You might not have heard of the West African tree called limba (also widely known as afara and korina), but you probably have heard the wood, as it is one of the most well respected guitar woods in the world.
Limba's connection to the music world goes back a long way, says Ed Roman, head of Ed Roman Guitars in Las Vegas, NV. "Korina is the holy grail of woods for guitars and has been since Gibson featured the wood in its now classic guitars of the 1950s and GÃÆ?ÃÆÃÂ¿60s," he says.
The vintage Gibson guitars include the Korina Flying V, with a pale korina body and rosewood fretboard. Issued in 1958, it was billed as the guitar that would allow musicians to "solo their way into the stratosphere." Modernistic, with space-age overtones, the design is a classic today. Roman speculates that string instrument technicians first used korina as a substitute for mahogany, and it gained popularity because the wood produced a great tone.
Myles Gilmer, owner of Gilmer Wood Co., Portland, OR, stocks white limba and black limba. "Most of the white or light limba is bought by guitar manufacturers. Gibson introduced the use of limba back in the GÃÆ?ÃÆÃÂ¿50s. The guitars, including the Flying V, weren't that popular when first introduced, but have gained a following in the last 10 to 15 years.
"You see a lot of people making reproductions of these instruments. Over the years, people have discovered that limba has nice acoustic properties. It has a nice tap tone to it and good sustain," Gilmer says.
Gilmer explains that limba is one of those woods that gives a reverberation. "Some woods will sound dull or clunky if you tap them, but limba actually has a ring to it. The acoustic properties are slightly different between the white and black limba."
Gilmer says he usually purchases 8/4 stock that is 7 inches or wider. "You can glue two pieces together to make a 13- to 14-inch guitar block. We sometimes find material that is wide enough for one piece, which carries a premium price." In addition to guitars, the wood is sometimes used for making dulcimers and mandolins.
One Tree, Many Looks
Limba is one of those trees with a split personality. Pictures of the famous classic Gibson guitars made from korina illustrate one guitar made from a light-colored wood and another with a dark brown color and black stripes. Its sapwood and heartwood are usually a uniform light yellow to yellow-brown, but sometimes the tree has a dark heart with a color that ranges from grey to brown with dark black streaks or markings. The logs with the dark heart are rare and yield a variety of interesting grains.
"When some people see white limba and black limba, they assume the wood or veneer comes from two totally different species because they do look very dissimilar," Gilmer says. He adds that white limba edges out the figured material in popularity for guitar work. The light colored material is liable to blue staining. The dark streaked, figured material is more rare than the clear, lighter material.
In some markets, the lumber is marketed accordingly, with the plain and light-colored wood commercially known as light afara, light limba, white limba, limba clair and limba blanc. The darker, often figured heartwood is commercially known as dark afara, dark limba, limba noir, limba bariole and black limba.
A related species, Terminalia ivorensis, known as idigbo, is sometimes called black afara. But, Gilmer says, the wood is not black, but rather a beige or creamy yellow color. "Terminalia ivorensis is sometimes used as a substitute for light limba, but of all the various commercial Terminalia species similar to limba, superba is the most in demand," Gilmer says. Gilmer believes most people know the wood as limba. "If people ask for korina, we know right away they are probably going to use the material to build a guitar," he says.
This plain or fancy wood has a number of uses. The plain, light-toned wood is used for furniture, interior joinery, coffins, office furniture, light construction and turnery, as well as specialty items such as guitars and sporting goods. The highly figured wood is popular as a solid wood or veneer and used for paneling, furniture and cabinetry, doors, marquetry and turnery.
Gilmer says his company uses the highly figured wood for doors in its offices. "Limba isn't a particularly dense hardwood. You can dent it with your fingernail. It is fairly stable, makes nice-looking furniture and is good for casework. We've taken some figured, bookmatched black limba panels and used it for doors. It is quite attractive," Gilmer says.