Aged Spruce Guitar

What does age do to spruce? To wood in general? Or to the sound of the guitars, and other musical instruments for that matter? How long to age, five years? Thirty? Someone with a bit more knowledge of the wood might ask about the conditions under which the wood was aged. Was it stored in someone’s barn or basement? Perhaps buried under a peat swamp for fifty-thousand years, as is the case with New Zealand’s Ancient Kauri lumber? How much time must pass for the wood to graduate from the ranks of commoners into something extraordinary?

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The subject of aged spruce happens to be a perennial favorite in the violin world. Seemingly every other year a new theory surfaces, attempting to explain and quantify the superior qualities of Antonio Stradivari’s violins made in the late 16th–early 17th centuries. Was his success due to a mini ice age that descended on Europe, causing the trees to grow at just the right pace? Or did he submerge his tonewoods under water for a few years? Maybe he tried to treat his wood with some silica compound, to preserve it against the woodworm and fungi, and as a result–voila! Now Stradivari violins can fetch north of a million dollars today from collectors and musicians alike. Perhaps it was the varnish, after all, that caused Strad violins to be so successful. In the guitar world, the debate is not that different at all. Similarly, there are no short answer to any of these questions.

How old is the tonewood used in this guitar, photographed here? I don’t know for sure. I know for certain that the wood was harvested several decades ago. I came to it through a retired guitar maker who stopped building guitars in the early 1980’s. Would the secret chemical composition of this tonewood¬† be responsible for larger-than-life sound? I am not sure. I would say that old tonewoods do feel different in one’s hand. They seem lighter, quicker to respond, and seem generally “livelier”. When trees are first cut down, they hold tremendous amounts of water, especially if the harvest occurred during an active growth period. After a certain amount of water has been driven out (evaporation), the wood is said to be dry. Which begs a question. If the wood is already dry, how much more can really happen to it in the next 5-10, or even 100 years? It is not going to get much drier, is it? It will certainly darken through surface oxidation, but what else? Well, it turns out that dry wood and aged wood are not one and the same. After the initial moisture loss in the tree trunk, comes the slow process whereby the sap, with its naturally occurring plant resins, begin their slow metamorphosis from viscous, flexible pitch, into brittle, crystallized matter. Maybe that’s where the term “crystalline trebles” comes from. The guitar with well-aged wood sounds less “rubbery” and more crystal-clear. Enough words, and onto photography.

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I live in Portland, Oregon, known as the city of Roses. I really like roses, and have planted quite a few rose varieties in my garden. In this rosette, you’ll see unobtrusive, small pixellated roses.

The back and the sides for this guitar are made with Pacific Northwest Big Leaf Maple. Yes, it does grow all around me. It may not be “exotic” enough for Oregonians, but it is a very nice wood nonetheless. Outside of our region, most people in the guitar world know our maple in its more flamboyant form–the quilted maple, such as this guitar I built some years ago. That quilted maple guitar landed into Paco de Lucia’s hands, as seen here:

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So, returning to the less “exotic-looking” version of maple, the one I’ve used for this guitar has beautiful hues, and perfect medullary rays or flecking:

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One of the requests for this guitar was an arm rest, which I fashioned out of rosewood, and shaped it to conform to the outline of the lower bout. It is not as flat and wide as commonly seen. I did not want for the arm rest to be too bold, and detract from the guitar’s classic, restrained aesthetic. I thought it was a success: subtle, functional armrest that blends well into the over-all scheme.

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Another view of the arm rest. It’s there to soften the edge of the guitar, and to keep the the musician’s right forearm from pressing onto the soundboard, dampening the sound and limiting the responsiveness of the guitar.

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Planetary-geared tuning pegs look nearly indistinguishable from traditional wooden pegs, yet afford better control and ease of tuning. The grips are natural ebony, while the internal mechanisms are made with anodized aluminum, steel, and fiber-reinforced synthetic resin.

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Here is what the pegs look like from the back:

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Do you see the depth of color on this wood? New spruce would have looked rather pale, compared to this one. It almost looks like redwood or cedar…

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Bon voyage, and to much music, as you travel to New York City. I hope your new home will be a welcoming place, and your voice will be shared with many.

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2 Comments

  1. Mustafa, thank you for your comment. Maple and cypress have many similarities tonally. That “mid-range hollow bark” is there with maple too. It has to be mentioned, too, that much also depends of the soundboard bracing, the bridge, and the set-up details, in order to arrive at that optimal balance of warmth and dryness, snappiness and sustain.

  2. Love this piece… the arm rest is beautifully, subtly done!
    How does maple sound in a flamenco, as opposed to cypress? I would think the brightness would be similar, but how about that midrange hollow bark that we love in flamencos?

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