The lowdown on one of the most used acoustic tonewoods: spruce.
The view from the window over my workbench looks out on our parking lot and across the neighbor’s back yards. A few years back, that view was obstructed by a pile of some fifty-six Red Spruce logs, an embarrassment of riches that practically fell into our laps. Red Spruce (Picea rubens) is a tree that grows in eastern North America from Canada on down through the Adirondacks and Appalachians into North Carolina and east Tennessee. The strength-to-weight ratio of the lumber makes it ideal for building acoustic guitars tops and bracing. Is it the Holy Grail of tone woods, the be-all and end-all of soundboard materials? I’ll leave that up to the internet forum discussions. I will say, however, that the guitar I play has a Red Spruce top.
The challenge with Red Spruce (also referred to as Adirondack by many), like the challenge with most traditional acoustic guitar woods, is that it is hard to get. It used to be plentiful, growing on mountain tops and high valleys throughout the east, but the logging industry in the post-Civil War era through the early part of the twentieth century took its toll on the great forests. One old logger told me that when his grandfather was a boy, he could practically climb up one side of a mountain and down the other without touching the ground, hopping from stump to stump. The lumber yield was said to be as high as 100,000 board-feet per acre. Almost all of the accessible lumber was harvested in these years. A few small logging operations continued to harvest Red Spruce on a smaller scale; I spoke with one logger and sawmill operator who told me of his family operation that cut and processed Red Spruce off of Cheat Mountain in Randolph County, West Virginia. You can see his Red Spruce on display if you drive Interstate 81 through western Virginia. Many of the older poultry houses you see from the road are sided with Red Spruce. Stop in at the Western Sizzlin in Harrisonburg, Virginia and look up. The ceiling beams are Red Spruce. His house is even sided with—you guessed it—Red Spruce.
Although much of what remains is secondgrowth wood, just now becoming large enough to be useful to guitar makers, there are some impressive stands of virgin growth that still survive. In the Gaudineer Scenic Area in the Monongahela National Forest in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, you can hike among 350-year-old Red Spruce trees that survive because of a 140-year-old surveying error.
Most of the Red Spruce that ends up in the hands of guitar makers today comes from scattered stands in the Adirondacks and Appalachians. Our own bounty came by way of Whitetop Mountain in Southwest Virginia. A bark beetle infestation had set upon the Spruce stands that are part of the Jefferson National Forest. Experts recommended that the afflicted trees be cut out, as well as a swath of trees surrounding the infested stand. The plan was to use horse and mule teams to pull the logs out of the forest to reduce the impact of the operation. My business partner, Mark Dalton, is a member of the Virginia Draft Horse association and it was through this connection that we learned about the available lumber. We were offered several logs from the harvest and when all was said and done, we were standing on a pile of 56 logs in our parking lot. The man who delivered the logs told us of old records from the old logging companies showing purchases of Red Spruce made by The White Star Lines for their new ship, Titanic. There was also a record for sales of several thousand board feet to Orville and Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio. Maybe some Whitetop Mountain Red Spruce made it into that first heavier-than-air flying machine.
While most of the trees were not large enough to yield guitar tops, we need brace wood as much as top wood, and the logs were perfect for that. It took a serious team effort by our crew to process all of the wood, but in the end we got it all cut, split, and stored for drying. We are still using that wood today for braces.
Guitar makers are always on the hunt for hard-to-find woods, and I can only hope that one day I’ll look out the window and see another pile of Red Spruce waiting to be turned into guitars.
Jeff Huss, co-owner of Huss & Dalton Guitar Co., Inc., hails from North Dakota and moved to Virginia in the late eighties in pursuit of bluegrass music. Along with the music came the opportunity to build acoustic guitars and banjos. In 1995, he and business partner, Mark Dalton formed their business and have established world-wide recognition for building high-end, boutique style guitars and banjos.