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Thread: fir as tonewood?

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    Someone posted a F in progress a few days ago with a fir top. I searched around on the net and found a few postings in various forums (one on MIMF that discusses a few alternatives) that were fairly positive. I also noticed it is common as a tonewood for harps and pianos. Is tonewood choice largely just traditional? I have heard about the different tones of redwood, cedar and mahogany and I understand that because they are vastly different from each other. Doug fir is not very different from spruce, IMO (sorting mixed scraps would be tough). Doug fir is readily available in tight grained clear boards, while the commercial grade cedar and spruce is often quite knotty. I know I could special order better stock, but for someone who is still learning and screws up some tops (and has a penchant for experimentation) a cheaper alternative would be nice. Anyway, any others have experience with fir?
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    The ' Rose" mandolins are made with fir tops.
    keith madison

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    Quote Originally Posted by (Kbone @ July 25 2005, 10:46)
    The ' Rose" mandolins are made with fir tops.
    Any info on those somewhere? The only thing I can find is the picture of the back in the Eye Candy section here.
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    DOH! I don't know why I didn't search more specific to start with. When I searched for fir soundboards, I got the few hits I referenced above. When I searched for mandolin fir top I got several hits including a number of high end F models and luthiers offering doug fir as an option. Also, one page I read refers to Adirondack spruce and red spruce as "Western firs", so I guess it is more closely related than I thought, if that is correct - are spruces just species of firs?
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by (arbarnhart @ July 25 2005, 12:36)
    Also, one page I read refers to Adirondack spruce and red spruce as "Western firs", so I guess it is more closely related than I thought, if that is correct - are spruces just species of firs?
    You sure you read that right? If so, they're completely wrong.
    Red spruce grows in the east, form the southern Appalachians up into Canada. It is not at all closely related to the western firs. Spruces and firs in general are not closely related.
    Douglas fir is not even a true fir, if I remember correctly.

    Douglas fir has been used in mandolins with great success. It tends to be harder and heavier than spruce (in general, you can't make blanket statements like that about wood without there being many exceptions).
    The tone is good. Rolf Gearhart used Doug fir in the Unicorn mandolins he used to build before he build Phoenix mandolins. He liked the tone, but had splitting problems, and switched to spruce. Others report no splitting problems with Doug fir.

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    I found another listing or two that groups white fir and sub-lapine fir in with spruces, but does put doug fir in a completely different category. This forestry service listing is an example.
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    I'm not sure what kind of groupings those are, somehow related to forest types and tree types, and to lumber, it seems.
    While the trees are fairly similar in the forest, and the wood can be very similar from firs, spruces, and other soft woods, that doesn't necessarily mean the species are closely related.

    Before the woolly aphids destroyed the Frasier firs in the Smokey Mountains, you could climb up the mountains into the spruce/fir forests at the higher elevations, and you had to really know the difference between the red spruce and the Frasier fir to tell them apart.(It's easier now, the firs are the dead ones.)

    In the lower elevations, you had to know what to look for to tell the fir from the hemlock.




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    Rolfe Gerhardt also made a run of Fir-topped Pheonix mandolins. I have one. The top split several times. Rolfe won't use Fir any more.

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    Douglas Fir is not a true fir. I can't recall for sure, but it's either the only species in the genus Psuedotsuga (false hemlock) or one of a small handful. It is stronger along the grain than many construction timbers, but on flatsawn/plainsawn lumber the grain tends to flake or feather when it's machined. Maybe quartered Doug Fir would work for instrument tops, but it doesn't sound like a good choice to me.

    I went back and found the thread on Scotti Adams fir topped Rose mando. It's a long thread but there are some great pics and some discussion about its sound.



    "... beauty is not found in the excessive but what is lean and spare and subtle" - Terry Tempest Williams

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    There are a lot of different trees harvested and marketed as fir. Fir is a very common name and some of them look and work a lot alike in certain ways, as in construction lumber and so on, but not all are potentially great tonewoods.

    As mentioned, Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is not a true fir at all, nor a pine or a spruce. Pseudotsuga means false hemlock, and the woods can closely resemble each other. Doug fir and Western Larch (Larix occidentalis) are often shuffled together in lumberyards and used for house framing and so on. There is a second false hemlock from southern California, Pseudotsuga macrocarpa, AKA Bigcone Douglas-Fir, and Bigcone Spruce!. P. menziesii is also known as P. taxifolia and to make things worse it’s called Doug fir. Common names are pretty useless!

    True hemlocks are Pacific Rim trees, and the American ones include western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), AKA black hemlock and hemlock spruce. Mertensiana is considered to be inferior to T. heterophylla as timber and as pulp, but it’s logged willy-nilly and run through the mills anyway.

    The true firs are of the genus Abies. Some of them are really good spruce substitutes.

    Noble or red fir, SKA larch (Abies procera) is pretty good when the pieces are well chosen. It is probably the largest of all Abies in terms of diameter, height and wood volume.

    Grand Fir (Abies grandis) is gorgeous but really hard to find. It grows intermingled with look-alikes such as other true firs, Doug fir and larch and ends up going through mills and winding up in stacks in yards where you never know which board is which. If you ever find something in a stack of Dog fir at a yard and seems really light and lovely and resonant and white, there's a good chance it's grand fir, also known as western white fir.

    If you don’t personally know the person who cut the tree the produced the board you’re looking at, you really can’t be sure of whether what you have is hemlock, false hemlock, true fir or larch. You just have to rely on your instincts, or your luthier’s instincts, whether it’ll be a good top or not. A whole other tonewood source is eastern white pine, which can look and sound great.
    .
    ph

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    Quote Originally Posted by (Paul Hostetter @ July 25 2005, 19:42)
    True hemlocks are Pacific Rim trees, and the American ones include western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)
    Here in the east we have eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana).

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    Quote Originally Posted by (Paul Hostetter @ July 25 2005, 19:42)
    [much useful content removed ... ]

    A whole other tonewood source is eastern white pine, which can look and sound great.
    Really? That is cheap and very readily available. I don't think I would use it for a mando, but I have made other folk instruments (and will make more). Hmmm...
    "First you master your instrument, then you master the music, then you forget about all that ... and just play"
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    I didn't include the eastern hemlocks because I didn't think (correct me if I'm wrong) that they were commercial timber trees. I think they're both pretty small, as in: yard trees. The other ones I was talking about are all pretty big items that might well find their way into a luthier's or woodworker's hands as "Doug fir."

    As far as white pine for a tonewood, you tap it, you cut sheets to check it for stiffness, and so on. A good piece of wood is where you find it. Sometimes it's in weird places. A few years ago I re-bridged one of those J-200s that came with a tune-o-matic that had a western red cedar top. Gibson in Kalamazoo, to my knowledge, had never intentionally used cedar, but they were known for grabbing the next piece of wood on the pile. The cedar was under a typical and really disturbing red sunburst, but the guitar sounded like a million bucks.
    .
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    They use hemlock for lumber in the east, sometimes. The trees are actually pretty big, bigger than red spruce most of the time, and in the mountains, grow in dense stands.

    The USDA Forest service says of hemlock:
    "The wood is light, soft, brittle, and difficult to work. It is used occasionally for rough or construction lumber, and for pulpwood."

    Interestingly, the same publication says only this of red spruce:
    "The wood is used for lumber and pulpwood."


    BTW, the aphids are taking a toll on hemlock too.

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    Café habitué Paul Hostetter's Avatar
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    So John, have you or anyone you know ever used either of those hemlocks for topwoods? Was it ever used for anything nice, even in the old days when trees were bigger or healthier or more plentiful? Can you find Tsuga canadensis in yards or from dealers there?

    Most spruce is pulpwood, so we know better than to take that skimpy description at face value, right?
    .
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    Rose mandolins - just click on Icon and site should come up ( eye candy)
    keith madison

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    Paul, there is a stand of large hemlocks on my fathers property. I used to look at them years ago and wonder if they would make top wood. Core samples from hemlock trees in the Smokies show even, well spaced growth rings.
    Ted Davis is the only person that I know who has tried it for a top wood. He didn't seem to be excited about the results.

    I have hemlocks in my yard. They do get used as ornamentals, being "a graceful, lacy-foliaged tree".

    I've seen the lumber on rare ocasions, and talked to people who have it for sale, proudly proclaim that their house is framed with it, or that their log cabin is made of it.
    A local contractor/cabinet maker had a stack of hemlock in his shop last time I was in there, but it's not a common timber, and the strength and stiffness numbers don't make me want to seek it out for top experiments.

    Here's a link to a table of wood strengths, If anyone wants to see how it compares to spruce of fir.

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    Quote Originally Posted by (Kbone @ July 26 2005, 08:13)
    Rose mandolins - just click on Icon and site should come up ( eye candy)
    That one insn't clickable.
    "First you master your instrument, then you master the music, then you forget about all that ... and just play"
    Charlie "Bird" Parker

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    Café habitué Paul Hostetter's Avatar
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    It’s tables like John posted that led me to a couple of the western firs. I guess such tables are helpful, but I wish this one hadn’t been prefaced with this remark:

    The table below provides laboratory-derived values for several mechanical properties of wood that are associated with wood strength. Note that due to sampling inadequacies, these values may not necessarily represent average species characteristics.

    Not even average species characteristics? This is our tax dollars at work? Well, anyway, I still tend to judge each piece of wood on its own merits. Most spruce is too rubbery and weak for guitars, and gets culled (we fondly hope) and turned into newsprint. By charts like this, some woods are pointless (redwood and red cedar), some are just mediocre (Engelmann spruce) and some oughtta be great (loblolly pine).

    I love the idea of using local woods. If I lived in your neck of the woods ( - sorry!) I’d be hunting for that perfect chunk of hemlock for a top.
    .
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    Paul H. said:
    Quote Originally Posted by
    a typical and really disturbing red sunburst
    I love that description! They have certainly done some distasteful sunbursts over the years.

    So back to an assumption I made about Doug Fir earlier; has anybody tried Douglas Fir as an instrument wood? I used it quite a bit when building my garage/shop for rafters and the frames for 9'6" bi-fold doors on the front (huge, heavy doors... they came out nice, but were more work than they were worth). My impression was that it would not make a good tonewood, but I could be wrong and as you've stated
    Quote Originally Posted by
    A good piece of wood is where you find it.
    pd
    "... beauty is not found in the excessive but what is lean and spare and subtle" - Terry Tempest Williams

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    I made my first mandolin out of firewood. (That way when you finish you can burn it!!) Just a joke there, but I did use a $3.00 Doug Fir board from Lowes. I looked through the bend and found a really tight grained quarted sawn board. It has turned out to be a really nice sounding mandolin. I used it since this was my first and I figured if I messed it up that would be alright, but it has turned out to be a great sounding top. I have put it up aganist several high end mando's and it has held its own. The board is not even book matched I turned it end over end and glued it up. p.s. you can see a picture of it under post a pic of your mandolin. That just goes to show you never know!

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    "Doug fir is not very different from spruce, IMO (sorting mixed scraps would be tough)"

    ID'ing Douglas Fir visually (especially with a 30x hand lends) compared to spruce is actually a piece of cake, especially compared to say, telling one species of spruce from another...

    One could also do it blindfolded with the ol' lick-n-smell method...

    "If you ever find something in a stack of Dog fir at a yard and seems really light and lovely and resonant and white, there's a good chance it's grand fir, also known as western white fir."

    The true White Fir (Abies concolor) is a real tonewood candidate, and rarely used. #
    The aforementioned Grand Fir (Abies grandis) is as well...

    As is the California Red Fir (Abies magnifica)...

    "Common names are pretty useless!"

    Ageed...
    Everyone seems to have a "white fir", and what that means depends totally on where you are at...

    Europeans have their "white firs" as well, and it has found it's way into the tonewood biz occasionally, mixed in with the spruce piles...

    It is distinguishable in that it smells like dirt when licked, and lacks any medularies whatsoever...

    I think I see this wood a lot in, for example, old Washburn guitars.
    Ever see an old guitar top cut dead-on quarter with no medularies or silking of any kind and very defined graining?
    It could be Euro fir...

    "So John, have you or anyone you know ever used either of those hemlocks for topwoods? "

    There is supposedly an issue with paint (read: varnish) sticking to hemlock...
    (This is anecdotal info, by the way)...

    "So back to an assumption I made about Doug Fir earlier; has anybody tried Douglas Fir as an instrument wood?"

    I built 5 or so mandos out of some 100-year old Douglas Fir stair treads, and it worked just fine...

    Don't forget that Siminoff recomended Douglas Fir for F5 tops in his original book, which sent a lot of us down that path...

  23. #23

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    ..I used to be a die hard Englemann man....but after Ive played 2 Rose Mandos with the Fir top Ive been converted...this Rose I have now is absolutely the loudest mando I have ever played.....and the tone is huge, fat and couldnt be more perfect. It may be a little heavier than a spruce top but its not an issue....
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    Café habitué Paul Hostetter's Avatar
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    Bruce - as ever, Abies concolor is what I am after. I hit some small yards up the Feather River toward Mt. Shasta, where you see the trees growing, hoping to get some, but the people there all told me they cut and milled any and all trees that worked the same and never sorted by species, so their heaps were a mish-mosh. It was depressing. So near, yet so far. I never got around to even trying the taste test.

    I've never seen Doug fir that had the transparency that most spruce has, so discerning it from spruce is a slam dunk. Likewise the other things that get bundled with Doug fir also tend to be sort of opaque.

    I wish I could remember the name of the cello maker, a Swiss guy I think, who was interviewed in the Strad some years ago who said he'd only been using pin oregon - Doug fir - for cello tops for years. I don't know how he was able to pick out the good pieces, or where they really came from. Most Oregon pine in Europe is imported, but a fair amount grows in Germany.

    I got a big batch of doug fir guitar tops once from Steve McMinn. The look was like Scotti's mandolin above but they were all like rubber. I'd use it if I could find some that I believed was good enough.

    This is my local hemlock. It's bad in so many ways...

    .
    ph

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  25. #25

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    ..the top on that mando above is hard, hard , hard...it doesnt compress at all....a little around the F holes...thats it...I believe that hardness contributes to the sound it has...arbarnhart ...here is Darby Boofers email addy.....he would be glad to talk to you about the use of Fir as a tone wood Rosemando@wmconnect.com




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