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Singing Sitka spruce – Wrangell’s music wood

Wrangell’s milling industry is taking a new turn toward niche markets. Ron Franz of Whale Bay Woods is cutting and selling music wood for instrument makers around the world. He spoke with KSTK’s Anne Hillman about what makes Wrangell’s Sitka spruce sing so sweetly.

Soundboard from Whale Bay Woods to make a guitar by Mark Campellone. Photo courtesy of Whale Bay Woods.

You can’t usually tell if a tree will make a fine-tuned guitar just by looking at it, but Ron Franz says you sometimes have other quick options. “And one of the ways is just to smack the log. I mean if it has a nice hollow vibration to it, I think it’s going to be a good sounding wood.”

Sitka spruce is one of the best woods in the world for making acoustic guitars. It has all of the ideal properties. “Sitka has a high resonance, has good fluctuation and modulus, but also it’s very tough so it lasts longer on a commercial instrument,” Franz explained.

What he means is that it sounds good. It vibrates perfectly when you strum the guitar strings, which matters for the tone of the guitar. “If you have the wrong woods you only have maybe a real good high range but not good low range or the opposite.”

To get good music wood, you first have to select the right trees. Franz and his company, Whale Bay Woods, started sourcing wood from Prince of Wales Island in the 1990s. Last year they set up shop in Wrangell. He said it’s the best music wood he’s seen in the region for a number of reasons.

“I think it’s more protected in here. There are a lot more storms and weather on the outside. And here I think the trees just grow straighter. There’s less affecting them. And the color is the main factor, and I’m not sure if it’s because of the soil. There’s a great soil difference between here and Prince of Wales and the soil here seems to be more conducive to having trees that are just nice and white.”

The wood has to look good, since it’s used for the face of the guitar. And the straighter the tree, the more high quality pieces they can make out of it.

Franz says the best trees for music wood are old and at the very end of their lifecycles. That works well with the current harvest strategy on Wrangell Island. “With the new pilot micro-sell program that the Forest Service is doing, you go out and select the trees,” he said. “They’re either dead or already blown down or dying. And so these trees aren’t going to last much longer anyway, so that’s their way of making the wood useful. And we pick those out, turn them into the Forest Service, they scale them up and we buy them.” One of the highest quality trees he bought was already dead and the resin had drained out.

After the trees are selected comes the cutting process. It requires precision because that can also have an impact on the tone of the instrument. “We take the board and we hand split them out so that they follow the grain perfectly, which is big. I mean the more perfectly you follow the grain, the longer your tone will sustain in there. Where if the grain is off a little bit, it just kind of like leaks away. We hand split them then saw them into 3/16 inch book-matched tops, quarter sawn. If you quarter saw it that adds a high degree of stiffness.”

Then sometimes, you can tell right away if the wood will sing. “Sometimes after you split them, you can hold a board in your hand and be talking like this and feel it vibrate in your hand, if it’s a really a high resonance. And so if you’re sitting here singing it’s just sitting there, vibrating in your hand. It’s amazing. But that’s only some of them. Some of them are just dead.”

But what Franz said isn’t dead is the milling industry in Wrangell. By specializing in music wood, he makes about $30-$40 per board foot. And the parts of the wood that can’t go toward instruments can still be sold as airplane wood and even arrow shafts for the blossoming archery market.

Whale Bay Woods plans to set up shop in Wrangell for the long-term. They’ve already purchased land and are moving their saws over from Prince of Wales Island.

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