Tonewood in the Making

Description, Preparation & Grading

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Tonewood Trees, Species & Description, Tonewood in the Making, Tree selection, Time of Harvest, Location of Harvest

Hand Splitting & Sawing, Air Drying, Jointing & Sizing, Bracing & Kerfing, Spruce & Cedar Grades, Maple Grades

Utilization of our Resource, Packaging for Shipping


 Tonewood Trees

Our trees are slow growing because of a short growing season and soil conditions in our region, thus creating tight even grain. Tonewoods are aged and dried naturally. The tonewood is harvested and prepared from the highest quality selected trees and prepared for the construction of fine handmade musical instruments. We supply these tonewoods for a wide variety of musical instruments including woods for bowed instruments like violin, violas and for fretted instruments such as all types of guitars, mandolins, and smaller instruments. All of our tonewoods are prepared and naturally seasoned the same way as our Master Grade tonewoods. Moisture Content 6%.

Species & Description

Red Spruce Picea rubens (aka Adirondack Red Spruce) grows in eastern Canada and in the eastern United States. Said to be the strongest and stiffest of all the spruce species. Red Spruce has a very high velocity of sound, and has the highest stiffness across and along the grain of all the top woods. Like Sitka, it has strong fundamentals, but it also exhibits a more complex overtone content. Tops made out of Red spruce have the highest volume ceiling of any species, yet they also have a rich fullness of tone that retains clarity at all dynamic levels. We are very fortunate to live in a part of eastern Canada where there has been very little commercial logging and there still remain large old growth spruce trees.

Engelmann Spruce Picea engelmannii, The primary choice for finger picking guitars.  Engelmann is also becoming very popular with Guitar Builders and Violin Makers. With is High overtone content and strong fundamental tone Engelmann Spruce delivers a warm mellow tone that is well suited for light-medium strumming and finger picking.

Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis, harvested in British Columbia, Sitka Spruce. Standard on most production guitars now, and for good reason. This topwood offers a punchy direct sound although it tends to have low overtone content. Many bluegrass players prefer Sitka Spruce for this reason.The color of Sitka ranges from white to creamy to very light brown. It should be noted that some regions of Western Canada produce a very white Sitka Spruce in which discoloring is rare. We target this whiter Sitka Spruce in response to customers desiring a brighter, purer white soundboard similar to Engelmann Spruce and European Spruce.

Western Red Cedar Thuja plicata, used for decades as a soundboard material on classical guitars, Cedar is also popular among steel-string enthusiasts. Cedar is a wood known for producing a "warm," mellow tone, one whose overtones are evenly distributed, rather than concentrated on the highs and lows, making it especially suitable for finger style playing. Cedar's light brown color also lends a guitar a visual warmth that many players find appealing. With a dark mellow tone is tends to be a great choice for Classical, Flamenco, finger picking and Celtic style guitars. Another benefit is that is sounds "open" almost immediately.

Tonewood in the Making


Musical Forests Inc. Canadian based company that is the Holder of a Select Cut harvesting permit, we do not clear cut.

Tonewood is no ordinary wood, there are certain steps that have to be taken to insure its quality. If someone does not know what they are doing, they can take a high grade tonewood tree and turn it into low grade lumber, if it is not processed correctly. We believe that we have implemented a system that insures the quality tonewoods that Luthiers need and expect.

Nowadays it seems almost every type of wood is considered tonewood, we believe this not to be true. We believe that there are steps which have to be taken to ensure its quality so it will be suitable for the use in instrument building.


Please note: Violin and Fretted instrument tonewoods are processed and air dried in a slightly different way, we have noted this and have applied two different sections where the process changes for each.


The 7 (seven) step process that insures this quality:

  1. Tree selection

  2. Time of Harvest

  3. Location of Harvest

  4. Hand Splitting & Sawing

  5. Air Drying

  6. Jointing & Sizing

  7. Grading & Seasoning

1. Tree selection

Evaluating & selecting tonewood trees while they are still standing is a huge advantage in getting the quality of trees needed for tonewood, each tree is inspected before choosing it for harvest.  We start our search in the fall months for suitable trees which have a good portion of the tree free of branches.

Only certain trees are suitable for use has tonewoods. These trees must be large enough, a minimum of 16" diameter trees are chosen. Trees musts be straight growth, NO SPIRAL growth is permitted in tonewood grade trees and the grain lines per inch must be tight. A strip of bark and skin is removed from the tree so the wood is exposed and the growth of the fiber can be observed to make sure that the tree is straight growing.

We then bore the tree with a increment bore to see the grain orientation. If the tree is suitable for tonewood it is marked with florescent tape and its location is taken with GPS and logged in a log book.


2. Time of Harvest

The best tonewood trees are harvested from December to the end of January. This is when the moisture content in a live tree is at its lowest point. When trees are cut in these months they produce lighter weight wood and it takes less time to season. An added benefit is when the moisture goes to the outside of the tree near the bark in the winter months it also takes with it much of the minerals (red stain). So, if your see soundboards that has a reddish discoloration in it, there is a very good chance that it was cut in the wrong time of the year.

Harvesting tonewood in the winter month produces, lighter, clearer, better color and tonewood that has a better tap tone.

When there is a minimum of 2 feet of snow on the ground we return to cut and extract the tree. The trees are cut and hauled out of the bush in 100" lengths by snowmobile to a staging area (base camp) for primary processing. All trees are checked to make sure that there are no bird nests in them before harvesting. The greatest care is given to our environment, the only evidence of our presence where a tonewood tree was harvested is a stump and the tree (3" diameter) top is left for reseeding. There is absolutely no damage done to the forest floor.


3. Location of Harvest

In our experience, the best tonewood trees are found in temperate and cold boreal forests where the soil is thin,  and on the North face of mountains and hills where the trees have less exposure to the sun.

If a tree survives and reaches a large enough size to make tonewood in these conditions it is a very tough tree, and deserves to be made into a musical instruments rather than chopped into firewood. It is incredibly hard work removing logs in an uncontrolled environment with no heavy equipment to do the lifting. Alpine trees tend to have thinner and more grain lines per inch.


4. Hand Splitting & Sawing

The 100" logs are sawn into 18" - 24" lengths called bolts depending on the diameter of the tree. These bolts are then hand split into four pie shaped quarter sections. Hand splitting the bolts into four quarter section insures the straightness of the growth can be seen. We always leave a live edge on all billets, wedges and tops to be removed at a later time.


Violin Wood, Spruce & Maple: The tonewood bolts are then hand split into four pie shaped quarter sections with splitting wedges and a froe. The bark is removed with a draw knife at this point. When bolts are hand split virtually all the stress is removed from the wood. These quarter sections can now be quarter sawn, radial sawn or hand split into the applicable dimension. Some quarter sections are larger and the tops or backs can be sawn into rectangular shapes rather than wedges, this allows for extra wood to be used in other parts of the instrument. At this point a thin slice about 1/4" thick x 4" wide x 16" long from each quarter section is hand split off with a froe and placed with the tops from each quarter section, this small section will be used for stress testing and tap tone testing during the grading phase.



Fretted Instrument Wood, Spruce & Cedar: The bark is removed with a draw knife at this point and the two wings are then hand split from each quarter. By splitting off these wings, you are left with a billet that is 100% on quarter. This rectangular shaped billet is where guitar tops are sawn from.  When you hand split straight growth bolts you virtually remove all the stress from the wood.

 These hand split wings taken from the quarters make very nice bracewood billets. Guitar billets are sawn into 2 piece pairs called book matched sets (a top). The back side of the first slice and the top side second slice is the book match set, and so on. Depending on the thickness of the billets there is usually anywhere from 2 to 20 tops in a billet. It is important to saw the halves of each set the same thickness, the thickness will depend on the instrument tops that best suit the width of the billet that is being sawn. Tops range in thickness from 3/16" for flat tops and up to 1-1/2" for arch tops.


“Have you ever seen or worked a top that when turned against the light will appear to have one half a different color than the other half"?? This is caused by the top not being sawn 100% on quarter.


5. Air Drying

This is the slowest part of the process. We do not kiln dry any of our tonewoods, kiln drying harms the resonating quality and weakens wood, we have done tests that indicates this. We leave the billets and wedges outside until late spring; wood will dry outside in cold weather if you live in a lower humidity climate like we do.



Violin Wood, Spruce & Maple: We sticker each individual top, back, ribs & necks in piles of approximately 30 per pile.

The tonewood is then put into our dry room, which contains an air exchanger that removes the stall humid air and replaces it with fresh dryer air. There is no heat or forced air used in this process. The tops will stay in the dry room for about 1 year and will go down to 6 – 7% moisture content.




Fretted Instrument Wood, Spruce, Cedar & Maple: Each individual top, back, sides & necks is stickered in piles of approximately 50 per pile. The tonewood is then put into our dry room, which contains an air exchanger that removes the stall humid air and replaces it with fresh dryer air. There is no heat or forced air used in this process. The tonewood will stay in the dry room for about 3 months and will go down to 6 – 7% moisture content.


Please Note: Do not let anyone tell you "Kiln Dried" tonewood is better than or equal to air dried tonewood (naturally seasoned). We have tried it and have seen many doing it. If you want to take a perfectly good top or billet with a good tap tone and turn it into a top with the tap tone of a Brick, go ahead and try it. Kiln drying tonewood is done for one reason and one reason only, "To Speed Up the Process" so it can be shoved out the door quicker. It is very noticeable, when you can pick up a piece of spruce or cedar and tell by it's weight and the way it feels if it has been kiln dried, it feels different, like the life has been sucked out of it. Kiln drying works for lumber and flooring, but if sound counts in what you are trying to build, forget it.


6. Jointing & Sizing

After the tonewood has been air dried for the appropriate amount of time it is removed from the dry room for Jointing, Sizing & Grading. The live edge is now jointed, this live edge gives us a perfectly straight line with the way the grain runs in the tree to follow. We prefer to joint the live edge of each individual piece or set, this eliminates all runout.

The tonewood is then sized with pre-cut templates made of clear poly glass. Templates for violins, violas, classical, steel strings guitar, mandolins and arch top guitars are used.


7. Grading

After sizing the tonewood is now ready for Grading.


We base our grading on three criteria;

  1. Stiffness (stress tested)

  2. Tone (tap tone tested)

  3. Cosmetics (inspected for color and grain orientation)

Each piece is closely inspected for color, figure, grain orientation and runout.


Bracing & Kerfing

Guitar Bracing (bracewood) and Kerfing: we also produce based on the same strict standards we apply to the soundboard wood preparation, and all Bracing and Kerfing are tested in the same way. Bracing & Kerfing is hand-split and then quarter-sawn into rectangular pieces to allow the Builder to utilize the entire piece of wood received.


Violin Wood, Spruce & Maple:

The thin slice 1/4" thick x 4" wide x 16" long that was split from each quarter section during the hand splitting phase is now stress tested for its parallel grain and across grain stiffness.

Then each piece is tap tone tested. After all of the information is collected from this inspection and testing, it is only then determined which grade each top will fall into.

After grading the tonewood it is then taken and stored in our stock room where it will acclimatize (season) for up to 5 years.


Fretted Instrument Wood, Spruce, Cedar & Maple:

Each top & back is then held above powerful halogen lights to check for the smallest pitch pocket or any other imperfection that might be hidden below the surface. Each piece of tonewood is stress tested for its parallel grain and across grain stiffness. Then each piece of tonewood is tap tone tested.

After all of the information is collected from this inspection and testing, it is only then determined which grade each set or piece will fall into.

After grading the tonewood it is then taken and stored in our stock room where it will acclimatize (season) for up to 10 years.

Spruce & Cedar Grades

Grain lines per inch

Very tight Tight Medium Wide
20+ 16 - 20 12 - 16 8 - 12
  • Master Grade: Very tight and tight straight evenly spaced grain lines, No color variation. No runout. Excellent tap tone and very stiff. Perfect quarter cut 90 degrees.

  • 3A Grade: Very tight to tight straight grain lines, very slight gradual widening of grain lines from one side to the other, No color variation. No runout. Excellent tap tone and very stiff. Perfect quarter cut 90 degrees.

  • 2A Grade: Very tight and tight grain line spacing, slight variation in grain spacing, straight grain lines, No color variation, No runout. Excellent tap tone and very stiff. Perfect quarter cut 90 degrees.

  • 1A Grade: Very tight, tight and medium grain lines spacing, may contain variations in grain line spacing and /or may contain a small amount of pronounced grain. Minimal runout, excellent tap tone and stiffness.

  • B Entry Level Grade: Very tight and tight, medium and wider grain lines, may contain and/or variations in grain line spacing, some color variations and pronounced grain. Minimal runout. Excellent tap tone and very stiff.

Please note: All grades are processed and naturally seasoned the same way. Our grading is very strict, thus all grades are of excellent quality and the only difference from the Master to the 2A Grade is that there is a little grain line spacing variation as it works toward the outer edges, the stiffness, color and sound are very similar. Stability, stiffness and sound are excellent in all grades. For example, a Entry Level top can have the same stability, stiffness and sound has a Higher Grade top.

Getting to know the preferences of each individual Builder has been very helpful and we always appreciate a their input. Bottom line is, a sloppy person can take master grade materials and build a instrument that sounds like a brick, and a meticulous experienced  or  novice Builder can take sub-standard tonewoods and build a good sounding guitar. But, Master Grade tonewoods in the hands of a gifted Luthier can produce a Masterpiece.

Although tonewood production is very hard work, we love doing it. I recently read a musical instruments market study that said, that the only market growth is in the high end handmade instruments sector. So this is quite comforting news to those of us that supply high end tonewood and builders of handmade instruments.

Maple Grades

  • Master: Exhibition Grade, quarter sawn, 100% coverage of deep intense flame or quilt, excellent tap tone.

  • 3A: Exotic Grade, quarter sawn, 100% coverage of deep tiger stripe flamed or quilted, excellent tap tone

  • 2A: Nice Grade, quarter sawn, 100% coverage of good and shallower flamed or quilted, excellent tap tone.

  • 1A: quarter sawn, slightly flamed or quilted and excellent tap tone.

  • Entry Level: quarter sawn, excellent tap tone. For first time entry level Builders who don't want to spend alot of money to try lutherie.

Master Grade

3A Grade

2A Grade

1A Grade

  • Flamed Maple: Quarter sawn, very popular amongst high end handmade instrument makers, the traditional back and rib wood for the violin family. It has become popular amongst electric guitar and bass Builders. Looks awesome.

  • Quilted Maple: Popular with very high end handmade guitar and bass  Builders. High Grade is becoming very rare. High Grade looks incredible.

  • Spalted Maple: Becoming very popular with electric guitar and bass builders, it looks amazing when finished, with it's pinks, oranges, light and dark browns and black lines. Some spalted maple has flaming and quilting in it also.

Please note: Quilted Maple is flat sawn to obtain it's figure.

Utilization of our Resource

We utilize 100% of our trees. What is not used in the production of tonewood is used to construct the shipping boxes, 3/4" boards. So check the sides on your boxes when you receive them for usable bracewood and bass bars, etc. The box material is air dried.

Packaging for Shipping

All of our tonewood is shipped in boxes constructed of recycled cardboard, Poly, plywood and 3/4" board, very durable packaging, to insure that you get your tonewood in good condition. Be sure to check your boxes for usable Eastern spruce bracewood.

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Dear Customer, Please note that because you do not see a picture of something specific that you have in mind on our website does not mean we do not have it in stock, it just means that it is impossible for us to put pictures of everything we have in stock on our website. It is true that we ahead of time cut to size such items as backs and sides, tops and necks but we also leave a portion of our stock in larger billet form so we may custom cut to your specific requirements. So if you have something specific in mind, please feel free to contact us for its availability, there is a very good chance that we will be able to provide it for you.

Tonewoods for: Violin, Classical Guitar, Western Guitar, Archtop Guitar, Mandolin, and Electric Guitar/Bass