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Thread: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

  1. #1
    Registered User JAK's Avatar
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    Question Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Can you tell approximately how old the spruce top wood is on your mandolin by counting the lines on one side of the mandolin's top? If the top is book matched you can only count one side, with one year of growth per line, right?
    John A. Karsemeyer

  2. #2
    Registered User Dave Hicks's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Count just one side of a book-matched top. The number of growth rings (dark+ light line = 1 ring) is the number of years of growth in the top wood.

    Of course, the tree itself may have been much older since a mando top probably won't extend from the bark to the center of the tree.

    D.H.

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  4. #3

    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Hopefully David Harvie and or John Hamlett will chime in here.

    That would be a minimum. The original wedge is at least somewhat smaller than the log and the top has been cut down further so you are not seeing the full width of the tree. The tree would be even older than the number of lines you count. There is one dark line from the spring growth and one light line for the latewood per year. You would count the number of dark lines.

    And the wood has set and seasoned for some period of time after being cut so that adds to the actual age anywhere from five to thirty years or more.

    Looking at a fine grained guitar, cello or bass top it is humbling to think about how many generations and years that tree saw pass.

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    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Without the whole log or at least a known half of the log you wouldn't have all the rings to count.
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    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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    Registered User Ky Slim's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Here are some pics that might shed light of the process for cutting tops.

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    JAK 

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    Registered User Mike Buesseler's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    The more lines on a piece of tone wood (or any wood, I guess), the greater difference in age between one edge and the other. Outside rings are newer growth and could be much younger than inside rings.

    Isn’t the age of the whole log since it was cut of more importance in the context of tone in a musical instrument?

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    Registered User JAK's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Thanks gents for the info, good stuff.
    John A. Karsemeyer

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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    No, you cannot determine the age of the wood used to make a mandolin by counting the stripes (growth rings) in a mandolin top. If you could, then all mandolins would appear to have (more or less) the same age! This is because the spacing of these rings does not vary all that much from one mandolin to the next. And as we know, some old mandolins might have wider-than-usual spacing, but some new ones might have narrower-then-usual spacing. So the ring count does not indicate the age of the mandolin, nor of the wood used to make it -- the wood piece used for a mandolin top doesn't extend to the tree core, nor does it go out to the bark. Furthermore, the wood is always aged after it's cut for a variable period. I suppose you could put a lower limit on the age of the wood, though, since the tree was at least as old as the number of stripes in the grain. And probably a good deal older. As others have noted, the way to tell the age of a tree (a technique called "dendrochronology") is to develop a complete record of its growth rings, using the tree itself or other trees whose growth ring patterns can be matched up against it.

  12. #9

    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Clearly the OP meant "how long the top wood took to grow" rather than the actual age of the manufactured object. But ain't English a deliciously ambiguous language. Ensures the layers are always well fed.

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    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    It doesn't seem too clear to me. What he said was:

    Can you tell approximately how old the spruce top wood is on your mandolin by counting the lines on one side of the mandolin's top?
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Yes,

    The age of your spruce top would be the total of the lines center to rim.

    How old the tree was is another matter.

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    Registered User tree's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    This is either a rabbit hole or the weeds, take your pick.

    The answer to the OP’s question is a simple “no”, with all due respect.

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Quote Originally Posted by JAK View Post
    Can you tell approximately how old the spruce top wood is on your mandolin by counting the lines on one side of the mandolin's top? If the top is book matched you can only count one side, with one year of growth per line, right?
    If anything that will only tell you how old the tree was when cut down. No idea how long the log just hung out, or when the top woods were cut, or how long the planks were in storage before being carved into mandolin tops, or how old the mandolin itself is.
    Indulge responsibly!

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Quote Originally Posted by tree View Post
    This is either a rabbit hole or the weeds, take your pick.

    The answer to the OP’s question is a simple “no”, with all due respect.
    I think you are right.

    There is a marvelous story in the book Piano Shop on the West Bank about a repair being done to a very old piano dated from the time of Beethoven. The piano's original maker was supposed to have had had access to large quantities of very old wood stored for many hundreds of years. So the wood was ancient by the time it was made into a piano. The writer pointed out that it was not unlikely that the wood they were exposing in the repair might have been a tree when Martin Luther was excommunicated.
    Indulge responsibly!

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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Yup; luthiers and tonewood sellers love waxing tales of unicorns and fairy dust about precious old wood...
    Spruce dork

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    From counting the grain lines in a top (half) we can determine how many years of growth are represented in the top. That is all we can tell because what we can't tell is:

    -how much wood was cut away on the bark side of the piece
    -how much wood was cut away on the heart side of the piece
    -when the tree was cut
    -how long the wood was stored after the tree was cut and before the instrument was made.

    So, if we go back up to post #12, this is why the answer to the question as stated is "no".

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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Quote Originally Posted by tree View Post
    This is either a rabbit hole or the weeds, take your pick.

    The answer to the OP’s question is a simple “no”, with all due respect.

    Personally, I'll defer to "tree" on all matters dealing with wood.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Registered User Mike Buesseler's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    I posted earlier (#6) regarding the age of wood near the center of a tree vs wood near the edge. Say you had a tree with 200 annular rings. The “tree” is obviously 200 years old...BUT the outermost ring, the last one, is only one year old. Isn’t that significant (at least in this rabbit hole)?

  24. #19
    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Buesseler View Post
    I posted earlier (#6) regarding the age of wood near the center of a tree vs wood near the edge. Say you had a tree with 200 annular rings. The “tree” is obviously 200 years old...BUT the outermost ring, the last one, is only one year old. Isn’t that significant (at least in this rabbit hole)?
    Not sure what you mean by asking if it's "significant." Significant, how? Of course each annual growth ring represents a year of growth. And of course, each ring was laid down in a different year, and therefore has a different 'age.' A living tree with 200 growth rings is pretty obviously 200 years older than the present. But that's no longer the case after that tree gets cut down! Tonewoods are often aged for a decade or even more before being made into instruments. And once they're made into instruments, the wood continue to get older and older (just as we do, ourselves!). So you can't just examine an instrument and conclude that "this wood comes from the year 1917." It doesn't work like that.

    That said, the thickness of the growth rings changes from year to year with the climate (mainly due to changes in temperature, nutrients, and rainfall), and this imposes a characteristic pattern of wider and narrower rings. Sometimes, usually aided by knowledge of where the wood grew and careful measurements, segments of these growth ring patterns can be matched up with meteorological and other historical records (often, from similar trees that are still living) to pin down the exact dates. This is dendrochronology, and it has been used to date some of the oldest trees around, like giant sequoias and bristlecone pines, which are up to thousands of years old. Usually, you need a good many rings to do this properly. I suppose it just might be possible to date the topwood on some mandolins this way, if you knew where the wood was originally cut, and you were aided by a clear ring pattern showing a lot of variation, but I doubt that it's been done. Chances are, the rings are too evenly spaced and the pattern is too brief (less than a century) to provide the necessary detail. The same is true for violins and other old instruments. In most cases (not all), you already know when the instrument was made, more or less, and you can surmise that the wood is roughly a century or two older than that. Do you need to know more, and if so, why? I suppose it might be useful in determining if an instrument is a forgery, claiming to be substantially older than the woods that comprise it. But I am not aware if dendrochronology has ever been used in this way.

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    Registered User Louise NM's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    If you happened to know a dendrochronologist he or she could answer all these questions. Kind of a niche field, though.

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    Phil Goodson Philphool's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Buesseler View Post
    I posted earlier (#6) regarding the age of wood near the center of a tree vs wood near the edge. Say you had a tree with 200 annular rings. The “tree” is obviously 200 years old...BUT the outermost ring, the last one, is only one year old. Isn’t that significant (at least in this rabbit hole)?
    Mike, I think I see your point. The fallacy is that a difference in the age of the individual rings makes a difference.

    All the stuff that we discuss about "old wood" and "instruments getting better because the wood is getting older" doesn't start until the tree is cut down or dies.
    At that point, all rings are beginning at "time zero" and aging the same from then on.
    None the the sap drying or crystallizing, or whatever, occurs till the tree is cut, AFAIK.
    Phil

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    Registered User Bruce Clausen's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Quote Originally Posted by sblock View Post
    I suppose it just might be possible to date the topwood on some mandolins this way, if you knew where the wood was originally cut, and you were aided by a clear ring pattern showing a lot of variation, but I doubt that it's been done. Chances are, the rings are too evenly spaced and the pattern is too brief (less than a century) to provide the necessary detail. The same is true for violins and other old instruments.
    Some info on the use of tree-ring dating in the violin world:

    http://violin-dendrochronology.com/

  28. #23
    Registered User Mike Buesseler's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Thanks for all that info!

    I think it’s been settled that you can’t very easily determine the age of mandolin wood by counting the annular rings. All I meant to add to the conversation is the point that the wood in any tree varies in age. How important is this? I don’t know, but it seems interesting. Take a 1000 year old tree, for example. While the tree is alive, it’s wood varies in age from brand new growth to 1000 years old. An extreme example, I know, to illustrate the point. This makes me wonder if that wood is all exactly the same—in tonal qualities, at least. If so, it shouldn’t matter whether wood comes from a 100 year-old tree or a 1000 year old tree....or from near the center of a tree or near the outside.

    And, thank you, Phil!

  29. #24

    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    there is now a world wide catalogue for dendrochronology. scientists at a dozen universities are doing the ring counts and matching them for patterns of ring spacing which can date the death of the tree to within a year or two--if they have enough sample pictures on file. one of the universities it in up state new york at ithica i think, and one is at the university of saskatchewan. top woods of spruce cedar and a few other soft woods are among the most represented in their catalogue, so if you can send high definition pictures to one of these places they can likely date when your tree was cut. i took my old cittern(circa 1760) to mt allison u(near me in sackville new brunswick) where they had such a lab only to find the prof in question had moved to saskatchewan. I e mailed him. he said he can likely date the top wood from high definition pictures. and he can often date the maple back and sides as they have an extensive catalogue of maple from european instruments, especially fiddles. so the answer is yes. if you're interested i will look up that professors e mail. this catalogue has already confirmed many old master violins and proved a few stradivarii to be forgeries. my old citternClick image for larger version. 

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ID:	181605 i'd like a definitive date. i have strings now so i need to string it up.

  30. #25
    Registered User Martin Jonas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Counting Tree Growth Lines ?

    Nice to see some discussion of dendrochronology in the forum -- I spent my PhD research working in a geochronology lab (the Godwin Laboratory at Cambridge) alongside their dendrochronology group. I was working on a different dating technique (radiometric EPR dating of teeth and other archaelogical and geological minerals), but spent a lot of time socialising with them over tea and beers, and occasionally came along to their field trips to get me out of the lab.

    Dendrochronology is a fascinating technique, and with a long enough sequence of tree rings you can get an absolute age for the time that the tree was alive. Doesn't tell you how old the instrument is, and unless the sequence includes the outer rings and the bark it also doesn't tell you when the tree was felled. However, if you have an imperfect match because the sequence is too short or because of microclimatic conditions distorting the sequence, you may end up in the wrong century (or millennium) altogether.

    Martin

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