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Stephen Faulk

Slab cello backs - maple and non maple

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I have an opportunity to cut some local wood and have it milled with the help of two retired fellows who have befriended me. One is a retired city planner and the other use to make fine wood work architectural detail and still has a big planer. REALLY BIG. They both know where there is salvage wood I can get. Most of it seems suitable for guitar back & sides, but possibly some could be dimensioned and saved to dry for cello or viola - although it is not traditional cello wood I still feel it would be prudent to try to acquire it. 

 

There is a farm(s) with some very old argricultural salvage logs that are possibly large enough in diameter to get back & sides sets for celli and a few trunks I think would make slab backs. Lots of wood viola sized. Most of it is fruit wood of some kind or other. Plum, cherry, and a few local fruits that have similar wood. Lots of citrus trees. There's also lots of keyaki, which does not look like violin family wood, but it sure feels like it would make a nice cello. 

 

The question:

 

If you were analyzing, evaluating and grading out maple vs. non maple viola and cello backs & sides what would you be thinking about?

 

How long would you wait before taking a rough cut slab through a planer to dimension to a smaller rough dimension closer to building size? Supposing some wood (logs) has been felled for 50 years and some taken from standing trunks of recently felled trees. 

 

Opinions from both the haptic-tactile oriented folks and the wood baking - scientific testers welcome. 

 

__________________________

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Along these same lines how thick would a piece of wood need to be for a Violin, Viola , or 'Cello?  Just in case I come across something nice that should be saved.

 

DLB

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Just a guess for the trunk sections.  3 ft. in height x however big around, non-quarted around 7 years from a living tree.  It will more than likely be wet inside in some areas.  If you quarter the trunk section you may be able to do something in a little more than a year.  Slabing the trunk- If it were me I would stack and sticker with weight on top outside.  I just have experience with soft maple.  None of the friutwoods.  They are probably a more dense wood than maple.  good luck.  Get end grain sealer and a moisture meter.  

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I'm looking forward to answers you get on quality criteria for back wood selection.  Lots of fruit woods have similar SG to the range that maple falls in.  I imagine there are other properties to consider.  I dimly remember someone (Oded Kishony?) saying that cherry worked well for a cello.  Heck we all love wood.  If its not suitable for instruments it can always be used for other projects.

 

-Jim

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Without wanting to spoil anybodies delectation and putting my repairman's hat on:

It is perhaps worth thinking about the fact, that slab cut wood is far more likely to get “drying” cracks in the fullness of time. Also the shrinkage question (width-wise) is considerably more prevalent. One realises this, after years of repairing slab cut 18th C violins and 'celli, with bulging ribs at the bottom block, and awkward cracks to repair. I don't think I would choose to use a slab cut back (or ribs!), should I have a quarter cut piece lying around. Although I suppose “planned obsolescence” was an American invention, wasn't it? :)

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Planned obsolesence is what keeps you in a paycheck as a repairman. I actually look at it this way the object is created with multiple 'fuseable links'- parts that break before they break the whole structure. 

 

But what you say about slab backs is important to think about. 

 

The Shrinkage Factor however is dealt with by George Costanza. Ever repair a violin by George Costanza a very famous American violinmaker? Shrinkage factor is one of his specialties.  His instruments are played by the Van de Lay Quartet. 

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Just had a beech back and neck cello in the shop and it and sounded superb. Carves like a dream. 

 Thanks for reminding. There is fruit wood around here that would make very good necks once dry. I will if possible cut it for that purpose. 

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biggest problem with long-felled "agricultural" wood is rot, stain, fungal attack of other kinds etc

the best option is always to fell the tree and get it rough dimensioned and drying as quickly as possible

Keyaki is a relative of elm, and generally with a kind of meshed grain - I think it would be the worst possible thing for tonewood, though it can have a lovely figure.

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Slab backs are really pretty and I'm sad to hear that they aren't always the most time-resistant of configurations for an instrument.

 

As for the OP question...carving a cello back is too much work to later find out that you chose the wrong wood. jmo, and etc. 

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biggest problem with long-felled "agricultural" wood is rot, stain, fungal attack of other kinds etc

the best option is always to fell the tree and get it rough dimensioned and drying as quickly as possible

Keyaki is a relative of elm, and generally with a kind of meshed grain - I think it would be the worst possible thing for tonewood, though it can have a lovely figure.

 Probably keyaki is very poor for violin family instruments, but it makes killer guitars. 

 

Good points about the laying around of logs. Some of the stuff I looked and already rejected was just that, pithy because it was not stored. There is more to look at that has been kept in sheds. I've also learned of two lumber companies nearby that took me long time to locate, they have old protected stores of maple planks that I want to get at, but I don't want to make them unpack it until I have enough cash to make sizable purchase. 

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Slab backs are really pretty and I'm sad to hear that they aren't always the most time-resistant of configurations for an instrument.

 

As for the OP question...carving a cello back is too much work to later find out that you chose the wrong wood. jmo, and etc. 

 Thats why I asked first, haha. I know a bit more about wood selection than I let on, but I wanted good opinions. I fancy the look of slab back cello, but it's good to investigate the draw backs. 

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I would also tend to shy away from "agricultural" timber that hasn't been left in long lengths. Even with a well-trained eye it's pretty hard to spot growth issues in felled or de-barked timber that would be glaringly obvious if it was still standing. Most specialist timber is bought standing ... and for good reason.

 

Maple that's been in storage tends to have grey streaks, and it's also very prone to worm ...

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I would also tend to shy away from "agricultural" timber that hasn't been left in long lengths. Even with a well-trained eye it's pretty hard to spot growth issues in felled or de-barked timber that would be glaringly obvious if it was still standing. Most specialist timber is bought standing ... and for good reason.

 

Maple that's been in storage tends to have grey streaks, and it's also very prone to worm ...

 Martin,

To tell the truth I'm not looking forward any chainsaw action that this  will require, but as long as they offered I'll have a look. The old carpenter who is helping me is pretty savvy, he's an quite accomplished maker of fine woodwork. He understands the conditions woods need to be kept in. But your information and cautions are all good and appreciated. Keep going as you think of things. 

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I'm not trying to dampen your enthusiasm ... there's always something to be done with nice wood, and actually fruitwoods tend to last better than most. However, I had many bad experiences buying trees that were lying (particularly sycamore), and while the wood itself was cheap, by the time I'd scrapped 90% of it it was pretty expensive, even the stuff that was free!

On the other hand, wood that had been used for structural purposes always turned out to be great. I still have a load of old 18x3 (inches) x 6 foot boards of pitch pine that were part of the original Forth Rail Bridge walkway. This wood had been felled over 200 years ago, the quality was just incredible (presumably wild growth from the Southern States of the US), and it was still raw with pitch. Not the slightest movement detectable - flat as a pancake after 150 years exposed to the Scottish elements.

Similarly a load of Jarrah that was used for mine railway sleepers.

However, not much use for cello backs ....

nb. I think Jacob's advice about slab-cut backs is worth taking very seriously, particularly if you're using slightly experimental wood. For gawds' sake cut it on the quarter and use 2 pieces. Violins are a different matter - i would love to see more adventurous use of wood for violin backs, and as we run out of good quality figured maple (which is going overland to China by the container-load as we speak) I think we'll see more of that, necessity being the mother of invention and all that ...

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 I still have a load of old 18x3 (inches) x 6 foot boards of pitch pine that were part of the original Forth Rail Bridge walkway. This wood had been felled over 200 years ago, the quality was just incredible (presumably wild growth from the Southern States of the US), and it was still raw with pitch. Not the slightest movement detectable - flat as a pancake after 150 years exposed to the Scottish elements.

 

That sounds like what is known as Dade County pine.  Basically, old growth southern yellow pine from southern Florida.  Fantastic structural wood that's no longer available (no more forests in Dade County, FL).  Impossible to nail and difficult to drill.  Definately doesn't fit the "soft wood" catagory.

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Hi Jim,
Actually this stuff is very easy to drill or nail - in fact the shavings that come off it are still soft and resinous, with a very strong turpentine smell. It's one of the most flammable woods I've ever come across.

The worst thing you can do with it is put it through a planer thicknesser, as you'll be cleaning the thing for several hours afterwards. I ended up planing it by hand with a very sharp plane having moistened the surface with turps - otherwise the blade would just gum up within a few strokes.

I think what you describe as Dade County Pine was used for church pews quite a lot in the UK - went extremely hard and kind of brown with age.

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nb. I think Jacob's advice about slab-cut backs is worth taking very seriously, particularly if you're using slightly experimental wood. For gawds' sake cut it on the quarter and use 2 pieces. Violins are a different matter - i would love to see more adventurous use of wood for violin backs, and as we run out of good quality figured maple (which is going overland to China by the container-load as we speak) I think we'll see more of that, necessity being the mother of invention and all that ...

 I will heed Jacobs advice and I'm glad I asked. I could not resist however the joke about shrinkage. 

 

Speaking of more adventurous violin back wood I'm working in this concert ukulele right now and the Koa is gorgeous. It keeps going through my mind that a violin made of this could be pretty slick. 

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