Choosing the Wood

I want this instrument to be unique and reflective of my passion for the craft of lutherie. Since I work mostly in walnut, I’ve decided to use that for the back and sides (as usual). The top, however, will be my favorite type of wood: wormy chestnut.

All the American Chestnut trees contracted a blight back in the 1930s and never recovered. These trees were some of the largest in the old-growth forests that existed in places such as my native Smoky Mountains. During a hike back in college, I saw the carcass of a 150′ chestnut tree that must have been at least 12′ in diameter. Occasionally, these have been logged, but because there is no new growth, the lumber becomes more and more rare (and expensive).

I’m actually down to a few boards that I’ve set aside years ago. How I acquired this stash is another story:

Around 1985, I was teaching 4th grade at Crystal River Primary School and waiting tables at a fine-dining restaurant called “The Prime Minister”. One evening, I had a customer — an older gentleman dining alone — who proved to be a good conversationalist and we hit it off immediately. We discovered that we shared a woodworking hobby. I told him of my dulcimer-building and we talked about the types of wood with which we had worked. After mentioning that wormy chestnut was my favorite, he looked at me kinda funny and said, “I have a warehouse in Orlando in which I have 60 board feet of wormy chestnut. Tell you what–I’ll give you the lumber if you’ll build me a dulcimer with some of it.” Of course, it was a deal I couldn’t pass up. We stayed in contact over the next several weeks (I built the dulcimer with the chestnut I had on hand) and we made the exchange at a mall in Leesburg. This is part of the last few feet of this gift.

Here are the boards resawn with the tablesaw and bandsaw, then bookmatched and glued. After cutting the sides out, I discovered that there were worm tracks in the walnut. I could flip them and use the unblemished side, but my new mantra is “embrace the imperfections” and the walnut worm tracks will complement the wormy chestnut. Maybe the mantra should be “embrace the worms”.

Things are beginning to take shape.