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Sourcing the finest Sitka Spruce tonewood for soundboards available through sustainable forestry and responsible wood use.
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By Vince Gill from
Sounds of Wood and Steel


Tonewood guitar
Click the image for larger view of this guitar made by
Grey Burchette
using our
Sitka Spruce
tone wood!



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Our process begins with superior tonewoods.


Why Sitka Spruce?
Sitka Spruce from Southeast Alaska is the finest in the world,
which is why many wood processors look for their supply of Sitka Spruce from Southern Southeast Alaska.

Prince of Wales Island, the place we call home, has the highest concentration of the best grade Sitka Spruce. The climate here is maritime, cool but moderate. Without weather extremes, the wood grows at a very even, slow rate.

 

 

 

My Stash of Special Sitka Spruce Logs.
Sitka Spruce is preferred for its strength and elasticity, as tonewood is very demanding and specific. It can withstand rough handling and abuse that other sound boards can not. Sitka Spruce has the highest modulus of elasticity to density ratio of any of the three most used spruces. Because of its strength to weight ratio and its toughness, it is well suited for steel string acoustic guitars and is used with a great deal of success for classical guitars by many builders. Sitka Spruce varies considerably in color, from white to pink to light brown. Some tops have all color variations in a single board/set, which gives it a very striped appearance. (I avoid this type of wood but can fill requests.) Many trees and logs are looked at to find those suitable for our choosy clients. Only after the log is 'cracked' open, can you really know how it can be used.

 

Harvesting Techniques and Salvage Sources
Not only are our acquisition and harvest methods environmentally friendly,
our processing techniques set us apart.

Size does matter!
Not just any tree will make quality tone-wood. Trees are taken up to eight feet in diameter. It would take five adults to put their arms around the base of the tree. We look for logs that have been seasoned. We utilize the forest without detriment to it. We search for trees that have died due to various conditions such as maturity, insects or diseases, or those trees that have been blown over by the gale and storm force winds that frequent SE Alaska.

 

 

 

Not only are our acquisition and harvest methods environmentally friendly, our processing techniques set us apart.
About 95% of the material processed is considered salvage. General salvage is used to glean through the chunks, slabs and debris left behind after the regular timber sales have been made. Since there is no forest canopy to protect the logs from the decaying effects from the sun, it must be dealt with quickly. Salvaging wood requires a lot more work.

Log bridges, used to build bridges over which thousands of logging trucks passed enroute carrying logs for uses around the world, are used by us to reclaim the forest back to its natural state. These bridges are sometimes removed and sold to processors for milling or local homeowners for personal use.

 

The selection of a tree must meet our rigorous standards in the woods. They also have to meet certain regulations before acquisitions. The tree cannot be near a stream, cave or sink hold, designated old growth habitat or wilderness area and wildlife can't be using it. However, even with our environmentally friendly harvesting techniques, the Forest Service and various environmental groups are making it more difficult. They would rather see it rot in the woods than get used.

Whenever possible, we try to find wind blown trees. We feel this is utilizing the valuable resource of our forest without clear-cut logging. To find these trees in the woods, one really needs to be guided by the Creator, as the forest is so vast.

 

Once we have found a blow down log with a diameter of three to eight feet, we need to determine if there is "music" in the wood. If the log passes our very stringent critique by a trained eye, then the next step is to purchase the log. 95% of the material we process is considered salvage, not green wood. Working with green wood presents many problems, like moving and cracking much more than logs that have been seasoned in the round. Of course, only a small percentage of any large diameter log makes tonewood grade. Dealing with this salvage wood requires a lot more work.

Other Woods
Western Red Cedar
Western red Cedar is fairly abundant in Southeast Alaska, though it is the northern boundaries of it's range. It is a traditional wood for nylon string guitars. Finding good colored Red Cedar in abundance is very difficult here. A lot of it has an oil stain, which gives it a streaked appearance. We find a fair amount that has a good color and even texture. Red Cedar, I have been told by Luthiers, when used as a sound board, yields a very mellow tone. I usually have supply on hand.

Alaska Yellow Cedar
Though Alaska Yellow Cedar is not a traditional wood, it is gaining popularity. There are a few custom builders using Alaska Yellow Cedar for guitar tops. It is being used more for backs and sides of Flamenco Guitars. It is a denser wood than Red Cedar with a specific gravity very close to Sitka Spruce. It has a very pleasing light yellow color and a peculiar smell. The grain is usually very fine and consistent. We have a very adequate supply on hand.


What we do and how we do it.

Primary Breakdown:
Using an assortment chainsaws, wedges, mallets, and other splitting tools, Brent opens the log looking for clear white wood without knots. It is cut to length and hand split into blocks, or billets which are oversized wedges. This process gets rid of the heartwood, knots, any other defects that are not suitable. There is a lot of by-product and fall down material developed in the process.
After all, we cut squared boards out of a round log.

 

 

 


During this part of the process, the blocks have to be prevented from de-grade. The ends of the blocks are waxed with a sealant, which is flexible and moves with the wood, preventing the wood from drying out too fast and allowing the wood to mold. This happens only if the wood is going to sit around for awhile, before processing.

What happens to what we don't use?
The fall down from the billets will be used for smaller instruments, bracewood, or firewood to heat our home or shop. We donate firewood to the elderly and other needy folks locally. The shavings from the planners and chain saw rips are used for bedding the neighbors' poultry and pets. Though not everything realizes a monetary value to us,
we do see that it fills a need wherever, whenever we can.

 

 

Secondary Processing:
These oversized wedges are then cut into various instrument tops, the largest first, but mostly guitars, which are the best sellers. Corrections and defects are taken out. If it is not suitable for a top, it gets trimmed to smaller sizes used for brace wood (internal bracing for the instrument) and other smaller instruments.

Cutting a double base front out of a flitch >>

 

 



 

 

If the log is good, about 30% goes into the burn pile. The re-sawing will see another 30% waste in trimming and saw dust. Every step takes a toll out of the total volume, to yield what will finally be used.

 

Finishing
The next step:

Now that the boards have all been cut to various instrument top sizes such as mandolins, violins, arch top guitar, piano sound boards, they need to be dried in our 5000 square feet dry storage area, 2150 cubic feet of which is climate controlled.

Mandolin wedge sets >>

 

 


 

Everything is carefully stickered with quarter inch wood spacers between the boards to allow for air flow. They are put into a dehumidification room where carefully monitored temperatures and fans dry the wood to a 10% or less moisture content.

<< Stickered harp guitar boards

 

Once dried, they need to be de-stickered and surfaced for consistency in size. The saw marks are removed from the boards to clean up the face. At that point one can better see the grain of the woods for grading.

After surfacing the boards, they are graded and sorted, then put in inventory to wait for the orders.

Bear claw and curl >>

 

"Though our production is small in relation to a sawmill,
we use everything for something."