LMI has been using the same grading scale for soundboards (2nd, A, AA, AAA, Master) since we began, 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 AA soundboard could easily be called a Master 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 AAA 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 Master grade tops really are superb. We do not upgrade AAA tops to Master just because they are the best we have in stock. The fact is that we are often out of stock on Master grade tops because they are so hard to come by. On the other hand, we discourage our customers from thinking that a AAA top is “second” to Master grade. Our AAA’s are used on fine, high-end, handmade guitars. The Masters are simply those rare gems that we occasionally come across. AA tops on the other hand represent a great value. Customers are consistently surprised at how nice these tops are. The AA 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 AA grade Engelmann with our AA 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 AAA top. Other grading criteria for soundboards include straightness of grain, amount of visible run out, 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 AAA grade if it has outstanding bearclaw figure. A top with excellent evenness of color but weak figure may earn a AA grade. This is true of most figured woods such as Koa, Maple, Black Acacia, and Ziricote.
Cocobolo Rosewood is an unusual case. Most Cocobolo we find is slab-sawn and exhibits interesting slab figure. This stuff gets a ‘1 st grade’. We give our ‘Special grade’ to Cocobolo that has straight, tight grain, and because it is more difficult to come by, it is more expensive. Besides the fact that straighter grain adds some stability to the wood, the choice is really a subjective one based on one’s preference for either a wild or distinguished appearance. Similarly, our premium grade Indian Rosewood back and sides are very dark and tight grained. Some customers consider this appearance to be too homogenous and would rather order from our 1 st grade stock, where the wood grain is more apparent and more unique. Homogenous appearance is overwhelmingly preferred among the Cypresses, and so the ‘cleaner’ looking sets get the higher grade.
Another exception is figured Maple electric guitar tops. To avoid confusion, we have recently abandoned our normal scale (A, AA, AAA) and have adopted the industry standard “5 A” scale (A, AA, AAA, AAAA, AAAAA). This is the only wood we sell that is graded on a “5 A” scale.
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. With ebony fingerboards color is the main factor. 1 st grade boards are the blackest available, B grade boards have straight, even gray streaks and 2 nd grade boards may have bolder streaks or gray patches.
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.
A few useful terms:
Grain: Some people refer to the annular rings as the grain. Straight grain in this case refers to the lines of the annular rings being straight and parallel to each other. ‘Fine grain’ is when the annual rings are close together or are seen as fine lines. ‘Course grain’ is farther apart or the lines are wider and more visible.
Figure: Words like curly, quilted, bearclaw, and fiddleback all refer to different kinds of Figure. Figure is genetic, is only found in a small percentage of trees, and is highly prized by furniture makers and luthiers alike.
Color – Most woods have their basic color and then may (or may not) have other, usually darker, color bands that run parallel to the grain. In soundboards evenness of color is usually desired (though some like to see color stripes). In Cedar for example, the color bands can be very interesting. In woods like Koa, Walnut and Myrtle color bands are generally considered desirable.
Stiffness : The soundboard serves two purposes on a guitar, one as a stable anchor for the strings, and the other as the vibrating unit with which to move air i.e. produce sound. It is this dual purpose that makes stiffness such an important quality. Too much stiffness and it will dampen the tone – too little and the top will distort. We feel that the stiffer the top, the better so the top can be made thinner to reduce weight (another tone killer).
Winter Grain . These are the darker grain lines that define each annular ring on Sou8ndboards, and it is normally desirable if the winter grain is less apparent. In Adirondack spruce winter grain is less avoidable and most people expect to see it.
Medullar Rays or Silk . The closer a soundboard is to perfect quarter, the more likely the top will exhibit good silk. Silk appears as a subtle, very tight, curl-like pattern running perpendicular to the grain.
Flame figure (curly, fiddleback, tiger-stripe) runs perpendicular to the grain and adds a three-dimensional, liquid quality to the surface of the wood (especially when it is finished).
Quilt is the term used when the figure has pillowy, oval shapes. It is rarer than flame and is sometimes even more three-dimensional in appearance.
Birdseye figure shows an erratic arrangement of tiny, knot-like ("eye"-shaped) patterns in the wood.
Bees-wing –Here the figure is more random, sporadic and disconnected, but can be very beautiful and intense. Commonly found in Bubinga, we sometimes have Mahogany and Narra sets with bees-wing figure.
Spider-webbing . On some Rosewoods you will find dark lines (ink lines) that cross from one annular ring to another in a pattern very similar to a spider’s web.
Spalting . Spalting is caused by a pattern of bacterial decomposition in dead wood that eventually looks like a black ink line. It is often very irregular and does not follow any other grain patterns. Wood with spalt should be handled very carefully as it often destabilizes the wood. It is a nice choice for inlay and electric guitar tops, but is not a good choice for thin acoustic guitar plates.
Bearclaw . Also known as hazelfichte. Of these types of figure (above), only bearclaw is found in softwoods. Hard to describe verbally, bearclaw looks a bit like it sounds, like a bear used the tree to sharpen its claws and left small waves in the grain which may or may not be symmetrical on both sides of the top.
Runout refers to the orientation of wood cells being other than parallel to the edge (face) of the board. Often difficult to detect visually, severe runout can be detrimental to strength and sound transmission.
Waterfall figure is likened to a very soft, broad and undefined quilt pattern. The liquidy, three dimensional texture of the wood seems full of fluid motion – like a "waterfall".