George Gruhn on Spruce

Gibson, Inc., Interior, 1936. Source: Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph

Gibson’s catalogue O (issued in either late 1924 or early 1925) stated: “Sounding boards are carved from Adirondack, West Virginia, Norway or Pacific Coast spruce of the very highest grade and quality available.” The catalogue continued: “Back-boards are fashioned from the finest quality straight and curly grained Northern Michigan maple or birch, depending on the style and grade of instrument.”

We asked vintage guitar expert George Gruhn whether it is possible to determine today what type of spruce a specific pre-War Gibson guitar or mandolin was built from and whether the company favoured one type over another. His response appears below:

George Gruhn says: “Gibson purchased bulk hardwoods and spruce from all over the world. They accomplished this by using the services of long-established wholesale firms that sold mainly to the furniture and piano manufacturing trade. Gibson allowed their hardwood to air dry for five years before using it in production. Company records are available for the period 1925 to 1931 and these indicate that Gibson purchased spruce from three different suppliers: Julius Breckwoldt and Son of Dolgeville, New York; Edward Hines Lumber Company of Chicago; and the Posey Manufacturing Company in Washington State, which was Gibson’s major supplier of spruce for soundboards.

“A 1923 Gibson production book specifically directed the workers to use Oregon spruce on the A Junior, A, A-2, A-3 and A-4 model mandolins as well as the L-Jr, L-1, L-2, L-3, L-4 and O model Gibson guitars. Oregon spruce was also used for the H-1 and H-2 mandolas, the K-1 and K-2 model mandocellos and on the model U harp guitar and the model J mando-bass.

Gibson Mando-bass style J, pictured in catalogue M of 1921

“Oregon spruce is another name for Sitka spruce. The use of West Virginia spruce – better known today as ‘red spruce’ or Adirondack spruce – was reserved for use on the F-2, F-4, F-5 mandolins, the H-4 model mandola and the K-4 model mando-cello.

The F-4 mandolin on the left was built in 1921 just as the ‘Lloyd Loar’ period was getting underway. Its soundboard was built of Oregon spruce, better known today as Sitka spruce. Image courtesy of Retrofret. The F-5 mandolin on the right was signed by Lloyd Loar on December 11th 1923. Its soundboard was built of West Virginia spruce, better known today as ‘red spruce’ or Adirondack spruce. Image courtesy of Carter Vintage.

The production book also specifies how many grains per inch and the degree of end grain deflection from vertical that was acceptable for each model. It is clear from reading their production book that the West Virginia spruce was considered to be superior to the Oregon spruce and that more grains per inch and less end deflection from vertical was considered more desirable and was therefore selected for use on the company’s most expensive models. Oregon spruce and Pacific Coast spruce are identical. Norway spruce is a species that is native to Northern, Central and Eastern Europe and is also cultivated to some extent in the USA.”

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