I use only the best quality materials in my instruments. Guitar soundboards are made of tight grained quarter sawn woods (cedar, Sitka spruce, larch, Englemann spruce and redwood), often exhibiting 25 grain lines to the inch or better. They come from split billets to avoid grain runout and the majority has been stored for ten year or more. Each guitar soundboard is hand finished to maximize its visual impact, highlighting the tight grain and cross flower. The use of this tight grain wood allows me to work the top thinner, giving maximum control over tonal balance and response.
A quick word on how instrument wood is cut:
The best comes from split billets, especially for the soundboards. The soundboards are cut “on the quarter” or so that the grain is oriented vertically to the plane of the soundboard. Wood in general is stronger in this orientation which combined with tightness of the growth rings allows me to make a lighter guitar and better control its response. This is not so critical for the back and sides but very critical for the engine of the instrument, the soundboard.
Each of the tone woods has an individual character.
Sitka spruce is the standard for steel string guitars, bouzoukis and folk harps. It has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of all the woods, making it a favourite for planes as well as instruments. This wood has good volume and sustain and a lively, clear resonant voice. Its coloration is creamy with some pink overtones.
Englemann spruce is whiter in coloration, close in colour and response to the European spruce. It is used primarily for classical guitars. It has a warmer, more subdued voice than the Sitka.
Western red cedar is a tawny reddish-brown wood that seems to vary in colour regionally. It has a warm full bass response with a sweet and mellow voice.
Koa wood soundboards give a bright, well rounded sound, very clear and responsive. It is unfortunately scarce in these parts.
Necks are made from Honduran mahogany, black walnut, or curly maple. I prefer to use vertical grain woods (also known as quarter sawn or edge grain) for greater stability. I have noted that most of my instruments stay in tune for longer periods of time than commercial instruments. I credit this feature to the use of vertical grain woods for the neck. For classical guitars I use vertical grain cedrella or Spanish cedar. The headstock is joined to the neck with a scarf joint, avoiding the short grain problems of this critical area.
Fretboards are made from ebony, Indian or Brazilian rosewood with mother of pearl fretmarkers.
Back and sides can be made from a variety of materials. I have in stock curly and quilted maple, bocote, black walnut, Macassar ebony, cherry, padauk, blackheart, bubinga, tulipwood and Indian rose wood. These woods colour the sound of a guitar. Their pore structure and density affect how the sound waves, generated by the soundboard, are reflected and absorbed. A closed pore wood such as maple is brighter and sweeter in tone; an open-pored, medium-density wood such as padauk or Honduras mahogany gives a rounder, mellower sound.
I have a quantity of very good quality vertical grain Brazilian rosewood for two and four piece backs. Considered the Holy Grail of tonewood, most of this wood was harvested more than fifty years ago. It is not “stump wood” as is currently available but wood from the lower prime part of the tree trunk. It is considered very rare, if not extinct and is covered under the CITES treaty. Also known as jacaranda, this wood has exceptional colour with strong veins of purples, black and cream. Brazilian rosewood is considered the finest material for the manufacture of guitars.
A koa wood guitar trimmed with ebony next to a walnut and maple instrument
I like to use a contrasting wood for trim, and am especially fond of tulipwood for trim though it is both expensive and scarce. Other options are bocote , ebony, maple or padauk. Basically, any wood is suitable for binding, provided it can be bent to conform to the extreme curves of the guitar. Rosettes on the steel strings are usually a series of inlaid dyed veneers. I have some fine Spanish rosettes for classical guitars.
Selection of materials is important, but equally if not more important is what you do with them in the construction.
Our Northern Woods, An Alternative
Here in Muskoka we are blessed with an abundance of hardwoods: curly, birdseye maple, cherry, beech, walnut, butternut red and white oak. They form a palette of colours are tonally alive and make entirely acceptable instruments.
On the West coast we find the source of most of our soundboard woods, the spruces and cedars. Yellow cedar (flamenco guitars) yew wood and western maple also grow there and are acceptable alternatives to tropical woods as back and side woods.
The Leonardo Guitar Research Project (American Luthierie Quaterly #124 Winter 2015) concludes that “blind testing shows non-tropical woods can be used to make guitars equal in sound acceptance to those made from tropical woods.” This study pitted guitars made with identical soundboard construction and voicing, but with back and sides of alder, oak, walnut beech ash and chestnut against classical guitars with East Indian rosewood back and sides in both blind and non-blind testing by both audience and guitarists. This is notable as it means less impact on the environment through shipping and illegal harvesting.