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Renaissance Workshop Company
The foremost manufacturer of early musical instruments worldwide

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Woods

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There are so many woods, so many combinations of woods, and so much more to the sound of an instrument than the woods you use. There's bracing for an acoustic, pickups for an electric, and your own skill as a builder. If you're just starting out, find an instrument you like the sound of and use those woods.

What are the chances that woods can cause an allergic reaction to me?

A few years ago we might have said the chances are very slim, but the longer we're online the more reports we get of allergic reactions to tropical wood dust, most often to Machaerium villosum (pau ferro, morado, palo santos, Bolivian "rosewood") and Dalbergia retusa (cocobolo). Many tropical woods are sensitizers, which means that you will not react to them the first time(s) you use them, but may develop a sensitivity to them that will cause a reaction after repeated exposure. Some of the reactions reported by our customers have been severe, with rashes and their accompanying treatment lasting several months. If you find after working with any wood that you begin to itch, especially your arms, your face, around the edge of your respirator, or anywhere clothing chafes (belt, collar), you should immediately strip to the skin and take a lukewarm (not hot!) shower. Wash thoroughly, including your hair, but do not scrub your skin harshly. It is very important to remove the substance that is causing your reaction as quickly as possible, and to avoid any additional contact so you don't re-contaminate yourself with more dust. You may need to have someone else clean your shop before you can use it again. Using effective dust control in your shop and wearing a good respirator when creating dust will help you avoid such reactions. If you end up with a rash you should see a dermatologist immediately, the most common treatment is a course of antihistamines coupled with topical ointment. You may also find that you cannot work with certain woods any more.

What woods should I use for my instrument?

If you're just starting out, we recommend sticking with the woods that have traditionally been used for your instrument, purchased from a reputable dealer who has experience in supplying woods to instrument makers. Bear in mind that the biggest investment in your instrument will be your time, not the cost of materials. You don't need to buy the highest quality woods for your first instrument, but woods provided by an experienced supplier will be less likely to cause you trouble in the building process, and you know in advance that the traditional woods are well-suited to your instrument. Once you have some experience with woodworking and instrument making you'll find it easier to part with tradition and experiment with alternative or "scrounged" woods.

I'm getting ready to build my first instrument and I don't want to ruin an expensive piece of wood. Can I use MDF (medium density fiberboard)?

MDF is nasty stuff to machine and will create thick clouds of dust, it doesn't glue well, it doesn't hold screws well. Use cheap, solid wood and you'll be better off. Poplar is a good choice in a hardwood as it is cheap and readily available, easy to work, and several of our customers have reported good luck with it. You can also use a softwood like pine or spruce, but stay away from that nasty MDF!

I'm getting ready to build my first instrument, and I have access to some timber locally. I don't want to ruin an expensive piece of wood on my first instrument. Can I use cheap wood?

The cost of wood will be the least you'll spend. It's the time it takes to build that will be your biggest investment. Imagine how you'll feel after putting all that time into an instrument when you used cheap wood and it came out looking great. You don't want to kick yourself and say, "If only I'd used decent wood!" No need to break the bank, most dealers to instrument makers offer good woods in a range of prices. This is a lot more important for acoustic instruments than for solidbody instruments, but even for solidbodies you don't want to skimp on neck wood and use anything that hasn't been proven successful for necks. Stick with traditional woods for your first instruments, and leave experimentation for when you have more experience.

My local hardware store has lots of cheap pine/spruce/fir. Can I build my acoustic guitar entirely from these woods?

These woods will not make good back, sides, and neck for an acoustic guitar, and depending on the individual piece, may not make a good soundboard either. As we say above: stick with traditional woods purchased from a reputable source until you know what you're doing. Trying to save a few bucks by using questionable woods is false economy.

What is "quartersawn" wood?

Quartersawn wood is wood cut so the orientation of the grain (the growth rings) is perpendicular to the face of the board. Wood cut this way is the most dimensionally stable.

Do I have to use quartersawn wood for the back and sides of my acoustic guitar?

Quartersawn wood is the most dimensionally stable, but some woods like birds-eye maple must be flat-sawn for the figure to show. If you have some gorgeous or rare flat-sawn wood that you want to use, it may well be worth the risk; if it's an inexpensive piece of a common wood, you may be risking the longevity of your guitar for no good reason.

The back/soundboard wood I just bought for my acoustic guitar has cupped. Can I still use it?

Thin wood reacts quickly to changes in humidity, and needs to acclimate to the relative humidity of your shop. You should "sticker" the cupped boards to allow air to circulate all around them. Stickers are thin strips of wood or masonite or melamine that you put between each board, across the grain, to allow the air to get to them. Use three per board and sandwich the whole lot between boards of MDF or plywood, and put a weight on top for good measure. If they don't flatten out in a week or so, contact the seller.

Should I use flatsawn or quartersawn wood for my guitar neck?

Conventional wisdom is that grain orientation does not matter for bolt-on solid-body necks. For acoustics, it is traditional to use quartersawn wood. Some builders laminate flatsawn wood (face to face) to create what is in effect a quartersawn neck blank:

I don't have any quartersawn spruce for bracing my acoustic guitar soundboard, but I have plenty of other scrap wood on hand. Can I use it as soundboard bracing?

The consensus of our most experienced builders is no, you really can't. Spruce has the best strength-to-weight ratio of the lutherie woods, and they feel that any other soundboard bracing wood has a detrimental effect on the sound of a flat-top acoustic guitar.

I bought wood from a lumberyard/hardwood yard, and the instrument I made from it appears to be cracking. What did I do wrong?

A number of our first-timers with no prior woodworking experience have reported this problem, mostly with solidbody bodies. If you find a nice piece of wood at a general lumberyard or hardwood dealer, you should inspect the ends of the board for checks (small cracks) before you use it. The ends of boards often check during the drying process, these "seasoning checks" are quite common. Experienced woodworkers know to examine the ends of the board for visible checking and discard two inches from the end of the board if there is no visible checking, or discard two-three inches past any visible checking. If you don't, you run the risk of small checks you missed widening into something visible later. Don't forget to figure those extra few inches into your purchase if the yard you're buying from is willing to cut a small piece off the end of a larger board for you. 


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Last modification: 17 de septiembre de 2010
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