Tonewoods are music to a wood dealers’ ears

For many woodworkers, the word “tonewood” may never register in their trade vocabulary. But for some U.S. domestic and exotic wood dealers, tonewoods for acoustic guitars are an enormous part of their business.

TonewoodsThe making of acoustic guitars in this country has little in common with the traditional classical string instruments built by hand in Europe, exclusively with figured hard maple. Here, selecting and selling quality tonewoods for acoustic guitars is a complicated process based on its own tradition, although some of that is slowly changing.

There are several schools of thought as to what makes a good tonewood. But in the end, a maker can’t be 100 percent sure they have built a nice-sounding guitar until it is finished and played. However, there are factors along the way, starting with the selection of the species, that are the key to making a quality instrument. Tight grain is not essential, but pieces with wide growth rings are best to avoid. The wood has to be quartersawn, thereby preventing any expansion and contraction like there would be with flat-sawn wood, which tends to warp. Then there is the tap test.

“You look for woods that have a good tap tone to them, that resonate when you tap them,” says Bob Cefalu, owner of RC Tonewoods & Sons in Kenmore, N.Y. “Most of the rosewoods fall into that category. I don’t know if there is really such a thing as a bad tonewood, because probably 90 percent of the sound comes from the top or the soundboard. A good, stiff soundboard in Sitka [spruce], Engelman [spruce], or any of the European spruces; they all make good soundboards.” 

Guitar tops are selected from billets, which are cut into book-matched boards about 3/8" thick in the rough. In final form, they are sanded down to widths as small as 1/10" (.12"). Some believe a flexibility test will help determine if a set will make a good top as a tonewood.

“You’re looking for sound transmission, so you’re looking for lightweight wood, which is crispy,” says Marc Culbertson, who runs the musical instrument operation at Gilmer Wood Co. in Portland, Ore. “If it is lightweight, you will have more amplitude of sound, more energy to carry through. Heavy wood dampens the tone. The crispy thing is about the quality of the tone. If you have a piece of wood that is fuzzy like leather in your hand, then that’s the quality of tone you are going to get. It’s going to sound airy and fuzzy. If you want your tone to be crispy, have some detail to it, then you’re looking for that in the wood.” 

Tonewoods“There are certain woods that have proven over the centuries that they make good tonewoods,” says Shiraz Balolia, an avid guitar maker and founder and president of Grizzly Industrial of Bellingham, Wash. “Spruce is one, cedar is another; they’re both very good examples. One of the things that I look for is if I get a stack of Sitka spruce for example, I’ll pick each board up — they’re usually cut to 1/4" size and are bookmatched —and I’ll give it a tap tone. I can feel what will have a really good sound once it is built.”

As critical as the top is to the guitar’s sound, the choice for the back and sides doesn’t have to be as highly selective.

“Backs and sides are a different thing,” says Mitch Talcove, owner of Tropical Exotic Hardwoods of Latin America in Carlsbad, Calif. “Traditionally, it was Brazilian rosewood. Then it became difficult to get, even before being listed on CITES. Martin [C.F. Martin Guitar Co.] made its last production run with Brazilian rosewood in 1969. Then everybody switched over to East Indian rosewood. Supply is still plentiful and it is pretty much the standard for everybody out there from Larrivee [Jean Larrivee Guitars] to Martin to Taylor [Guitars].”

Some makers are using mixed species of hardwoods for the backs and sides, essentially for aesthetics.

“I like quilted maple because of the figure, but it is not the best tonewood; it’s a good tonewood, but it’s not the best,” Balolia says. “So I try and complement that with something like koa or something else. I built a two-tone guitar with koa sides and a curly maple bottom, and then the Sitka spruce top. It turned out really nice, the tone was spectacular. For me, it was an experiment, and you don’t know until it is done. And that’s when it is too late if it has a bad sound.”

The drying process for tonewoods is also an important element of how a top will eventually sound. The average air-drying time for the best tonewoods is around three years, with some drying times as much as five years.

“We deal with a company in the Alps which has been doing tonewoods for eight generations,” says Rick Hearne, owner of Hearne Hardwoods in Oxford, Pa., who uses European red spruce for acoustic guitar tops and European maple for classical instruments. “A quality of the tone of those [classical] woods comes from sunning the maple. They actually have racks all over their property where they take the rived matched billets of maple and they’re getting sunned. They air-dry them for about three years.

“Everybody is in the game of selling tonewoods; it’s big business,” Talcove says. “For me, if I can pick the wood, I’ll buy top wood and I have it here. To my knowledge, here in Southern California, I’m the only place you can actually walk in and buy tonewoods. Most of the people who are manufacturers like Taylor, Martin and people of that caliber, they go direct to the source.” 

The price of a book-matched guitar top varies greatly. Although most are Sitka spruce or some other spruce, they start at about $40 a set and run much higher. Sides and backs are priced on an individual basis. The type of species and amount of figure will greatly influence the cost.