There Is No Bad Wood, Only Misunderstood Wood

Most stringed instruments are made of wood that has been quarter sawn.  Quarter sawing is a method of sawing a log that yields boards with vertical grain.

Quarter  sawing a log yields boards with vertical grain

Quartered or vertical grain boards are stronger and more stable than wood sawn off quarter. These are important concerns when making stringed instruments. The soundboards, backs and sides of stringed instruments are very thin. When making dulcimers I regularly work wood down to 2mm or so. Using quarter sawn for the fingerboard helps it stay stiff, straight and stable.

Like any luthier or woodworker I spend a lot of time (and money) finding the best wood I can. “Best” is a relative term here; the best wood for what I do may be very different from what would be best for what someone else is making.

I look through the stacks at the saw mill for wood that is quarter sawn, has little or no run-out, good structural integrity,  a mass, stiffness and resonance I find appealing and good color or figure. Usually there is a certain amount of balance and compromise among these various qualities when selecting wood. Trees do not produce wood to order and wood is rarely “perfect.”

I often use wood with “character flaws” as long as they will not interfere with strength, stability and sound. Some of this wood has produced very pretty dulcimers and I enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to make this kind of wood work well.

I save some of the wild and interesting pieces of wood to use as pegheads. I have made some beautiful pegheads using wood with burl, wild grain patterns, voids and knots.

After milling wood for dulcimers I end up with a lot of scrap. I have some friends who go through my scrap pile because they can use these pieces for marquetry, jewelery making and other projects.

Anything left gets slated for firewood.

Off-cuts and rejected wood that sometimes gets saved from the fireplace and becomes part of a dulcimer

On the other hand I regularly go through the firewood pile. I recently dug out a cedar soundboard and a cherry fretboard that were rejects. The cedar became lining strips and the cherry produced some fine brace wood after some selective cutting and trimming.

Wood is sacred. I never want to waste any.


2 thoughts on “There Is No Bad Wood, Only Misunderstood Wood

  1. The favorite mandolin I made came from a piece of walnut for a stately old walnut tree that fell during a storm on the shore of Lake Michigan. I had the piece for over 12 years before I felt that my skills had advanced enough to give the walnut the respect that it deserved.
    Transforming a piece of wood into an instrument that can then give joy to the life of a person who has no idea of the history or life of the wood it was made from when they hear the music it makes, adds a feeling of love that only a true luthier can feel.
    I hope your back is feeling better and would like to stop in and visit you when we return to Michigan this summer.

    1. Well said! And thanks for the kind words. Back surgery is in a week so I should be back to the grindstone to some degree by Summer. Thanks for the kind words. I look forward to hearing from you when you are back in Michigan.

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