LMI uses a 4A grading scale for soundboards (2nd, 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A), 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 medullary 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. Due to industry changes affecting the availability of ebony, our 1st-grade boards are not black but instead have grey/brown streaks and mottling.
We understand that occasionally you may receive some wood that is a little different than what you expected, so we make returns easy so long as the wood has not been worked. 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 soundboards, 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, is found in only 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 liquidity, three-dimensional texture of the wood seems full of fluid motion – like a “waterfall”.