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Guitar Guru – Turning trees into tonewood

March 11, 2016
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Dana Bourgeois contributes the monthly Guitar Guru column to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. If you a question you’d like Dana to address in an upcoming article, please submit it to info@bourgeoisguitars.com.

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Into the Woods – Turning trees into tonewood can be a complicated proposition BY DANA BOURGEOIS

Q:How do you go about acquiring the wood that goes into your instruments? Do you use pre-cut slabs of selected woods or do you look at an individual tree and decide that it could make a guitar with the sound you’re after, and then have it cut to fit your needs? Ed Hutson – Jefferson City, MO

A:

The short answer is that I usually work closely with a variety of trusted tonewood suppliers to acquire woods that are sawn, matched, and cured specifically for making acoustic guitars. Typically, I try to inventory a six-month supply of most woods. Though, due to occasional variations in certain tonewood markets and unforeseen spikes and crashes in guitar preferences, I can sometimes struggle to fill a six-piece order for guitars having Dalmatian spruce tops, while sitting on several years’ worth of other woods. (Tasmanian blackwood, anyone?)

Shelling out for six months’ worth of $200 Adirondack spruce tops can seem expensive by the board foot, especially since the species grows in my backyard. But in my book, a good supplier earns every penny he’s paid. Harvesting from the stump, even in conjunction with outside processors, requires specialized equipment, space, a travel budget, experienced labor, and market outlets for whatever part of a log will not yield the highest grades of tonewoods.

Some shops find advantages in processing their wood in-house, or simply like to do it. My shop has found that the capital required for processing is better deployed stockpiling legal Brazilian rosewood.

Recently, I caught a firsthand glimpse into the logistics of turning trees into tonewood, when the owner of a Tennessee woodlot invited me to participate in the harvest and processing of walnut trees from his property. Last summer, I tagged several large trees to be felled in the winter months, when trees are dormant and sap is low. The logs will be trucked to a sawmill that specializes in sawing and curing walnut, after which I will select a few planks to be re-sawn for backs, sides, and necks.

My role in the adventure was eyeballing trees in their natural habitat and educating the lumberyard about guitar-making requirements. Here’s an excerpt from my instructions to the sawyers:

“Backs end up at 8 x 24 x ¼ inches; sides at 5 x 32 x ¼ inches. A guitar requires a pair of adjacent [bookmatched] backs and a pair of adjacent sides. Back and sides should be matched in appearance, and are usually cut from the same plank. These can be re-sawn from 2 x 8-inch or 2 x 10-inch planks of any length. I can cut around occasional knots and blemishes, but the finished parts should be free of sapwood. Backs and sides should be quartersawn, with minimum longitudinal runout; end grain need not run 90 degrees to face of plank, but can vary by +- 15 degrees. If logs are flatsawn, I can select planks cut through the center of the log.”

Notice that there’s no mention of sound quality, or even of appearance—the two most important properties of tonewood. Appearance will not be known until after logs have been planked, and tone cannot be fully judged until planks have been re-sawn into sets and further cured. I’m hoping to make a few killer guitars with the wood, but may, for all I know, settle for killer flooring. So far, this project has been a great learning experience and a lot of fun. My biggest takeaway: Keep your day job, boy.