A soundboard's topic: different spruces, the difficulty to recognize them, and criterias of choice.
In this article, I will talk again about the spruce I'll chose for my soundboards. Yes, this is a thing and some kind of "personal kink" because this is the engine of the instrument. So, IMHO, this is the most important part of a guitar.
2013, British Columbia.
My experience with wood, started early in my carrer. As I had the opportunity to build my own workshop just after school, I bought wood since April 2013. Let's admit that I knew nothing, and my knowledge was incredibly small. With the help of my beloved suppliers and many colleagues over the years, I've been able to learn a lot. All of that, brought me to these thoughts: What is important to me? How could I surely recognize Lutz, from Sitka? Which kind of spruce would fit with me? ... and many more questions.
When you have spruce in front of you
I basically had thousands of soundboards in my hands. Many were bad, acceptable, good, great, or insanely good... for me. Every builders have their criterias of choice, and I know that every one of us have an unique approach in terms of built. It is the same when comes the time to chose our woods. Personally, I try to be open-minded and to accept the fact that I could be surprised, and to get out from my comfort zone. Just after my graduation from the National school of Lutherie of Quebec (ENL), I had the opportunity to travel to British Columbia to select some amazing Sitka Spruce. The good thing is that I wanted to learn a lot, I was like a sponge who wanted to absorb everything I could (still these days...). So, I ended with a very nice stash of soundboards to build instruments... and even if I won't take some of them with my "today's criterias" (I am not fond of bearclaw anymore), my selection was pretty good. After that, I visit a lot of other builder's workshop where I had the privilege to see their woodstash, a couple of supplier's warehouses & tables at guitarshows... and with that, I had been able to refine my taste. These opportunities showed me that I had so many preconceived ideas, and that there are so many different kind of spruces, even in the same species. Back when I paid a visit to Bachmann's booth at Cremona Mondomusica 2017, I had 300 of their soundboards in my hands... and I selected only 3 of them. The reason? I am a very picky person, and I know what I want. Are the other 297 soundboards were bad? Not at all. Would they be great for other builders? Definitely. Same thing with Gams Tonewood, when I paid a couple of visit to the great Steve Gosselin. He gave me the opportunity to put my hands over hundreds of sounboards & bracings (yes, braces are as important as the top for me). It allowed me to increase my knowledge, experience & expertise, which is gold for me. This is how, I could become a better builder!
For you (luthier or customer), what is the most important in a soundboard? "Terroir", or mechanical properties/look?
I am asking this question to myself, for years know... after all, Spruce AKA Picea is a big family.
As you'll see in the next pictures, you could be easily fooled by different kind of spruces, even from the same kind... and some of them don't fit with the aesthetic-canons/mechanical properties of their species.
Left: Sitka Right: Sitka Bearclaw
Let's pick Sitka. In many people's mind, it is heavy, incredibly stiff, and "pinky" in terms of color. Well... if you find a soundboard as light & flexible as European, would you chose it? How would it sound? How could you brace it, to obtain the "sound signature" of sitka? IMHO, you just have an amazing piece of spruce in your hands. When a customer come to me, the first thing I ask to him/her is: "what is YOUR sound?". I have the luck to keep a lot of different spruces in my woodstash (I am doing the same for hardwoods, but this is another subject), and I am able to chose the best option for him/her. Some people, don't like X or Y wood because they know it won't fit with them. This is totally ok, but I always try to explain to them that they could be surprised with the wood they hate. That's why I am talking about "terroir". I am french and my family love to drink some wine. I can't count the number of times we came to visit unknown vineyards for the first times... and blown away by the quality of what we found there. Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Beaujolais... they are well known designations. Do they smell & taste the same? Not at all. Well, spruce is like wine: you could be surprised, even by the less-fancy ones (hello Sitka!) To complete this humble "analysis", I would say that you now know why I always chose my soundboards in person for a number of years now. There are some exceptions like the 3 Redwood-tops I bought from LMII a couple of months ago, because my customer absolutely want one (I can't travel for a small amount of pieces like that...) but when I am traveling for sounboards, I take all the time I need to find the perfect ones for my instruments. The criterias I want for my soundboards are really precise & important, and Spruce is really expensive... because all of that, even if traveling is a lot of money... I refuse to buy my tops if I can't flex, weigh, and feel them in person before to buy it.
Benjamin Paldacci Benjamin Paldacci Guitars