Many changes have been made to the piano since is was first conceptualised around the year 1700, by the Italian inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori. The original pianoforte is a far-cry from the modern examples that we see today, which is the result of continuous improvements with influences from various leading manufacturers across the globe.
The changes which have been made over the years include the introduction of a cast iron frame to support the tensile stress of stronger strings in greater numbers, pedals as opposed to knee operated levers and a larger keyboard; but wood has always been used to construct the soundboard. Many of our customers have asked us why spruce wood has always been the optimal choice for the soundboard and has not been changed for over 300 hundred years. There are several reasons for this.
As Antonio Stradivari (maker of the famous Stradivarius instruments) found out, spruce is the desired density for resonating the vibrations from the strings, whereas other types of conifers are either too dense, or not dense enough.
This is not to suggest that other variations of conifer cannot be used; it is simply that spruce wood has proved best for this purpose. Manufacturers have experimented with other types, such as cypress, but spruce has always demonstrated that it is the optimal resonator.
Another contributing factor to spruce becoming the optimal material is that the old-growth spruce forests of Northern Europe, North America and Canada have had the ideal growing conditions for hundreds - if not thousands - of years. This has allowed the trees to grow to great heights and widths, resulting in trees with very large interiors comprised of very straight grains and minimal knots. Plus, such long and uninterrupted growing conditions produced lumber with very consistent growth rings; which makes the wood the desired strength and elasticity required for the all-important soundboard of the piano.
The old growth conifer forests had already been heavily logged by the end of the 19th Century, not specifically for piano production, but for the ever growing cities, ships, carriages and copious other utilitarian uses. The demand for spruce grew further during WW1, because its high strength-to-weight ratio made it ideal for aircraft production.
As this natural material became less and less abundant, piano manufacturers began experimenting with other refined and easily accessible materials. Different types of metal, such as steel, aluminium and copper were put through the tests. Although the producers had been quick to recognise qualities in metal that wood did not have - like it's enduring strength, a complete lack of knots and an unrivaled resistance to cracks - they found that time and time again, such experiments with these less traditional materials only confirmed that when it comes to the need for a high quality resonator, there is no substitute for the cone bearing spruce wood.
Thanks to the adoption of sustainable forestry practices, manufacturers are still able to use spruce wood for their soundboards, and allow pianos to deliver the famous sound which we all know and love.
High end makers attach great importance to the selection of all their materials. The wood is always stringently checked for colour, grain and growth rings with approximately only 20% of this wood passing the final stages of inspection.
Cheap, mass-produced instruments imported from the Far East are often built to a cost, and cannot afford to go to similar lengths of quality control. These pianos often contain a laminated soundboard, which is similar to plywood. This subsequently compromises on the sound, due to the lack of resonance, compared to a 'real soundboard' made from the famous spruce.