Before it ever made music, this guitar was a tree. Or more precisely, it was several trees. When you listen to a guitar like this, you may think you’re hearing the strings. But, you’re not. The strings themselves make very little sound. For the most part, you’re hearing the vibration of wood itself. It takes a special kind of wood to give an instrument its unique voice. It’s called tonewood – and the Northwest is home to some of the most prized varieties in the world.
Any Guitars In This Tree?
Bruce Harvie has a skilled eye. He can look at a tree and determine if it has the right stuff for making musical instruments. He’s an instrument maker and runs Orcas Island Tonewoods, which specializes in turning local trees – like Sitka and Engelmann spruce, Western red cedar, Bigleaf maple and Western balsam poplar – into instrument-grade woods. He says good tonewood is getting harder and harder to find.
Today, Harvie is scouting out a stand of old growth Engelmann spruce trees in a remote valley near Lake Chelan. He has to be quick – these trees are about to be cut down and chipped up. This area is part of a restoration project. An abandoned copper mine has been leaking toxins into a nearby stream. So, the stream is being redirected through this area, which means these trees have to go.
Harvie stops to examine a towering spruce tree. It’s eight feet around at the base and about 300 years old. He’s looking at a lot of variables. How far apart are the branches? Is the trunk twisted? Did the tree grow too fast or too slow? Bruce sees potential in this spruce. “Yup, a lot of violins in this guy,” he says tapping the bark. “It should be making music in symphony orchestras in 10 years or so.”
He stops at another tree and pulls out a coring device, which looks like an oversized wine opener. He screws it into the trunk and pulls out a core sample. At first, he’s puzzled by the lopsided growth rings. Then he exclaims, “Oh, you know what’s going on with this tree? It’s off-center. This is really good for us because it means we can get guitars out of one side.”
Out of all the spruce trees in this area, only a small fraction have the right properties for making instruments. Those that do will avoid the chipper and take on new life as tonewood. But first, they need to travel by barge and truck to a specialty lumber mill.
Stronger Than Steel
“This is the stage at which we can see what the log wants to be. Whether it wants to be a guitar, a cello, bass,” says Steve McMinn. McMinn is the owner and founder of Pacific Rim Tonewoods. He stands in the rain beside a giant chainsaw as it gnaws through an old growth spruce log, much like the ones at Lake Chelan. McMinn’s company cuts up about 550 logs a year from the Pacific Northwest. He is kind of like a butcher slicing specialty cuts of meat, only his job is to chop logs into the precise pieces needed by instrument builders.
This spruce tree has wide growth rings – perfect for guitars. A single log like this will be used to make about 1,000 of them.
“Spruce has tremendously long fibers, so pound for pound, it’s stronger than steel,” McMinn explains. In technical terms, it’s called a high strength-to-weight ratio. That’s one of the reasons spruce was used by airplane builders during World War II when steel was in short supply. It’s also why instrument makers favor spruce for violin and guitar tops – the wood is incredibly light and strong.
At last, the chainsaw finishes lopping off a two-foot section of the log. McMinn lifts the massive wood round by forklift onto a platform and begins splitting it apart with a hydraulic maul. With each ear-splintering crunch, a massive 50 pound block of spruce tumbles onto the platform.
The wood is then quarter-sawn, dried and eventually winds up in a frame saw with 21 moving blades. The frame saw is the size of a small pick-up truck and works like a huge egg slicer. Three boards go in. Eighteen come out. Now, they’re just the right thickness for guitar tops. They’ll go to big guitar manufacturers like Taylor and Martin, as well as a few smaller-scale builders like Dake Traphagen in Bellingham.
Music At Your Fingertips
Dake Traphagen has made all kinds of instruments including violins, dulcimers and zithers, just to name a few. Now he specializes in guitars. And if there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s that good tonewood is extremely rare.
“Musical instrument wood is the crème of the crème,” he says. “It’s the top one tenth of a percent of one percent of all the wood.”
Traphagen shares his workshop with his dog and a brown recluse spider who camps out in the scrap wood pile. One wall is stacked ceiling-high with neatly organized slabs of tonewood. He pulls three down and runs his hand across them.
“Feeling the wood gives me a lot of information,” Traphagen says. “I can tell how much life there is in it. This piece of fir here, I could tell you, would be a very terrible piece of tonewood.” He bends the thin sheet of wood between his hands. “It’s tough. I can really flex it, but it’s too spongy.”
So, he grabs the second piece.
“This is Western red cedar,” he says, tapping the wood. “I’m listening for the high pitch and the low pitch.” The board creates a deep, drum-like sound. “This piece of cedar will make a very lively instrument. It will be loud with a lot of sustain.”
Then, Traphagen picks up a piece Engelmann spruce and begins tapping. At first, the wood sounds dull and muted. He closes his eyes and shifts his fingers to a different spot. Suddenly, the wood comes to life. It starts to ring.
“There’s the spot,” he says with a smile. “This will make a very good instrument. It’s nice, lightweight. It’s a very responsive top.”
Put your ears to the test. Can you hear the difference between the cedar and spruce?
Traphagen has experimented with all kinds of tonewoods. Some are local. Other pieces come from half a world away. His oldest piece is salvaged Brazilian rosewood that was carbon dated to a tree originally cut down in the 1700s. More recently, Traphagen has incorporated layers of Nomex into his guitars. Nomex is an industrial material used on the wings of space shuttles and on the face masks of firefighters.
But in Traphagen’s experience, there’s nothing quite like good tonewood. You simply can’t replicate that kind of natural variation in any synthetic material. It’s what makes each instrument as unique as the musician who plays it – and that’s one thing Traphagen loves about making instruments out of tonewood.
“It’s delightful,” he says. “I like the challenge of each piece being different, even from the same tree. You can’t just build on a formulaic method. What one person calls muddy, another person will call warm and rich. So, that’s part of the art. Part of the mystique. To get the most out of each piece of wood.”
See a video of one of Dake Traphagen's guitars played by Jean-François Desrosby.
Scientific Advisor Nalini Nadkarni and Dr. David Olson assisted in the reporting of this story.
Funding for our series was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund. Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern and the KUOW Board of Directors.