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Firewood fiddle - a test of the worst


Don Noon

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Normally I push the high end of material properties, as that is theoretically the way to go for power and projection.  But there is nothing theoretical that says what you should use for tone.  I have mentioned previously what Sam Z. said to me, which was:  "You can make a good sounding violin from just about any wood."  When pressed further about how to get the ultimate in power and projection, he said, "Then you need very good wood."

 

In the last VMAAI competition, I entered a fiddle (tone only) with a top that I had made from fairly high density lumberyard spruce, sliced up and re-glued to get a pure slab cut top.  It scored quite well, even getting the second highest marks from two of the judges (the third one scored it quite low).  My own scoring was not great for that fiddle (blind testing), but it was not outstandingly different from most of the other violins.

 

That particular fiddle has had a couple of other test tops on it since then, and the most recent one is all cut up and trashed... so I was thinking about what to test on it this fall.  Coincidentally, our local Walmart has a bin of firewood in front of the store, so I couldn't help but notice some of the wood looked quartered and of an appropriate size.  And cheap.  So I got some, not knowing what properties it might have.  It turned out to be pretty "bad" according to the usual measurements... quite high density, extremely low speed of sound, and about normal (high) damping for new wood.  Even after letting it sit out in the sun for a day, it only lost a bit of weight, probably just temporarily.  On the plot of speed of sound vs. density for my stockpile of spruce, you can see how bad it is:

post-25192-0-61137700-1466382877_thumb.jpg

 

It doesn't look too bad aesthetically... a bit wide on the grain, and heavy fall growth, stuff I would definitely not use for a serious instrument:

post-25192-0-99931800-1466382878_thumb.jpg

 

The whole idea here is to test the opposite of what I think should be good, as a test to verify what I think I know.  I think this wood is so poor that it should really show up the difference between what it does, and what "good" wood does.  With the properties I see, I don't think there is any question that the weight will be high and taptones will be low for a top plate of this wood.  In the finished fiddle, I expect it to be significantly low on power... but if I can do things right, it should sound OK on a recording (where you can't tell the power level very  well).  Perhaps it might be a bit mellow and heavy-sounding, slow to respond... I certainly wouldn't expect it to be "snappy".  But some folks might like that relaxed sound.

 

I really should be working on my real instruments now... but today it's just too hot.  

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.. but today it's just too hot.  

 

Reached 75 deg F?

 

===========

But how would you address a concept whereby the arching and graduation scheme should be tailored to the wood properties? If the Walmart wood does not make a good-sounding violin, how would you know you used the most appropriate 'scheme' for it?

 

On other words, is this really a test of 'badness'.

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Actually, it almost reached 90F here yesterday, and may be hotter today.  All of May never hit 72.

 

Part of the experiment is to see how well I can do carving arching to make a decent-sounding fiddle.  I feel it is very helpful to get as much experience as possible in that regard, and this kind of experiment is the most efficient way to get it... no time wasted on the back and sides, or neck, fingerboard, purfling, etc.  

 

So it's not a pure test of the wood, but that's OK.  I think there may be enough that can be heard in the result to make some reasonable conclusions.

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I have found that nowadays you can get wood with outstanding acoustical properties (in the raw) for very little money. For example, tonewood.sk  a company located in Swiss Alps, sells their A quality spruce for 3 euro a piece of you buy 100 pieces or more. They have a large stock and you can come and choose. Romanian tonewood company, that has, as fas as remeber, a branch in the US, sells cello wood for 22 euros only with no limits in quantity. I purchased three sets and it was amazing. In Ukraine you can also get pretty good wood for cheap, but you have to deal with people personally. 

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Coincidentally, our local Walmart has a bin of firewood in front of the store, so I couldn't help but notice some of the wood looked quartered and of an appropriate size.  And cheap.  So I got some, not knowing what properties it might have.

 

 

Do you know what species the wood is, Don?  Spruce is rarely used for (commercially sold) firewood.

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Do you know what species the wood is, Don?  Spruce is rarely used for (commercially sold) firewood.

 

No clue, as I'm not an expert at identifying different types of pine/spruce/fir family wood.  Probably not spruce, though.

 

Last year I picked up a sample of firewood from a cabin up in the mountains, and it turned out to have properties very much in line with good tonewood.  I'm pretty sure that was lodgepole pine, as it was common in that area.

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I looked through my wood book for a species with the right specific gravity (0.43 - 0.44) that was also native to southern California.  The only species I ran across that seemed to match (and also looked like the sample) was Sitka Spruce — not a good firewood but perhaps why it was so cheap. 

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Lodgepole pine would also work: "Heartwood is light reddish/yellowish brown, sapwood is yellowish white. Heartwood color tends to be paler than Ponderosa Pine, and isn’t always clearly demarcated from the sapwood. Lodgepole Pine commonly has pronounced dimples on flatsawn surfaces, (which are vaguely similar in overall appearance to Birdseye Maple). Such figure can help distinguish Lodgepole Pine from most other pines which lack this feature, with the exception of Ponderosa, Jeffrey, and Jack Pine, which also have similar—though usually less pronounced—dimpling."

 

Ponderosa pine would work as well; lodgepole and ponderosa are often mixed together and sold as construction lumber. 

 

"(Because of their generally narrow trunks, Lodgepole Pine lumber can sometimes be separated from Ponderosa Pine on the basis of the width and clearness of the wood—Ponderosa Pine usually furnishes wider, more knot-free wood than Lodgepole Pine.)"

 

Here are 10x enlargements of end grain for lodgepole and ponderosa:

 

post-76933-0-25976400-1466475937.jpg

post-76933-0-79485300-1466475954.jpg

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Normally I push the high end of material properties, as that is theoretically the way to go for power and projection.  But there is nothing theoretical that says what you should use for tone.  I have mentioned previously what Sam Z. said to me, which was:  "You can make a good sounding violin from just about any wood."  When pressed further about how to get the ultimate in power and projection, he said, "Then you need very good wood."

 

In the last VMAAI competition, I entered a fiddle (tone only) with a top that I had made from fairly high density lumberyard spruce, sliced up and re-glued to get a pure slab cut top.  It scored quite well, even getting the second highest marks from two of the judges (the third one scored it quite low).  My own scoring was not great for that fiddle (blind testing), but it was not outstandingly different from most of the other violins.

 

That particular fiddle has had a couple of other test tops on it since then, and the most recent one is all cut up and trashed... so I was thinking about what to test on it this fall.  Coincidentally, our local Walmart has a bin of firewood in front of the store, so I couldn't help but notice some of the wood looked quartered and of an appropriate size.  And cheap.  So I got some, not knowing what properties it might have.  It turned out to be pretty "bad" according to the usual measurements... quite high density, extremely low speed of sound, and about normal (high) damping for new wood.  Even after letting it sit out in the sun for a day, it only lost a bit of weight, probably just temporarily.  On the plot of speed of sound vs. density for my stockpile of spruce, you can see how bad it is:

attachicon.gif160619 firewood plot.jpg

 

It doesn't look too bad aesthetically... a bit wide on the grain, and heavy fall growth, stuff I would definitely not use for a serious instrument:

attachicon.gif160619 Walmart firewood.JPG

 

The whole idea here is to test the opposite of what I think should be good, as a test to verify what I think I know.  I think this wood is so poor that it should really show up the difference between what it does, and what "good" wood does.  With the properties I see, I don't think there is any question that the weight will be high and taptones will be low for a top plate of this wood.  In the finished fiddle, I expect it to be significantly low on power... but if I can do things right, it should sound OK on a recording (where you can't tell the power level very  well).  Perhaps it might be a bit mellow and heavy-sounding, slow to respond... I certainly wouldn't expect it to be "snappy".  But some folks might like that relaxed sound.

 

I really should be working on my real instruments now... but today it's just too hot.

Don, I think this is a great experiment. Have you decided on an arching and plate thinning strategy to try?

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I've built two mandolins out of firewood. It was actually large split log of spruce laying at the road for taking. Wide grain and rotten core but the outer 6 or so inches were clear and it split nicely into billets. After seasoning and drying for 6 years it produced VERY nice sounding mandolins... It would likely produce nice violins as well but most fiddle players wouldn't touch it with 6' pole just because of the grasin width...

Not all firewood is made the same. Remember the video someone posted few weeks ago of splitting logs for firewood wit dynamite? I bet most of those old growth spruce logs would make it to premium tonewood these days... Back then it was just destined for fire. For me there is just good or bad wood, the bad being bad because of critical defects, not its name on the shelf.

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Don, I think this is a great experiment. Have you decided on an arching and plate thinning strategy to try?

 

My usual routine, although the arching height is confined to be around the height of the top I've yanked off the VSO that I'm using.

 

Arch shape:  Strad-ish, or what my current interpretation of that shape is.

 

Thinning:  I'll decide as I go along, watching weight, taptones, and absolute stiffness measurements.  It is almost certain that the weight will be high, and stiffness and taptones will be low, compared to normal spruce tonewood.  So I'll just go as low on the stiffness as I dare, in order to get the weight down.  It helps to have some experiments in this area, to know how low you can get before things really go into the crapper.

 

Not all firewood is made the same. ...  For me there is just good or bad wood, the bad being bad because of critical defects, not its name on the shelf.

 

No wood of any kind is the same, even from the same tree (although it does tend to have a close family resemblance).

 

Wood can be "bad" due to defects, but I am less clear about what "good" and "bad" are with regard to physical properties.  I think a lot depends on what you want to achieve... wood that's good for a solo violinist's instrument might bad for a bluegrass fiddle, and vice versa.  That's part of the question I'm trying to answer by doing these strange tests.

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I'm looking forward to hear about your results, Don!

I'm doing someting similar right now:

building a fiddle from spruce with almost perfect structure regarding grain width and fiber direction (no runout at all and dead on radial cut), but perversely light at SG 0.30. Speed of sound just under 5000m/s.

I've done this a few years ago too, but then with a rather high arching. Trying a flatter arching this time, because with soft wood like this a high/steep arching won't be stiff enough structurally.

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Salve,

I think we are experimenting at different ends of the spectrum, so our results should be quite different, too.  Your wood has a radiation ratio of 16 or so, mine is under 10.  That means you should end up with light weight and/or high mode freqencies, while I'm working at the heavy end and low mode frequencies.  I've worked enough with the low density wood so that I would expect them to be loud, quick, but not quite the right balance.  My conclusion is that it's mostly the middle frequencies that become stronger, but the highs don't... or sometimes are slightly weak.  Not a refined sound.

 

I should have mine done today... quick and crude, but good enough for this test.

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Salve,

I think we are experimenting at different ends of the spectrum, so our results should be quite different, too.  Your wood has a radiation ratio of 16 or so, mine is under 10.  That means you should end up with light weight and/or high mode freqencies, while I'm working at the heavy end and low mode frequencies.  I've worked enough with the low density wood so that I would expect them to be loud, quick, but not quite the right balance.  My conclusion is that it's mostly the middle frequencies that become stronger, but the highs don't... or sometimes are slightly weak.  Not a refined sound.

 

I should have mine done today... quick and crude, but good enough for this test.

If possible, it would be great to hear "blind test" of this fiddle mixed with some of your others, particularly your best.

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If possible, it would be great to hear "blind test" of this fiddle mixed with some of your others, particularly your best.

 

It is possible, and I'll have to remember to do this.

 

 

The test is not only of "bad" wood, but also "bad" workmanship.  I didn't want to spend too much time on this, so I cut out anything that I thought wouldn't contribute acoustically to the result in any significant way.  My belief is that the concept is what matters, and the details don't.

 

So, starting with a glued-up set, here are a few milestones and how long it took in direct time (including setups) to get there:

 

At 1hr, 41 min:  post-25192-0-87422600-1466618597_thumb.jpg

 

At 3 hrs: post-25192-0-52751500-1466618600_thumb.jpg

 

At 5 1/2 hrs, ready to install:  post-25192-0-63910900-1466618601_thumb.jpg

 

A few notes -

-Arching almost totally by eye; the only "template" was a 120mm radius gage used at the bridge position, so that some of my existing bridges would fit.

-Inside graduation stopped after finger planing, no scraper

-Bass bar shaped with knife only (fit to top in more normal way, though)

 

Plate data, without bass bar:

68.4g  83, 134, 288 Hz taptones

 

With bass bar:

74.1g  89, 154, 323 Hz taptones

 

I had measured crossgrain speed of sound of the wood, and it was in the normal range, as opposed to the off-the-charts low speed of sound along the grain.  I think this shows up clearly in the taptones and some absolute stiffness measurements.  Just looking at the M5 taptone, it is very low... but M2 is higher than normal.  I figure they would even out somewhat, and not make for too flexible of an overall instrument.  Still, I expect that B1+ resonance of the completed violin may be on the low side.

 

I don't have any hard evidence, but it seems to me that crossgrain stiffness is not of any tonal benefit, based on what I have built so far.  It might even be a detriment, possibly disturbing some of what goes on in the "transition hill" region.  If you think about it, plywood had good "crossgrain" stiffness at the expense of longitudinal... and perhaps this firewood fiddle might sound a bit like plywood.  (I can't say what that sounds like, but if it's different from normal, then by definition it's bad).

 

We'll see soon.

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It is possible, and I'll have to remember to do this.

 

 

The test is not only of "bad" wood, but also "bad" workmanship.  I didn't want to spend too much time on this, so I cut out anything that I thought wouldn't contribute acoustically to the result in any significant way.  My belief is that the concept is what matters, and the details don't.

 

So, starting with a glued-up set, here are a few milestones and how long it took in direct time (including setups) to get there:

 

At 1hr, 41 min:  attachicon.gif160620 firewood.JPG

 

At 3 hrs: attachicon.gif160621 firewood.JPG

 

At 5 1/2 hrs, ready to install:  attachicon.gif160622 1 firewood.JPG

 

A few notes -

-Arching almost totally by eye; the only "template" was a 120mm radius gage used at the bridge position, so that some of my existing bridges would fit.

-Inside graduation stopped after finger planing, no scraper

-Bass bar shaped with knife only (fit to top in more normal way, though)

 

Plate data, without bass bar:

68.4g  83, 134, 288 Hz taptones

 

With bass bar:

74.1g  89, 154, 323 Hz taptones

 

I had measured crossgrain speed of sound of the wood, and it was in the normal range, as opposed to the off-the-charts low speed of sound along the grain.  I think this shows up clearly in the taptones and some absolute stiffness measurements.  Just looking at the M5 taptone, it is very low... but M2 is higher than normal.  I figure they would even out somewhat, and not make for too flexible of an overall instrument.  Still, I expect that B1+ resonance of the completed violin may be on the low side.

 

I don't have any hard evidence, but it seems to me that crossgrain stiffness is not of any tonal benefit, based on what I have built so far.  It might even be a detriment, possibly disturbing some of what goes on in the "transition hill" region.  If you think about it, plywood had good "crossgrain" stiffness at the expense of longitudinal... and perhaps this firewood fiddle might sound a bit like plywood.  (I can't say what that sounds like, but if it's different from normal, then by definition it's bad).

 

We'll see soon.

Super impressive speed ! my prediction is that if you do a blind test of this fiddle mixed in with a few others that it will not jump out as the bad one and that some people based on subjective recorded tone preferences may choose it as number one and some may pick it last, not unlike many other blind test's done with other fiddles, from the "greatest" {perhaps most expensive} to anything in between.

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There will be a brief pause in the action, while waiting for the oil varnish to dry.  I didn't think it would be a fair comparison to have an unvarnished instrument.

post-25192-0-69471100-1466635344_thumb.jpg

Initial indications are that the signature mode frequencies will not be abnormally low.  If anything, I think it may need some thinning to get the best out of it, but I'll have to wait until stringing it up to be sure.  (I hope I don't need to regraduate, as I used some really thick, strong glue to put the top on... to try  to bridge all the gaps).

 

It is sobering to think that in spite if going at my maximum speed and minimum quality, if I had to charge minimum wage JUST FOR THE TOP,  you could buy TWO of these COMPLETE SETS, including case, bow, rosin, and free shipping:

post-25192-0-45887100-1466636112_thumb.png

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Salve,

I think we are experimenting at different ends of the spectrum, so our results should be quite different, too.

 

I know. But both woods are rather soft, I think: at the edge of what will take the string tension.

 

Still, I think you should put more care into making this one, because it just might come out sounding good!

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