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Wood Of The Month


— families various, soft or hardwood.

Biologist JBS Haldane said that the Creator had an extraordinary fondness for beetles, and it looks as if His second choice was cedar — it's everywhere. You can go from hardwoods that ooze gum or give off an aromatic dust through softwoods like Virginia Pencil Cedar, which makes good pencils, to Port Orford Cedar, which is used for organ pipes. We'll take a couple of examples that touch us.

Central American cedar, or Cedrela Odorata, a hardwood of the Meliaceae family (same as mahogany) has been used by Jose Romanillos among others to make necks. Usually it is specified as Honduras cedar in guitars, and may be confused with lighter grades of mahogany, partly through similarities in appearance, and partly because it is also known as acajou. Your Collins Little Gem will confirm that this is French for mahogany. This cedar doesn't have quite the strength or density of Central American or Honduras mahogany in that it will crush more easily across the grain, otherwise it is comparable. The wood is quite easy to work and gives off a smell similar to softwood, or coniferous cedars. Varieties of it have shown up in electric guitar bodies, where it has the same light, bright function as lighter mahoganies.

Western Red Cedar - family Cupressaceae, softwood.

Dieter Hopf is one of the few steel string makers to have used this for an acoustic top: I remember one I saw in '76 that really did sound gorgeous, responsive and warm. I still dream of it. Mainly, only classical makers use it for tops, and even then there is some debate about whether it's as good as spruce. All other things being equal, cedar is accepted as giving a better bass and mellower tone against brighter, harder sounding spruce. It is also more readily available than the best (traditionally) Alpine spruce. Fleta and Ramirez are among the big names who use it.

The tree can be found from Alaska to California, and reaches out from the Northwest into Idaho and Montana. The best specimens can grow up to 70-odd metres high, 2½ metres diameter. The wood can be an even reddish-brown (silvery grey if left exposed to the weather) or may have alternate light and dark areas. It is quite coarse, and growth rings are apparent. It will take a stain well, and is light, under 400 kilos per cubic metre. It works easily, but is brittle and can be splintered, and will dent easily.

As for the rest of the cedars, we don't have space for the book, but you can see some lovely specimens at Weston Birt Arboretum on the A433 near Tetbury, including a timeless and poetic Cedar of Lebanon, and a Port Orford Cedar, otherwise known as Lawson's Cypress.

Cypress — Cupressos Semper Virens.

We are concerned here with a non-commercial timber, a poor tree that grows hard and tough on poor soil in Italy and Spain, and which, if it weren't for flamencos, woud end its life in ignominy as an orange-crate.

The Timber Research and Development Association don't feature it, the Spanish Embassy hadn't heard of it, and it doesn't show up in wood trade technical literature — it's an absolute timber nonentity. Virtually all my information here comes courtesy of David Dyke, the luthiers timber supplier. The cypress that is used for flamenco guitar back sand sides is called 'funeral cypress', and is planted in graveyards, and it's a romantic notion that such a native instrument should grow literally from the life and blood of the Spanish people.

Commercially available cypresses are over-fed and soft by comparison, and the point of this timber is that it can be shaved down thin to make a light and responsive guitar.

David told a story of Romanillos', of how when the Alhambra was rebuilt, there were great queues of guitar makers all after the old cypress pillars. He also says there's a Spanish maker who has every tree in the country mapped out, and a network of informers to let him know if one is to be cut down. You may gather that suitable stuff is in short supply, and consequently very expensive.

Cocobolo — family, Leguminosae.

This hard and heavy exotic, from the same family as rosewood, showed up as an option in the Schecter catalogue a little while ago. It varies, but can weigh up to 1200 kilos per cubic metre, just what you want round your neck on a three hour gig. The heartwood is wonderfully coloured, streaky yellow and reds, darkening on exposure and with a fine, even texture. Any dingy white streaks are sapwood—that piece was cut from the edge of the heartwood.

It grows along the west coast of Central America, is quite easy to work, and can be stained or polished, though is reputedly very difficult to glue.

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Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Apr 1987

Feature by Adrian Legg

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