Old wood, new wood and the sound of spruce

The first sound in the life of a guitar is a thud against a tree. Any lumberjack who's worth his salt will listen to the acoustics in a living tree before chopping it down for a luthier, says David Freeman, a luthier himself.

The first sound in the life of a guitar is a thud against a tree.

Any lumberjack who’s worth his salt will listen to the acoustics in a living tree before chopping it down for a luthier, says David Freeman, a luthier himself.

“Timber cruisers will take an axe and swing the blunt end against a big Sitka tree and just listen to it ring,” says Freeman, who is 54.

The sound emanating from the West Coast giant will tell the lumberjack if the wood is able to resonate while still being relatively stiff.

“That’s the beginning of it.”

From then on, the tapping and listening process repeats itself, says Freeman, who makes guitars at his workshop in the small farming town of Tugaske, Saskatchewan.

The biggest boards he ever has to press against his ear are 4.5-metre-long pieces of lumber in his shop.

“If it’s not stiff enough, then too much energy goes into moving the wood (in the guitar,)” said Freeman. “The more movement in the wood there is, the more you lose energy.”

A luthier wants good vibrations; the soundwaves must travel through the guitar rather than getting eaten up along the way, he said.

These days, his best wood comes from BC’s Queen Charlotte Islands.

The dense, yet-light Sitka spruce has become a favourite for luthiers. It’s perfect for the back, sides and neck of a guitar, which need hardwood.

The soundboard, or front of the guitar, needs lighter woods from the United States, India and other parts of Asia.

The so-called traditional woods, like the red spruce and the Appalachian spruce are mostly gone, said Freeman.

And other high-prized woods, like the Brazilian rosewood, have been overharvested to the point of being on the CITES endangered species list.

“Good wood is becoming more and more scarce,” said Freeman.

But there’s no shortage of innovation in luthiering world, where designers are usually classified as making plucked instruments or bowed ones.

Some guitar makers are using new materials, like poxy graphite, said Freeman.

“And you get some people who take some of the older models, like from the 30s that were really popular, and they’re building those,” he said.

Not only are old designs making a comeback; old wood is heavily sought after too.

“If you can age your wood, it’s just better for the sound because the sap takes 30 to 50 years to really crystallize in the wood cells,” said Freeman.

But old, used wood is not his forte.

“I don’t really chase that wood myself because I’ve got really good suppliers in new wood.”

There’s not that much wood around Tugaske, a town of 100 people just off a highway, he said.

He arrived there in 1977 after finishing a woodcarving apprenticeship in Nova Scotia.

It was closer to home for Freeman, who grew up in the northern mining towns of Flin Flon, Manitoba, and Atikokan, Ontario, before finishing high school in Winnipeg.

He only planned to stay for four months to learn wood furniture finishing, but ended up making it his home.

“Things that I wanted kept happening here so I stayed here,” he said.

He took some luthiering courses at the now-defunct Guitar Research and Design School in Vermont.

In 1980, he opened his store and workshop, Timeless Instruments.

“I played (guitar) and when I asked salespeople questions, I didn’t like their answers,” he said.

He wanted to know how to make a better guitars, and he had to find the answers for himself.

Now, he’s an established veteran of the luthier scene.

He offers seven-week-long workshops in Tugaske, where seven people at a time will live in town and go through 40-hour lessons a week and work on weekend assignments.

“They’re just thinking guitars,” he said.

He holds his workshops four times a year.

“I call it an intensive immersion excursion.”

Erica Heyligers, who runs Whitehorse’s Woodshine Finishing, was Freeman’s student in 1994.

Heyligers recently got in touch with Freeman and told him she had some people interested in buying some guitars.

They arranged for Freeman to visit the Yukon and timed it with a night of gypsy jazz being organized by Heyligers’ friend, Grant Simpson.

Simpson is hosting jazz guitarist Don Ogilvie, for an evening of Django Reinhardt-inspired music.

Ogilvie, who’s based in Vancouver, has toured China with a gypsy jazz troupe and even visited Romania to study the music’s roots.

He’ll be holding workshops and private lessons on gypsy jazz in Whitehorse all next week.

Heyligers will be hosting a display and sale of Freeman’s guitars on January 23 at her shop, Woodshine Finishing, from 1 to 4 p.m.

In the evening, she’ll play host again with a house concert featuring Ogilvie on guitar and Simpson on piano.

“We thought we’d just fit them together and make it a mini-festival,” said Freeman.

For information about the private lessons, guitar sale and concert, call Erica Heyligers at 668-3408.

Contact James Munson at