The Trouble with Korina: Great for Guitars, Tough for Luthiers
Gabriel J. Hernandez
The mere mention of Korina wood
in the same breath with a guitar makes many guitarists and collectors drool. It is, after all, the wood used to build some of the most legendary Gibsons of all time—the original Flying V and the Explorer. Guitar builders, however, usually have a totally different reaction; Korina tends to make them reach for the nearest bottle of aspirin in order to ward off the headaches working with it causes.
Considered by most experts to be a “super mahogany” or “mahogany deluxe,” Korina wood bears a strong resemblance to mahogany in both tone and grain characteristics. Those same experts also agree that Korina has a sweeter midrange, with enhanced responsiveness, which would seemingly make it more desirable as a guitar-making wood. So why isn’t Korina—more commonly known as Limba—used more extensively to make guitars?
“It’s a very good wood for guitars,” said Edwin Wilson, Historic Program Manager/Engineering at Gibson’s famed Custom Shop
. “It’s typically lighter in weight than mahogany, and tonewise it’s a bit brighter. But mahogany is the accepted standard. It comes down to tradition.”
Tradition yes, but Wilson said several other factors also play into a guitar maker’s decision to stay away from Korina as a wood of choice. For one, limited availability of this African wood makes it difficult for many guitar manufacturers to acquire the necessary planks to make large quantities of Korina guitars. And the quality of available Korina leaves many manufacturers sticking to the more traditional woods, like mahogany, maple, and rosewood.
“There’s simply not a very good supply chain to buy Korina from,” Wilson said. “You have to search outside of the U.S. to find it, and a lot of the time manufacturers want wood they can get easily.
“The other big problem is that in its initial stages, Korina is a difficult wood to work with. Korina trees tend to grow very large, but good large pieces are very hard to come by. Like any wood, Korina has a lot of moisture, and when the water drains from it, it drains very fast and causes the wood to split very easily. When we make Explorers and Flying Vs, we require big sections of wood, and we can’t use sections that have cracks and splits,” Wilson said.
Once Korina wood reaches between 30 and 40 percent moisture content, it is sealed to slow down the rate of moisture removal and stabilize the wood. The rest of the drying process then takes place inside kilns designed specifically for drying wood.
The other problem with Korina, according to Wilson, is that the wood is highly susceptible to staining. While still in the jungles of Guinea, Angola, and Zaire, various forms of fungus and bacteria can attach themselves to the wood to feed off its sugar content, which causes large black blotches that penetrate deep into the core of the wood. Once dried, the stains become permanent, making the wood unusable for a guitar.
But among guitar aficionados, the mention of “Korina” usually fires up memories of the golden era of electric guitar-making—an era that began in earnest in 1958 when Gibson and its legendary visionary President Ted McCarty shocked the guitar world with the introduction of a series of electric guitars that were seemingly years ahead of their time. Among these revolutionary instruments were the futuristic-looking Flying V
and Explorer, both of them constructed using Korina.
The rest of the story is, of course, history. After a slow start, the Les Paul Standard went on to achieve six-string immortality, while lack of sales forced Gibson to temporarily suspend production of the Korina Flying V and Korina Explorer after only producing approximately 200 units of each guitar. Today, those same 400 or so Korina Flying Vs and Korina Explorers are two of the most priceless and sought-after vintage guitars on the market, fetching prices in excess of $300,000-$600,000.
Still, because of its association with the legendary Gibson Flying V and Explorer, Korina wood remains one of the most exotic—if not the most exotic—guitar-making wood in the world. And in celebration of the 50th anniversary of some of the world’s most revered guitars, Gibson plans to use Korina in some very special, limited issues, including a 50th Anniversary Korina Flying V
and a 50th Anniversary Korina Explorer
“We’ve got some pretty cool guitars coming out later this year,” Wilson said, adding that the 50th Anniversary Korina Flying V and Korina Explorer are simply the first two. “We’re going to build some special Les Pauls using Korina, and maybe a few others. It is a very beautiful wood that makes very good guitars. We’ve got some great looking golden-colored grains, and we plan to take advantage of that. They’ll be some fairly exotic guitars.”
for more information on the entire line of 50th Anniversary guitars from the Gibson Custom Shop.