I’ve learned a lot about wood over the past couple years and figured I’d share as much as I could all together in a summary as background before I get into my experience doing finish on my Tele Kit.
None of this is specific to the Tele project and most isn’t specific to guitars, but maintains that perspective.
To me, this background and understanding of wood has been key to the practice of woodworking and finishing wood projects. It’s the difference between following instructions and adapting them based on understanding.
Before we get into finish, you really need to understand wood. Most people know the difference between softwood and hardwood. But there’s nuance within each category, and the names are kind of a lie.
Softwoods are your evergreen species: pine, fir, spruce, cedar, etc.
Sometimes pine is used for guitar bodies, like early Fender Telecasters. But softwood is not common. Do not ever use it for a neck.
Unrelated here but within softwood, there are some big differences. Dimensional lumber (2x4s, 1x2s, 2x6s, etc.) and really any from big box stores come wet. They’ve been sawn to the dimensions specified and minimally dried. Often they’re wet to the touch at the store. The sizes are nominal as they will shrink pretty dramatically when drying. I find that 2" is usually 1.5" after I let it dry a couple weeks at home.
There are grades of timber here, and it can be hard to determine the actual type. “Whitewood” should only be used for framing. Who knows what it is and it’s going to warp like crazy as it dries, and flex like a fishing rod.
“SPF” is Spruce, Fir, Pine. I use this for doing things like making a workbench or rustic looking furniture. It’s a total gamble on what you get. Typically the entire stock at the store is the same variety.
“Yellow Pine” is ideal. I find availability to be really spotty. It’s denser and shifts less as it dries in my experience.
You want to carefully shop, looking for the straightest, driest boards you can fine. Bends are sometimes OK. They’re easier to work out in reasonable lengths. Twists are a pain. It will have knots, but I try to locate them and avoid needing to cut at them. Generally, less “knotty” is best.
Cedar at big box stores is just fence boards. It’s junk.
To find dry pine or aromatic cedar, you’ll need to go to a specialty store or buy online, like getting real hardwood.
This should only have minor shifting (bends/twists) as is acclimates to your environment. When I say “local environment”, I mean the temperature and humidity of the specific location. This will vary inside and out, usually house-to-house, and sometimes even room-to-room.
Cedar isn’t used in guitars, but pine is rarely, especially for recreating vintage Telecasters. Fender used pine early on.
The “hard” in “hardwood” is a pretty big lie. Poplar can be softer than pine. Ebony is rock solid.
I’m very particular when I buy hardwood. A lot of specialty stores, especially ones that cater to spinning (using a lathe) can be pretty sketchy on the woods they use or carry. It’s rare to find wood that’s illegally bad, but I’m not comfortable with the ethics around a lot of species.
This particular applies to the world of guitars. It makes me a little sad that people specifically seek out unsustainable woods and only worry about legality. I should note that this can make exporting your guitars very difficult as the laws are retroactive. That is, a species that is legal today may not be next year. I know people that won’t export vintage guitars because of the complications involved establishing the heritage of the wood for even “legal” species/sources of eg. rosewood.
I like The Wood Database to find all of the information on a wood, but especially the sustainability aspect.
You won’t see the species ever listed, but the variety usually narrows it down and the Wood Database will break it out. I err on the side of avoiding something that might be what I consider exploitive.
If you look around your area, you can often find a local mill. These will usually have locally harvested wood, often provided by tree removal companies. Depending on your location, you can find great variety there. I’m able to get beautiful woods: Maple, Walnut, Cherry, etc. at amazing prices per board foot compared to online.
Another great source is Oregon Wild Woods. You can buy wood specific to guitar bodies where the cut and figuring is easy to see, you’ll just pay more to get that done for you and for shipping. For most people, this is worth the price, and they’re very reasonable in general.
Other places will carry woods that are fine, you just have to research. StewMac carries a ton, you just need to be careful.
Like I mentioned before, “hardwood” isn’t necessarily hard. That said, anything used in guitars is fine. Poplar and basswood are pretty soft and used in less expensive guitars. They’re fine as long as you’re painting, as they’re not usually very attractive. You don’t need to be snobby about them.
Hard maple, mahogany, swamp ash, etc. are much harder. These also happen to have more attractive figuring and are generally better suited for natural or translucent finishes.
Most folks pay attention to figuring, but grain in general is so important to woodworking. Wood is natural: it comes from a tree that lived a life of ease and strife. It grew branches, flexed to sunlight, worked around damage. Working with this can be challenging, but I find it to be one of the most beautiful aspects of the task. It’s like the joy I get reading a body of water when I’m fishing.
Cutting, planing, carving, and shaping wood need to adjust to grain to be effective. The direction you address the wood from, the way you move your hands and tools. Sometimes your eyes deceive you, but after tool hits wood you learn and adapt to avoid tear out and get the best results.
A Package of Tubes
It’s not Al Gore’s internet of a “series of tubes”, but wood grain is the arteries/veins of wood moving nutrients through the tree. With knots and figuring, this grain is shifting very dynamically. In other places, the grain will move more consistently. It’s never exactly parallel to the face.
Imagine facing the wood with the grain oriented so that it moves straight forward. When we say “with the grain” that means that the tubes are tilted upward as they move away from you. “Against the grain” is when they are tilted downward as they move away. Generally, you want to moved edged tools with the grain. It’s like petting a dog. You only want to go against the grain in very specific situations.
End grain is a pain for tasks like planing. But it’s particularly important to consider when using a penetrating finish.
End grain is where the tubes of the grain end more perpendicular than parallel to the surface.
I’ll use this swamp ash telecaster body to illustrate. The red lines show where the end grain will almost definitely be on the edges. The pink circles show where there may be end grain on the surface due to finishing.
I don’t know if that body is great from personal experience, but it sure looks pretty.
With penetrating finishes, this end grain uses capillary action to slurp up the finish much more than normal grain. The degree varies by finish. Shellac, being alcohol-based, is super effected. But even oils are very effected.
I usually wipe on these areas both first and last for every application while I’m still saturating the wood. Often it’s “dry” before the second.
That can apply to nitro and poly as well, even though they don’t really “penetrate” especially if you haven’t used some kind of grain filler.
Open vs Closed
Woods with larger “tubes” like mahogany are referred to as “open grain”, while woods with smaller ones like maple are “closed.”
The former will naturally be a bit rougher. They’ll need pore filler before paint, and really before sanding before paint. With penetrating finishes they will slurp up a lot more with that capillary action before they are saturated. Plan on spending a lot more time… and finish… on that with them.
Closed pore woods like maple will sand smoother and not require pore filling prior to paint. And penetrating finishes will not need to fill those pores to saturate the wood.
I was originally going to go right into my work doing Danish Oil on the mahogany body, but realized there’s some important science to get out of the way first on wood.
It’s useful information on its own and it can be hard to find collected together. I tried to cover a lot of ground in a shorter space and get the important (to me) bits in without getting too technical.
I’ll try to get to the work applying finish soon, and will have more photos to go with that.