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Traditionally, hardwoods such as Ebony, Rosewood and Maple have been the materials most often used for the construction of fretboards. They are dense, strong timbers, resistant to warping and durable enough to withstand the wear and tear imparted over many years from our hands and guitar strings. Ebony, in fact, has such high density that even termites consider it too much work!
But, in recent times as these woods become less abundant and more costly, thanks to scarcity. Not to mention the introduction of regulations put in place to protect from overharvesting (that unfortunately the stringed instrument industry has played a large role in), new engineered alternatives have been introduced.
Today, we’re going to discuss engineered Ebony, it’s uses, the types available, pros and cons and why it’s more resistant to cracking and warping due to changes in relative humidity. But first, we’ll discuss why fretboard cracking and warping occurs in the first place and why guitarists should embrace composite materials such as Richlite and Micarta.
Cracks in fretboards occur due to changes in relative humidity, mostly as a result of the fretboard timber drying out and then shrinking. This can occur, for example, when a guitar is shipped from a region with high relative humidity to a region with lower relative humidity, and has long been a problem for touring musicians.
Relative humidity refers to the amount of water vapor in the air currently compared to the amount that could be held based on the current temperature. It is measured as a percentage e.g. relative humidity of 75% means the air has reached 75% of its maximum capacity to hold moisture at a given temperature.
When wood loses moisture, the loss of moisture is not distributed evenly. Most moisture loss occurs along the growth rings of the wood and this causes an uneven distribution of tension across the fretboard causing weak points in the wood, resulting in a higher probability of cracks occurring.
Engineered timbers also commonly referred to as composite woods, due to their manufacturing consistency in terms of density (no growth rings) are far less susceptible to cracking and warping due to changes in humidity.
They are typically made from compressed materials e.g. wood, paper, carbon fiber, canvas, and typically reinforced through the use of polymers.
When used as a fretboard material they take on a dark appearance, very similar to Ebony and offer many of the same advantages in terms of playability e.g. The surface can be sanded particularly smooth, and it is sufficiently dense to prevent moisture absorption from our hands. The fact is, both visually and in terms of playability most guitarists would have a hard time telling the difference.
And, while some guitarists have been slow to accept engineered timbers (aka composite timbers), the advantages offered in terms of consistency and durability are difficult to deny.
For the most part, the only reason composite materials have not been more widely accepted up to this point is most likely due to the tradition.
Richlite is made from resin infused paper e.g. recycled paper and Phenolic Resin (formaldehyde and phenol). While formaldehyde and phenol and usually dangerous substances in isolation, when combined in this way are harmless.
Richlite is a very durable material (more durable than Ebony) while feeling very similar to the touch. It resembles Ebony through the paper and amber tones of the resin and has been used since the 1940s for a range of applications including automotive manufacturing.
One of the more common complaints about engineered timbers is their inability to handle refretting, as the wood can often chip as a result, in fact many luthiers refuse to refret engineered timber fretboards.
The manufacturers of Richlite however claim their product is far less susceptible to chipping when refretting.
Micarta is manufactured from composites of carbon fiber, canvas, paper, linen and fiberglass and set in cured resin (thermoset plastic).
It has been used by brands such as Martin® and Taylor® and for the most part has received positive feedback, surprising even purists who swear by traditional timbers.
One complaint observed while researching for this article, although not all that common is warping. This is unlikely due to structural changes to the Micarta fretboard itself, but more likely due to changes over time to the neck material supporting the fretboard.
Less is known about Rocklite, being a relative newcomer compared to Richlite. But Rocklite, unlike Richlite, has been specifically designed for stringed instruments (fretboards and bridges) and has been purposely designed to match the properties of Ebony.
It is a non-particulate composite material, with slightly lower density than genuine Ebony. It's rumored to be made from a blend of Tulipwood and Eucalyptus, although the makers of Rocklite have not divulged the ingredients used for manufacturing.
It is made by compressing long splinters of wood in a black resin under high pressure. Perhaps due to using real wood, or using longer strands compared to smaller particles many claim it feels almost identical to genuine Ebony.
While not used extensively yet, some luthiers consider Rocklite to be less of an alternative, and more of an upgrade to genuine Ebony due to its consistency.
While the stringed instrument industry has been responsible for over harvesting of African Ebony with little regard for sustainability historically, changes over recent years have led guitar manufacturers to focus on more sustainable practices, including the introduction of composite, aka engineered timbers.
While much of this has been borne out of necessity due to regulations, as can be seen in the case of Rocklite the potential for improving upon organic materials has potential.
And, while purists will argue that the imperfections of timber are largely responsible for providing ‘character’, the truth is, especially when it comes to fretboards, a more pressing issue is preventing damage such as cracking occurring due to humidity, which can be a real problem for touring musicians or regular musicians who order guitars from overseas.
So, next time you are considering a new guitar (or guitar kit), don't put off by materials such as Richlite, Micarta or Rocklite. You are unlikely to notice a difference visually, and in terms of stability and playability may even feel superior to some of those traditional woods such as Ebony, Rosewood and Maple.