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Cutting Michigan Maple

Cutting Michigan Maple

by Elon Howe

Originally published in American Lutherie #37, 1994



In 1983, I had the guts to try to repair my dad’s old fiddle. I reglued it, sanded it, sprayed on a varnish — it looked great. I was later advised that I had spoiled the fiddle by doing the wrong things.

Later on, I bought a fiddle kit. It had the wood, a machine cut scroll, four ounces of varnish, and a half-pound of glue. About six months later I turned out my first fiddle and of course it sounded great. Dan Erlewine, who ran a shop north of us at that time, had to admit that it looked pretty fair. He later admitted he was afraid to see what I might turn out because he knew he would have to be honest. He seemed to be relieved that it didn’t look like a shoe box.

At first, information was hard to come by. Finally, we found an address for Hammond Ashley. He recommended a book called The Techniques of Violin Making by Harry Wake. I got to meet Harry at the Arizona Violin Makers’ Association Competition in Tucson — he even bought some willow wood from me.

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Whence Tree Names

Whence Tree Names

by Nicholas Von Robison

Originally published in American Lutherie #31, 1992 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume Three, 2004



What’s in a name?” cries Juliet; “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yet Shakespeare might admit that a rose is not less sweet because we know its name. The system of binomial nomenclature is one of the best inventions. It is effective; it is beautiful in its simplicity. A luthier in New York may talk of trees and wood to a luthier in Faroffistan with precision and mutual understanding. Centuries are tied together between us and the many careful observers hundreds of years ago who left good records in aristocratic Latin, when the common vernacular language was considered not to be a sufficient medium for such learning. To know the names of the forms of life is one of the keenest satisfactions; it brings us into relationship with our materials in another facet of our fascinating occupation. Every binomial has meaning; it is uniquely significant. Consider...

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A Primer on Botanical Pronounciation

A Primer on Botanical Pronounciation

by Nicholas Von Robison

Originally published in American Lutherie #31, 1992 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume Three, 2004



Whenever luthiers sit down to talk wood, Latinized botanical names are neccesarily bandied about. When I was an undergraduate forestry student I witnessed a fistfight between two classmates who had a difference of opinion on how a certain botanical name should be pronounced, so to deter mayhem in the lutherie community, I offer the following rules and notes.

The accent method of pronunciation is not my own, but that of the great American botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey, whose Hortus series of encyclopedic reference books paved the way for a standardized method of pronunciation by most authorities. His How Plants Get Their Names also gives accent pronunciations as well as the meaning of many generic and specific botanical names. Your local library probably has this along with Hortus Second; and if they are up to date, Hortus Third. Many other botanical and horticultural references have adapted his conventions. His simple chart of sounds:

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Moisture Content

Moisture Content

by Greg Jackson

Originally published as Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #296, 1984 and Lutherie Woods and Steel String Guitars, 1997



Equilibrium moisture content (EMC) is the point at which wood is not losing or gaining moisture. This occurs when the wood is in balance with its environment. Since the environment changes from day to day, the EMC normally considered is the average EMC. It is very important to understand that this is a delicate balance between the wood and the environment. EMC is not a universal moisture content (MC) for all conditions. As conditions change, the EMC will also change. The water has a tendency to leave the wood and become airborne moisture, just as does the water in clothes hung out to dry. At the same time the wood has an attraction to water and will tend to absorb any available moisture. Water spilled on unfinished lumber can be observed to soak into the wood. The water in humid air, while not so obvious, is also available to the wood and will sometimes be drawn into the lumber. The two forces — 1) for water to be drawn into the air; 2) for water to be drawn into the wood — are opposing forces. The net effect is to create a balance which is called an equilibrium.

Equilibrium is affected by both humidity and by temperature. As the humidity in the air is increased the wood will gain moisture. If the humidity is lowered the wood will give up water to the air. Higher temperatures will force water into the air while lower temperatures will let the wood gain moisture.

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Dalbergia Nigra and Friends

Dalbergia Nigra and Friends

Luthier and author Cumpiano interviews famed wood scientist Dr. Bruce Hoadley

by William Cumpiano

Originally published in American lutherie #1, 1985 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume One, 2000



For over four hundred years, Dalbergia nigra has been considered the crown, jewel in the luthier’s creation. Its color, figure, and vitreous hardness has made it the sine qua non in the luthier’s inventory of raw materials. And so it has been among cabinetmakers: a book published in the late 1700s characterizes Brazilian rosewood as the “queen of the hardwoods.” Today a luthier can tack on something like $500–$800 to the sale price of a new guitar simply for the purchaser’s privilege of owning one made from Brazilian rosewood, never mind whatever additional qualities it may have. Part of this is unquestionably due to the material’s unique suitability and beauty but also is due no doubt to its great scarcity.

Manuel Velázquez, perhaps one of the greatest living classical guitar luthiers, bemoaned this fact and told me that during World War II, when he was a salvage carpenter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he was required to dismantle ten-foot mess tables and benches made from two- and three-inch thick Brazilian rosewood — and this was on troop ships. He began his career in guitar making taking scraps home with him. When I started my own career about thirteen years ago, these same Brooklyn docks held piles of enormous Dalbergia nigra logs stretching as far as the eye could see. The docks are empty now. Back then a set of Brazilian cost $35. Today a set of lower grade Brazilian can run $150, the better stuff up to $200. For the equivalent of less than one board foot of volume, this means Dalbergia nigra is among the two or three most expensive hardwoods in the world.

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