Did Gibson use Sitka or Adirondack spruce for the tops of its Pre-war archtops?

Sally, of prewargibsonl-5.com emailed Gibson researcher Joe Spann with the following question: “We were very interested to learn that Martin used Sitka spruce in their pre-war archtop guitars. Did Gibson use Sitka or Adirondack for the tops of its Pre-war archtops? And if the company switched to Sitka, approximately at what date did this take place?“ Joe’s answer appears below:

“I’d like to start off by saying that I don’t know the exact answer to your question, so I am going to tell you what I think, based on the records that I’ve seen from the Gibson Company.

“One of the most important things is a specification book that still exists from the year 1923. We suppose that they used it on the factory floor at the time to define the types of woods, fittings and specifications that they needed for the various models. So, this book in 1923 includes the early Master Model mandolin, mandola and mandocello. Of course, the L-5 archtop didn’t come around until 1924, so this book predates it.

“We have no reason to suppose they used any less of a quality wood for the L-5 than they did for the F-5. H-5 and K-5 models and here’s what they had to say about the Master Model tops in 1923. They called for West Virginia or Adirondack spruce with a vertical grain of not less than 14 grains in an inch and well matched. What they mean by that is you’re going to use two pieces of spruce to make the top, so the two pieces should be of similar quality and well matched.

Read more about the materials Gibson used here

“Of course, the question that occurs to me is, what is West Virginia spruce and how does it differ from Adirondack? Why would they specify West Virginia or Adirondack? I don’t know.

“Everything else, all the other models in this book, less than the Master Models, call for what they call Oregon spruce, which is Sitka spruce. So as early as 1923, Gibson is making a distinction on their Master Models; they call for West Virginia or Adirondack, with not less than 14 grains in an inch, well matched and with a vertical grain when you’re looking at the end of the piece.  

“The other document that we have are the accounts payable records for the period 1925 to 1931. This shows Gibson’s vendors, how much they were paying them and where they were located. There are two companies that I find of interest in the late 1920s and early 1930s and the first is in New York State.

“Now, the Breckwoldt company produced piano parts, so you would think, what on earth was the Gibson company dealing with a company that made piano parts? Well, one of the things that Breckwoldt supplied to piano builders was high quality Adirondack Spruce and that’s what Gibson was buying from them – rough-cut high-quality Adirondack Spruce, which was also used in piano soundboards. So, between 1925 and 1931, that’s where Gibson was getting their Adirondack.

“In that same time period, they did business with the Posey Manufacturing Company, which was out in Washington State and their primary business was to supply Sitka spruce during the time that company existed. So, we can be certain that Gibson was buying Sitka spruce from Washington State. The relative amounts of the invoices show quite a disparity; they bought far more Sitka than they did Adirondack but that makes sense of course, as most of the instruments called for Sitka in the spec sheet. When did they stopped using Adirondack?

“I don’t have a specific date but I think we have to look to general world conditions. The availability of really fine grained, slow growth Adirondack came to an end in the late 1940s and of course that’s when Martin switched over to the use of Sitka and of course Gibson didn’t exist in a vacuum, it was a worldwide condition, so I think we can safely say that we see the phasing out of Adirondack tops of Gibson archtops in the late 1940s. I don’t know that for a fact, but it makes senses to me because of the worldwide conditions.

“Gibson didn’t have any special suppliers that Martin couldn’t get to, it was a situation across the board.

“When you compare Gibson and Martin, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Over at Martin, they defined catalogue specifications and largely stuck to them. An aberration from catalogue spec is pretty rare in a Martin. At Gibson, it’s almost the rule rather than the exception.

“I think of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, where he says that the pirate rules are meant to be guidelines rather than rules and that was kind of the attitude at Gibson. The Dutch guys and gals that worked over there, they were very practical and if it meant using a piece of Sitka spruce in order to get a guitar out of the door, that’s what they did.

“So, I think that accounts for the differences between the two companies, where Martin was more regimented and Gibson, maybe more practical in getting things out the door.”

With thanks to Joe Spann

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