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North American Softwoods

North American Softwoods

from their 1990 GAL Convention panel discussion

by Ted Davis, Bruce Harvie, Steve McMinn, Byron Will, and Dave Wilson

moderated by Joseph Johnson

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



Why don’t each of you tell us who you are, where you’re from, and a little bit of what you’ve done.

Ted: My name is Ted Davis and I live in Tennessee near the Smokey Mountains. The Smokeys have red spruce in them and when I found out this wood was useful, I started pursuing it. In the last two years, after a ten-year search, I have managed to find and cut a small amount of red spruce. It was the wood that was used by Martin and Gibson around the turn of the century, up into the 1940s.

Bruce: My name is Bruce Harvie and I have a company called Orcas Island Tonewoods in the San Juan Islands of Washington. I have spread myself very thin cutting all the Northwest species — western red cedar, Port Orford cedar, Sitka spruce, Engelmann spruce — and I’ve just returned from cutting some red spruce.

Byron: I’m Byron Will and my interest is more from an instrument maker’s point of view. I started building harpsichords in 1975 when I moved to the Pacific Northwest from Wisconsin. I wasn’t very satisfied with the woods I had been using. After seeing these gorgeous Northwest trees I started wondering about their physical and acoustical properties and how useful they’d be in my work. I decided to try some of the local softwoods and learned quite a bit through the years.

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Woodchopper’s Ball

Woodchopper’s Ball

by Bruce Harvie

from his 2004 GAL Convention Lecture

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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In Memoriam: John Sullivan

In Memoriam: John Sullivan

April 5, 1964 – April 21, 2007

Originally published in American Lutherie #90, 2007

My good friend John Sullivan passed away early on the morning of April 21, 2007. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer less than a year ago, and things progressed very quickly.

Where do I begin? John was just a sweet, sweet man who poured everything he had into his instruments, relationships, and golf game. He was extremely generous with his knowledge of lutherie, and many builders have come forward in the past weeks to tell stories about how they called John up to ask a question or two, and wound up with notepads of info or an invite over to the shop/kitchen for some hands-on demonstrations.

Although he was well known for his mandolins, John was also a go-to builder for harp guitars, archtop guitars, and fiddles. His last instrument was a wonderful 5-string fiddle that is now in the capable hands of Darol Anger. Had he lived, I have no doubt that he would have built many more 5-strings. He loved to make them, and the ones he made were very good.

Photo by David Riggs.
Photo by Bruce Harvie.

I remember one night we went down to see Foghorn String Band at the local Portland pub. Foghorn’s Caleb Klauder plays one of John’s F-5s, and Jon Neufeld from Jackstraw was there with his Sullivan archtop, another cannon of an instrument. I wound up sitting in too, so there were three Sullivans going off like a bomb. I don’t think I’ve ever seen John so happy, and it’s a memory I’ll always hold very dear indeed. I’m sure everyone who reads these pages can relate.

A benefit to help cover John’s medical expenses was scheduled for April 29th at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland — a benefit that became a memorial after the news of John’s death. Forty of his instruments, including his first mandolin, were on display, and bands featuring John’s instruments played onstage upstairs. It was a wonderful and touching tribute to a luthier and friend who left us much too early.

John leaves behind his wife and partner Patricia Lackaff, who has just lost her best friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her. He also leaves behind a very large band of happy musicians who I imagine at this moment playing “We Bid You Goodnight” at points all over the globe. And all with impeccable tone.

Long-time GAL member Bruce Harvey presented a moving musical memorial to John Sullivan at the recent Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit in Portland, Oregon. Bruce played a Sullivan F-5, set a repeating loop, then soloed over that on a Sullivan electric mandolin. John Sullivan had exhibited at this show many times in the past, and he was deeply missed by the builders in his hometown.

All three photos courtesy of Bruce Harvie.
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In Memoriam: Ted Beringer

In Memoriam: Ted Beringer

August 31, 1921–September 2, 2006

by GAL Staff, and Bruce Harvie

Originally published in American Lutherie #88, 2006

All of us at the Guild office were saddened to hear of the passing of Ted Beringer. Ted was a loyal Guild member for the past twenty-eight years and attended and exhibited at many conventions with his dear wife Pete. His obituary in the Billings Gazette states, “His passion was instrument building. He started with various designs for guitars in the early 1950s and continued exploring until his final days. All of his instruments were innovative, beautiful, and one of a kind. His favorite answer when asked if he would build a guitar for someone was that he built every one of them to suit himself. If he didn’t want you to have one, there wasn’t enough money in the world to buy one; if he thought you were suited to a particular instrument, he would make it easy for you to obtain it. In spite of that philosophy, or perhaps because of it, examples of his art can be found in deserving hands worldwide.”

Ted Kellison of Billings wrote in Ted’s obituary guest book, “I always thought that Ted was cut from the same cloth as Leo Fender and Les Paul. The most endearing thing about Ted, though, was that he was driven in his art strictly by the love and the amazing passion that sustained him through it all. He didn’t build guitars because he wanted to be famous nor to get rich. He’d have built with the same zeal if he’d never sold a single guitar! He fearlessly defied tradition and was the first to laugh at his failures (though they were few), but he lit up like a kid on Christmas morning when he listened to someone play one of his successes!”

— GAL Staff

Photo courtesy of Bruce Harvie.

It is with great sadness that I pass on the news of the death of my old friend Ted Beringer of Billings, Montana.

Ted built his first guitar in 1951 (!) after seeing a few Fenders roll through Billings, which was a hot-spot for bands touring across the country back in the day.

He was a very prolific builder, although when I asked him how many instruments he figured he had made, he didn’t have a clue. It was certainly well into the hundreds. He built solidbody electrics, archtops, archtop basses, flattops, classicals, archtop classicals (!), as well as 4-, 5-, and 8-string mandolins. He also built some instruments that might be unique, namely a nylon-string mandola with a trapezoid body shape and an octave 12-string the size of a mandolin. Both very useful tools indeed.

His stories were classics. He liked to tell the story about when Waylon Jennings stopped by the house to look at a guitar, and sang “Good Hearted Woman” saying “this one’s a hit....”

Ted’s true love (besides his wonderful wife Pete) was building guitars, but he earned his living as an electrician. He designed and wound his own pickups back in the day when you couldn’t buy a pickup. He also built and repaired amplifiers, and told me a great story of the day that Homer and Jethro stopped by with a broken amp that needed fixing. Ted’s shop looks the same today as it probably did in the ’50s, so it wasn’t hard to imagine Homer and Jethro hanging out with Ted. Now there would be a funny trio.

Rest in peace, Ted. Yours was a life well lived.

— Bruce Harvie