Tonewood

I was alive in the woods
I was cut down by a hard axe.
While I lived I was silent
Now dead I sing sweetly

I’m sure I first saw this on a harpsichord at Fenton House in London but I can’t confirm that.  I should try and get there some time and have a look.  Google tells me the verse is associated with the 16th century instrument maker Kaspar Tieffenbruker.  The Latin version Mortua Dolce Cano is also the title of the blog of Wm. R. Cumpiano to whom we are all indebted for writing the standard work on guitar making, Guitarmaking, Tradition and Technology.

Around 15 years ago I bought some cherry wood, quite literally a tree trunk, from a woodsman in Hemstead Forest, Kent.  When I bought it I was in the woods, surrounded by living timber.  Then for many years it lay dead in my workshop, gradually drying out and seasoning.  Finally it was ready for use and it did indeed feel like bringing something back to life.

Style ‘O’ nylon strung guitar

Of course only a small part of a tree trunk is suitable for guitar making.  I have a neighbour, a house carpenter, and I used his band saw – way larger than mine – to convert the log into the pieces I wanted, in return he got the rest for making kitchens.  I’ve so far had five guitars and two mandolins from that wood and there’s still a few instruments to come.

Mandolin in English cherry

This is what the owner of a steel strung guitar made from this wood felt about his instrument:

“Hey Ian,
a few months later…
the guitar is sounding better than ever. I am growing to love its very particular qualities. I can play delicate things, I can play really snappy things. It is so nice and light to hold, its low action is easy on the hands. It is crystal clear… Very, very nice! It seems the tonalities of the cherry are coming out more now, it is so unlike a rosewood or mahogany backed guitar, though I could not define quite why. I am trying Beeswing now and I just feel this guitar, in the final analysis, has something of the British Isles in it, exactly what I wanted.”

RB, Umbria

Steel strung model ‘G’

Cherry and the other fruit tree woods have long been used for instrument making but they aren’t the first choice for modern guitars.  It’s very hard to describe sound but I found this particular wood contributed something very clear, almost transparent, to the sound quality of these instruments.  Ideal for Celtic finger picking, probably less so for Bluegrass.  But I’ve played a Martin Dreadnought (property of Jamie Freeman who runs Union Music in Lewes) made from North American cherry and there was nothing wrong with that.

Now dead, it does indeed sing sweetly.

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