What is Pau Ferro? That, my Friends, is what we will be exploring in this edition of Matt's Blog. Welcome, 1st timers, and welcome back, Old Timers! Whenever I think of Pau Ferro, I always think of Batman punching someone in the 60s TV Show.
Terribly dated jokes aside, this is one of those woods that gets a bad rap because its considered a substitute for Rosewood. And, as we all know, substitutes are NOT the 1st choice... that's why it's a substitute! However, if the last couple years have taught me anything, its that some of these 'substitute' woods are in fact, cooler than the wood they are subbing for. And if you, like me, have grown tired of the boring, ho-hum, lower quality rosewood that we've been seeing lately, then woods like Pau Ferro and Ziricote are well-worth checking into!
Pau Ferro has garnered interest, notoriety, fame as of lately since Fender started using it as a fingerboard replacement for Rosewood starting a couple years ago. However, its use in the guitar world goes much farther back than many know of. One of my favorite examples is the early 1990s Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Strats. These guitars were built with either Brazilian Rosewood or Pau Ferro fingerboards. So with that in mind, Fender found Pau Ferro to be the perfect alternative for Brazilian Rosewood both in terms of looks and tonal performance. Kind of says a lot about the stuff, if you ask me! Granted, the Brazzy Board versions garner more $$$ on the used market but that’s for a different blog! Technically, Pau Ferro is not a Dahlbergia like REAL Rosewoods but it is in a closely related Genus, called Machaerium. Heck, even working with Pau Ferro offers similar foibles to working with Rosewood. Let’s get (even) nerdy(er) here for a minute!
"Libidibia ferrea, formerly Caesalpinia ferrea, and commonly known as pau ferro, Jucá, Brazilian ironwood, morado, or leopard tree, is a tree found in Brazil and Bolivia." Wikipedia
- Sciencey Name: Machaerium scleroxylon (Dude, “I have a Scleroxylon fingerboard” sounds WAY cooler than Pau Ferro!)
- Janka Hardness Rating: of 1960
- Tree Size: 65-100 feet tall
- Trunk diameter: 3-5 feet
- Other Names: Morado, Bolivian Rosewood, Santos Rosewood, Brazilian Ironwood, Leopard Tree.
Visually: It offers much more interesting grain patterns, color variation, color stratification, and uniform density than a lot of the rosewood we are seeing today. I have seen it look Purple, Orange, Brown, Tan, and a smattering of shades of brown. Each piece usually offers a “stratified” look with black or dark brown streaks providing a visual pop. The REALLY interesting looking stuff is equally as good looking as the finest Brazilian Rosewood, Ziricote, or Cocobolo! Personally, I love the way that Pau Ferro looks MOST of the time!
Janka Hardness Rating: A Rating of 1960 put this wood about dead-center between maple (1450) and Indian rosewood (2400-ish). This makes it a very viable fingerboard material that falls somewhere between the two most commonly used fingerboard woods, in terms of hardness.
Tonewise: Choose Pau Ferro when you want the look of rosewood but perhaps something with a skosh more plosive and pop on the initial attack. Granted, its a small skosh, like the smallest skosh that many people would not be able to pickup on even on their best day! It does not have the explosive-plosive of maple and won’t POP! like it either. It does tamp down on the extreme highs a bit and still provides a warmer-than-maple tone.
Workability: It’s fairly dense so it can blunt the edges of cutting tools. It presents some challenges when it comes to gluing due to its oily nature, very much like rosewood. The Pau Ferro we have seen on fingerboards as of lately is smooth, has very few open pores, and there is plenty of great looking stuff available!
Where it’s used: Pau Ferro is most often used as a fingerboard material on Electric Guitars but you can also find full neck blanks made out of the stuff. Solid Rosewood necks have been en vogue for decades thanks to PRS Guitars and a Solid Pau Ferro Neck is equally as nice! One of the benefits of using this wood is that you don’t need to put a glossy (sticky) finish on it. So if dry, fast, and a natural feel are your thing(s), then Pau Ferro could be a great choice for you! It’s also still abundant and stayed free and clear of the Restricted Species list… for now!
This Fretless Fender Bass Replacement Neck has a STELLAR Pau Ferro Board!
Where it’s going: In the coming years, I won’t be surprised to see Pau Ferro introduced as the back and sides on acoustic guitars. Since it sits between Maple and Rosewood on the hardness scale, it only makes sense that PF will make its appearance on a Martin, Taylor, or Gibson acoustic sooner than later! I also see it becoming a more common substitute to Rosewood than it is today. It's beginning to gain acceptance as a Top for electric guitars due to its more interesting visual qualities. I think other substitutes coming out of South America like Ziricote, Bocote, etc, will also become far more popular as the supplies of Rosewood dwindle and the prices continue their upward trajectory.
Another nice piece of Pau from Shabby Chic! This time, a Drop Top!
Personal Experiences: I had a neck built for me by USACG with a Pau Ferro board on maple. It was a Baritone Neck with 29” scale. I wanted the look of Rosewood but something with a bit more attack and pop. So I gave PF a shot and I was not disappointed! The fingerboard looks fantastic, far better than the Rosewood board I paid more for and it did what I was expecting tone wise. I have now seen dozens of new Fenders with Pau Ferro over the last few years as well and I can easily say the Pau Ferro on the market these days looks better than the available rosewood, by and large.
Bottom Line: Pau Ferro is a completely viable tonewood choice for fingerboards. It looks better than most of the rosewood thats available these days. It offers great color variation, from Purple to Orange and lots in between. This wood was deemed by Fender as an appropriate sub for Brazilian Rosewood so it keeps darn good company! Please, please, PLEASE don’t turn your nose up at a Pau Ferro board without playing it 1st. To most ears AND hands, it is indiscernible from Rosewood, so quit being such a Wood-Snob and adopt some Pau Ferro today!
One common complaint about Pau Ferro is that is gets dry or ‘ashy’ quicker than Rosewood does. Meaning that if you oiled both a Rosewood and Pau Ferro board on the same day, the PF will look drier quicker. This is a legit gripe, indeed. However, when Rosewood looks dry and ashy, all it takes it a little of the right oil to darken it up and PAU! Back to lookin’ good! So the same thing goes for Pau Ferro, you just may need to do it a couple more times per year to keep it nice and dark. Keep in mind the dry appearance does not affect performance, this is really more of a visual concern as Pau Ferro is, by nature, pretty oily. If you live in a very dry environment, though, keeping your favorite fretboard oil on hand may be a good call!
Check out these guitars that feature Pau Ferro Fingerboards...
This edition of Matt's Blog was penned by... Matt! Matt is Hot for Substitute Teacher and for Substitute Woods.