My companion Gregory and I are sharing the stash of wood accumulated over 3 decades. We are trying to stay grounded in a whirl of the global trade and the inflation of visually dazzling wood.
The beginning of the year finds us claiming the materials for our next instruments, joining and preparing backs tops, necks and ribs…
We stumble over our history and it is time for us to eliminate or give away some of the wood we have found, moved, seasoned for years and experimented with.
I would not want to miss the experience of going up into the Austrian Alps together with 2 other luthiers and a harpsichord maker in 1984. We searched for four old growth spruce trees, had them cut in the winter and brought down in May to be radially sawn. Going through the whole procedure makes you appreciate all that can go wrong: checks, knots, fungus, radially but still off split sawing wrecked two thirds of the wedges within a year. Now for most of the remainder an excessively dense structure suggests it will make a beautiful dresser, once sawn up into boards.
Floating logs downriver and under water storage was common practise in Europe i.e. in the famed Val de Fiemme, where the Cremonese makers might well have gotten their spruce. This technique is thought to have a stabilizing effect and encouraged a thorough seasoning of the wood structure. The same was done for transport during the pioneer years in Canada. We did our best to lift logs from lakes- alas always found unsuitable species, like Hemlock or really twisted eastern Cedar. We paid for “tone wood” brought up from the depth of Lake Superior and received beautiful stone like fir and birds eye maple, which we are happy to pass on to someone.
Buying European wood grown in Val de Fiemme or the legendary Bosnian maple is no guarantee for first rate results.We have not travelled to select European wood in a long while, but we demand a lot from our tone wood dealer as far as the split, the structure and the specific weight is concerned and pay a high price.
Another good logging technique consists of ringing a tree a year before cutting it as “standing dead.” Gordon Carson of Mountain Voice British Columbia has occasionally been able to supply such wood. He also marks his Engleman spruce and Engleman/White hybrid logs with a code, and splits generous wedges. As far as North American tops are concerned we have settled on this species versus Douglas fir or Sitka spruce, though neither can be claimed as local.
My joy are the eastern Maple boards and the log we found over the years at local sawmills. They date our excursions and instruments long in use. They also allow us to make distinctly local instruments and gain some consistency when using wood from the same tree.
For the most part saw mills here do not accommodate violin makers. Boards are usually slab cut and it is hard to find matching ribs and necks. The staff almost never knows the species of maple, distinguishing only between rock and soft maple. Phenotypes are incredibly diverse often with exiting flame, but just as often with worm enclosures and fungus streaks, especially when it is grown in a swampy area. Our favourite red maple thrives both in wet and upland areas. Sugar maple is too hard and silver too loosely structured, but black sometimes works a treat. To confuse things further all of them can be hybrids.
By now we recognize our best candidates. Silky homogenous softer maple for velvety sounding violas slightly harder red or black for violins and the rare piece that can be winged for cello. Luckily there are great healthy poplar species and the tulip wood to supply a one piece cello back, whereas Europe’s classic black poplar is suffering from a blight.
Lastly- here are the wild cards, the multicoloured loosely structured or off grain boards as well as the dense nutty maple we will give up.