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Thread: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

  1. #1

    Default Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    I have a sense from playing Martin guitars for years of the tonal differences between Sitka and Adirondack in top woods. As I am newer to mandolin I donít have a good feeling for the difference between the two tone woods as it relates to tone and projection. Thoughts/opinions?

    Maybe another way to ask the question: if you found a specific model mandolin you were looking for at a decent price would the type of spruce used for the top wood be a deal breaker one way or the other?

    Thanks!

  2. #2

    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Absolutely not a deal breaker depending on what you mean by "if you found". If it's the difference between adi and sitka, I would say, if the sound speaks to you, who cares? There's enough variability between the two species that they fairly overlap the other's properties. That's where the "specific model mandolin you were looking for" comes into the equation. I would weigh in on the side of sound and playability, never wood species. YMMV

    I must admit to being curious about Engelman spruce but for some reason, I haven't been curious about Western Red Cedar. I don't know why??


    Len B.
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    Last edited by lenf12; Jun-22-2022 at 6:46pm.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Some spruce sounds better than other spruce. The particular piece of wood has as much to do with that as the species.
    In other words, a good piece of Sitka will sound better than a mediocre piece of red spruce.
    There's a lot of lore and legend floating around about wood. Much of it is just that-- lore and legend.

    For the record, a few years ago Lynn Dudenbostel told me that the best spruce he had was from eastern Europe, but he didn't use much of it because most of his clients wanted red spruce.

    And the last time I saw John Arnold, who harvests red spruce, he told me that he had recently found two trees, which yielded several hundred tops. I looked at him and asked "Was any of it any good?" He replied, "Yeah, I kept about 50 tops, and sold the rest to [major manufacturer's name deleted]."

    If you're concerned about market value, instruments with red spruce will bring more. If you're concerned about sound, play as many instruments as you can and choose the one that sounds the best to you, no matter where the spruce came from.

    Oh, and very good instruments have been made from Engelman and other varieties. At least some of Gibson's spruce in the old days may have been Michigan white spruce, which grew in the upper peninsula and yielded trees large enough for instrument tops. I don't know how many large trees are left that might be accessible.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by lenf12 View Post
    I must admit to being curious about Engelman spruce but for some reason, I haven't been curious about Western Red Cedar. I don't know why??
    As a resident of the PNW I was very curious about WRC. When I bought my Cricketfiddle F4 octave mandolin part of the reason was the WRC soundboard. Then I had Sonny Morris build a hybrid F4 for me with WRC soundboard and Bigleaf Maple (another PNW native tree) back, sides and neck.

    I was no longer curious - I was hooked. I now have 5 instruments made with WRC. It's my favorite sounding tonewood, and best looking. Straight, tight, parallel grain. Natural amber color. Warm, loads of sustain and dark woody tone.

    I also like redwood. Visually much like cedar. Slightly brighter tone.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by mikerofone View Post
    if you found a specific model mandolin you were looking for at a decent price would the type of spruce used for the top wood be a deal breaker one way or the other?
    Nope. I wouldn’t really care what top wood was used. I’d just be looking at fit/finish, general condition, sound and playability. I have mandolins (and guitars) with different top woods and my impression is that the construction is more important to the final sound than the choice of top wood. A good mandolin luthier will slightly adjust his top carving to suit the characteristics of particular piece of wood. (I do have a couple of Martin guitars with different top woods and very different sounds, but I attribute the sound difference more to the bodies - one has mahogany, one has rosewood.)
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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by Doug Brock View Post
    Nope. I wouldnít really care what top wood was used. Iíd just be looking at fit/finish, general condition, sound and playability. I have mandolins (and guitars) with different top woods and my impression is that the construction is more important to the final sound than the choice of top wood. A good mandolin luthier will slightly adjust his top carving to suit the characteristics of particular piece of wood. (I do have a couple of Martin guitars with different top woods and very different sounds, but I attribute the sound difference more to the bodies - one has mahogany, one has rosewood.)
    I'm in agreement with what's been posted so far, in that the type of spruce wouldn't matter to me at all.

    Admittedly, I've been a sucker for red spruce lore and marketing. Both of my mandolins are made with red spruce, so there's that, but one of the best mandolins I've owned was made with Engelman. I've also owned mandolins made with Engelman and red spruce that were underwhelming. I can recall two mandolins in particular made with Sitka that I thought were great.

    I guess it just depends. Maybe there's a way to determine probability, although it would be so subjective it could barely be relied on.
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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by Kevin Briggs View Post
    I'm in agreement with what's been posted so far, in that the type of spruce wouldn't matter to me at all.

    Admittedly, I've been a sucker for red spruce lore and marketing. Both of my mandolins are made with red spruce, so there's that, but one of the best mandolins I've owned was made with Engelman. I've also owned mandolins made with Engelman and red spruce that were underwhelming. I can recall two mandolins in particular made with Sitka that I thought were great.

    I guess it just depends. Maybe there's a way to determine probability, although it would be so subjective it could barely be relied on.
    I've owned Sitka, Engleman, and Adirondack topped mandolins. I kept the Sitka Silverangel Econo over an Engleman topped MT I got to try at the same time because I preferred the tone of that mandolin; it was the best sounding one I'd owned to that point. My current baby is a Kelley A-5 with an adi top that's now the best sounding mandolin I've owned to date. The wood may be making a difference, but I suspect the builder's touch and the individual piece of wood makes more of a difference than the species. It's the first one I bought new, and there was definitely a "break in" or "opening up" period, but it sounded good from the start (now it's an absolute monster). Again, whether that's the species or just cuz it was new I can't say. I can say that in the Collings line up I prefer the adi topped MT-2 to the Engleman topped MTs, as I've played quite a few of both. Not that the MTs were bad, just not my preference.

    That said, I've heard some awesome sounding Engleman topped Northfields and wouldn't refuse a mandolin I really liked because of the top wood. If it works, it works!

    Hopefully Mr. Condino and Mr. Hamlett will chime in with some more experienced views, (though I suspect I can guess their opinions based on the years I've read their posts on here).
    Chuck

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by CES View Post
    Hopefully Mr. Condino and Mr. Hamlett will chime in with some more experienced views, (though I suspect I can guess their opinions based on the years I've read their posts on here).
    Well, here's one of us...
    Not much to add. While there may be generalizations over many examples, it comes down to the individual piece of wood and how the maker uses it.
    I can make general statements about the differences I hear in my mandolins made from red spruce or sitka spruce from my wood stash, but there is no reason to expect that those generalizations will hold true for anyone else's mandolins made from their wood stash.
    On average, sitka has a little higher strength to weight ratio while red spruce has a little higher stiffness to weight ratio. The range of stiffness, weight, strength and other factors is broad enough that they overlap considerably, so applying the average numbers to any given sample of either species can be far from correct in any direction, from excellent tonewood to junk.

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  12. #9

    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by lenf12 View Post
    ...but for some reason, I haven't been curious about Western Red Cedar. I don't know why??
    Thanks Mandobart, Now I do know why. it's a lack of familiarity. I just don't encounter WRC very often.

    Len B.
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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    When I was building violins and mandolins, red spruce was my go to wood of choice. Always with good results. Some years ago I purchased a slightly used Girouard F-5 mandolin with a very wide grain spacing in the top (nine grains per inch) and a single "bear claw". When I talked to Max about it I was surprised to find out it was Sitka spruce and he almost rejected it but decided to use it anyway. It is a great mandolin and a keeper. It all comes down to the piece of wood and the luthier.
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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Those of you who know older [not ancient] Martin guitars may know that Martin generally used Sitka spruce in the later 1950's, while many of the later 1960's instruments had red spruce tops.

    I think many of you who have experience with these instruments would agree with the following:

    If you have the opportunity to compare a '58 Martin D model with one built in '67, the '50's model will usually be the stronger instrument. Why?? Because even though the later guitar had the "better" variety of spruce, it was built and finished heavier than the '50's model. Another factor may have been that different glue was used. We could pick apart and argue other details ad infinitum, but the bottom line is that construction is at least as important as wood species.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    I haven't seen it mentioned, my favorite mandolin has Italian spruce and is killer.
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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by Charles E. View Post
    When I was building violins and mandolins, red spruce was my go to wood of choice. Always with good results. Some years ago I purchased a slightly used Girouard F-5 mandolin with a very wide grain spacing in the top (nine grains per inch) and a single "bear claw". When I talked to Max about it I was surprised to find out it was Sitka spruce and he almost rejected it but decided to use it anyway. It is a great mandolin and a keeper. It all comes down to the piece of wood and the luthier.
    My personal mandolin which is number 50, has an engleman top. It’s one piece, wide, irregular grain, but the ring it had when tapped, is why I used it. I love the woody sound this mandolin has.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by CES View Post

    Hopefully Mr. Condino and Mr. Hamlett will chime in with some more experienced views, (though I suspect I can guess their opinions based on the years I've read their posts on here).
    Well.....thx for the interest.

    I regularly see absolutely dead instruments built by people with mediocre skills but made from what I would call extraordinary elite tonewoods. I also see amazing instruments made from mediocre materials by very skilled builders.

    As a child I grew up in the Adirondacks surrounded by beautiful picea rubens (red spruce). My family owns several hundred acres loaded with red spruce that I can harvest from. When I built my first guitar using David Russel Young's book, it had to be redwood...because that's what David said was the good stuff. I completely disregarded the plentiful amazing local red spruce. It took almost a year to find a board and get it shipped to me and useable. My inexperienced results sucked, complete with every beginner mistake you can think of.

    When I lived in Japan for three years, I found some local Japanese spruce and built a bit using that. They still sounded like beginner guitars.

    When I lived in California, I made all of my instruments from "The Lucky Strike" redwood tree, because I liked its characteristics, it was local, & readily available to me. There was no magic voodoo; they sounded like guitars made by someone who was still learning, but making progress. It was more fun to hang out with the Carters and fill the back of my pickup with redwood, and hang out with my carefree beautiful girlfriend in Arcata.

    When I moved to Oregon, I made all of my instruments from sitka spruce (and occasionally Douglas fir or red cedar), because I liked its characteristics, it was local, & readily available to me....and my neighbor John Sullivan said it was the good stuff. The sitka was also one of the only spruce trees around that grows large enough to make double basses. They all sounded like very nice intermediate instruments by someone who was still learning, but had progressed through a couple of hundred.

    When I lived in Idaho, I used engleman spruce, because I liked its characteristics, it was local, & readily available to me.....and my friend Lawrence said it was good stuff. For a $20 US forest service harvesting permit I could fill the back of the old truck with engleman spruce form the fire burns north of McCall in the Sawtooths. The instruments were getting better. That was also the period where I first got to play and analyze "The Griffith" Lloyd Loar signed A5. THAT had a whole lot more impact on my mandolin building than just wood selection.

    Since I have been living in North Carolina, I used red spruce, because I like its characteristics, it is local, & readily available to me.....and my friend Ted Davis said it was the good stuff. I've recently acquired local red spruce large enough to make double basses and also a very interesting urban Norway spruce gigantic billet that was planted in 1959, cut down 7 years ago, and mysteriously air dried into gigantic bass wedges. This one will go in my 2022 Quartet for the North Carolina Arts Council.

    About the time I moved to North Carolina, I also got a hacklinger guage and started using it daily and I started working for Dream Guitars. Five years of every day taking meticulous measurements of every aspect of my builds along with handling hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of the best historic instruments ever made along with exacting details in my personal builds made a HUGE difference in my builds. For the mandolins, that is also the period when I developed my live testing rig for voicing the plates. Add in a bunch of Oberlin Acoustics seminars and a dozen other nerdfests, and spending time with several of my favorite mandolin builders in the world. Now the instruments consistently sound the way I'm targeting their voice, with reproduceable accuracy. That has always been the goal.


    I tend to emphasize & enjoy seasoned local woods that have grown up in the same climate I work in. I'm not sure any of it equates to unicorns and fairy dust in the end, but it is a lot easier to rationalize those characteristics. I'd like to move back to my family village in northern Italy. I'll definitely be using local spruce there!

    Build with what you have, try to do your best, & keep excellent notes on the details. The rest will happen as it is supposed to....
    Last edited by j. condino; Jun-23-2022 at 10:29pm.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    I think one of the problems with sitka is just that there's so much of it. There are still huge stands of it, the trees themselves are enormous and yield boat loads of tops. Sitka, when well selected, is a fine and versatile tonewood. But, since it's so plentiful, people begin to think it's a bit vanilla.

    This combined with factory production methods which treat all tops the same, also means that there are probably more mediocre sitka tops on the market than about anything else (probably more true of guitars than mandos)... its popularity and proliferation is probably its biggest detractor.

    A well chosen, well used sitka top can be as good as anything out there... all the more reason to base our decisions on individual instruments rather than specs.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by rcc56 View Post
    Those of you who know older [not ancient] Martin guitars may know that Martin generally used Sitka spruce in the later 1950's, while many of the later 1960's instruments had red spruce tops.

    I think many of you who have experience with these instruments would agree with the following:

    If you have the opportunity to compare a '58 Martin D model with one built in '67, the '50's model will usually be the stronger instrument. Why?? Because even though the later guitar had the "better" variety of spruce, it was built and finished heavier than the '50's model. Another factor may have been that different glue was used. We could pick apart and argue other details ad infinitum, but the bottom line is that construction is at least as important as wood species.

    I have never seen a late 60's Martin guitar with a red spruce top. The vast majority of Martins in the late 60's were sitka.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    They made some, mostly in the later '60's, mostly D-28's.
    Ask George Gruhn about it.

    Anyway, it doesn't matter much. I look at it this way:

    Good wood + good construction = good instrument.
    Good wood + less good construction = less good instrument.
    Not so good wood + good construction = less good instrument.
    Any kind of wood + poor construction = poor instrument.
    Last edited by rcc56; Jun-24-2022 at 6:43pm.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    I agree completely, and I'd add a few more lines to the top of that list.

    Tremendous wood + tremendous construction = tremendous instrument
    Great wood + great construction = great instrument

    I've played a few German, Italian, and Alpine spruce top guitars over the past few years, and they've all been absolutely incredible. Disclosure: they were all built by George Lowden and his peers, but even so, I liked their tone better than the guitars with different varieties of spruce from the same builders. However, I'm not sure that a mandolin besides those made for classical players would benefit from that tonal difference.
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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    All good. Learned a lot reading the replies.

    One other thing: An instrument is the sum of its parts. Going just by one flavor of wood is like comparing pancakes to spaghetti based on the type of wheat in 'em.
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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by rcc56 View Post
    They made some, mostly in the later '60's, mostly D-28's.
    Ask George Gruhn about it.

    Anyway, it doesn't matter much. I look at it this way:

    Good wood + good construction = good instrument.
    Good wood + less good construction = less good instrument.
    Not so good wood + good construction = less good instrument.
    Any kind of wood + poor construction = poor instrument.
    Agreed that itís not relevant but I have read John Arnold definitively state that Martin used no red spruce between about Ď57 and some time in the Ď80s or thereabouts. Based on his statements, no red spruce guitars in the Ď60s and just a handful in Ď53 and Ď57.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Well, we could debate ad infintum about whose opinion is more likely to be accurate, but that won't help advance the topic at hand.

    Market values and trends come and go. Every instrument has its own voice. When people come to me for advice on purchasing an instrument, I tell them to play as many different instruments as they can get their hands on, and choose the one that has a sound that they like, a neck that feels good to them, and not worry too much about who's name is on the label or what the wood species is. What fits one person might be quite different from what fits someone else.

    I once simultaneously owned two instruments which had serial numbers that were 8 apart. Same workers, same build month, and the same wood species. Did the spruce come from the same log? I don't know. Both happened to be very good, but the difference in tone was huge. One was bright and snappy, one was warm and dark. I suppose I could have examined them with a light and a mirror and taken a bunch of measurements to see if I could find a possible reason for why they sounded so different, but I didn't. I kept the snappy one because I like snappy instruments.

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    Default Re: Sitka vs. Red Spruce in mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    Well.....thx for the interest.

    I regularly see absolutely dead instruments built by people with mediocre skills but made from what I would call extraordinary elite tonewoods. I also see amazing instruments made from mediocre materials by very skilled builders.

    As a child I grew up in the Adirondacks surrounded by beautiful picea rubens (red spruce). My family owns several hundred acres loaded with red spruce that I can harvest from. When I built my first guitar using David Russel Young's book, it had to be redwood...because that's what David said was the good stuff. I completely disregarded the plentiful amazing local red spruce. It took almost a year to find a board and get it shipped to me and useable. My inexperienced results sucked, complete with every beginner mistake you can think of.

    When I lived in Japan for three years, I found some local Japanese spruce and built a bit using that. They still sounded like beginner guitars.

    When I lived in California, I made all of my instruments from "The Lucky Strike" redwood tree, because I liked its characteristics, it was local, & readily available to me. There was no magic voodoo; they sounded like guitars made by someone who was still learning, but making progress. It was more fun to hang out with the Carters and fill the back of my pickup with redwood, and hang out with my carefree beautiful girlfriend in Arcata.

    When I moved to Oregon, I made all of my instruments from sitka spruce (and occasionally Douglas fir or red cedar), because I liked its characteristics, it was local, & readily available to me....and my neighbor John Sullivan said it was the good stuff. The sitka was also one of the only spruce trees around that grows large enough to make double basses. They all sounded like very nice intermediate instruments by someone who was still learning, but had progressed through a couple of hundred.

    When I lived in Idaho, I used engleman spruce, because I liked its characteristics, it was local, & readily available to me.....and my friend Lawrence said it was good stuff. For a $20 US forest service harvesting permit I could fill the back of the old truck with engleman spruce form the fire burns north of McCall in the Sawtooths. The instruments were getting better. That was also the period where I first got to play and analyze "The Griffith" Lloyd Loar signed A5. THAT had a whole lot more impact on my mandolin building than just wood selection.

    Since I have been living in North Carolina, I used red spruce, because I like its characteristics, it is local, & readily available to me.....and my friend Ted Davis said it was the good stuff. I've recently acquired local red spruce large enough to make double basses and also a very interesting urban Norway spruce gigantic billet that was planted in 1959, cut down 7 years ago, and mysteriously air dried into gigantic bass wedges. This one will go in my 2022 Quartet for the North Carolina Arts Council.

    About the time I moved to North Carolina, I also got a hacklinger guage and started using it daily and I started working for Dream Guitars. Five years of every day taking meticulous measurements of every aspect of my builds along with handling hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of the best historic instruments ever made along with exacting details in my personal builds made a HUGE difference in my builds. For the mandolins, that is also the period when I developed my live testing rig for voicing the plates. Add in a bunch of Oberlin Acoustics seminars and a dozen other nerdfests, and spending time with several of my favorite mandolin builders in the world. Now the instruments consistently sound the way I'm targeting their voice, with reproduceable accuracy. That has always been the goal.


    I tend to emphasize & enjoy seasoned local woods that have grown up in the same climate I work in. I'm not sure any of it equates to unicorns and fairy dust in the end, but it is a lot easier to rationalize those characteristics. I'd like to move back to my family village in northern Italy. I'll definitely be using local spruce there!

    Build with what you have, try to do your best, & keep excellent notes on the details. The rest will happen as it is supposed to....

    So, in other words, only Red Spruce will do.

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