Wood

It is not the woods fault that it woke up as a violin.

Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891)

Each piece of wood is a living organism and has its own character, even when two pieces come from the same tree. As a professional guitar builderI have to recognise and utilise the qualities of my raw materials. The timing of the felling the tree and the processing of the log into rough boards influence the sound of the finished guitar. One precondition for my work is the ideal storage of the wood. I store the materials used for my guitars in a controlled environment for as long as possible. For example, I have experimented with cutting and splitting a piece of spruce cording to the phase of the moon.

I build up a close relationship with my materials and accompany their evolution from the tree all the way to the finished guitar. For this reason, I choose to use timber from around the regions where I live whenever possible.

Each guitarist has a different playing technique, different abilities and different tastes. Therefore, each instrument is made individually for each musician. During extensive discussions with the player, I determine which woods will be the best option. Whenever possible, I invite the player to visit and to choose the woods with me.

I have ca. 10 different timbers in my wood storage, with different European woods – from my neighbour’s plum tree to an olive tree from Greece. In addition, there are ca. 17 woods from India to South America.

All my timber is destined to one day make a musician happy one day when it comes to life as a guitar.

Glue

What cannot exist together, does best to dissolve.

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759 – 1805)

The type of glue used for each instrument is extremely important. Besides traditional glues even adhesives are used today when working with materials such as carbon and Nomex. Nomex is mainly used for building "sandwich" (doubletop) soundboards, while I commonly use carbon to stiff the neck of my guitars.

All glues, just like lacquers, must be elastic enough not to crack and to withstand movement in the wood of the instrument. However, this means that the glue can also dampen the resonance of the guitar. Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance for the guitar builder to consider carefully which glue to use on which parts of the instrument.

Below I have listed some of the glues and adhesives in use today.

PU or PUR glue (single-component polyurethane glue)
This wood glue does not contain water, which is advantageous when gluing large thin layers of wood together. Because of the lack of water, the wood does not move during the bonding process. However, I personally would never use this glue for a soundboard as it is highly toxic.

Epoxy resin adhesive (two-component adhesive)
Nowadays other materials besides wood are built into a guitar. However, these materials often cannot be joined with glue and it is necessary to use some other form of adhesive, for example epoxy. Another benefit of epoxy is that it does not contain water.

White glue (low formaldehyde dispersion glue)
White glue contains PVA (polyvinyl acetate) as binder. It is cheap but very soft and therefore a bad choice for instrument building.

Titebond (aliphatic dispersion resin adhesive)
This glue is ideal for use on almost all types of wood. Titebond is very hard after drying, and has less of a dampening effect than white glue for example. Additionally, a joint using Titebond can be unjoined, which is useful during restorations or when making repairs.

Hot glue (animal glue)
Animal glues are water-soluble, natural adhesives which have already in use for 5000 to 6000 years. To make these glues, animal parts are boiled until they are reduced to gelatine. Depending on the animal parts used, these glues are categorized as bone-glue, hide-glue, rabbitskin-glue, fish-glue or isinglass. Each of these glues has different characteristics. Bone- and hide-glues are frequently used in instrument building, while rabbitskin-glue is mostly only used during repairs or restorations.

A lot of training and knowledge is needed to achieve good results with these glues.

Nuts, Saddles and Frets

The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Aristotele (384 – 322 B.C.)

A tire makes the connection between car and road, just like the saddles at the nut and the bridge of a guitar. When you press the strings, this creates tension between the bridge and the fret. These parts must be made of the correct material and operate perfectly in order to allow the guitar to develop its full potential.

I use narrow, high, quite hard frets made of a nickel-silver alloy. The length of their wear depends on how much one plays the instrument, and how much force is used. After a while, the frets may need to be reworked or replaced in order for the strings to vibrate freely.
Using frets, which are very high can cause problems with intonation, because the high of the frets vary the tension of the strings so much when pressed that their tuning is affected. On the other hand, with high frets it is possible to detune notes intentionally and it is easier to play vibrato. With shallow frets you must touch the string directly behind the fret to keep the note in tune, but the pressure on the string is not as hard.

Varying materials can be used for to make a saddle. The most common are ivory, mammoth bone or ivory, fishbone, cow bone and synthetics.

Elephant ivory has been illegal for years, and may only be used if it is sourced with a C.I.T.E.S. certificate. Prior to the C.I.T.E.S. coming into Force, ivory had been used in guitar building for many years.

Mammoth ivory is still legally available. However, since it is difficult to distinguish between mammoth and elephant ivory, it is best to avoid ivory sold as mammoth ivory, as it often be illegal elephant ivory.

Fishbone is made of the baleen (horn plates in place of teeth) of large whales.
Even though this material is ideal for the purpose, I don´t use it like ivory, it is also subject to the species protection guidelines.

I like to use cow bone. However, since bones are an organic material, there are often dramatic variations in quality. Luckily, my sister raises Galloway cattle which grow very slowly, live free range and are fed naturally without dietary supplements. This means that their healthy bones grow slowly and are very strong.

Lastly, there are varying man-made materials for making saddles and nuts, which also differ in quality. However, a good synthetic saddle can often be a better choice compared to poor quality bone or illegal ivory.

When the right material is used for the saddle, a guitar can develop its full potential.

Species protection (C.I.T.E.S.)

Two planets meet: A: "How are you?" B: "Not good" A: "Why, what's wrong?" B: "I got the homo sapiens" A: "Don't worry...that'll pass all on it's own!"

Unknown

 

Travelling with an instrument: Species protection (C.I.T.E.S.)

Guitars are made of a wide variety of materials. Some of the raw materials traditionally used are now subject to species protection and therefore there are strict trade and import regulations when individuals enter and leave via the external borders of the European Union and between third countries.

The agreement on species protection C.I.T.E.S. (Convention on  International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora = Washington conservation agreement) and the legal regulations implementing it are regularly renewed and - as experience shows - generally tightened. More and more species are threatened in their existence so that they are subject to species protection.

 

Basically, one can distinguish between three different degrees of protection:

1.
Your instrument does not contain any protected material registered in C.I.T.E.S. or is listed only in Cites index III.

If your instrument contains plant or animal materials that are not subject to species protection in their processed form or are only listed in C.I.T.E.S. Index lII, I still recommend a "Declaration of Materials" as proof of the materials used.

This Declaration of Materials can be issued with due diligence by a "Zupfinstrumentenmachermeister" (Germany) or a "Streich- und Saiteninstrumentenerzeugermeister" (Austria). Both titles mean master string instrument builder. Additionally, for trips to the USA a negative certificate (Negativbescheinigung) issued by the reaponsible ministry (e. g. BMLFUW in Austria) is recommended. You may apply for such a certificate at the ministry by showing your Declaration of Materials.

We recommend carrying all documents with you in their English translation.

With the Declaration and clearance certificate, traveling musicians can pass through the green customs path.

 

2.
Your instrument contains one of the materials listed in C.I.T.E.S. Index II, in particular rosewood of the genus "Dalbergia"

At the beginning of 2017, all rosewood species (Dalbergia spp.) with the  exception of Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) were upgraded to Cites Index II. As a result, the authorities, many traders, processing companies and also end customers were massively overwhelmed with the bureaucratic hurdles.

The 18th CITES Conference in 2019 adjusted these regulations, which finally become effective on 26.11.2019.
For the woods rosewood (Dalbergia spp.), bubinga (Guibourtia tessmannii, Guibourtia pellegrininana, Guibourtia demeusei), footnote 15 was significantly amended:

  • All types of finished products with a maximum weight of 10 kg per consignment (IMPORTANT: kg number only related to one of the above mentioned woods).
  • Finished musical instruments, finished musical instrument parts and finished musical instrument accessories

fall under an exemption within the CITES Appendix II regulations and can therefore be traded again without species protection permits (CITES certificate). New and used musical instruments can also be sold again without proof. This also makes travelling with musical instruments less complicated.

If your instrument is made of woods that are listed under CITES II, I recommend that you also carry a "Declaration of Materials" with you when travelling. Many types of wood are not easy to classify; with a "Declaration of Materials" you can prevent misunderstandings and help to ensure that the materials of your instrument are correctly classified.

None the less, if your instrument is made of Brazilian rosewood, which is still classified in C.I.T.E.S. Index I, it may absolutely not be traded, imported or exported. Further information on this can be found under point 3.

 

3.
Your instrument contains one of the materials listed in C.I.T.E.S. Index I

If your guitar contains processed vegetable or animal materials that are subject to the Cites Index I, a CITES certificate is required to travel beyond the external EU borders. Examples for protected materials are: tortoiseshell, whale bone, bones of other protected animals, fishbone, mother of pearl of an unknown source and in particular ivory and Brazilian Rosewood.
To check whether the materials from which your instrument has been built are protected, consult with the BMLFUW and have a look at the website "Checklist of Cites Species".

Import and export (travelling!) into / from the EU and travel to and between non-EU countries are only permitted with a CITES certificate  for musical instruments. Travelling without such a certificate can cause confiscation of the instrument and is considered a criminal offence under the Austrian Trade Act and the Federal Nature Conservation Act.

If your instrument contains ivory, the import to and export from the USA is strictly prohibited.

 

There is an important change in the musical instrument certificate: Until 2017, only the owner could receive such a certificate and only he was named on the certificate. Now, the holder of the guitar, for example the musician who has received the guitar on loan from a guitar maker, can also be named on a musical instrument certificate. This is to facilitate travelling with instruments that are only borrowed or rented.

During your travels you must pass trought the red customs path, show your CITES certificate along with any attachments or addendums and have it stamped. The same applies when re-entering into the EU.
In Austria, you may apply for a CITES certificate under www.cites.at, or at the BMLFUW, Department 1/8, Stubenbastei, 1010 Vienna. You may have to prepare for long waiting peridos.

You can download the application form online:

 

Let me provide you with some information to make filling in the form a little easier for you as some points are not self-explanatory. An information sheet is being provided together with the application form and can be downloaded as well.

  • Under “Genehmigung/Bescheinigung” tick “Sonstiges” and add “Musikinstrumentenbescheinigung”.
  • Under “8. Beschreibung der Exemplare…” add “CAR (Warencode) – Declaration of Materials“ and also attach your Declaration of Materials to your application.
  • According to the ministry (January 2017), there is no need to fill in sections 9 to 20 if you attach a comprehensive Declaration of Materials to your application.

 

4.
Selling used instruments

  • If your instrument does not contain any materials protected under CITES (or material listed only in CITES III), I recommend requesting a Declaration of Materials from the person selling you the instrument or having such a declaration issued to you in advance of the purchase. Every proof of the materials used in the manufacturing of your instrument is useful.
  • If your instrument contains one of the materials listed under CITES Index II (and none of those listed under CITES Index I), it is very likely that the above-mentioned special regulation applies. However, we still recommend carrying the Declaration of Materials with you when travelling. Again, every proof of the materials used in the manufacturing of your instrument is useful (e.g. the receipt of your luthier) to avoid misunderstandings.
  • If you are interested in buying an instrument containing one of the materials protected under CITES I, you should request a CITES certificate as well as a Declaration of Materials before agreeing on the purchase. Even if the seller holds a CITES certificate stating that he is the owner (and proprietor) of the instrument, you will need to have such a certificate issued to you (with your name on it) as the new owner. The CITES certificate is attached to the proprietor and now – according to the latest regulations – also to the owner of the instrument (the persons who loans or rents the instrument), but not to the instrument itself.
    To apply for your own certificate, you need the past proprietor’s CITES certificate as well as a Declaration of Materials.

It is also possible to request an assessment of the materials used in your instrument as well as the time period during which they were imported into the EU. A list of assessors can be found on the website of the Bundesamt für Naturschutz.
The period of time during which the materials or the instrument was imported determines if and/or in what way the material is protected. Your instrument can only be assessed as “Vorerwerbsinstrument” (instrument of prior acquisition) if the Brazilian Rosewood was imported before July 20, 1992 and all other types of rosewood imported before 2017, for example. Owning and/or travelling with an instrument classified as antiquity is not illicit if the instrument was built before March 3, 1947 and has not been adapted ever since.

A simple solution I often suggest to musicians whose instruments contain materials protected under CITES is to exchange these materials if they are easily replaceable. Ivory can, for example, be replaced with bovine bones or similar synthetic materials.

Feel free to contact me for further information and any questions you may have.
If you are looking for a violin builder who can help you, I recommend Mr. Alexander Schütz from Linz, Upper Austria.