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Wood Butcher

Would you buy old wood over new, if you could?

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Rather than derail @Shelbow's thread in the auction scroll, I thought it was more appropriate to ask here.

If you were looking to buy wood for making, would you prefer older wood (maybe 30-40 years dried) over recently cut wood from a dealer?

Would you be prepared to pay a premium for the older wood?

If the older wood is a makers "left overs", might it be better just to buy fresh wood, which may be better quality and possibly cheaper?

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I bought old wood from an auction when starting out and had no wood. Then I built up enough new stock that I can replace with new as I use it. By the time I get to it, the wood will be old enough. In my limited experience, newer wood (5-10 years) gouges nicer than the 30-40 year stuff that I've used.

-Jim

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As a student I always bought new wood and don't have any particular desire for old wood unless it is gifted to me.

I did start making a neck for a vihuela out of shelves that were 50 years old and it was nice to work with.

 

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There are two broad changes that wood undergoes as it is "aged".

1. It reaches a stable moisture content with the ambient air.

Freshly cut woods tend to have a significant amount of "free water". The weight of the water can exceed the weight of the wood fibers for many species of wood. But if you cut new wood to just a little bigger than the size you want to work with, typically +15% larger in all dimensions to account for shrinkage, and let it air dry in a space with about the same temperature and relative humidity as your house, it will reach a stable moisture content in about 1 year per 1 inch of thickness. 

Basically, for wood rough dimensioned to sizes you would need to make a violin, there is no difference in stable moisture content between 1 year old wood and "old" wood.

2. It reaches desired physical properties.

Properties that are frequently discussed on this forum, like density, elastic modulus and sound speed, will mostly stabilize after the wood reaches a stable moisture content. After that, changes in these properties tend to be relatively small over many years. This suggests that new wood, rough dimensioned for violins, and dried for a year at room conditions, will achieve the same basic physical properties as "old" wood.

However, there is a research to indicate that sound damping will decrease significantly up to 100 years after it is cut. Some makers have taken to thermally aging their wood to accelerate this reduction of sound damping. Kiln drying wood is a tricky thing because there are other affects associated with exposing wood to higher than room temperatures, such as destructive oxidation of the cell walls.

Edited by ctanzio
clarity

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1 hour ago, ctanzio said:

There are two broad changes that wood undergoes as it is "aged".

1. It reaches a stable moisture content with the ambient air.

Freshly cut woods tend to have a significant amount of "free water". The weight of the water can exceed the weight of the wood fibers for many species of wood. But if you cut new wood to just a little bigger than the size you want to work with, typically +15% larger in all dimensions to account for shrinkage, and let it air dry in a space with about the same temperature and relative humidity as your house, it will reach a stable moisture content in about 1 year per 1 inch of thickness. 

Basically, for wood rough dimensioned to sizes you would need to make a violin, there is no difference in stable moisture content between 1 year old wood and "old" wood.

2. It reaches desired physical properties.

Properties that are frequently discussed on this forum, like density, elastic modulus and sound speed, will mostly stabilize after the wood reaches a stable moisture content. After that, changes in these properties tend to be relatively small over many years. This suggests that new wood, rough dimensioned for violins, and dried for a year at room conditions, will achieve the same basic physical properties as "old" wood.

However, there is a research to indicate that sound damping will decrease significantly up to 100 years after it is cut. Some makers have taken to thermally aging their wood to accelerate this reduction of sound damping. Kiln drying wood is a tricky thing because there are other affects associated with exposing wood to higher than room temperatures, such as destructive oxidation of the cell walls.

This is a very interesting comment, thank you. In the Reverend Morris book, he frequently laments that a particular maker showed great ability, “… He baked his wood, which ruined the sound.” I am assuming that kiln drying is what he is referencing.

A friend of mine who is a maker once showed me a plank of Sitka spruce that was dated 1905, and he was looking forward to making that into a violin.

I remember wondering at the time with the optimum age of wood is, and if I read your comment correctly you’re saying that the optimum time can be as little as one year.

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1 hour ago, ctanzio said:

Some makers have taken to thermally aging their wood to accelerate this reduction of sound damping.

I am one of those "some", and prefer newer (but not wet) wood.  Older wood is OK, but sometimes the oxidized layer is quite thick, and becomes excessively dark in the processing.  Acoustics-wise, new and aged wood appear to end up in about the same place after processing, with the old wood starting a little closer to the endpoint.

Hydrothermal aging is not only to reduce damping, but also to reduce dimensional variations with humidity, reduce density, increase speed of sound, and darken the wood.  And unfortunately make it a pain to carve and bend.

5 hours ago, Jim Bress said:

In my limited experience, newer wood (5-10 years) gouges nicer than the 30-40 year stuff that I've used.

Yes, newer wood carves like butter, especially compared to the processed wood I choose to suffer with.  And new maple ribs bend like noodles.

16 minutes ago, PhilipKT said:

I remember wondering at the time with the optimum age of wood is...

For optimum carving, newer is better. For avoiding after-assembl;y shrinkage and cracking, some amount of aging is probably desirable.  For sound, some folks think 300 years or so is "optimum"... but it is subjective depending on what sound you like and whether you think age has an influence on sound.  This could easily devolve into another lengthy "old vs. new" argument, but let's not go there.  The takeaway is that there is no absolute optimum, only personal preferences.

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9 hours ago, Wood Butcher said:

If the older wood is a makers "left overs", might it be better just to buy fresh wood, which may be better quality and possibly cheaper?

A good friend and colleague once said (while watching an auction that included wood and bridges form a maker who had recently passed); "Don't they know that a maker uses their best bridges first, and dies with their best wood?" I think there's some truth in that. I bought some very nice wood at that sale.

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1 hour ago, PhilipKT said:

This is a very interesting comment, thank you. In the Reverend Morris book, he frequently laments that a particular maker showed great ability, “… He baked his wood, which ruined the sound.” 

I think I've read those exact words.  It always scared me off.  But one of the makers on here was describing how he "baked" the wood, and in that case it wasn't any more than what you might expect many old fiddles have encountered on their own from being in the sun or an attic.  Probably more than once.

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2 hours ago, PhilipKT said:

This is a very interesting comment, thank you. In the Reverend Morris book...

My father was "a Reverend". I will give him a high posthumous salute for all he taught my sisters and I. One sister went on to adopt or foster-parent something like eight "hard-to-place" kids, mostly fetal alcohol or cocaine kids, including one kid who had an obsession with fire, who had burned down a previous foster parent's home. My sister and her husband adopted him, with full knowledge of his history.

My other sister was a Korean war orphan, who my family adopted when she was about four years of age. She had been taught to steal and shoplift to support her family (not her birth family, but people who had purchased her), so she was quite a challenge initially. Stuff kept disappearing. :lol:

In hindsight, if all of my parent's teachings didn't kick in right away, they certainly did later

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3 hours ago, PhilipKT said:

This is a very interesting comment, thank you. In the Reverend Morris book, he frequently laments that a particular maker showed great ability, “… He baked his wood, which ruined the sound.” I am assuming that kiln drying is what he is referencing.

Didn't know about Reverend Morris, so I looked him up and found this blunt little gem in his dictionary:

dalton.png.a50602093f5fc82c838cb723e0c69966.png

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1 hour ago, David Burgess said:

My father was "a Reverend". I will give him a high posthumous salute for all he taught my sisters and I. One sister went on to adopt or foster-parent something like eight "hard-to-place" kids, mostly fetal alcohol or cocaine kids, including one kid who had an obsession with fire, who had burned down a previous foster parent's home. My sister and her husband adopted him, with full knowledge of his history.

My other sister was a Korean war orphan, who my family adopted when she was about four years of age. She had been taught to steal and shoplift to support her family (not her birth family, but people who had purchased her), so she was quite a challenge initially. Stuff kept disappearing. :lol:

In hindsight, if all of my parent's teachings didn't kick in right away, they certainly did later

That’s a wonderful story, and to reinforce it, I’m sure you’ve read the Reverend Morris Book on British violin makers. His personal spirit comes through on almost every page. I cannot imagine but that he was a wonderful human being, and when he relates stories such as reveal what terrible people Betts and Fendt were, And other “men of easy honor” I could feel his shock that people could do such things. That’s probably my favorite violin related book.

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50 minutes ago, Adrian Lopez said:

Didn't know about Reverend Morris, so I looked him up and found this blunt little gem in his dictionary:

dalton.png.a50602093f5fc82c838cb723e0c69966.png

That made me laugh.

Another phrase the Reverend Morris used constantly during his book is when he describes getting a violin and says, “I immediately took it to pieces.”

I can just imagine the old gentleman with a hammer and a violin, “taking it to pieces.”

“I’ll be down to dinner straightaway, dear, I am busy taking this violin to pieces.”

 

Edited by PhilipKT

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Hydrothermal aging does produce interesting results as Don described. But it's a then a bit like carving glass. Ditto for vacuum processed wood. I have a whole log of maple from Old Standard Tonewood. John vacuum processed his stuff, and while it is very stable, it undergoes no color change (unfortunately) and still carves like glass. Nice wood, though

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3 hours ago, PhilipKT said:

I can just imagine the old gentleman with a hammer and a violin, “taking it to pieces.”

 

Just out of interest and for historical accuracy, he was 37 when he published his book.

 

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13 hours ago, Jeffrey Holmes said:

A good friend and colleague once said (while watching an auction that included wood and bridges form a maker who had recently passed); "Don't they know that a maker uses their best bridges first, and dies with their best wood?" I think there's some truth in that. I bought some very nice wood at that sale.

I can see how this would happen, Jeffrey.
There is a kind of sadness at someone keeping back their best bits for a special commission, a famous future client, or even to make something for one of their children. But it never happens, so the wood stays on the shelf still waiting for that opportunity, which never comes.

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In the first edition of Morris's book he writes two effusive pages over violin-maker William Walton (apparently no relation to the composer), to the extent of naming Walton's wife (née Alice Hunt) and three children (Jane, John and Alice Hunt). The couple were certainly married, so I wonder why the children still carried their mother's maiden surname and why the Reverend finds it necessary to disclose that fact? In the second edition Walton's entry (still highly complimentary) is reduced to 8 lines. I can't help feeling there may be a subtext here and that my violin may carry the taint of shocking immorality...

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He is also unrestrainedly approbatory on the subject of William Atkinson, one of whose violins is in my personal and proud possession. (Morris’s style seems to have rubbed off.)

”The scroll is a masterly conception and of Pheidian beauty.” It certainly is. 

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7 minutes ago, rudall said:

He is also unrestrainedly approbatory on the subject of William Atkinson, one of whose violins is in my personal and proud possession. (Morris’s style seems to have rubbed off.)

”The scroll is is masterly conception and of Pheidian beauty.” It certainly is. 

I discovered another reason why the Reverend approved of Atkinson. In the first edition "He has no spare moments save for one thing - religion". This is deleted in the second edition.

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Vacuum also lowers the boiling point of water, so it is possible to get wood down to almost 0% MC with a vacuum chamber at room temperature.

One of the challenges with thermal aging many materials is getting a high enough temperature to get results in a reasonable amount of time, versus having the material decompose through high temperature processes that would not normally activate at room temperatures.

For wood, once one approaches 140C, all sorts of nasty processes begin to kick in that would normally not activate at room temperature. And this is for wood being heated in a chamber filled with non-reactive gas, like nitrogen. This is referred to in the literature as pyrolysis testing. In the presence of oxygen, all bets are off that thermal aging at elevated temperatures will simulate natural aging at room temperature.

 

 

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