Submerged Wood for Instrument Making

"Sinker logs" from the Great Lakes turn out to be ideal for making musical instruments. December 15, 2005

I would like to make some guitar bodies and necks. What would be the best type of wood to use for this? I am thinking maybe ash, maple, cottonwood, ironwood or cheery.

Forum Responses
(WOODnetWORK Forum)
From contributor D:
There are several step by step books that provide design specifications for a handmade guitar. Wood selection is dependent upon the type of guitar you are going to make. Woods you didn't mention are mahogany, which is a common neck material, and a special cedar which is used for the face of an acoustic guitar. Ebony is often used for the bridge; and bone or ivory is another material used to isolate the strings. The fret brass, electronics, and other associated parts are part of the construction that needs to be specified before you take any determinate action.

I would suggest studying a pile of catalogs from any number of suppliers; all have technicians to answer your specific questions. I have apprenticed in the shop of a friend who started his apprenticeship with Gibson forty-five years ago and he has built guitars for many of the famous names in music, but is still searching for that perfect tone.

From contributor T:
There are some very good suggestions given above. There is a lot to learn before making a quality instrument. I'm assuming that you are attempting to make a hollow body guitar where the wood selection is most important.

Solid body guitars are less dependent on body wood types. For the top or sound board the wood material gives the most tonal response. Maple and spruce tops give the brightest and loudest tone. Cedar gives a much warmer tone. As mentioned, mahogany is used a lot for the sides and back for a darker tone. Maple can also be used for a much brighter tone. As for the neck, mahogany as well as a hard rock maple can be used as well as some modern resin composites with very good results. The choices for the fret board are usually rosewood and ebony with the bone or composite nut at the top.

The bridge at the bottom can be of many materials like, mahogany, ebony and even walnut. It takes many years of experience to make a quality instrument and I would highly suggest that you learn as much as possible before giving it a go. We haven't even talked about the interior banding and bracing, let alone all the fancy marquetry and inlay work applied to the outside. But I can see how this endeavor can be very rewarding for a fine craftsman.

From contributor T:
I have heard some wonderful stories about the 100 plus year old sinker logs that are being pulled out of the Great Lakes and being used for fine instrument making. There must be something to it because all of the fine instrument makers are producing some very expensive instruments that the players claim that they have exceptional tonal qualities.

From contributor G:
A couple of questions might help place the answer to your questions in their proper context. Have you made guitars before? I'm guessing the answer to be no or not recently, because folks that do usually have already been introduced to what tone woods are preferred for specific type of guitars.

The type of wood is very much tied to the type of guitar you wish to make. The comments about taking years of experience are true. The art of coaxing and teasing wondrous sounds out of a box built of wood, glue, and wire typically eludes all but a very select few.

If acoustic flattops, similar to Martin dreadnaughts are your thing, then modest ones are often made of quilted mahogany back and sides, sitka bearclaw spruce for the top, mahagony neck, and an ebony fretboard. If money is no object, really good flattops are made of Brazilian rosewood back and sides, with red cedar tops. Book-matched sets will make a sizeable dent in your wallet. Basic learner kits are available from several different places, Stewart-MacDonald being one. As for the sinker logs being fished out of Lake Michigan not too far from where I live, I'm not too sure that a 100 plus years on the bottom of the lake did much for tonal quality.

From contributor T:
The old Gibson acoustics from the 30's are far superior in sound to their modern counterparts because of the old growth that they were made from and I have heard this with my own ears. The wood in an acoustic instrument is a very integral part of it being a fine instrument. I don't think that those exceptional instruments are imaginative. Just like cars, you can take ten identical units but only one or two are truly exceptional. There must be more to this than just imagination.

From contributor G:
The effects you cite fall into about three categories:

1. How tonal quality varies based on the type of stock the instrument was made from.

2. Made from old growth lumber, tonal quality variation as a function of the age of the stock before it was worked into an instrument - meaning how long the wood was dead before being worked.

3. The chemical changes in the cellulose fibers as wood ages as a function of ambient temperature, humidity, degree and duration of exposure to oxidants and UV radiation.

I am forever a student, still searching and learning. I can speak from personal experience that, other factors being equal, old growth wood sounds better on a brand new instrument than does newer wood on a brand new instrument. Additionally, other things being equal and kept reasonably constant, as an instrument ages, its tonal quality improves.

From contributor T:
I have always been fascinated by the tonal qualities of old growth acoustic stringed instruments and just the fact that they command such high prices and not just for collector reasons but because they just sound fantastic.

When I found out about ten years ago about the millions of board feet of old growth sitting at the bottom of the Great Lakes, my fascination with the subject just grew. I started with a simple search on the net for sinker logs and found a wealth of interesting information. Also, these old growth sinkers are not just limited to the Great Lakes. Apparently, there is a thriving business in the southeast for these sinker logs in the lakes and rivers of the southeastern states with the same claims of quality of logs that are just not available anymore and there seems to be this added benefit of decay resistance due to the woods submersion in a tanic environment.

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Comment from contributor A:
Look at what woods have been used traditionally for the type of guitar you are building. While many guitars have been made with other species, start with the tried and true, i.e. mahogany, maple, ash and alder for solid bodies; and Sitka, red cedar, mahogany and rosewood for acoustics.

Acoustic soundboard bracing and kerfing are usually mahogany. Bridges and fretboards are usually ebony or rosewood. Once you understand the structural/mechanical requirements for a given piece and how they flavor the tone, you will be able to substitute other more exotic woods.

I would suggest staying away from figured woods until you know what you are doing. Pick strait-grained, quartersawn lumbar with no end or surface checks, and little or no grain runout. The tensions created in the guitar are high and a warped neck will make your guitar unplayable and can be difficult to fix.

Buying from a Luthier supply company will help in finding woods that fit these requirements, but cost more than sourcing it yourself.