Touch wood

Since the days of Stradivarius, instrument makers have sought the best tonal woods from amongst the spruces of the Latemar forest.

  • August 2016

  • Reading time: 6'

    Reading time: 6'

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Touch wood

Since the days of Stradivarius, instrument makers have sought the best tonal woods from amongst the spruces of the Latemar forest.

Tap, tap, tap. I knock on wood for good luck. What about you? In former times, mountain dwellers and sailors would swear by it. For me, it is all a bit of a game. If the sound is firm and full, I convince myself that everything is fine. What is it about the sound? 

In South Tyrol’s Latemar forest, instrument makers tap on the spruce trees. It is said that Stradivarius himself made violins from this very forest. We watched as violinmaker Paul Lijsen listened to the trees (see video). Guitar makers Thomas and Nikolaus show us how to make a top guitar from a tonal spruce. Have you ever heard a tree sing? No? Then perhaps you’ve never encountered a tonal spruce…

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It must be old: Good-quality instruments come from naturally dried wood.

Guitar makers Thomas Orgler and Nikolaus Eilken from Bolzano/Bozen got their first wood from the Latemar forest in 2011. Just one tree; their tree, the only one they wanted. They point to the highest shelf in their workshop. It lies there, cut into fine pieces. How many guitars can be built from it? They have no idea. They began using the wood very carefully. “Almost too soon, in fact,” says Thomas. For instance, Spanish master craftsmen use wood that their grandparents cut. “It must dry for at least four years,” he says, “the longer the better.” Only over time will the wood become stiffer and lighter, which is what is needed for the soundboard of a handmade custom guitar.

I like the look of that one…

Thomas Orgler from Bolzano/Bozen and Nikolaus Eilken from Munich met while studying at the instrument-making school in Mittenwald, Germany. In 2010 they started their guitar workshop, Thomas Guitars, in Bolzano. They mainly build classical guitars, but also produce electric guitars as well. Building a guitar takes 120 to 200 hours of pure craftsmanship. Thomas and Nikolaus make 25 to 30 guitars a year, giving each one a personal touch. Some are customised with inlays. One of their regular customers is South Tyrolean guitar virtuoso Manuel Randi. They let him test each new guitar. “He constantly changes his opinion,” says Nikolaus. “So he gives us new ideas.” Their biggest order so far was a guitar for US blues guitarist Eric Gales.

Waiting for the moon: hocus-pocus or lumberjack wisdom?

They had their tree cut down in winter, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The old hands said that it must be done during a waning moon, when there is little sap in the wood. Thomas confirms: “Two days before the new moon.” Both guitar makers were on hand to see it happen. “We immediately had the bark stripped off and the wood cut in the sawmill,” remembers Nikolaus. “If the trunk just stays lying in the forest it will become rotten and cracked.” Heaven forbid…

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Why it has to be spruce from the Latemar forest.

In summer, Nikolaus and Thomas climbed up into the Latemar forest for their tree. It seemed as if it was already down in their workshop. The tree was actually growing some 20 kilometres away in the Eggental valley, which runs steep and narrow down to Bolzano/Bozen. The foresters pointed to a clump of trees and said: “There might be something in there for you guys.”

Nikolaus remembers that there was a small, sheltered depression with trees growing skywards no more than 15 or 20 strong. So they began tapping. “We were knocking,” says Nikolaus, “but I wasn’t able make the connection between this sound and a finished guitar.” That would be asking too much. But all instrument-makers test trees for their sound. What are they actually looking for? What makes the right tree for a guitar?

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Both gaze back at me, somewhat at a loss. This is what I feared. You have to feel it. It can’t be explained, they say. But they try anyway and I notice how they breathe in deeply before responding. “First we see whether the tree has grown straight,” says Thomas. “It must be at least 250 years old and ten metres high, as you can only make use of the wood from a height of one and a half metres.” I picture a tree that began to grow in the late-eighteenth century. “The trunk must also be a constant 80 centimetres in diameter.” The forester has marked one of these impressive giants for them: It’s their tree. 

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The Stradivarius myth: Or the wood that came in from the cold.

Each year the foresters show the instrument makers the magical trees in the Latemar forest. “Around thirty a year,” estimates Josef Schmiedhofer, director of South Tyrol’s forest and estate administration. Many are drawn by the myth that haunts the forests around the Latemar massif. We know that Stradivarius (1648-1737) visited the Paneveggio forest on the other side of the Karer pass and his violins are still regarded as miraculous even today. “A little of it is myth,” admit both Thomas and Nikolaus. “On the other hand these trees are what we are looking for, namely wood that is very light and stiff.”

The wood grows in the Latemar forest at altitudes of between 1,000 and 1,700 metres. It is a rare type, called “hazel spruce,” by the foresters. It’s a special type that is distinguished by its undulating fibrous structure. “It’s like a curl in the wood,” says Nikolaus Eilken. For whatever reason, the wood seems to resonate better. Hazel spruces are no shrinking violets: They prefer to grow in hollows and thrive in calciferous and poor soils. They also grow very slowly in places where, early each winter, the snow tears off branches that would otherwise form troublesome knots in the wood.

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Play it again, Sam: The secret of that special sound.

Back in the workshop, the guitar makers turn over one of the pieces of tonal wood. This piece can now be crafted. Thomas taps it with a finger and examines its structure. “It has not grown as closely as we hoped,” remarks Thomas. However, Nikolaus says: “It’s actually better than we thought.”

How should the wooden guitar actually sound when crafted? “Touching,” says Nikolaus. But what makes a sound touching? “Numerous frequency ranges and a rich, full tone,” suggests Thomas. Nikolaus adds: “Nevertheless you should be able to hear each individual note.”

And then the guitar has to be played, over and over again. “That’s the real secret,” says Nikolaus. That sounds very good to my ears.

Text: Gabriele Crepaz
Translation: Gareth Norbury
Photos: Alex Filz
Video: Veronika Kaserer