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How the Adirondacks defined guitars

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  • How the Adirondacks defined guitars

    If you're a guitar player and more importantly an acoustic player, you probably know the term "Adirondack Spruce" as being synonymous with great instruments.

    Adirondack Spruce refers to Red Spruce that grows throughout the Northeast and Canada but historically, particularly good supply came from the Adirondacks. Apparently from some sources I've read the region of this particular species matters for guitar building because large, straight-grain logs with few defects are needed for instrument building. Beyond that it is said that some of the northerly versions of this simply aren't as stiff as those that grow here. C. F. Martin in Nazareth, PA was well known for producing amazing sounding pre-war guitars with Adirondack Spruce tops.

    Little of the original stands of Old Growth Adirondack Red Spruce exist today due to the high desirability of this species. According to McMartin in 50 Hikes,

    Adirondack lumbermen sought softwood stands because only pine, hemlock and red spruce could be floated to downstream mills on the region's rock -based, steeply dropping rivers and streams. Spruce was the most sought-after of the softwoods. It was more abundant in the northern Adirondacks. Southern Adirondack stands of spruce were often isolated and hard to reach; as a result, a few never-cut stands of spruce can still be found. Red spruce rarely exceeds 30 inches in diameter. It is not an especially handsome tree but the long, straight trunks, rising to a small growing tip, made the species economically desirable. Hence, finding and uncut spruce stand is a rare experience, one that is almost never duplicated in other parts of the eastern United States. These old-growth stands are distinguished by the varied ages of the trees, the deep rich mosses covering the forest floor, and the amount of dead and downed wood.
    As far as the instruments, this site has a nice summary:

    When carefully milled, red spruce produces stiff, straight boards whose sole true desire is to become guitar tops—not Christmas trees, paper pulp or packing crates. And what tops they are!

    Enthusiasts fall over themselves searching for terms to top the tannins, burnt sugars and floral notes of the oenophile—robust, springy, clear, complex.

    What it really comes down to is energy.

    Adirondack spruce tops, due in part to legendary rigidness across and along the grain, translate the player’s intent—the slash of a pick, the caress of a finger, the genteel strum of a thumb—into sonic energy.
    Last edited by montcalm; 08-12-2021, 06:56 PM.

  • #2
    Just a random fun fact: is the website of a company in MO. I've bought fiddle soundboard wood from them a couple of times when I had customers that wanted "Adironadack" spruce, and the quality has been quite nice. It is indeed noticeably harder and heavier (and presumably stiffer, though I am not equipped to say for sure) than the Engelmann spruce I mostly have used that I got when Simeon Chambers retired from the wood business a few years ago. Once I move to the Adirondacks I should probably use Adirondack spruce more instead of other species, it would seem more appropriate somehow.


    • #3
      I'm not sure it's easy to get actual, real Adirondack (as in from the Adirondacks) red spruce anymore. But if you're a small builder, a single tree could probably fulfill your future needs.


      • #4
        Steinway pianos also used spruce, from various sources over the years.
        Be careful, don't spread invasive species!!

        When a dog runs at you,whistle for him.
        Henry David Thoreau



        • #5
          Yeah, but as far as I know (which is little about pianos), Steinway never made a name for the Adirondacks with their spruce.

          I want a period correct 1930s Martin D-18 with Adirondack Spruce on top and Indian Rosewood on the back and sides. But I don't have $6-7k to part with ATM.

          I remember I wanted an Adirondack Spruce guitar when I was a kid just for the name. I had to settle for Sitka
          Last edited by montcalm; 08-13-2021, 12:11 PM.


          • #6
            I hope any banjos you make that have skin heads (not the fascist kind) and gut strings use locally-sourced Adirondack woodchucks.


            • #7
              I mostly use synthetic heads, but occasionally goat or calf skin are requested. I feel no compunction about goat skin, having lived near goats for the last 19 years. Both goats and banjos can be loud and annoying.

              I've never skinned a woodchuck, though we've had to get rid of a few over the years here. I recall reading in a book about a fellow who made mountain banjos and used cat skin, which was the custom at the time. He had a dog that he trained to catch cats by the head so it didn't puncture the body, and he said he would go by a farm where there were a dozen or more cats and would go back every night and get one, and when they got down to two or three cats remaining he would find another place.


              • #8
                I worked for Steinway and North Hudson woodcraft in Dolgeville and we used Black spruce which were referenced fiddle butts (fewer knots on the butt end less limbs). We used a lot of local black spruce for sounding boards . Dolgeville was the place in its day for piano history named after Alfred Dolge. Sitka was very poplar and we bought truck loads from British Columbia. Guitar tops needed wide pieces
                because of the two piece tops. Both sounding boards and guitar tops were quarter sawn for vertical grain. North Hudson Woodcraft is no longer is in that business. The Forestry museum in Old Forge has some great info on it .


                • #9
                  Cool story 1bluefin. It prompted me to do some research on piano construction. The soundboard is very much like the top of the guitar, in function. I'd assume it could be made the same way but is probably 2-piece bookmatched and quatersawn for aesthetics. My dreadnought is about 16" wide, max. Jumbos are a little bigger - maybe 18" or so. So figure you need a tree at least that wide for those, probably more like 24" to make sure you're out of knots and get a full cut. I think that's pretty huge for Black spruce. And unfortunately I think we exhausted most of our sources of large Red spruce in the Adirondacks.

                  Sitka makes a fine sounding guitar top. The Adirondack (red) spruce apparently ages in better whereas the Sitka is pretty prime from finished product. In recent years builders have claimed to be able to age the Red spruce so it's optimal right at finished product. But who knows, that could be a bunch of hype. The latest rage in instrument building is building "relics", that is, aged to perfection right from the factory. Don't know if they really are, and some of it's just getting a beat up instrument (LOL), but people sure are willing to pay...
                  Last edited by montcalm; 08-16-2021, 07:12 PM.


                  • #10
                    I have sold 1000’s of bd feet of Fiddle Butt quality Red Spruce logs over the years. And yes some to North Hudson Woodcraft. There’s still plenty of mature native Red Spruce on private and forest preserve lands in the ADKs . JP Lewis Tract (North Lake) , ADK League Club , Lyme Timber Holdings, Molpus Managed holdings, etc.. Granted it was heavily harvested in the early part of the 20th century but it is certainly not endangered.

                    There are several detached forest preserve lots on Tug Hill that still have old growth Red Spruce trees 30” DBH and larger. I know of 1 that I have personally measured, that is 34” dbh, est. 110’ tall , and around 1900 bd feet in it. On my own property on Tug Hill there are many Red Spruce 12”-20”dbh that I do harvest on occasion when I need lumber for floor joist or rafters. They are my favorite tree in the forest.


                    • #11
                      My grandpa used to steal them out of the forest and plant them in his yard in the park. Seedlings of course.

                      I never much payed any attention to them, TBH. I knew we didn't have them down in western NY, but I never really made any connection to them except that they were ubiquitous in the understory of the ADKs. I've probably walked right past mature ones that I never even noticed.

                      Now that I've filled my head head with all sorts of botany and history of the Adirondacks, it's a different story. I'm still not sure whether they should be made into guitars... or left be. Maybe both? In measure.

                      The more that I think about it though, the more they become somewhat of a defining Adirondack species.
                      Last edited by montcalm; 02-15-2022, 02:28 PM.


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by montcalm View Post
                        If you're a guitar player and more importantly an acoustic player, you probably know the term "Adirondack Spruce" as being synonymous with great instruments.
                        Are you familiar with Schroon Lake's Bass Rock Guitars? All made form sunken, recovered spruce...

                        “Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you're about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you, 'I haven't touched you yet.” Carlos Castenada


                        • #13
                          No I haven't - wow, that's quite an amazing process!