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Woodchopper’s Ball

Woodchopper’s Ball

from his 2004 GAL Convention Lecture by Bruce Harvie

previously published in American Lutherie #90, 2007 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.

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Top 40 Wood List

Top 40 Wood List

by Nicholas Von Robison

previously published in Lutherie Woods and Steel String Guitars, 1994

See also,
“Taxonomy and Nomenclature” by Nicholas Von Robison
“Glossary of Basic Wood Terms” by Nicholas Von Robison

The contemporary luthier can be said to be either in a bind or in a unique evolutionary position, depending on one’s point of view. In the following list of lutherie woods, many will be noted as banned, extinct, prohibited, embargoed, unavailable, and/or expensive. In many cases I have listed viable alternative woods to replace the traditional species based on my own knowledge, education, experience, and on the advice, suggestions, and experience of respected, reputable wood specialists, dealers, and luthiers. While many species can be freely exchanged or adopted in place of the traditional woods of beauty and adornment, those that fall into the category of replacements for traditional resonant woods must be tried without any assurance or guarantee that musicians will accept these alternative woods. The acceptability of a wood species for the production of stringed musical instruments is largely dictated by the traditional practices and materials handed down through centuries. Many of the favored wood species are those that were available in commerce not only to the luthier but to the European furniture craftsmen as well. It can be very difficult for the luthier to obtain acceptance of new materials by the end user, the musician. The musician expects to hear a certain sound from an instrument, and any variation from that sound, as well as any variation in physical appearance, is suspect. In view of this, the chances of obtaining musical acceptance for instruments built with nontraditional woods has been slim in the past.

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Glossary of Basic Wood Terms

Glossary of Basic Wood Terms

by Hart Huttig (1975), updated and expanded by Nicholas Von Robison (1994)

previously published in Lutherie Woods and Steel String Guitars, 1994

See also,
“Taxonomy and Nomenclature” by Nicholas Von Robison
“Top 40 Wood List” by Nicholas Von Robison

Guitarmaking of necessity requires not only a supply of various woods but also knowledge of their origins and methods of cutting and storing. A good luthier should have a considerable fund of information about the history of wood procurement. Lutherie is an ancient craft, and it is a requirement that the luthier should be well conversant in the entire spectrum of wood cutting and classifying. To this end I have made excerpts in the form of glossaries and explanations. This information has been compiled from several sources which will be listed in the “Wood Bibliography” (pp. 23–29). Some of the terms are now archaic but should be of interest from a historical standpoint.

Trees used to be felled with axes and the logs snaked to a work area and cut into baulks with adzes and broad axes. Planks and boards were made by the sawpit method. They were also rived from the logs, that is, split from straight-grained pieces with froes (or frows) or sometimes with power wedges or go-devils. Rails were split with oak wedges or gluts, driven by a beetle or burl maul. Trees were cut into logs and rafted to mills in remote locations when rivers or streams were near enough. Until the 15th century, lumber was sawed by two men equipped with a large hand saw. The log was mounted over a great pit. One man stood below it and was showered with saw dust. The other man stood on top and had the heavier task of lifting the weight of the saw with each cut. Around 1420, near Breslau in Germany, the first saws were driven by water power in mills on river banks. These saws were made to move up and down the same as hand-operated saws. In 1781 Walter Taylor, a saw miller in Southampton, England, began to saw wood with a circular saw, the blade being driven by a water wheel by the River Itchen. In 1808 William Newberry of London patented a saw with teeth formed on an endless metal band revolving around two wheels. He was unable to make a satisfactory commercial bandsaw because the steel available for the blades at that time would not stand the strain. Practical bandsaws were first made by Perin of Paris in about 1855

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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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The Colombian Andean Bandola

The Colombian Andean Bandola

by Luis Alberto Paredes Rodríguez and Manuel Bernal Martínez

previously published in American Lutherie #96, 2008

The Colombian Andean bandola is a transcultural product similar to plectrum-played antecedents from Asia and Europe. It is a 12-string, 6-course soprano instrument with “flat” top and back, and is the solo melodic instrument in the Colombian Andean quartet, which consists of two bandolas, a tiple (see Big Red Book Volume Seven, previously published in AL#82), and a classical guitar.

The name “bandola” comes from the old Persian-Arabic word pandura. Derived from the name of the European lute, the word refers to a great variety of instruments of medium and high register with melodic functions. The direct ancestor of the bandola is the guitar through the Spanish bandurria and the soprano guitars, and which after taking its form in Colombia during the 19th and 20th centuries, continues to undergo transformations in its morphology and usage.

The Colombian Andean bandola has two developmental lineages: on one hand, the denomination line which makes reference to its name, and on the other, the construction line which makes reference to its morphological features (Bernal, 2003). The name of the bandola comes from the pandura (known since the 10th century) following the European lute, and one of its families known as the “mandoras family.” These 4- to 6-course instruments with thin bodies had a variety of pitches (a mixture of perfect fourths and fifths) and scale lengths ranging between 37CM and 42CM. By the year 1700, the mandolines emerged in Italy when the size of the mandola was reduced, prevailing and persisting in Italy in two different models: the Milanese mandoline with a thin, slightly arched body, and six courses of either gut or metal strings tuned in perfect fourths; and the Neapolitan mandolin with a bowl back body, a cranked (bent) soundboard just where the bridge is placed, four courses of metal strings tuned like a violin, and strings fastened to the end of the body by way of a tailpiece. The scale for both models is about 32CM to 34CM. In the 18th century, mandolins began to be manufactured with flat or slightly arched sides and back, especially in France, Germany, and Portugal.

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