Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Classical Guitars, Sustainability of Tonewoods

The industry has done too good of a job convincing the vast majority of guitar players that high end acoustic guitars must be made from rosewood, mahogany, ebony and spruce. And yeah, they work-but other woods work also.

Chris Martin IV, Martin Guitars

The traditional wood choices for classical guitar making were largely dictated by what was available in 19th century Spain, which is not a particularly useful criteria for choosing wood in 21st century England.

Martin Woodhouse, luthier

Sustainability of tone woods is topic that no classical guitarist wants to talk to me about, they change the subject or simply walk away. Many woodworkers I have met tell me that subject is taboo. No one wants to admit that there will be a day when all the wonderful old growth lumber that we have come to love will no longer be available. 

I grew up with the lumber industry, it put me through college and employed many members of my extended family, but I watched feller-butchers and loggers clear the 50,000 acres of private forest behind my parents house and witnessed first hand the long term damage it does to the local environment and economy. My hometown still hasn’t recovered economically from the shut down of lumber and paper mills; one mill site  continues to be a major super fund clean up site twenty years after it was closed and dismantled. 

If you are wondering, here is a definition of sustainability -  “In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

I recently researched current views of sustainability online and filled several pads of papers with notes-notes on sources and statistics about today’s global plight of illegal logging. Sources include Breedlove Guitar Company, the Smithsonian Institute, Yale University, University of Michigan, Cosmos Magazine and many more. One article pointed out that illegal logging in the United States alone was a one billion dollar a year industry.

I discovered that the Breedlove Guitar Company is making sure that the lumber that they use can be traced back to the original logging operation. Martin Guitar Company claims they are working hard at being ecologically woke. There are several other small acoustic guitar companies that are working to use wood from sustainable sources.

In my research I found only two classical guitar makers who are using tonewoods from sustainable sources, sources that are certified under associations such as the Forest Stewardship Council, the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification, or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. There was no mention of sustainability on other makers’ websites. 

Yes, the amount of wood used by classical makers is negligible compared to the guitar factories in China, and by the way, 90% of all guitars made in the world are produced in China, 90% of all rosewood that is harvested goes to China. Most classical guitar makers make about a dozen or so guitars year, perhaps that is why there is no discussion on sustainability.

But, what are we going to do when all the cool and groovy old growth tropical hardwoods, the old growth spruce and Western red cedar are gone?

The Leonardo Guitar Research Project was created to find if high quality guitars can be made using non tropical hardwoods. They commissioned guitar makers to make one guitar from tropical woods and the other from non-tropical woods, the guitars were then played by guitarists before an audience. I think you can guess the results of this research, you should read their findings and watch the beautifully edited video of Gaëlle Solal playing all the guitars made for the project - you will be surprised.

And yes, I purchase tonewood lumber from sustainable sources. I make sure that the tonewood supplier I am working with purchased legally harvested lumber. I remember that in about 2015, Luthiers Mercantile International  stopped carrying ziricote because they could not find a source in Mexico that had the proper documentation that the ziricote they were purchasing was legally harvested. Gilmer Wood Company  makes sure they purchase legally harvested wood. I buy  products from both suppliers.

All classical guitar makers will tell you that the best wood for a guitar is old growth wood, and I agree, but the thing is, only 7% of the world’s old growth forests remain intact. Here’s another statistic, in the year 2000 the United States Forest Service stated the “stands of century old forest now account for only 7% of forest cover in the United States.”

That means there’s not much forest left on this earth, old growth trees need time to grow.

Every now and then, I make a guitar using natives woods found in the lower 48 states just so a guitarist can try it out. The guitar will get high praises for its sound and playability, but most guitarists will say “So and So Big Name Guitarist doesn’t play a guitar like that”or “So and So Big Name Maker for Big Name Guitarist says there is no point in using native woods.”

I can’t guilt anyone into thinking about this topic. 

I seriously doubt that this post will persuade an even just one young guitarist to think about trying a guitar made from non tropical sustainable woods.

I can only hope. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Making Spokeshaves

There are times when I wonder if making my own hand tools is worth the time and effort, making a tool means time away from guitar making, but if the tool can increase my efficiency in building a guitar, then that time is not wasted.

That is a very unromantic view towards making my own hand tools, it is very rewarding when the tool I made works right when I finish. I admit that over the last thirty years I have made several hand tools that didn’t work, those got tossed into the wood stove, a factory made tool was bought so I could get back to the work at hand.

I decided to make a pair of very small spokeshaves using blades purchased from Hock Tools, the bottom shave has a California laurel body, the middle shave is cherry and I used East Indian rosewood for the wear plates. The big shave is one I made about twenty years ago using Eastern dogwood and a Lee Valley blade. After making these little shaves I am tempted to make a pair from rosewood for more heft and mass.

The two little shaves a dreamy to use once I dial-in the depth regulating set screws, however it is easier and faster to set the blade depth with the Lee Valley system. 

The shaves need more shaping, I will add more rosewood to the wear plate on the cherry shave so I can make it into a hollow shave, it is a fun project and it makes me step away from guitar making for just a little bit to help reset my creative thinking.

Please play nice, negative comments will be deleted.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Classical Guitar Festival Experiences, Part 4

“So, Wilson, what got you into guitar making?” 

“I grew up with the guitar. A guitar was always around or someone who could play it. How about you?”

“I love trees. Every guitar I make is an homage to trees!”

“Wow! If you love trees so much then you must really love a forest!”

“The forest?! What the hell does a forest have to do with trees?!”

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Something to Think About

  “Forests are of great value from their effect upon the climate, making it more equable. They tend to cause abundant and needed rainfall and to preserve the moisture when fallen, releasing it to the rivers gradually, and thus preventing abnormal freshets and extreme droughts. By absorbing and parting with heat slowly they cause the changes of temperature to be less sudden than in the open country. They temper the heat, and they serve as a protection, or "wind-break," to adjacent land. Trees, with other vegetation, are essential to the purification of the air. All this is in addition to the obvious uses of supplying fuel and wood for an almost endless variety of purposes, not to speak of the value of trees for shade and as features of the landscape.

The reckless rate at which the forests of the United States are being destroyed is becoming a serious matter, not merely because of depriving wood-workers of the materials with which to work, but because of the influence of the forests upon the climate, the soil, etc., upon which so much of the welfare of mankind depends. At the present rate of destruction many generations cannot pass before the supply of wood will be practically exhausted. It is every year becoming more difficult to obtain native lumber of the best quality and large size.

One of the most serious aspects of the matter, however, is in regard to the washing away of the soil, which owes not merely its origin but its preservation to the forest and other vegetable growths. Professor Shaler tells us that ‘it is in this action of the rain upon the bared surface of the ground that it is in this action of the rain upon the bared surface of the ground that we find the principal danger which menaces man in his use of the earth.’

The individual wood-worker may not have control of any forest or wood-lot, but he can at least use his influence indirectly, when opportunity offers, toward needed legislation to restrict, or at least regulate, the improvident waste now going on, and he can in many cases take advantage of Arbor Day to plant at least one tree toward preserving the balance required by nature.”

Wood-working for Beginners: A Manual for Amateurs

Charles G. Wheeler, 1899

Friday, July 22, 2022

Double Top Classical Guitar for Sale

Double top guitars are awesome!

Overheard at a classical guitar competition, 2019

The Engelmann spruce top has an inlay of honeycomb Nomex withSitka spruce veneer, the back and sides are curly maple with an Indian rosewood fillet in the back. Please email me for more information..

Engelmann spruce top

Curly maple back and sides with rosewood fillet in back 

650mm string length

52mm wide fretboard at nut

62mm at 12th fret

59mm string spacing at bridge

482mm body length

278mm upper bout 

237mm waist

372mm lower bout

Ebony fretboard

East Indian rosewood bridge

Gilbert tuning machines

Crossrock fiberglass case


This guitar is available at Savage Classical Guitar

Monday, June 20, 2022

Redwood/California Laurel Classical Guitar - My Latest Guitar

It's been nearly six months since I made my last guitar, that was due to buying the house in New Mexico and moving into the new house. Now that we are here at the new place, I can start "playing catch up" with all the guitar parts that are in my new, very tiny workshop.

This guitar has an old growth redwood top that I put together maybe four, five years that I never got around to using, and the back is some outrageous California laurel (it's only called myrtle if it is in Oregon) that I purchased about six years ago. California laurel is wonderful wood to work with and makes for a great classical guitar, I expect this guitar will have a big, lush voice with a quick response. All the bracing, both top and back, is made from some very stiff and light old growth redwood, I'm looking to make this a light weight guitar.

The plan for this week is to glue on ebony binding and fretboard.

Stay tuned for the next progress report!

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Calf Canyon Fire, New Mexico


The Calf Canyon Fire is just over the hill from us, this is a photo I took of the smoke plume at 10:30 this morning, it is a whole lot taller and wider this afternoon. This morning the US Forest posted on Inciweb that the fire is 204,000 acres in size, it grew a little over 6,000 acres last night and a couple of days ago it grew near 11.000 acres in one day. We have been experiencing unprecedented high winds, historic the papers say, and it doesn't help that the Southwest is in the midst of devastating drought, the likes that has not been seen in 1,200 years! 

Tres Ritos and Angostura were placed under evacuation orders about 3 hours ago, those two communities are about 20 miles from us by road, 10 miles as the crow flies.

High winds are expected again tomorrow. 

We need a good rainstorm without any wind.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Breve Tormenta


A passing thunderstorm.

My wife and I are in our new home which is about twenty five miles south by southeast of Taos, New Mexico and the house is at 8,000 feet elevation, Peñascoso Mountain to the southeast is just of 11,900 feet tall. It is so good to be back in the mountains!

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Classical Guitar Festival Experiences, Part 3

 “I would like to buy the DVD about Daniel Friederich .”

“Sure! May I ask if you are here to see the competition?”

“I’m one of the vendors.”

“So you’re the guy all the kids are talking about”

“Excuse me?”

“Quite a few of the kids have stopped by and said, ‘There’s an old cowboy here who makes the most awesome guitars!”

“That would be me!

Monday, March 14, 2022

New Mexico, Double Top Guitars and Moving to a New Shop

My wife and I are moving to a small adobe house that is located about 20 miles southeast of Taos, New Mexico sometime this coming April. I spent last week packing up our possessions that fill the house while my wife works at her day job,  last Friday I started packing up my workshop.

There is more packing to do, the drawers of both workbenches are empty...

the toolbox is slowly giving up its tools for cardboard boxes.

The red tool chest is completely full of tone wood, the bottom chest has some tools with tone wood filling up the remainder of the chest and there is more tone wood to pack!

I had to move some boxes so I could sit down at the computer to write this blog post.

This will be our new home is New Mexico, it is an adobe house on 1.5 acres of pasture with water rights, a big deal here in the West. And yes, I know how to flood irrigate, I helped my father irrigate our hay fields in Northeastern California.

From one tiny shop to another. This will be my studio until I can build a new one somewhere on the property.

and this is the view from our windows, that snowy peak is Peñascoso Mountain which stands at 10, 932 feet and our new house is at 8,000 feet elevation. 

Another update: the double top guitar I posted about recently (see above video) was sold to a gentleman in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is very happy with it! I will make more double/sandwich top guitars when I get my new studio up and going!

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

A New Tool

When I build a new guitar, I need to shape the fretboard after it is glued onto the neck. The fretboard needs to be a flat taper, it gradually becomes thinner on the bass side then the treble side at the twelfth fret and this taper continues to the end of the board. This taper givea the bass strings extra room to vibrate, less chance of an open or fretted string hitting a fret. To achieve this I usually start with my Lie-Nielsen No.62 low angle jack plane and finish the job with long sanding blocks. The Lie-Nielsen is a wonderfully versatile plane, but it is a tad long for leveling the fretboard after it is glue to the guitar neck and the Lie-Nielsen low angle block plane is a little too short for the task. I decided to look at the low angle bevel up planes offered by Lee Valley.

I bought a Veritas Small Bevel Up Smooth plane this early this month and I am very glad that I did. With just a little honing of the blade, it stepped up and did the tasks I asked of it, such as smoothing a piece of cherry and the end grain on a chunk of Engelmann spruce. The only thing I don’t like about the plane is its tote. The tote is a little short in height, I have very normal size hands and the height is uncomfortable, and there is a spot on the back side of the tote that starts to hurt the palm of my hand after about five minutes of use. I contacted Bill Rittner at Hardware City Tools about making a new knob and tote for the plane.

Other than that, I have no problems with this plane. I have not yet used the plane on an ebony fretboard, I suspect it will perform wonderfully.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

New Chisel Handles

Chisels and their handles need to be balanced and comfortable, something the original handles of these chisels lacked. I purchased them from Luthiers Mercantile International about ten years ago, I have no complaint about the quality of the steel, the chisels take an edge that lasts a long time.

The other day, I got around to replacing the original handles, which are made from “tintul”, aka tamarind, with English walnut and European beech handles. The handles are a cigar shape, a shape I first used on a pair of skew chisels twenty years ago, I find this shape very comfortable and balanced.

The beech has a nice solid feel to it…

and the walnut is quite handsome, I turned those handles from a blank I had for almost ten years and it needed to be used!

Don’t be afraid to change out the handles on any of your hand tools if you find them uncomfortable and unbalanced, the tools are an extension of you and your creativity!

Friday, January 7, 2022

The Best Workshop in the World!

The best workshop in the world is the one that you are working in!

I know that there are people who complain about their work space - it is too small, the machinery isn't set up for proper work flow, there isn't enough storage space, the lighting is poor, not enough heat, etc., etc., etc., but in those spaces these same people produce wonderful work. 

Ten different work shops, or so, I have lost count, have served me well. My first workshop was a barn that my grandfather had built, I couldn't control the heat or humidity in the space but I didn't let that stop me from making mountain dulcimers. My smallest shop was six feet wide by twelve long, it held a workbench and a bungee powered lathe that help me make dulcimers, wooden top banjos and buckets of spoons. 

I have built two "dream shops" only to move away for different work and jobs once the construction and finish was completed. Yes, I have bitched a little about losing those dream spaces, but I moved on and found other places.  For the last two years I rented shop space at 40 West Art Studios in Lakewood, Colorado, it was great to share a building with other artists, the rent was reasonable, but I faced a 15 minute commute depending on traffic and weather. Two months ago, I left the studio and moved into our spare bedroom where I have to contend with forced air heating that makes humidifying the room a hassle.  The spare bedroom isn't an ideal workshop,  if I want to use a table saw, router or air compressor I have to go out of the car port storage, pull out those tools and set up in the driveway. 

It may sound like I am complaining, I don't mean to because I am very grateful to work at home, I get to have lunch with my wife every day, take walks and play with the dogs when I want and enjoy the fact I don't have drive the wild, crazy, crowded streets to a shop.

I am grateful for everyday.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Double Top Classical Guitar - Redwood/Nomex/Sitka Spruce/Curly Black Walnut, Part 2

The double top classical guitar assembly process.

I sanded and cleaned the interior of the body and covered over my label, it is much easier to glue the label in before the top is put on!

The new top ready to be glued in place...

and I am very glad that I made all these spools clamps! They make this process so much easier! The top is aligned with the neck center line. 


This guitar original had East Indian rosewood bindings and end graft, the rosewood didn't have enough red in it to go well with the walnut, I opted to try out some Ceylon satinwood bindings.

The color of the satin wood goes well with hues of the walnut. The bindings are doubled up, meaning that there are two pieces of satin wood instead of the usual one piece of binding, this makes for a wider binding. I can round it over to make the guitar more comfortable to hold.

The guitar also got a new fret board.

The wood is torrefied purple heart (Peltogyne paniculata, Peltogyne spp.) and is being sold as Royal Blackwood. The company that is selling it claims that its "density falls right between Ebony and Indian Rosewood". I did notice that the wood doesn't have the same ringing tap tone of ebony or rosewood.

The entire guitar got a sealer coat of shellac and after it dried...

I started the pore filling process, using a pad filled with alcohol and 4F pumice rubbed onto its face. The sealer coat of shellac provides enough "glue" for the pumice and wood dust it creates to be "captured" by the wood pores.

The sides are always so much easier to pore fill, less surface area!

I was able to reuse the original bridge and put strings on the guitar before I started the French polish. 

How does it sound? It is simply amazing! There is an incredible amount of projection with a true bella voce, and the strings are even sounding. It has an wonderful high "e" string! Just imagine what it will sound like with just two weeks of playing!

Stay tuned! More French polishing on the way!

1912 Ex-Segovia Cedar/East Indian Rosewood Classical Guitar

Inspired by Andrés Segovia’s famous 1912 Manuel Ramirez guitar, I chose Western red cedar top and East Indian rosewood back and sides from m...