Field Work: At Work Searching for Sweet-Sounding Spruce

Field Work: At Work Searching for Sweet-Sounding Spruce

John Griffin straps down a load and prepares for the journey home.

If John Griffin had a theme song to describe his life, it might very well be Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” Griffin’s business, Old Standard Wood, is headquartered in Fulton, Missouri, but he spends as much as five months on the road each year in search of high-quality spruce logs that can be processed into parts for stringed musical instruments. Over the past 30 years, he has looked at thousands of standing spruce trees, inspected thousands more logs, sawed and dried spruce lumber, studied and repaired instruments, and played guitars and violins made with spruce tops. It is just possible that Griffin knows spruce better than anyone.

Red spruce, often referred to as “Adirondack spruce” in the music business, is prized for its light weight, stiffness, and excellent tonal qualities. It has been traditionally used for the soundboards (tops) of guitars, mandolins, violins, and other stringed instruments. Most pre-World War II American guitars were made with red spruce tops and are still considered, by many, to be some of the best sounding guitars ever made. After the war, old-growth Sitka spruce from the Pacific Northwest became more available and red spruce fell out of favor. Sitka logs are larger, as well as easier and cheaper to process, and have desirable creamy white wood with tight growth rings. But many instrument makers and musicians, Griffin included, firmly believe that a red spruce top simply sounds better.

On a recent log buying trip to an undisclosed (trade secret) location in the Northeast, he pulled into a sawmill’s log yard with his one-ton Dodge truck towing a trailer. He stepped out of the truck, lit a cigarette, and began eyeballing a huge pile of spruce logs before walking over for a closer look. An intelligent, inquisitive businessman, Griffin is normally soft spoken, mellow, and unhurried. He’s direct and speaks with an easy, slight southern drawl. In the presence of quality spruce logs, though, he becomes animated and intense as he carefully assesses each log.

Coming back to the truck, he grabbed a can of black spray paint out of the toolbox, headed back for the pile, and marked the butts of several promising logs. Griffin is a regular visitor to this sawmill and the log yard operator, Craig, soon approached, exchanged greetings, and fired up the log loader. He began pulling out some of the marked logs for closer inspection. As Craig swung out an enormous 16-foot-long butt log, Griffin was already shaking his head. “He’s all twisted, no good.” (Griffin refers to all spruce logs and trees as “he.”) Another was brought out, this one a little smaller in diameter, but “straight as a gun barrel” and clear. “He’s a bullet,” remarked Griffin excitedly. It was set down in front of him and out came a big Stihl chainsaw with a 32-inch bar. He cut a clean inch-thick cookie off the butt of the log so he could more clearly see the growth rings and the color of the wood.

Most spruce trees of this size are 150-200 years old, with some occasionally reaching 300 years. To the experienced eye, the pattern of the rings on each log tells a story. Griffin pointed out where, after many years of suppressed growth, the tree broke through the canopy and began putting on size. He noted the three-inch-wide sapwood and the slowing of growth, but decided that the tree was still healthy when it was harvested. He explained that some trees, reaching for the sun, will twist, usually to the right. A spruce growing on a steep slope would have wider rings on the downhill side. This type of wood is abnormal and called compression wood, making anything sawn out of such an area unsuitable for instrument tops.

Griffin broke the cookie into pieces, held it up to his eye, and studied the growth pattern, looking for signs of twist, discoloration, pitch pockets, or any other defect that might preclude the log from being processed into quality instrument tops. He explained that some of these defects might not adversely affect the sound of the instrument, but that in the world of instrument making, “appearances matter.” To some extent, buying a log based on this fairly superficial and subjective visual inspection is a gamble, as there is no real way to know for certain what will be found inside. But thanks to his years of experience, Griffin seems to possess a kind of x-ray vision when it comes to spruce logs.

What is desirable is even growth, a well-centered pith, straight grain, white wood, and no knots. Since an instrument top is made up of two bookmatched pieces and is quartersawn for vertical grain, large diameter (at least 24 inches for a guitar top, a little smaller for a mandolin) is also a requirement. In a region where much of the forest has been cut over during the past century, spruce meeting these qualifications can be a rare find.

After spending the better part of a day picking through log decks, Griffin found a few full-length logs and several shorter butt cuts that he was willing to take a chance on. He had the logs stacked in a shaded area behind the sawmill for later pickup and spent some time waxing the fresh cut surfaces, as well as any areas with bark missing, to prevent drying and checking of the wood.

On the road again the next morning, heading for a logging job, Griffin told me how he came into this business. He began playing the guitar and fiddle as a kid and spent two years as a young adult studying under veteran instrument-maker and violin expert Robert Tipple. Later, thinking that he might want to build a few instruments himself and finding it difficult to locate quality tonewoods, Griffin took a trip to the Adirondacks in a small, diesel powered Volkswagen and returned a few days later with a couple of spruce butts in the trunk. He laughed, remembering that “it was an interesting ride back in a car that had a hard time doing 55 normally.”

He started Old Standard Wood in 1984, and since then has traveled throughout the Northeast, as well as the Pacific Northwest and Central America, prospecting for logs. Over time, his company has grown into a large supplier of musical instrument woods for both the individual maker and for large guitar manufacturers. Griffin figures he’s processed over 200,000 spruce soundboards in that time. He now has two trucks with trailers, sawmill equipment, and drying and storage facilities, and has added three full-time employees. Business is good enough that, in recent years, he’s forgone sleeping in his truck while on the road and started spending nights in motels.

We were soon at an active log landing. The logger, Fred, who has worked with Griffin many times over the years, approached the truck and greeted us. He had located a small grove of big, straight spruce that he thought Griffin might want to look at before they were cut. He likes going directly to the woods so he can have the logs cut to any length without waste. If, upon felling, it’s determined that the tree is unsuitable for instrument wood, the logger simply sends the log to the sawmill.

We walked out through an old cutting and were soon looking up at a group of 70-foot-tall red spruce with large trunks and good-sized limbs. John’s axe is 20 inches long and he used it to size up the trees while visibly checking for twist and hidden knots. After selecting three that he felt were promising, Dave, the cutter, expertly felled them and bucked them to length right there in the woods. They looked good and were soon on their way out to the landing in the bunks of a forwarder.

By the end of the week, Griffin had accumulated a full truck and trailer load, plus a few extra. The loaded truck and trailer can legally weigh 25,000 pounds, which allows him to haul about 1,800 board feet in a load. The neatly strapped load was impressive and he told me that he frequently has other drivers pull up behind him on the highway or pass him slowly as they look – “ooglers” he calls them.

After he dropped me off, I watched as he slowly rolled down the road. I wondered how many miles he’d traveled in search of spruce and thought about all the motel rooms and truck stop diners he’d visited along the way. While Willie Nelson may be a fitting soundtrack for Griffin’s lifestyle, he told me that it’s a saying, rather than a song, that best sums up his pursuit: “Originally in Latin, it goes like this… ‘I grew in the forest until killed by the cruel woodsman’s axe. In life I was mute; in death I sing sweetly.’ That says it all.”

Wagner Forest Management, Ltd. is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.

Ross Caron lives in northern New Hampshire and works as a procurement forester. He enjoys a variety of outdoor pursuits, reading, working with wood, and managing his family’s woodlots.


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