Recovered Old Growth Timber
Since it's emergence onto the world market barely four years ago, recovered old growth timber has caused a tremendous stir in the musical instrument world. It is called submerged timber, old wood, sunken wood, water-logged wood, timeless timber, lost timber and a number of other names. Knowlegable people are either embracing it or condeming it as "snake oil", often both without ever seeing a piece of the wood or playing an instrument using it. For this reason I want to take this opportunity to relate our expierence and a small amount of our research results involving this rarest of woods. Much of this information could be compiled from various places on the net but I feel it important to present it here in one unit.A Brief Background
The term "Recovered Old Growth Timber" is self explanatory, but to lay the foundation of our discussion, here are some basics. Old Growth Timber is lumber from forests that are virtually untouched by the influences of man since the recession of the last Ice Age aproximately 10,000 years ago. Specifically, old growth forests are found in their natural state, consisting of the variety of flora that developed spontaneously with no influences from man. These forests have never been subjected to the disrupting effects of logging. In ecosystems such as this, Nature achieved the perfect balance to support the largest variety of species of both hardwoods and softwoods. In the vast forests surrounding the Great Lakes region, these forests developed into endless expanses of towering evergreens, centurys old, that served as a natural canopy to the forests below. Under this canopy over the ensuing 10,000 years developed unlimited expanses of hardwoods including birch, oak, elm, beech and maple. Due to the dense canopy above, the hardwoods grew very slowly and consistantly, producing extremely dense, evenly grained and beautiful wood. Unless these forests fell victim to a natural disaster such as a lightning strike and fire, the trees would grow slowly for many centuries.
This is the natural enviornment that greeted the first settlers and our forefathers when they arrived on the American continent beginning in the late 15th century. These endless forests became the building materials that sustained the biggest migration in the history of modern man and the foundation upon which modern North America was built. As western expansion increased over the centuries, so did the destruction of these virgin forests. The unbridled destruction reached its peak in the period between 1850 and 1900, finally halting in 1919. Today barely 2% of the virgin forests survive. During its peak, upwards of five million trees a year were cut in the Great Lakes region alone. These trees would be transported by the only means available at that time, floated to the mills down any available waterway to the closest mill town where the huge trees could be turned into the building materials of a Nation. These mill towns closely resembled the boom towns in the West that sprang up whenever gold or silver was discovered, then dissapeared just as quickly when the riches ran out.
A situation existed in those long gone logging days that we have just come to understand in the past few years. During the entire history of the logging of the American wilderness, and especially during its peak in the last half of the 19th century, literally hundreds of thousands of logs bound for the mills became waterlogged on their journey and sank in the rivers and lakes before they could be processed into lumber. In some of these rivers and lakes the ideal conditions exist that have allowed this priceless heritage of the American continent to survive intact. In the northern waterways and lakes, when the water temperture remains extremely low and the oxygen content limited, the natural forces, especially the bacterial degradation that would normally turn the wood into useless pulp in a short time are arrested and the wood has survived. It has not survived unchanged however. In the cold depths of the Great Lakes especially, natural leaching and the action of anaerobic bactertia which live in the absence oxygen have been at work for the centuries the wood has been submerged. These bacteria have entered the logs and consumed only the substances such as the resin, starch and all the soft materials inside the cells, leaving the wood and its cellular structure intact. The wood now consists of millions of hollow chambers that were once cells full of organic materials. It is this verifiable fact that has led the interest in this wood in the musical instrument field.Old Wood in the 21st Century
Sadly, the virgin forests that Mother Nature nurtured for millenia are all but gone due to our greed and waste. The few acres that remain in America and Canada are now protected from total destruction.
It is just this sort of wood that the great Masters used in the building of their instruments. Carefully chosen old growth timbers exhibiting the qualities needed to produce the voice of the instrument intended. It is this same wood that many of the great instruments of Americas first Golden Age of instrument building in the 1920's and 1930's were constructed of. With the advent of war in 1941 however, the almost all remaining stocks of this wood were quickly consumed by the war effort, seemingly never to be seen again. A few years ago fate smiled on us in spite of the shortsighted greed exhibited by our predecessors. The existance of the vast underwater forests of virgin old growth wood have been discovered and a few people have done their homework carefully to study and learn how to once again make this gift of nature available to a few lucky people.Science and Application
It was with a good bit of skepticism that I began my study of the old wood when I learned of it. Being an engineer and craftsman of musical instruments for thirty years, and having worked for the major manufacturers, I have seen more than my share of false claims and misinformation that cannot stand up to serious science.
I researched the claims that existed and aquired some samples of submerged maple that were dried properly. We had the resources to have the wood totally tested by an independent Government Laboratory equiped to certify all results. We were presented with CERTIFIED, SCIENTIFIC documentation to support the claims circulating about the wood pertaining to its density, strength to weight ratio, modulus of elasticity and all other standard industry specifications. In addition we were able to recieve solid data showing the acoustic performance characteristics of this wood. For us this was critical because when studying the data on the physcial properties of the wood alone, the wood exhibits some characteristics that normally would render the wood questionable in acoustic performance. However, recieving clear data showing the wood measurably superior in reducing the natural damping effects on sound waves when compared to modern kiln dried samples of the same species, we knew that it was time to go to practical application and build some instruments.
We did not have to wait long to see some definative results. Building two identical electric solid body guitars, one having a single component made from recovered old growth wood as the only difference, we brought in a number of professional musicians to a recording studio. Without telling them any details of the guitars, we asked each musician to play the two guitars and comment. The results were conclusive, with some musicians picking the old wood guitar as having superior performance BEFORE it was plugged in. Comments were favorable as to the guitars increased resonance and depth of tonal response.
Our tests on acoustic instruments were next. Here we learned that just the application of the old wood in instrument constuction in itself was no guarantee of positive or favorable results. A firm working knowlege of design and construction techniques is necessary in order to understand how and where to apply the use of the wood. Indeed you may expierence unfavorable results if you simply mindlessly substitute the wood in traditional construction methods. But in some remarkable cases we achieved outstanding results that boosted the performance of the instruments built far beyond what most builders can construct today. The strength of response, tonal range and clarity of sound produced can only be compared to the best instruments built three quarters of a century before.
To demonstrate that application is the key, the results of further tests are of importance. Two instruments were comissioned to be built by a recognized Master. The first was made of all recovered woods, maple, and fir for the top, similar to the fir used by the old Masters. Before the instrument was done the Master told us it was going to be unacceptable. Indeed the tone was rich and full but the instrument lacked any power. The builder was of the opinion that the resins and other materials absent in the old wood were important factors in the performance of the top. The second instrument was identical except that it was made with a top of modern kiln dried red spruce. It performed with a response that was befitting a professional instrument in all points of comparison. We ended this test here. As we are not specialists in this particular instrument , the research served our needs as far as it went, and leaves the door open for others to carry the study further who can best apply the study to their field of expertise.
Other results are even more conclusive. The use of this wood in the construction of the wood rim in five string banjos is now common practice for some of the elite professional builders. The results are immediately obvious when doing direct Banjo A vs. Banjo B tests of instruments either in both the studio and in live situations.Seasoning
There is no aspect of the recovered submerged timber that is more important than PROPER seasoning. There are a small but growing number of sources for this wood. However only a handful of the existing suppliers have a firm grasp of the importance of proper drying, and fewer have the ability to do it correctly.
Drying wood, first and obviously is the process of removing the moisture. Less obviously to the novice or inexpierenced is that drying STABILIZES the wood structure in the absence of the natural water, allowing it to be used as a building material for whatever one chooses. Drying wood is not the process of putting it in an oven and driving the moisture out by force and cooking it. A wood kiln does not resemble a kiln for firing clay. If one applies standard wood drying techniques to this wood, the results are often costly failures.
It should not be hard to understand that proper drying and stabalization of wood that has been submerged in water for a century or more involves more than simply removing it from the water and letting it air dry, or even more than applying current industry kiln drying technology. Indeed, it is now understood that the worst thing that one can do is attempt air drying of this wood. Because the cells are now in a sense empty of the substances present in normal wood, the submerged wood can exhibit some rather unpleasant symptoms when allowed to air dry. These include the tendancy to collapse at the cellular level as the water leaves the wood, and achieving stability is severly compromised . This wood processed this way is extremely unstable and building anything with critical dimensions such as a musical instrument or detailed cabinet work could result in component failure. I have seen graphic examples of this in the construction of some banjo components made by inexperenced people.
We discovered the hard way that some dealers of this wood, while having the recovery techniques mastered, had little understanding of the wood itself. Even the investment of the hi-tech equipment needed to properly kiln dry this wood is not enough if you dont understand the process. The kilns necessary to do the job are the most advanced in the industry and rely on computer technology. The wood is brought into an environment of 100% moisture as soon as possible after it is removed from the water. This is critical. Then the computer must be programed for the ideocyncracies of this material. The correct drying takes as much as twice as long as modern wood, sometimes several months. During this process, the computer is in charge and the wood is not removed until the computer signals success.
The results are truly impressive. The extremely tight grain and even growth yield a wood that is extremely strong, unbelievably stable and at the same time resonant beyond anything available today. This is a combination of characteristics impossible with any current wood. A comparison of the old growth maple and modern harvested maple visually can alert you to the potential. Modern maple used in musical instrument construction can have between four and ten grain lines per inch. The old growth maple has been known to exhibit up to seventy grain lines per inch. Again, wood such as this is not available normally to modern builders. The stability of this wood when properly seasoned is unmatched. Indeed the process of bending this wood after drying for making the sides of acoustic instruments is very challanging as its stiffness is remarkable.Supply
This wood will never be available in large industrial quantities. This is at the same time its blessing and curse. The difficulty in salvaging, drying and processing the wood results in expenses far above the standard logging industry, and add to this the fact that salvaging in the Great Lakes is seasonal, with the working period between May and October only. After that the lakes get too cold and then freeze over. When removing the wood from the lakes and rivers is it often impossible to select by species. The wood is brought up and then it is discovered what was salvaged. For musical instruments, these factors make the use of the wood too much trouble and cost for the large mass production factories, which is fine to the suppliers. They want the wood to go to those who can get the best use out of it and dont want to see it reduced to the level of industrial materials. This means that for the craftsman and small maker of instruments, furniture, and many other items, the vast underwater forests of old growth timber will be around for a long time, to the select few with foresight and ability.Summary
To bring all this together, let me say that according to our research, including independent laboratory results and our own building, the old growth submerged timber being salvaged from northern lakes and waterways, when processed and dryed correctly does indeed give the builder of stringed instruments a building material worth investigating.
I fall short of making glorious statements about it being the magic bullet that will make anyone a masterbuilder for obvious reasons. I know of specific cases where supposed master builders have built with this material and had less than favorable results. I can duplicate their tests in many cases and achieve fabulous results because I am building with the goal to achieve success. Many build with preconcieved methods grounded in copying prewar building techniques or narrow minded conceptions of how things must be done based on existing or historical practices. This material is like nothing ever available to the instrument builder. It does not resemble the wood used in the famous prewar (WWII) instruments in many ways. You must be able to think outside the box. You should have a firm grasp of the job at hand and understand why you do something someway, not just copy the methods exactly, laid down by those who went before. Understanding the reason for an action lets you study the characteristics of this wood and adapt when necessary to let the wood produce the desired results by doing what any Master is supposed to be able to do, manipulate the materials at hand to produce the end results desired.
For the builder with foresight and ability, Master or not, this wood will surely open new opportunities to you in the search for THE elusive sound you seek.
© 2004 by Scott Zimmerman