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Osage Orange: American Gold

Osage Orange: American Gold

by Ted Davis

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly, Volume 12 #4, 1984 and Lutherie Woods and Steel String Guitars, 1998

The greatest classical guitars are made from Brazilian rosewood and European spruce, true or false? I am sad to say, the usual answer is “true.” Did you ever wonder why? Does Brazilian rosewood possess some magic component which causes it to respond to musical excitation? Is the same true of European spruce? Or is it perhaps that circumstances during the 18th and 19th centuries caused the old masters to use wood that was available? If Torres had been an American, would the classical guitar have been developed using some American wood for back and sides? If the old masters had had access to some of the rosewoods that today’s luthier does, would we today still be led to feel that Brazilian rosewood possesses some mystic element? Would we still look down our noses at a classical guitar if its back and sides happen to be yellow instead of brown?

In my search for native American wood suitable for great classical guitar back and sides, I stumbled upon Osage orange or bodark, as it is sometimes called. This wood grows in my area of East Tennessee, not abundantly, but it is available if I do my own felling, bucking, and milling. It has most of the desirable qualities of Brazilian rosewood and is in fact vastly superior to rosewood in one important quality: Osage orange is almost unaffected by changes in humidity. How many old Brazilian rosewood guitars have you seen that weren’t cracked? Think too of the impact this could have for violin and lute pegs.

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