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Heartwood Versus Sapwood

August 11, 2023 - Heartwood Versus Sapwood

Good Morning, Y'all!

I've had some questions lately about heartwood versus sapwood. Specifically in the making of mountain dulcimers, which is something I've done a fair amount of.

Heartwood is the "middle" of a living tree. Sapwood is the "outside" of a living tree.

Heartwood is stronger, and more stable, than sapwood. It is generally mostly dry wood, providing structure and strength to a tree. Sapwood carries water and nutrients between the leaves and roots, and allows the tree to grow. This is a really "broad strokes" explantation, and not complete by any stretch of the imagination.

stump showing heartwood and sapwood
Freshly-cut stump showing differences between heartwood and sapwood.

For dulcimer builders? Heartwood is stronger, but we use only a fraction of a piece of lumber's strength. Sapwood is plenty strong for instrument making, so it doesn't really matter to me. And I'll bet that when kiln-dried, sapwood is very close to heartwood in strength.

So, why does all that possibly matter?


Sapwood is USUALLY (not always, it depends on the wood species) lighter in color. And that's bad, right?

back of mountain dulcimer with sapwood
The light-colored band of walnut in the center of the back is sapwood.

I don't think it is bad, at all. This dulcimer (ignore the 1/8" wide inlay strips) has a narrow band of sapwood going down the middle of the back. The sapwood has a lighter color, compared to the bulk of the back being darker brown. It looks really cool, to my eyes. We've been using a mix of heartwood and sapwood for years, and never had a dulcimer with structural problems from using the sapwood. No difference in tone or structure, so looks are the deciding factor.

Would you want your personal dulcimer to have some sapwood mixed in with the heartwood? Or would you prefer a more uniform/even appearance? Let me know your thoughts.

Thanks for reading!

Richard Ash - luthier-who-likes-both-light-and-dark-colored-woods