Why I don’t make sitka spruce guitars, and why I do make torrefied sitka spruce guitars
There is a reason I don’t usually make guitars with Sitka spruce soundboards: I’ve not liked the majority of guitars I’ve tried that had Sitka spruce soundboards. You might have a nice one. But I’ve not played many I would call “good”. That doesn’t mean there aren’t many good ones as many owners seem happy with their Sitka topped guitars. But I’m not encouraged to put all that work in when almost every guitar I’ve played that had a Sitka spruce top was rather two-dimensional sounding to my ears.
But I’m in a minority here. There are many good reasons why a lot of other makers use Sitka:
Appearance. Sitka can look amazing. Few woods look as nice. Many Sitka spruce trees are big old giants, and big, old trees often produce tight, fine looking straight quarter sawn timber. And Sitka has particularly pronounced medullary rays. It looks great. It’s often a nice colour. And never forget, whilst the ears are important, the eyes come first when it comes to buying guitars. If it doesn’t get past the eyes it will never get as far as the ears. And Sitka spruce often looks great.
Strength. Sitka spruce is strong. It’s one of the strongest spruces there is apparently. And as far as most makers are concerned, the stronger and stiffer a spruce is the better.
Price. Big, old trees offer a high yield to the sawyer, and supply and demand being what it is, high yield means low price. Sitka is a lot cheaper than European spruce, which is cheaper again than Adirondack spruce. Both European spruce and Adirondack spruce are usually smaller trees, more scarce and more highly regarded by makers. So the yield is less, and the demand is more. Supply and demand. So it looks good, it’s often very strong and isn’t so expensive compared to other spruces
Sound? Could be. I’ve no idea what it is people like about the sound of Sitka guitars as I’ve played so few I like. But if you look up what folk say about the “sound” of Sitka, they will tell you it has a “strong fundamental” note with few overtones. This may be the case, I’ve no idea.
So why don’t I use sitka spruce?
Mass. It’s heavy. In general Sitka is a very heavy spruce. And heavy soundboards tend to be quiet. I prefer loud. So I prefer woods that ain’t so heavy. That could explain why I like so few of the guitars I’ve tried. It might explain that strong fundamental” note with few overtones characteristic too. Perhaps they were made with typical heavy stuff?
Too stiff. Sitka tends to be very stiff. Too stiff for me. It’s too heavy and too stiff to suit the way I build soundboards these days. I build using a method of construction where the wood’s strength is not as important as it is on a traditional steel string guitar, in fact for my work, most Sitka spruce would be too stiff and too heavy. I’d have to spend a lot of time searching for light flexible Sitka, which isn’t very common. And why bother when I’ve hundreds of light European spruce, Adirondack spruce and Western red cedar tops to pick from already?
So how come I’ve just made a guitar with a Sitka spruce soundboard?
Because it’s special.
Of course it is. Everyone says their tonewood is special.
This is torrefied sitka spruce. Torrefaction is a process that’s been around for years but it’s only had a recent introduction to the guitar world. The wood is heated to a high temperature in an oxygen-free environment. This not only rids the wood of all moisture, both free and held, it changes the chemical composition of the wood. The wood becomes lighter in weight, a little weaker and it becomes much more dimensionally stable. Some say it’s like “pre ageing” the wood. Some makers claim it gives that “vintage tone”. I don’t know if it does. That sounds a bit like marketing to me. What the process does do is lower the mass quite a lot and strength a little, and make it dimensionally stable, and yes, wood tends to do all of those things as it ages.
In short, torrefied Sitka spruce is lighter and weaker than the Sitka on all the guitars I’ve tried and disliked in the past. To be honest it’s no longer Sitka. It’s more like a completely dimensionally stable sheet of wood-like material that looks a bit like Sitka spruce. But darker. It’s the right mass, the right stiffness and it’s totally stable.
Now that is something that interests me.
So, after all these years I’ve made a guitar with a Sitka soundboard. It’s a Model C, and is somewhere between the Session King series and my much posher “Signature series”. The basic design is similar to the Session King, but the soundboard is arched slightly for a more complex sound, with more mid and a little less bass. The decoration, in this case, is good old Indian rosewood binding and herringbone purfling. The back and sides are fine grained Khaya mahogany. The guitar is finished in a high gloss lacquer.
So, I’ve finally made a Sitka spruce topped guitar. And I really like it.