This story has nothing to do with blackwood, but in the tonewood business this recent research regarding Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) should be causing considerable discussion.
Sitka spruce is the mostly widely used timber in soundboards in acoustic guitars. Sitka spruce grows in the NW USA, western Canada and into Alaska. It has been heavily logged over the last 100 years to meet many market demands and end uses. Consequently sources of big old trees suitable for the tonewood market are becoming scarce.
Tradition has it that slow, even-grown sitka spruce makes the best soundboards. This tradition of slow even growth for soundboard timber goes back centuries to the violin makers of Italy, and possibly before that time.
But with the supply of this kind of timber in peril, a bit of research can go a long way.
One of the major suppliers of Sitka soundboard timber is Pacific Rim Tonewoods, based in Washington State. They recently sponsored some research to compare the wood properties of Sitka spruce of different growth rates.
It’s not the best written report, and there is no presentation of statistical analysis. But despite this the results should be turning the musical instrument world on it’s head.
Guess what? After hundreds of years of tradition the research clearly showed that faster grown Sitka spruce had better sound qualities than slow grown Sitka!
Fast grown Sitka in this case was defined as having an average annual growth ring width of 4.5mm, compared to slow grown Sitka at 1.1mm ring width.
This is great news as it means that much more timber is now potentially available for the soundboard market. I say “potentially” because in the music instrument market traditions can be hard to break. You and I as consumers need to understand the consequences of our choices. But in this case changing our spending preferences is a win for us and a win for the forests.
So next time you go shopping for a new acoustic guitar, look out for those guitars with the nice even, wide growth rings. They will give you a better sound, and help save the forests. I noticed one in my local music store just the other day.
Thanks to Pacific Rim Tonewoods for helping us all make better choices for ourselves and the planet.