition and aesthetics are “somewhat important.”

Table 8. Reasons for Selecting a Clarinet in Order of Importance

Therefore, musical quality and brand are the most important aspects compared to aesthetics, tradition, and price, which are less important to musicians. For this reason, musicians tend to buy a musical instrument based on experience, i.e., trying the instrument before buying, according to survey responses. Despite price and aesthetics be “somewhat important” for musicians, they are still a determining factor for selecting a clarinet. Aesthetics, more specifically, the body color and the keys material (nickel, silver or gold), are essential for the acceptance by musicians. It is known that black is the traditional color of wood preferred by musicians (Slooten and Souza 1993), and nickel keys is the material used in more affordable clarinets.

Table 9. Characteristics That Contribute to the Musical Quality of a Clarinet

Survey responses concerned with the characteristics that contribute to the musical quality of a clarinet are presented in Table 9. The characteristics selected most often are resonance intonation, tone quality, the resistance of the keys and keyboard design, as well as the material used in the clarinet.

Responses about the level of familiarity with clarinet manufacturing techniques are presented in Table 10. Most respondents claimed to be somewhat familiar with the principal steps of the manufacturing process of clarinets. That should not be surprising since respondents targeted by the survey were musicians, clarinet teachers, clarinet repair professionals, and members of clarinet associations.

Table 10. Familiarity of Respondents with Clarinet Manufacturing Techniques