Quarter sawn wood in guitar building – the holy grail of wood?

If you are living the common 21st century guitarists life, you are of course reading and hearing a lot of things in online forums, facebook groups and youtube videos. One of the wordings you are hearing about more and more is „quarter sawn wood“. This is surely something that it not new! It is wood working knowledge in its oldest tradition, but it is surfacing more often in the last years in the guitar and bass community, and there are many rumors and misunderstandings. 

You can find all kinds of opinions on this, from it has no affect at all, to it sounds way different from other wood. There are even a lot (in my opinion hilarious) marketing phrases from big companies, which sound good but do not make any sense at all!
In this article I want to bring light into the superficial knowledge on this topic and explain what exactly is quarter sawn wood and what is important to us guitarists.

Before I start, I want to let you know, that this goes very deep into general wood working. If you would like to skip all the nerd talk, jump directly to the conclusion.

What exactly is quarter sawn wood?

Quarter sawn wood describes a specific selection of the wood, after cutting up a tree into boards. It does not mean any special treatment or even any type of wood.

Imagine you fell a tree, it lies in front of you and you look right into the freshly sawn surface. What you will see is a hopefully perfect round plane with the circles of the grain, thats what is called end grain.

 

After quite some time of the first step of natural drying the wood it is ready to be cut. Most trees get cut by big horizontal band saws down the whole length of the tree into boards with equal thickness. Looking like this:

 

Now you see that the end grain on every board is different. The grain on the side boards are almost parallel to the cut; the grain on the middle board is almost 90 degrees to the cut. 

And the middle board is what is interesting! That is what we call quarter sawn wood!

From every tree you get only one board that is truly quarter sawn!! Thats why it is rarely to find and expensive on guitars.

 

Why is quarter sawn wood supposed to be better then the rest?

To understand why the grain structure of the wood is interesting for guitar building and importantly for any kind of wood working, we need to understand what those annual rings exactly are.

A tree that sits in an area with summer and winter, and so with significant different temperature changes during one year, (like most trees do, but not all of them! In tropical climate areas the temperature is relatively stable during the whole year), the tree is growing at different rates. 

In the summer, when it gets sunlight, water, and a warm temperature it grows fast. In winter it grows slowly. 

And so the single cells are bigger in summer and smaller in winter. And that is what you see in the wood grain / annual rings. Every combination of one wide and one thin ring is one year. So you really can count how old a tree is!

Now lets talk about water and moisture. Even a very old tree, that has been gutted and dry for 100 years still reacts on water. If you put water on wood, or it is a high moisture in the air, the water goes into the cells of the wood, and if it is really dry air the water in the cells goes out of the wood back into the air. So wood is constantly reacting to the climate around it. This never (!) stops! We call this shrinking and expansion.

From here on it is easy to understand that the big cells, that grew in summer can hold and loose more water, than the small cells, that grew in winter.  Please picture what that means:Imagine a board with a few annual lines and how it would shrink or expand if the cells absorb water from the air. 

 

It should be obvious that the side boards of a tree bend and twists a lot more than the quarter sawn woods!
The official rates of the shrinking/expansion of wood are:

in length: > 1%

tangential:  3% – 5 %

radial: 5% – 10%, sometimes even more!

This are general numbers and variate of course through the different species of wood etc.

For those of you who are professional wood workers, I know that the whole shrinking and expansion process is a bit more complicated in reality, and that I explained it a bit too easy. But this article is meant to be useful for the players and so I reduced it into the relevant and easy understandable details.

Excoursion – spruce on old violins

You may have heard of special super old spruce on old violins from Stradivari etc. Today there are special build forests that are made to grow a lot of spruce, which grows really fast. These special build forests are a good thing, because humanity already destroyed way too much of natural forests.

Back in the day of Stradivari there were only the natural woods and he took spruce that was growing in Norway (sometimes you also read the alpes), where it is very cold. Those trees were growing very slowly and became very old. If you ever get the chance to take a look on on of those instruments you can easy see the very close lines of the grain. Here is a photo, where you clearly see the difference:

 

What does quarter sawn wood means for guitar building?

The first rumor I want to destroy at this point is that quarter sawn wood sounds different from the rest of the tree! If we put a set of strings on a block of quarter sawn ash and then put the same set of strings on a side board from the same tree, I doubt that you will here any difference!

The quarter sawn thing has more to to with how much the wood reacts to climate changes and so in result of that how often you need to set it up, or even if you are able to set it up at all!

It does not happen too often, but it happens definitely from time to time that you get a guitar with a twisted neck and then you are screwed! Once I had a guitar from a big successful company for metal guitars on the table and it was not possible to set it up right, because no matter what you did the neck always twisted around its own axis. 

The quarter sawn necks will stand straight way better and this results also in better sustain and of course better tuning stability! And since those necks stay straight and do not tend to bend or twist, you normally will have better playability and a lower string action.

A few more interesting things to know

1. I read an advertisement from a big company and it said about their 5-piece necks: „Center quarter sawn neck“. Sounds catchy, but now you know better what this really means. It means that only the middle stripe had straight grains, and to be honest, on a 5-piece neck it really does not matter if the center piece is quarter sawn or not. Especially if this means that the rest of the wood is from bad quality.

2. On a serial production guitar it is almost impossible to get quarter sawn wood, and if you get one, you are the lucky winner of a rare coincidence. 

On the other hand, if you order a custom shop guitar, you should insist on quarter sawn woods. We at Claas Guitars do not have anything else in stock, and if you are paying 3000 or more bucks on a guitar or bass this should be absolutely standard!

3. There are some features that exclude each other due to their nature of being. For example really high grade quilts on quilted maple or birds-eyes on birdseye maple are likely to grow on the very side boards of the woods. So if you want a neck with really really crazy quilted maple, you are probably ending up with a wood that tends to bend or twist more like a real quarter sawn piece. So my advice: Your priority should be: 1. straight neck 2. nice figured grain 3. use crazy figured wood for the top of the body, because on there it is not so important like on the neck to stay perfectly straight. 

We at Claas Guitars try always to find good figured flamed maple which is perfectly quarter sawn straight. 

4. Our new Claas Guitars Moby Dick Production Line, which are lower priced than our custom shop guitars are build in a bit higher quantity (still not a high quantity 😉 just enough to reduce the prices), are still build from start to end completely in our wood shop and are also made ONLY OUT OF QUARTER SAWN WOOD!

Conclusion

I hope I could give you a good insight and clear up some rumors about the magic of quarter sawn wood. If you have the chance to choose, you always should prefer the quarter sawn wood, but be aware that this has nothing to do with sound, but more with stability and being high quality, long lasting instruments.

Thank you very much for reading. Best regards,

Alexander

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