About a Tree
From a Guitar Maker’s Notes
Sebastian Stenzel, December 2017
Viva fui in silvis, sum dura occisa securi. Dum vixi tacui – mortua dulce cano.
If my eight years of Latin in school were worth anything, this means:
In the forest I was alive, (now) I am felled by the brutal axe. While I lived, I was silent— dead, I am singing sweetly.
I have tried to find the origin of this beautiful proverb. According to one source, it was “the oldest Tieffenbrucker”, a luthier, who first inscribed it into one of his lutes. That would most likely be Michael Tieffenbrucker, born in 1485 in Rosshaupten, Germany, a village on the northern fringe of the Alps, not far from the world famous Neuschwanstein castle, which would be built a few centuries later.
Rosshaupten and its neighboring town Füssen became the nucleus, as it were, of Renaissance luthiery. Why did the luthiers of this area prosper more than their competitors from other places, even though the political situation at that time and place was anything but supportive? Maybe they had some other advantage than being on one of the main trade routes over the Alps, and maybe the other advantage was “backyard” access to the very best spruce of all.
My first three spruce trees stood east of the Rosshaupten/Füssen area, the fourth came from a bit farther to the west: the most western part of Austria, Vorarlberg. This is also where I have now cut my fifth, and probably last, spruce tree.
A master grade European spruce guitar soundboard currently sells for about 170 USD. Having resawn most of the soundboards for the 213 guitars I have made up to now myself, I feel qualified to say this price is nothing but fair. It has been difficult to obtain high quality tonewood at all times, and, owing to common forestry policy of the last 200 years, there now are not many suitable trees left. Out of fairness, the largest supplier of tonewood in Switzerland limits master grade soundboards to two sets per buyer per year. The same supplier told me this summer that he has to drive farther every year to source suitable trunks.
Nowadays, most of the best trees are sold at blind auctions, but the really exceptional ones like this one rarely make it even to this – from the buyer’s viewpoint – meanest of all sales methods.
Why is it so difficult to find a spruce tree suitable for making guitar soundboards? First, the size: anything with a diameter of less than 70 cm/27.5” is just too small. Then it has to come from higher altitudes, because only there do the trees grow slowly enough and yield wood which is light but stiff. If you went to the Alps and looked for trees fulfilling just these two most basic preconditions, you could probably scout the mountain slopes for weeks on end without finding a single one. I owe it to personal connections built up over 25 years that I was first guided to search in some promising places and then had the privilege to find, buy, and fell such a tree. How rare they are becomes clear if you add other requirements to the check list: the tree should stand on a northern slope on soil with a steady water supply, with not too much exposure to strong wind or uneven snow loads. It should be straight, round, without twist, with even annual rings, without compression wood, branches or resin pockets. Such specimens are usually 200 years or older. Just to get the scope: 1776—the Declaration of Independence of the USA. 1789—the French revolution. In between, 1784, the year this spruce tree started to grow. It IS awe-inspiring.
But I had ambivalent feelings about cutting something which to me is a sentient being. But (call me crazy - I am!) when I came to cut it and asked its forgiveness, to my surprise it answered me with a wave of joy, as if saying it was happy to come to me. For a life in music, singing sweetly.
Three years from now, I plan to make the first guitars and ouds from this tree. Although technically perfectly dry after a year, it will still be relatively fresh. But from my experience, storage time is the one parameter most overestimated and lied about, and it certainly matters much less than density, stiffness and internal damping. That, plus I just won’t be able to wait any longer!