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LMI uses a 4A grading scale for soundboards (2nd, 1A (A), 2A (AA), 3A (AAA), 4A, (AAAA), and because we have been around for so long, many other suppliers use a similar scale. Unfortunately, this does not mean that all suppliers grade wood the same way we do. What we call a 2A soundboard could easily be called a 4A grade soundboard by someone else. It’s a frustrating situation for everyone involved and there seems to be little interest in, or method for, coming to a consensus.

For those who purchase woods from LMI, we try to make things easy and predictable by being as consistent as possible from month to month and year to year. This means that characteristics you found in a 3A soundboard 4 years ago will be there when you order the same grade today. In general, we like to think that we grade on the high-side, meaning that our 4A grade tops really are superb – very close to a perfect master. We do not upgrade 3A tops to 4A just because they are the best we have in stock. The fact is that we are often out of stock on 4A grade tops because they are so hard to come by. On the other hand, we discourage our customers from thinking that a 3A top is “second” to a 4A grade. Our 3A’s are used on fine, high-end, handmade guitars. The 4A’s are simply those rare gems that we occasionally come across. 2A tops on the other hand represent a great value. Customers are consistently surprised at how nice these tops are. The 2A tops offer the best value.

What is not consistent about our grading is how we handle the different species of woods. This is because people have different expectations for different woods. For example, finding tight-grained Adirondack Spruce is much more difficult than finding tight-grained Engelmann Spruce. So, if you compare our 2A grade Engelmann with our 2A Adirondack, you are likely to find tighter grain on the Engelmann. In other words, grading is somewhat relative to the individual species of wood.

Our soundboards are graded primarily along aesthetic lines. Though some believe that tighter grain contributes to greater stiffness and better tone, others do not. Still most builders believe that tighter grain looks better. Therefore, tightness of grain will help a top to earn a higher grade. Our lower grade tops, though they may not be quite as pretty, are well quartered, dried, free of defects (such as cracks and knots) and may in fact be made into a guitar that sounds as good (or better) as a guitar made with a 3A top. Other grading criteria for soundboards include straightness of grain, evenness of color, amount of silk (or medullar rays) and evenness of grain spacing.

With some woods, the amount of figure is paramount to any other grading factor. For example, we might ‘overlook’ some unevenness of color in a bearclaw Sitka Spruce top and give it a 3A grade if it has outstanding bearclaw figure. A top with excellent evenness of color but weak figure may earn a 2A grade. This is true of most figured woods such as Koa, Maple, Black Acacia, and Ziricote. Figured woods are an exception for the most part. We sort our figured woods into 4 grades: Premium – Strong figure throughout the board; Strong – strong figure that may fade toward the edges; Good – good figure, but not throughout; and Subtle – subtle or light figure. We often will not apply a grade at all, but will instead post photographs of mixed figure material and let the consumer choose their preference.

With neck wood we are primarily concerned with how straight the grain runs and how close the neck is to being perfectly quartersawn. This is because the neck plays a primarily structural role in the instrument. Due to the lack of availability of large trees, it is becoming more difficult to obtain perfectly quartersawn necks. We allow up to 22% off quarter in our first grade necks. With ebony fingerboards straight grain and lack of defects are the main qualities we look for. Due to industry changes effecting the availability of ebony, our 1st grade boards are not black, but instead have grey/brown streaks and mottling.

Where possible, we have tried to outline what grading factors apply to what woods in the individual descriptions you find here on our website, but we understand that you may have questions about what we actually have on our shelves. In these cases, please feel free to call or email and we will be happy to go over what we have in stock (and later, select the woods for your order based on your likes and dislikes). Furthermore, we understand that occasionally you may receive some wood that is a little different than what you expected, so we make exchanges easy (you can look over our returns policy. To sum up, we understand how important the right woods are to the success of your project and we strive to make your experience with us as easy and worry-free as possible.

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