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Wood Terms and Taxonomy

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

by Nicholas Von Robison

previously published in Lutherie Woods and Steel String Guitars, 1994

See also,
“Glossary of Basic Wood Terms” by Nicholas Von Robison
“Top 40 Wood List” by Nicholas Von Robison

The art and craft of lutherie is a set of skills and knowledge that one acquires through study, practical experience, and, too frequently, bone-headed obstinacy. Like many of the more interesting human endeavors, its learning curves never really reach a plateau simply because these are curves of multidimensions. Branches of erudition and arcane knowledge shoot off all over the place leading who knows where. It is not uncommon for the luthier, in the quest to build the perfect instrument, to wind up acquiring some knowledge of such diverse subjects as physics, metallurgy, chemistry, computer science, industrial design, economics, and so on. Since lutherie involves more than a generalized knowledge of wood and timber, some awareness of botanical and taxonomic naming systems is needed, especially in these days of alternative and vanishing wood species.

The practice of classifying and assigning names to living things is called taxonomy. It is a system that is hierarchical in nature and begins very broadly by placing all organisms in either the plant or animal kingdom. Actually, taxonomists have concluded that there should be five separate kingdoms, but for our purposes, let’s keep it simple and only ask whether an organism is a plant or an animal. The plant kingdom is subdivided into major divisions or phyla (phylum when singular). The division Spermatophyta, which contains all seed plants (and the only one we are interested in here), is separated into two broad groups based on seed type. One group is the gymnosperms, which have exposed seeds; the other is the angiosperms, whose seeds are covered or encapsulated. These groups are further divided into orders, families, genera (genus when singular), and species (also species when singular). Thus, the classification of Sitka spruce is:

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