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Tales of Wood Discovery

Finding gorgeous wood in unexpected places

I think most guitar makers are wood freaks at heart. There’s nothing quite like seeing a potentially nice set of wood become a guitar when you finish sanding and get that first coat of finish on it. You can control almost everything else about the outcome of a guitar, but the final result is often due to the talents of Mother Nature. Sometimes it’s the builder’s job to just get out of the way and let her show off.

The oft-referred-to “Golden Age of Lutherie” that we find ourselves in has given rise to a number of excellent wood suppliers that can provide you with almost anything your heart desires in terms of beautiful, exotic guitar sets. But sometimes, if you keep your eyes and ears open, wood just seems to find you. I’d like to share a couple of these stories with you.

The Best Day Care Ever
Around 1989, when I had built several hundred banjos and only a handful of guitars, I went to pick up my son at day care after making sawdust all day. He stayed at a very nice Mennonite woman’s home along with a few other children. On this day, however, Mabel was gone and her sister was watching the kids. We introduced ourselves to each other and she asked what I did for a living. When I told her that I built banjos and guitars, she asked me if I ever used rosewood. I told her rosewood was a prized wood for guitar makers and then asked what prompted her question. She told me she had about 25 rosewood logs laying in her yard as we spoke!

With more than a little skepticism, I asked how that came to be. It turned out that her husband grew up in a logging family in Canada. He had moved to Virginia several years earlier and had kept his hand in the logging and lumber business while also being heavily involved in missionary work in Central and South America. While working in Belize, he developed a relationship with some logging families and eventually began trading them logging equipment for lumber, which he then had shipped to the US. In his latest transaction, he had sent some kind of crawler tractor. He then flew a commercial flight into Belize, transferred to a small prop plane, flew into the jungle, and finally rode a truck inland further to reach the logging camp. There, he chose 25 of the nicest Honduran rosewood logs they had and had them shipped by way of truck, boat, and truck again to his yard in Stuarts Draft, Virginia.

They had arrived two days before my conversation with Mabel’s sister. It turned out that they were about five miles from my house. I met with her husband the next day and convinced him to quarter-saw as many of the bigger logs as possible. A few months later, he had processed most of the wood on his band mill, and a friend and I pooled our meager resources, picked through the lumber, and bought as much as we could afford. Several dozen band-saw blades and a new motor later (that stuff was hard!), we had nearly 100 sets of beautiful Honduran rosewood—which has since been built into guitars.

A Very Special Neighborhood Jam
A few months after the rosewood adventure, I was at a woodworking shop about a quarter of a mile from where the rosewood logs had been. The machinery was pushed aside every Tuesday evening and folks would bring food, drinks, and instruments and have a nice little community jam session. A builder friend and I were playing when we noticed a large board stored up in the rafters that either had an awfully curious pattern of dust clinging to the surface or was something more interesting. We asked our host about it and he said he’d bought a bunch of mahogany years ago and that was what was left. He said we could come take a look at it the next day if we were interested. We were, and we did.

When we got the board down, we found it to be one of the most heavily figured pieces of wood we’d ever seen. It was covered from end to end with large, distinct, undulating tiger stripes, but the color was different than the rest of the boards in the stack. We sent off a sample to the U.S. Forest Service for identification, and it turned out to be light red meranti from the Philippines, which is commonly referred to as lauan. Trust me, if lauan all looked like this, it wouldn’t have such a lowly reputation! There was enough for about ten guitars in that board, one of which I built for the shop owner in exchange for the wood.

While the great majority of what we use today comes from guitar wood supplier specialists, we still keep our radar out for wood discoveries. You never know what might be in the neighbor’s garage!

Jeff Huss
Jeff Huss, co-owner of Huss & Dalton Guitar Co., Inc., hails from North Dakota and moved to Virginia in the late ’80s to pursue bluegrass music. Along with the music came the opportunity to build acoustic guitars and banjos. In 1995, he and Mark Dalton became business partners, and they’ve since achieved worldwide recognition for their boutique guitars and banjos.