I can’t remember where I read something that transformed my thoughts about working with wood. In an article about the difficulty of working some species of wood someone wrote the following as best I can remember:
“Wood was not designed to be easy to work or have perfect grain, stability, or color. Wood was designed to keep trees alive!”
Though I more or less knew this reading this statement helped me understand that working with wood is not unlike gardening or farming; it is working with plants.
This deepened my experience of appreciating the subtleties of each piece of timber I came across.
I shop for wood at local sawmills. I enjoy spending hours digging through piles of lumber. Usually I come home with only a few pieces of timber. Most sawmills aren’t cutting wood specifically for instrument making. A lot of wood that would make great furniture simply isn’t suitable for a musical instrument.
As a starting point I look for wood that is quarter sawn. Wood sawn in this way is more stable and maintains it’s integrity better when humidity and temperature fluctuate. This is very important in lutherie where very thin pieces of wood are used.
The fibers in a quarter sawn wood run the full length of the board adding stiffness, strength and the ability to be more resonant. Some species of wood will also show the most beautiful grain patterns when quarter sawn.
Quarter sawing wood is the least economical way for a sawmill to harvest boards from a log; there is a lot of waste. Wood is precious so it is good that all wood is not quarter sawn. Unless wood is sawn specifically for instrument making there will usually be only a few boards that come out quarter sawn per log. I look for them!
After finding the quartered boards I next look for boards that are clear of knots, pitch pockets and other things that are good for the tree but bad for an instrument. I then check for “run out.””Run out” happens when a board is sawn at an angle through the log. All those wonderful fibers are cut short even though they might at first look like they run the length of the board. “Run out” makes the board weaker and less resonant. Then comes pleasing grain, resonance (a good tap with a knuckle can tell me a lot about how suitable a piece of timber will be for an instrument) stiffness and texture.
Once I get the wood home it goes into the attic for as long as possible. Though I have started making instruments again fairly recently I have been buying wood for several years in preparation for doing so. I let wood sit in the attic for at least a year before sawing it up it for an instrument. The wood is then stored in my shop for a few weeks to acclimate to the environment in which the instrument will be made.