Perhaps one of greatest things about living in the rainy province of British Columbia, Canada is ironically the weather. Our rainy climate, coupled with mild never-too-hot temperatures make perfect conditions for Sitka Spruce to grow. Sitka, which is only one member of the spruce family, has long been used for musical instruments because of its density, clarity, color and most importantly, sound. However, not all Sitka has that perfect color, or grain, or sound... but this is where the fun lies, in finding that perfect log.
The Science of Spruce
Spruce, which is related to the pine family of trees, is an evergreen tree which is a major source of pulpwood for paper and has been used in construction of homes and furniture for hundreds of years. It's needles are angular in cross section (Not flattened like in Hemlocks or Firs). The Spruces (Genus Picea) are found all over North America, and a few places throughout the world. The most common ones being:
- Red Spruce (Picea Rubens)
- White Spruce (Picea Glauca)
- Black Spruce (Picea Mariana) from the east
- Englemann Spruce (Picea Engelmanii) of the Rockies
- Sitka Spruce (Picea Sitchensis) of the Pacific forest belt
- Siberian Spruce (Picea Obovata) from Russia.
Spruce generally grows in huge coniferous forests. They are type of tree called a Gymnosperm (which mean that the seeds are exposed to the air in the form of a pine cone, in contrast to angiosperms in which the seed is hidden from air.)
Where It All Begins
As mentioned earlier, British Columbia has a great climate for Sitka Spruce, but it takes more than great weather for a good guitar top. The Trees which are used for musical instruments are generally at least 250-350 years old, so they have survived much throughout their lives including:
- Animals eating them when very small
- Forest Fires
It's very common for these trees to have survived 3 or 4 forest fires in their lifetimes, and the ash produced in these forest fires makes very fertile soil for future generations of trees. Once a suitable tree is found, it's time to harvest it. These trees are part of very old growth forest which we believe should never be clear cut, and should never be used for pulp or paper. It's for these reasons that we only use selective logging (Which basically means that only one or two trees are removed from the forest, instead of the entire forest) or wood that is naturally fallen (Such as from a storm).
The tree is cut by hand with chainsaws, and flown out by helicopter. No logging roads to be built through sensitive habitat or streams, no heavy machinery disturbing the ecosystem. Musical instruments are part of the value-added forestry sector.
So, the tree is cut and flown out of the forest to an area where it can be marked to identify it and determine it's grade. The tree is then either sliced into moveable pieces and hauled off by truck, or put as part of a log-boom and send down river to be collected later.
A'moveable piece' of Sitka.
The Larrivee Mill
In 1997, when we moved from our 10000 square foot factory to our 30000 square foot facility, we kept the smaller building and decided to turn it into a saw mill for spruce and western red cedar. The mill is run by Jean Larrivée and Murray Wimble, both of which bring years of knowledge and experience with them. Jean brings the knowledge of what properties the spruce must have to be good for musical instruments, and Murray brings the knowledge of sawmill practices and machinery. Together they produce guitar tops for not only Larrivée, but for many other major guitar companies as well.
Some of the guitar tops produced at the mill
The previously cut down tree is transported here and cut into 24 inch rounds (24 inches being the maximum height of a guitar top. At this stage the wood needs to be kept very wet to keep it from splitting. The wood is sprayed down twice daily with cold water, and the building is kept very moist and quite chilly.
Splitting the 'round' by hand
Also see a 15 second video clip of this by clicking HERE.
The rounds now have to be split into blocks by hand (See a 15 second video click of this by clicking HERE). This is because we need to get quarter sawn pieces that are nine inches wide from a round block. What we get are blocks that can be a little triangular in shape (what happens if you put many little triangles together? They eventually join up together forming a circle). If the blocks are to be cut into tops within a day then they are left the way they are, if they are not going to be cut right away the ends of the blocks are painted with a thick latex paint. This stops the ends from splitting.
Blocks split from the rounds.
With the blocks of spruce cut, we now have to slice the soundboards out of the block by hand (This is done by hand to get the highest possible yield). The blocks are loaded one at a time on our band saws and sliced one cut at a time (See a 15 second video click of this by clicking HERE). The pieces are kept in perfect pairs (So they may be book matched later) and if there is any leftovers from the block they are kept for bracing wood.
Sawing the soundboards from Sitka blocks
Also see a 15 second video clip of this by clicking HERE.
The Larrivee Factory
With the soundboards cut, the sets are brought back to the factory, and stacked into sets to air dry. Soundboards are not the type of thing you would want to kiln dry (This is because you do not want the sap to crystallize prematurely). The wood is stacked in pairs in a room-temperature room to dry. They will sit here for a minimum of a month (or much longer depending on the need at the time) and be brought out to the open shop floor. They will sit on the shop floor for a week or so to acclimatize to the environment in the shop.
Sitka Spruce soundboards air-drying