Last month I had the opportunity to fill a gap in my luthier’s education. Even during the Redwood Violin project where I made a violin from scratch, I did not cut and process my own wood, yet this is something that some violin makers do for themselves, and I had always wanted to learn more about what is involved.
I was lucky enough to be invited to join a small group of violinmakers who make an annual trip to the Rocky Mountains near Aspen, Colorado to cut wood. Apart from learning about collecting wood this was also a chance to get to know some of my colleagues better. I figured this would be as close as I would ever get to going on a hunting trip.
We met in mid July for a 4 day weekend. I flew out there but for some those 4 days also involved 6 to over 17 hours of driving each way!
What wood and where?
We were going to cut Englemann Spruce , the most popular substitute in North America for the traditional Alpine spruce. From violinmaking point of view Englemann can have an appearance that rivals the very best wood used by the classic Italian violinmakers. with close set, narrow winter growth lines. It tends to be very light weight, and not as tough as European Spruce but, as with all wood, there is a range in these qualities between trees. Violins made with Englemann have won international violinmaking competitions.
Englemann grows at higher elevations. We were going to visit Forestry Service lands in Colorado, where a lot of the Englemann, weakened by changing climate, have been killed by Spruce Bark Beetle. The are now many “standing dead” trees which increase the risk of a major fire breaking out, so,
Selecting trees wood
For violin tops we like wood that has a tight, evenly spaced grain pattern with light winter growth lines, so we were looking for trees that:
- Grow vertically.Coniferous trees that lean tend to have more wider, denser, growth rings on the downhill side as the tree adjusts for the extra load on that side. This is known as compressive reaction wood.
- Grow straight. Most trees spiral as they grow upwards. Wood that grows like this wont split straight along the length of the log. Violin tops and backs that are made from wood like this are slightly weaker and quite unsightly as the two halves of the top or back reflect the light at a different angle, making one side appear darker than the other.
- Have a lower section clear of branches. Branches mean knots inside the trunk. Violin wood is generally straight grained, knot-free. Trees that grow tightly packed together shed their lower branches
- Have a consistently tight growth ring pattern with narrow winter growth lines. The only way to detect this, apart from using a corer, is to cut the tree down. I was surprised to see the variation in grain width in trees that grow right next to each other
- Were located on a rise above the road, to make getting the wood back to the vehicles easier.
- Were likely to fall all the way to the ground. This is very important because attempting to salvage a felled tree that has snagged on other standing trees is generally considered too dangerous to try.
There are many good instructions on the Web about how to fell a tree. In brief, a wedge or a notch is cut about a fifth of way through the tree on the side you predict the tree would naturally fall. The “Fell cut” is made on the opposite side, about 2″ higher than the wedge and stopping about 2″ shy of it, the remaining uncut wood acts as a hinge and helps direct the tree’s fall.
Bucking. We cut the useable part of the log into rounds about 24+” In length. That allows a good 4″ on either end of the final violin plate for “checking” or cracking. In the dry mountain air with the sun out checking can happen very soon after the wood is cut.
Rolling/carrying the logs to the road. We were careful to cut trees on the uphill side of the road, even so it required lot of work to get the rounds down the slopes which were littered with other fallen logs.
The rounds were driven back to camp and immediately split and sealed before they started to check (split) at the ends. The first split was made in existing check marks. The halves were then split three times more to yield billets of 1/8th of a round. Each billet would make about 1-4 violin tops, depending on the size of the original round, how clean the split was, and how clear it was of defects like waves in the grain from knots. The final sub-dividing of the billets would be done back in the workshop with a bandsaw.
Sealing, The billets were stood up on end and sealed with “Anchor Seal” a liquid wax. In previous years they have used remaindered paint bought cheap from paint stores. After a couple of hours the wedges were turned onto their other end, that end was sealed and the wedges were stacked to dry.
Sorting and selecting
At every stage wood was sorted and a lot was rejected. It wasn’t until the tree was cut that the width of the growth rings was revealed, and it wasn’t until the rounds were split that defects like knots, rot, beetle damage, slightly twisted grain were revealed. A lot of the billets were rejected early on and, of the ones that made it to the sealing stage, only the the very best were loaded into vehicles to be taken back to workshops for further processing and seasoning. We left a large pile of excellent, ready-to-use firewood for the next several occupants of the campsite.
It was instructive to see the amount of waste involved in selecting wood good enough to become musical instruments. The amount of hard work involved in the process didn’t surprise me, though it did give me a more sympathetic understanding of the prices charged for violin wood from a tonewood dealer. A good quality, seasoned European spruce top currently sells for around $100, good figured maple sets for violin start at about $250 for ready to use wood.
Andrew Carruthers. Trevor Davis, Bass and cello maker from Austin Texas. Dan Gillespie, violinmaker and instructor at the Chicago School of Violinmaking. Alex Wilson, Violinmaker and instructor, American school of violinmaking, Salt Lake City. Jordan Ripstein violinmaker and instructor at the Chicago School of Violinmaking. Photo and old school saw provided by Dan’s cousin, Jerry Olp, who is a forest ranger in the area and spent his weekend upping our wood-cutting game. Thanks Jerry!