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The Best Wood

In North America, the pine family is represented by 64 species of pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks, larches and Douglas-firs. Thirty-two of those species are found growing wild somewhere in California...

Ronald M. Lanner, Conifers of California, 1999



I regard both the Picea Abies and the Thuja Plicata as two beautiful sisters - one blonde and the other brunette; one European and the other American, although I confess that I have a soft spot for the brunette...

Jose Ramirez III, Things About the Guitar, 1990


I lost a potential client because I make guitars with black walnut backs and sides.

This person thought that walnut is good only for "student guitars".

Once again, this shows you how effect marketing done by the big name luthiers and guitar manufacturers has succeeded in making players believe that only the most expensive exotic woods make the best guitars.

I can buy a curly walnut back/side set from Allied Lutherie from $220 to $300, and that is paying for one board foot of walnut. Since it is "just walnut", that wood should be used only to make a student guitar, right?

Is the most expensive wood the "best" wood to use?

Is there a "best" wood or woods to use in guitar making?


A Sitka Spruce/Eastern Black Walnut guitar

The great Antonio de Torres set the standard for the classical guitar in the mid to late 1850's by using European spruce and rosewood for his finest guitars.

Spruce and rosewood still make some of the greatest guitars, but there are other woods that can be used.

Jose Ramirez III popularized the use of Western red cedar for guitar tops, I have met players who think that cedar makes the best top.

I think spruce makes the best top, a well made guitar with a spruce top is capable of producing far more tonal nuances than cedar. I know several professional classic guitarists who agree with me.

Redwood is a great choice also, it has the clarity and depth of spruce with the warmth of cedar.




Fiddle back Big Leaf Maple that I purchased from The Wood Well

The top of a guitar is the most important part of the guitar, the energy of the strings radiates from the top as it is transferred through the saddle and bridge. The back and sides make a resonance chamber and vibrate some, but do not add as much to a guitar's sound as some makers/players claim.

Click here to see/hear David LaPlante's copy of the famous cardboard guitar originally made by Antonio de Torres. Torres used a spruce top, Spanish cedar neck and back and side made from papier mache to make his guitar. From accounts of those who heard it, it was a great sounding guitar. Click here for John Ray's photos of the original guitar.

Maple, walnut, pear, apple, cypress, locust were some of the woods used by European luthiers before the rosewoods became more available.

Today's makers have a wide choice of "alternative" woods: black locust, California laurel, big leaf maple, cherry, madrone, Port Orford cedar, Alaska yellow cedar, Douglas fir, koa, paduak, wenge, ziricote, the list goes on.

It is possible to make a truly magnificent guitar by using woods that are native here in the lower 48 United States: a myriad of spruce and cedar for top woods; back and sides from Claro walnut, black locust, American cherry, mesquite, the different maples; neck woods can be American cherry, Port Orford cedar, Douglas fir, red alder, California laurel and others; and black locust, which is for practical purposes as hard as Brazilian rosewood, can be used for fret boards!



Bubinga back and sides, sawn from a board purchased from Auburn Hardwoods, Redding, California

I have read that Hermann Hauser II and III thought that bubinga was better tone wood than Indian or Brazilian rosewood. Click here to read David Schramm's article on the Hausers.

Potentially, any of the woods that I have mentioned could be "the best". Each client wants a specific sound and playability, secondly they want something that is pretty.




Pillowed redwood that I reclaimed from an old water tank.

Is there a best wood for guitars or for wood working in general?




Picea glauca, aka Canadian spruce, Skunk spruce, Cat spruce, Black Hills spruce, Western white spruce

I was born and raised in northeastern California in one of the greatest forests in the world. I had access to marvelous woods: redwood, ponderosa pine, incense cedar, sugar pine, California black walnut, madrone, the list is too long to repeat here.

I was taught that if you couldn't make what ever it was you wanted out of one or more of those local woods, there was no point in making it.

Didn't James Krenov say almost the same thing?



Enjoy these YouTube videos!







Comments

  1. Great post. The alternative wood species you've mentioned and the guitars they can produce far exceed the needs and talents of 99% of players. It's vanity for guitarists to assume they "must have" the choice historical wood species in their instruments.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very nice post. While the old adage the customer is always right may hold some water, in some cases let the painters do the painting. Or the luthiers build the guitar. I build my chairs with local woods ( pine, ash and maple ) each with its best qualities used to the best effect and then painted to unify the chair. Do what you do, customers will find you

    ReplyDelete
  3. Stick to your guns, Wilson.

    I had a customer who wanted a box with so much adornment (semi-precious cabs inlaid in the top, four different pins he was going to send me, five different kinds of wood, something in the inside of the lid, and about four or five other things I can't remember off the top of my head), I replied, "Would you like me to glue some gumdrops to the sides of it, as well? Because by the time I'm done doing all of that, it's going to look like a 3rd grade art project."

    I told him I'd make a box for him, and I'd use a few of the elements he wanted, but I'd have to do it my way. I asked for the artistic freedom to create something unique, but tasteful.

    (Yeah, I know, I'm sometimes a bit blunt... I generally have a good idea when that tactic will work and when it won't.)

    As with any box I make for sale, I don't accept any money until they've received the box. If they don't like it, they can send it back, no questions asked.

    He agreed and gave me the artistic freedom I needed. I made the best box I'd ever made to-date.

    And he liked it so much he paid me more than my invoiced price and thanked me for setting him straight on what might look good and not look good.

    I think a lot of the time, the customer doesn't know right from wrong; they just THINK they know what is right. It's our job to teach them.

    And, as an artist, it's our prerogative to accept or reject the commission.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for having my back, Ethan!

    You should post your comment on your blog, more people need to read it!

    ReplyDelete

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