Woods and Materials

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Splitting an Engelmann log in North Idaho, 1979

The selection of the soundboard is by far the most important choice to be made when building a guitar. Of the various species of spruce I use for tops, I generally prefer Engelmann because of its tendency to produce a warm sound with lots of overtones. Most players today favor this response from an archtop, which I tend to think of as a “modern” sound. Adirondack spruce offers a very “big” sound, slightly brighter that Engelmann. European spruce can be prettier, very lush, very well balanced. When an order is placed, I try and work with the customer in determining the best wood choice.

The Pacific Northwest has long been recognized as the source of the finest tonewoods in North America. For a number of years I have taken advantage of my location to search out high quality wood. These include Engelmann spruce from Idaho, Colorado and Canada, and Western maple from Washington and Oregon. I personally select rough billets of maple and spruce directly from the woodcutter who harvested the tree. Or, on several occasions I have obtained whole logs and split them into billets myself. These pieces are then sawn into guitar tops, backs, sides and necks, and stored in my shop to air dry for several years. I maintain an inventory of several hundred sets of wood for guitar and mandolin .

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My friend Mac cutting a Western maple log in the Cascade foothills, 1995

By the time I actually select a piece of wood for an instrument, I know its history (where it grew, when it was cut, etc.) Obtaining my wood in this manner insures that it is properly cut, properly seasoned, and gives me more control in the resulting instrument.

FINDING THE TONE

It is useful to recognize that the archtop is, by design, an inherently bright, punchy instrument. This was an important attribute early in the history of the archtop, when its musical role was primarily as a rhythm instrument in jazz bands.

Canadian Engelmann spruce, 2005

Over the years, as players put the instrument to new uses, other tonal possibilities have opened up. For example, I like to build guitars with more warmth and character than is found on guitars built in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. I find that most of today’s players prefer this sound, as well. To achieve a warmer, bigger tone, a number of factors must be considered. These include the woods used, the thickness of the top, how “tall” or flat the arching is, the soundhole(s), and a number of design elements such as the height of the bridge, neck angle, and tailpiece design. Building over five hundred instruments over the last 35+ years has given me an intuitive approach to understanding how all of these variables can be brought together to make the best possible instrument.