Woodchopper's Ball
from his 2004 GAL Convention Lecture
by Nicholas von Robison

 

How many people are here because they are thinking about processing their own wood? I highly encourage it. It's very satisfying to build instruments from wood that you've cut. You can get a spruce on a firewood permit. It's a great feeling to be out in the forest.

When the Guild was first starting out over thirty years ago, the word "tonewood" was not in common usage. Back then there were maybe only three or four suppliers. Now you can Google "tonewoods" and get a hundred suppliers.

There's still a lot to be explored in the world of tonewoods. Englemann spruce didn't really come on the market until 1978, and Red spruce not until '89 or so. I can think of four or five species that are virtually untapped in the world of tonewoods: Noble fir, California red fir, and true white fir are all great woods. In Europe, you have places like the Ukraine opening up right now. They have beautiful spruce. I've seen quite a bit of it. We have wood here at this convention from the Balkans. That's nice to see. It's amazing how much wood is here. It's just great to see all the guitar tops and woods for sale. And don't miss the auction.

If you look at the woods that were used in guitars in the first part of the 20th century, you see some scuzzy looking wood. On some of the best-sounding prewar Martins, the tops are mismatched and the grain is running every which way. You see tons of runout because that wood was supplied in the form of lumber, not split billets. I see some wonderful-sounding old guitars that were built with wood that people would throw away nowadays. But a typical guitar store today has walls full of Breedloves or Martins with tops that were milled correctly, probably by Pacific Rim Tonewoods up in Concrete, Washington. They do an incredible job of milling guitar wood.

Cutting tonewood is basically a rescue mission. I've gotten wood from pulp mills, I've gotten wood from tree surgeons. There's a huge river of tonewood out there. Because of the increased value, and because loggers are out of work, more and more of it is being rescued. And it's not really denting the resource.

European woods right now are the highest priced, but if you were going to plop me down anywhere on the planet, as far as a species that's easy to work with, I would go to somewhere like Eastern France. The maples in Europe, for a lot of different reasons, don't have any red heart. The wood is much more readily available than, let's say, Eastern maple. Eastern maple is a disaster to work with. Besides the red heart, it's got worm track. I call them Chinese lines, those ten millimeter long worm lines that you see on the back of Chinese fiddles. And there are other problems. Eastern maple, cut on the quarter, should be extremely high priced. On the slab you can find it all day long.

Red spruce already is high priced for guitar sets. Red spruce for mandolins shouldn't be high priced because the trees are relatively small and you get mandolins right and left, but to find good guitar wood in red spruce is difficult. So it's high priced and it should be.

Adjusting for inflation we're actually paying less for woods right now than we were twenty or thirty years ago. There's a lot of bargains out there right now in wood. It's a good time to be a maker.

That's me, and that's a red fir log up in Yosemite National Park. You'll notice that as these pictures go along, my butt gets bigger. That's how you can tell the date of the picture. In this one you can't see my butt so you can assume it's kind of early.

One of my all-time favorite wood trips was near Jervis Inlet on Vancouver Island. A tugboat captain was very drunk one night and got lost. He came to the place of a friend of mine to ask directions. In exchange, they kind of liberated a spruce log from the boom. The tree itself came from the Queen Charlottes. There's a lot of Monteleone mandolins sitting right on those rocks.

Up there the water gets warm enough for the oysters to breed so it's about four or five feet thick in oysters. That's "Bruce Heaven" right there. I took a chainsaw and a jar of cocktail sauce out every morning. That's as good as it gets.

We put the billets on a tug boat and hauled them back to my van. The tug boat in the photo belongs to the guy who owns the oyster lease. It's not the same tug boat.

This is Englemann spruce from Canada. You can see from twenty feet away whether it will produce wood with an even split. I once counted about thirty-five criteria for whether or not a log would make instruments. Things like weight, color, fungus, compression wood, branches, and thickness of the grain. And the criteria for a mandolin maker might be entirely different from that of a typical violin maker. Steve Gilchrist likes to use spruce just as hard and heavy as he can get, but most violin makers look for lightweight yet strong spruce. For every pot there's a lid.

Here are some pictures of my wood barn and my mill. This is a good way to store wood. Even wood that you need to preserve the sap wood on, you'll see it stored like this in Europe. Just under shelter, out in the air. It works just fine.

I like the result when the wood is dried in larger billets. I let them sit for a year and then resaw them. The billets can sit indefinitely, although a billet will typically develop a crack right in the middle going in maybe five millimeters or so after the first hot windy day. But I don't care. It's going to get split there anyway. Most spruce processers these days will cut them into two- or three-inch blocks and kiln dry them, then resaw those blocks. They get great results that way. A lot of it has to do with laziness. If I stack them up, sometimes I don't do resawing for awhile.

It doesn't saw as easily after a year as it does when it is green. I could take all this stuff and split it out into individual billets, but your yeild is going to be better if you saw it. If you're processing it for yourself I would decide what instrument you're going to saw it into and just get the job done.

You don't need a sawmill to mill instrument wood for yourself or even commercially. The only things you need are a chainsaw and a froe or a couple of wedges. This is especially true with good spruce that splits straight. You just saw it to the length of the instrument, and split out your quarters. It's a lot of fun too. You get a good tree like this and you bang it with a wedge and the sound that it makes when it splits open, especially on a tree that's maybe six or seven feet in diameter, is just thrilling. I highly recommend it.

This is my boom truck, an old '57 International Harvester, with a load of cottonwood. A lot of Cremonese instruments, including some Strads, were made of a wood that is, to my mind, still unidentified. I think it's probably white willow. If you've been to Cremona, there's a lot of white willow growing there. But another wood myth has it being Lombardi poplar. That's BS. Lombardi poplar was a hybridized tree and the botanists kept better records than violin makers did. It was supposedly hybridized in the 1790s but some paintings have recently surfaced putting it in the late 1600s. The Lombardi poplar is the one that looks like a flame; the tree has a very distinctive shape. I think people just like the sound of the phrase. You know, "they used Lombardi poplar." This has absolutely nothing to do with the stuff they call poplar in the hardware stores, which is actually a tulip wood or magnolia. That causes a lot of confusion. In any event the poplars and the willows look similar under varnish.

These big boys are the local cottonwood. They use it for the core of plywood. They just throw away the butt ends of it, so I used to go and get it. It's difficult to mill because it's stringy and the blade likes to wander, but I used to mill it all the time for cellos and violas. I still mill it occasionally. I also find it on the beach. It's a real common beach log because it grows alongside rivers. You'll see it with root balls that are twenty feet in the air. It's another wood that's prone to fungusing but for some reason when it's on the beach you don't see them fungus that often. So it's an easy tree to obtain, but a hard tree to mill correctly. You mill it on the slab, and to mill a tree that size on the slab, you can see the implications. It's like dissecting an elephant.

Here's a large log. I like the "save" sign. Yu can see that the split was pretty good. This tree was good for probably eighty feet of wood. It had a big rotten section in it.

Here's the infamous BC log with the heavy-duty bearclaw. Bearclaw was a dirty word in the business until Dana Bourgeois and a few other people started using it in the late '70s. Some Schoenbergs were built with a cloudy bearclaw, and just about overnight it went from something you couldn't give away to something people were charging more for. It's a great example of wood mythology. It's very rare to see old Martin guitars with bearclaw in them. They just didn't like the stuff. They considered it a defect. Same with Gibson.

This log is funky, but there's some great wood inside. Just chip off the funky stuff. The top of this tree had blown out, and it created a rain collector. That's my theory anyway. But there's tonewood everywhere. You've got to look at it creatively and rescue it.

Fred Meyer was one of the first tonewood sellers. He was a school teacher up in Coughman Cove, Alaska. They used to make bridges over the rivers up there by laying two or three huge Sitka logs over a the river, then laying shorter logs along that, and then filling it in with gravel. In the '80s they started taking these things out because they'd been in there for twenty or thirty years. There was no market for those big bridge stringers as saw logs because they had metal in them. So he would buy them very cheap, dismantle them, and sell them as hand split Sitka violin tops. He did no milling whatsoever. It was great wood.

Those bridges had no contact with the ground except for the ends. Contact with the ground is the issue. This BC log is a tree that sat on the ground for probably four years. The wood that made contact with the ground was shot. If they make good contact with the ground they're only good for a year or two.

Engelmann has a reputation for being soft. When it first started coming on the market, which was only in about 1978, the first ones to sell it were Tom Prisloe and his people at Santa Fe Spruce Company. They were cutting trees, which I've never done; I've never cut a spruce tree down. I've never found a need to. But a lot of other people were going out and getting Engelmann windfalls. And if they sat around for any length of time the wood got soft. But if you get Engelmann fresh out of a mill, it's nice hard wood and doesn't deserve the reputation of being soft that it does have. Of course, it is softer than, say, red spruce.

If you're ever in Crescent City, California I highly recommend staying at the Curly Redwood Lodge. Here's the gentleman at the front desk. The interior and exterior paneling of each room is made out of one curly redwood log. You can see hundreds of nice big examples of what this stuff looks like in different grain orientations.

I love curly redwood. I think it sounds good, although it doesn't make any sense that it would. If you try to hurry the drying along in any way you'll get hairline cracks right on top of these flames. Just put it away and forget about. The figure is much more extreme than maple. Rock stars love it because you can see it from the back row of the Hollywood Bowl.

You can see curly redwood figure on the outside of the tree. The whole tree is curly. Curly wood is a genetic aberration, in my opinion. I think you can take air-layering genetic clones of these trees and grow acres of curly maple or whatever you want to grow. I hope so, because I'm doing it right now.

Here's an A-model mandolin with a curly redwood top by Bill Bussman. Great sounding instrument and a nice look. Bill also made this cool watermellon mando. It is really a good sounding instrument. That's Bill with the bling.

Getting back to the curly redwood, here's an F-5 by Ron Cole from Idaho. It has a one-piece top with about thirty grains to the inch behind the pattern.

Will these hold up over time? I built several of these twenty years ago and they've held up fine. I would be a little hesitant to use it on a steel string where you would be gluing the bridge basically to end grain. That being said, there are several curly redwood guitars here at this convention that are holding up.

Steve McMinn up at Pacific Rim Tonewoods built this display to show the visual effects of runout. He took a tree that split straight and intentionally sawed it progressivly farther off the split in quarter inch increments for every twenty inches. People think "Runout is from a twisted tree." Well, it's also caused by a straight-splitting tree that is misaligned with the sawmill. The saw blade is not going exactly in line with the split of the tree as this demonstration really shows nicely. So after studying this picture you should be able to look at a guitar across the room and say, "Aha! There's an inch and a quarter of runout in twenty inches." The miller was off by an inch and a quarter.

This unneccesary runout used to be more common than it is now. I think the people milling guitar tops these days have got it figured out. It's really gratifying to see the result of their efforts in a typical wall of new guitars. It's really nice to see well-cut wood like that.

In old violins, it's rare to see runout. That's basically because they didn't have sawmills. If you went out to get spruce in Italy in the 1600s, you went out with your froe or your wedges and you'd probably split the individual plates. So you had no runout whatsoever.

I was talking with Andy Johnson about this. The company he worked for, Posey Manufacturing, was a supplier of wood to the industry all through the 20th century. They supplied Gibson, Martin, and others. They cut the logs into eight or ten foot lumber before resawing them. It's really hard to cut ten foot lumber from a log and stay on split, even if you had a straight splitting tree, due to the taper of the tree. But when people started milling woods specifically for guitar, that is, cutting 24 inch long pieces and hand splitting them, there's your index. Bingo, no runout... if the tree splits straight.

This is a good split. If it will lie flat on a table top, you know you've got something good. It's the number one thing to look for when you're buying wood.

This redwood tree is a great example of what I'm talking about. This is about ten feet of wood. You can see a split that is running with the tree. Go for a walk on the beach and look at drift logs. You can see how the sun has checked them, and that shows you how many of them are twisted. And it's a really high percentage in all species with the exception of red cedar and redwood which tend to split straight. But maybe one in twenty spruce trees will split straight. But it's a lot less common than you might imagine.

Here's runout. That's a 1970s Martin. Judging by Steve's exhibit, you can tell from across the room that there is probably two inches in twenty of runout.

This is a guitar that Steve Anderson made for me. You can see a little runout in the picture, but when you're actually looking at it you don't see all that much. This is red spruce. It's got some color in it and a little knot. He knows I like defects, so it doesn't bug me. It's just a great sounding guitar and it just goes off like a bomb. Yeah, that's my kitchen cabinet. If you have a sawmill you can do some pretty crazy stuff.

Here's the back of that guitar. It's a one-piecer. He didn't quite have enough wood, so there are tiny little wings on the edges of the lower bout. I like that kind of stuff.

If you look at the golden-era instruments that violin makers emulate, there's all kinds of funky stuff going on: mismatched tops, knots, bark inclusions in the maple, four-piece backs, knot shadows in the top. I think that stuff is absolutely charming and I think it shows that the maker had a great deal of confidence. You don't see it as much in the guitar world. Everybody's looking for perfection. This is just my own little plug, and you can take it with a grain of salt, but as a maker I would try to find a log that I like, that I was comfortable with the tone and the weight, wood that I really like working with. And I would use that log up, regardless of little imperfections.

I love instruments that have a little character. Here's a great example that I stole from Frank Ford's site. This is a Gibson A model from very early in the 20th century. There's the Orville label. I think you're looking at two or three grains per inch on the right flank. It's probably on a 45 degree angle or something. That is mismatched wood. There is a joint in there. They tell me this mandolin sounds just fine. I just really dig stuff like that. I'm not advocating it, I'm just saying that there's a lot of funky wood out there that's doing the job just fine.

Robert Schnitzer is a bass maker in New York. He made this three-quarter size bass from some old quilted maple that I found. I'd like to see this beautiful thing in person. In a hundred years, will that wood be going in every direction? I don't know.

Quilted maple basically is bigleaf maple. On the old '30s Gibson L-5s, the stuff that looks like quilted maple is actually silver maple milled on the slab. People call it quilted, but in my mind it's not. I had a talk here with a fellow from Bosnia who was saying they were cutting quilted maple over there. To me it looks like European cut on the slab. It's kind of bubbly, but it doesn't have either those popcorn quilts or the big wide eagle feather quilts. What I call quilted only occurs in bigleaf.

Somebody asked about bearclaw figure. If you took the bark off a standing tree with bearclaw figure, this is what you would see. It looks like a bear just sat there and clawed the tree. That's how it got its name.

I would dearly like to know by looking at the outside of the log how the figure manifests itself in the wood. But I've been fooled so many times that I don't think it's possible to know. I'll see claws that are 15 inches long and the figure will only go 2 inches into the wood. Sometimes I see little dribbly claws that are just beautifully figured in the wood.

Here is bearclawed wood split on the flat grain. This shows you how deep the grain really is. It's an indentation that probably goes in 2MM.

This is what bearclaws can look like in quartersawn wood. These are unusually long claws. I have milled trees where the figure is more like little dots. It'll do all kinds of weird stuff.

Here's an example of vertical split bearclawed Douglas fir. Andy Johnson's got a bunch of this for sale. Also if you look at the panelling in Lagerquist concert hall here at Pacific Lutheran University, the wood that greets you is bearclawed Doug fir.

When you bookmatch bearclawed wood, the mirroring effect disappears in a hurry since the claws run perpendicular to the grain. It might disappear in a couple of millimeters of working the wood, so it's hard to bookmatch.

Recently I saw some red spruce bearclaw sets, but I've looked at thousands of logs in mills and never seen one red spruce bear claw log. You'll see a tiny claw occasionally but not that littered pattern.

Everybody asks, "Why don't you see quarter-sawn Eastern maple?" It's because of red heart. The size of the tree is not the issue, it's how much white wood there is. On the East Coast they put a log on the mill and start ripping slabs off it. The minute they hit the red heart they'll rotate the log and start slabbing it again. If you kiln dry a board that has both the white and the red heart wood, it will check right at the border, so they just don't even mess with it. Eastern maple of any variety, 99.9% of the time it's cut on the slab. There's a few people now who are milling an extremely small percentage on the quarter for violins and guitars.

In Europe you don't generally have that problem. Discolored center wood is rarely an issue in the maple trees. That makes the wood easy to work with and the yield is so much better. Yet European woods are through the roof, price-wise. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but that's the way it is.

Here's the cambium of quilted maple. If you pulled the bark off a tree and saw this, you should get all excited. You know, it doesn't look like a baby's bottom. An unfigured tree is just a yellow, flat, boring nothing. This is what it looks like when it's good.

Here's some nice fiddleback on the quarter. [55] This is a farm tree, so there is some fence metal in there somewhere. That split was looking right at me as I drove down the road one night. The whole face had broken out of it.

Mother Nature doesn't want you to have tonewood. I mean, there's always something wrong. It's very, very rare that you'll run into a tree and say, "This is great! Everything is perfect!" The nicest red spruce logs I've ever seen in my life were at Clabberville in Vermont. As I walked out to the pile, I could see from literally a hundred yards away that this was the stuff. But I could also hear the bugs chewing at the wood. It was a quiet day, and I could hear this light little scratching sound from probably twenty feet away. The guy was pouring diesel on it to try to stop the bugs and it was a gooey mess. I just had to walk away from it. That's Mother Nature screwin' with ya again.

Somebody asked what I use to seal the ends of billets. I like hot wax. I get old candles and parafin of any kind, melt it all down, and mix in about 20% paint thinner or mineral spirits. That will allow the wax to remelt at a lower temperature. This soft wax can contract as the wood shrinks, where straight wax would flake off. At room temperature you should be able to dig it out with your finger. If you can't, then add a little thinner. But don't use lacquer thinner! Somebody I know did that, and just about blew up their house. This soft wax is a little unsafe but I think it's safer than straight wax because you can work at a lower temerature.

Latex paint is sometimes recommended for sealing lumber. That's what they use at the lumber yard, and look at all the checking that happens. It can work if it's thick enough, but I find it to be real messy. I just don't like it because you can't see the end grain. Like on spruce, it's like later on you can't really see what the grain is doing.

Commercial sealers work well. They cost maybe $50 for five gallons. They tend to go in the wood a little further which can be a drawback.

Here is some spalted maple, with fiddleback behind it. This is the kind of spalt that happens while the tree is growing. It tends to be more defined and more like Chinese caligraphy. The spalting that occurs after the tree has hit the ground tends to be more faded. That's a generalization but it might be true.

A maple tree with a crotch tends to have spalted wood. The crotch collects rain water and the sugars in the sap just start throwing that fungus down through the tree. When it starts to spalt, usually the whole thing goes off.

You can intentionally spalt wood by cutting the maple log in maybe three foot sections and standing them on the ground, maybe piling some sawdust around them. The tree system will carry the fungus through the pieces.

There's a fine line between spalt and rot. Again, your fingernail is your friend. If you're shopping for spalted wood, let your fingernail tell you. Spalted wood is a little punky and it won't ring as well when you tap on it.

Here in this country we are really weird about the way we mill wood commercially. This is the way they mill wood in the rest of the world; everywhere but here. This is a really a nice way to do it. It's basically a tree; it's intact. Cabinet makers especially just love to see this. You see houses all over the world that employ that live edge. We cut off the live edge. This is an extremely efficient operation, and if it was detrimental to leave the bark on, you could bet they would take it off. If you're trying to get a one-piece violin, if you take off that bark and you have seven inches of wood, there goes your one-piece violin; whereas if you leave it on you can work right to the edge, and it doesn't matter. It just gives you a lot more options. This is something that I think should happen here more often.

There would be thirty-five thousand new jobs in this country if one guy in every town in the United States decided to rescue street trees and mill them in the European way. Imagine walking into a store and there's a tree from 4th and Main, a walnut or something. And as a cabinet maker you can go in there and build it and your cabinet could say "from 4th and Main.'' I think that would be really cool.

Sitka is the only spruce where we don't use the sapwood. If you use any of the transcontinental spruces which are basically all the spruces except for Sitka, you are building out of sapwood and you just don't know it. When you cut the tree open, the sapwood is a two inch strip, right on the outside of the tree, that's just loaded with water. When you re-saw it and it dries, you cannot tell the difference between the sapwood and the heartwood.

I saw a Testore cello in New York. The whole center section, two inches on either side of the center seam, had been eaten out by bugs. Even though it was over two hundred years after the thing was built the bugs still knew it was sap wood.

If you leave an Engelmann spruce sitting around for any length of time, the bugs will get into the sap wood. But the minute they hit the heartwood, they stop. A standing dead Engelmann that's been there for a year will have sap wood that is blued, fungused, and full of bugs, so you discard the sap wood. That will happen to red spruce as well, and to European spruce. So if you cut down an Engelmann spruce, you'd have to process it right now in order to preserve that sapwood. The transcontinental spruces are usually a lot smaller than Sitka so you need that two inches. You've got to have it. So you want to process it immediately and get it under fans, get it down to fiddle size and get it sawn. That will prevent both fungusing and insect damage.

With Sitka, you're usually working with a four- to six-foot diameter tree, and they can be as much as 13 feet in diameter, so you're not trying to save every inch of width. But it's difficult to find a red spruce tree that will produce that eight or nine inches of width, so that's why they're charging as much as they're charging, and they should.

Your fingernail is your best tool in selecting tonewoods. I'll take wood to a violin maker's convention and just see fingernail marks all over the pieces at the end of the show. It tells you the density of the winter grain versus the summer grain. If you pick up a wood, like Engelmann spruce, that feels kind of light weight, get your fingernail out and see if it has anything fighting back at ya.


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