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Tonewood – Full Text

The tonewood and especially the soundboard material you select can be one of the most important factors in building your guitar. These days fewer luthiers are milling their own lumber from the tree and instead, are purchasing tone wood from suppliers. It is therefore very important that you rely on reputable tone wood dealers as the source for your lumber. Not only is the grading system and quality that’s on what important but also the source. It is important that your tongue would come from a legal and environmentally sustainable source. I am a firm believer that the voice of your guitar is decided when you choose the tone wood for the instrument. The soundboard material is probably the most important piece of tonewood in the instrument so let me explain what I look for in soundboard material. Here, I will only talk about Spruce and I’m showing three different species: Sitka, Luts and Engelmann. I prefer my lumber to be unsurfaced and preferably in the billet form. A lot of what the wood can tell you is minimized if it’s been surfaced. This is another reason to only purchase lumber from a reputable source. This way, you’re sure of the quality even though it has been surfaced. The first thing I will mention is tightness of grain or grain lines per inch. Here you can see that towards the center of the tree the grain lines are tighter and as the tree gets wider it starts to get farther apart. Believe it or not a very tight grain can actually weaken the cross grain stiffness in a top. I prefer grain that is not too tight and not too wide. Next I want to see the grain perpendicular to the face of the soundboard. We call this quarter sawn. I want the grain at a 90 degree angle to the face. This makes for a more stable and stiff piece of wood. I don’t want to see any grain run out. This is when the grain comes to the surface in the middle of the piece. This also weakens the piece of wood and in my opinion can cause loss of tone. I want to see long fibers in my piece of soundboard material. This means that the wood is stiff and this allows me to go thinner on the top. Once again you can see why I prefer my tone wood unsurfaced. In addition to the fibers I also want to pay attention to the straightness of grain. I don’t want to see wavy grain or grain that is not straight. This can indicate a difference of stiffness in this area. I want to see consistency and evenness of grain. I also like to run my hand along the surface of the wood. The wood will have a sound quality to it. As you rub your hand across the piece, looser wood will sound different than stiffer wood. It doesn’t tell you as much if the wood has already been surfaced. You can still pick up information from the sound and touch but it is better if it is unsurfaced. Something else I do is flex the piece of wood across the grain and with the grain. This also gives you an idea of how stiff or loose the piece of wood is. A difference in thickness of just a few thousandths can be a huge difference depending on how stiff or loose your top is. When thickness in the soundboard I prefer doing it by hand. This is yet another way that the soundboard can give you information. All the information you are getting from your hands and ears will help you determine how thin to take your top when thicknessing. The very last thing I do is tap the piece of wood. It may have passed the scratch and sniff test up to now but if the piece of wood doesn’t sound musical, then I don’t use it. I like to hear a strong ping of the fundamental and some nice overtones or color in the piece of wood. With the techniques I have shown here you can build up a mental library over time to actually know how to use this information. The information you get initially will mean nothing to you because you have no basis of comparison. Over time though, it will begin to make sense. To learn more about how I evaluate my soundboard material check out my online classical guitar building course on my website.


Recently I sat down with Chris Herrod from LMI and asked him to say a few words about how luthiers should purchase tonewood. Let’s listen to what he has to say. One of the problems that we encounter as luthiers is where to purchase tone wood? How to purchase tonewood? And Chris is going to educate us on LMI’s philosophy of tone wood and how you should purchase it as a luthier.

CHRIS: Well it’s a good question, it’s kind of a big question but you know one thing I like to advise people to do is to resist the temptation to buy lumber because the price is at first glance going to seem to be a lot less but unless you really have the equipment you have a real love of doing that work it’s not necessarily going to save you any money because you have lots of questions about grading and yield and so forth that you soon will learn that it’s easier to buy, like say, you’re back and side set rather than a plank of mahogany or something like that. So our company, that’s what we sell and there’s other companies like us you do the same thing. Because we’re not selling raw material, we’re selling a piece that’s made for a particular part of the guitar – a bridge, a fingerboard or what have you – we can focus on exactly what you’re looking for. So that brings me to the second part of my answer which is, don’t treat this as a regular commodity. We realize the woods are very specialized in lutherie and that people have particular demands and everything like that so we encourage our customers to know and tell us with exactly what they want to have when they open the box. Don’t just order a piece of rosewood and hope that it fits that image that you have in your mind. Learn the language, learn about that the range of colors or figures of something for a particular wood and talk to us about it. If you don’t know how to do that then ask us. And we love to discuss the kinds of woods that are available and to kind of guide people and their purchasing so that they can get something that will really work for them.

ROBBIE: I also asked Chris about the FSC certification that LMI HAS.

CHRIS: Yeah we do have some woods that are certified where we’re working to get more and more wood that are certified and FSC is an organization that basically guarantees that the wood has been tracked through the whole chain of custody and so that you know completely that it’s environmentally harvested and also that the harvesting benefits the communities near those particular forests and so on.

ROBBIE: another question I had for Chris was about international restrictions of some tonewoods and the use of alternative tonewoods. I noticed that recently a couple species of wood that we’re using guitar building have gone on the CITES treaty. Talk to us a little bit about the alternative tonewoods that LMI offers. I know it’s becoming more popular to using alternative woods because the other ones that we’re used to using in lutherie are becoming harder and harder to get.

CHRIS: Yeah more popular and more necessary. You know it’s a bit of an uphill battle because the marketplace, you know the actual guitar builders, there’s a tradition of associating quality guitars with particular woods but it’s really in the hands of the luthiers to educate the market on these alternatives because a lot of those traditional woods have become endangered, are protected. That time is now to open up the market’s minds open up the luthier’s minds to these new woods and well, the good news is there’s lots of really cool interesting woods to work with. They’re beautiful, they sound great and they’ll turn your instrument into a one-of-a-kind thing so that’s the silver lining. The problem of course is that a lot of people don’t really know what to expect especially as far as sound on some of these newer woods. And we can help you with that. Basically, we can make comparisons with a particular wood with something you may already be familiar with. Maybe you’ve heard a Koa back and side guitar. So if you’ve got that in your head, what that tone is, we can make a comparison with some of the woods like Goncalo Alvez (Brazilian Tigerwood) is one that sounds a little like Koa and there are some other ones. Rosewood alternatives, they have the higher density and they have that particular tonal envelope. Bubinga might be another one of those or there Ziricote, Macassar Ebony, something like that. So we can have those sort of discussions and kind of guide you through that the new products that are available.

ROBBIE: Thank you for the information, Chris.

CHRIS: My pleasure. Thank you.

ROBBIE: Like I said in the beginning of this video, it is best to purchase your tone wood from a reputable and reliable source. You have also learned how I evaluate my soundboard tonewood. I hope this has been useful.