Lutherie Trivia

by Ervin Somogyi

Trivia are inconsequential things. They come from the Latin trivium, which means three roads [tri: three + via: path or road]. It was the custom during the days of the Roman Empire to put up public bulleting boards at points where three or more roads converged, on the presumption that these points carried sufficient traffic to warrant such information-disseminating devices. Onto these bulletin boards were put not only proclamations of general importance, but also notes and notices of local interest and color, public announcements, news, gossip, etc. Since the bulk of the information on these boards was of the homely. local and everyday type, such snippets of information came to be known as trivial, or trivia.

All woodworkers know what a kerf is: it is the space made by the path of a sawblade through a piece of material that is being cut. Most people don’t realize that kerfs are the only known things in the universe that get bigger and bigger until they disappear. Think about it. Other things only get smaller until they disappear. This is exactly the kind of trivial fact that will, if used properly, make you a sure success on your next date.

Luthiers all know what a flitch is: it is a stack of slices of wood or material cut serially from one larger piece. Flitchcomes from Old Teutonic flikkjo, which referred to a side (slice) of an animal, which had been cured (dried and aged). While originally flikkjo was a cured side of any farm animal, it eventually came to refer only to pork. According to historical records a fourteenth-century noblewoman in the Sussex County town of Dunmow, England, attempted to encourage marital contentment by offering a prize called a Dunmow Flitch to any man who would swear that after a year of marriage he still enjoyed marital harmony. The flitch became a symbol of domestic happiness. Parenthetically, the fact that the flitch by then referred to pork gave rise to the phrase “bringing home the bacon” — the byword for a good husband. Unfortunately, according to existing records, only eight Dunmow Flitches were awarded over a span of five centuries. Perhaps some records were lost.

While wood is the luthier’s material of choice, the more basic fact is that he works with a material. That is, he works with a form of matter, the primal substance which is the source of all things. Matter comes from from the Latin mater, which means mother. Matter is, literally and metaphorically, the primordial and essential Mother from which all things come. That language has preserved this connection illustrates how unspeakably important the mother is, in the human condition. But I’d be careful in using this trivium on your next date.

Padouk is a beautiful red hardwood which is sometimes used in lutherie. It’s proper name is Andaman padouk, as it grows only on the Andaman islands which lie halfway between India and Malaysia in the Indian Ocean. Padouk is, in fact, the islands’ only resource of any commercial interest. Years ago, when England had a worldwide empire, the British established a penal colony on these sweltering tropical islands, whose sole work was the logging and harvesting of this special wood. Commercial logging of padouk is no longer done with convict labor, but it’s hard for me to see a plank of this lovely material without thinking of the poor creatures who were once forced to sweat out their lives in cutting it. Also, it makes me think that other woods we use probably have interesting stories behind them, too. The Andaman Islands have left a small footnote in literature as well as in woodwork, in that the villain in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Sign Of The Four was an Andaman Island native; in proper colonial fashion, he was described by the author as savage, brutish and ugly.

A computer run on medical records has shown that 69% of the piano players suffer back pain. That’s bad. But not as bad as the 73% of the harpists who hurt similarly. You’re better off as a guitarist, according to the same survey: only 33% of them voice that complaint.

Instrument making is the work of both individual craftsmen and factories, and their work is respectively called lutherie and manufacturing, referring to the fact that individual craftsmen make a few things by hand and factories produce much greater quantities of products by using machinery and division of labor. However, “manufacturing” is a misnomer, as it is rooted in the Latin mano + factus, which signify “hand” + “made” or “done”, and it literally means hand-made. Today, of course, manufactured goods are as far from being hand-made as the people in charge can manage. Mass produced goods are made in factories (once again, from factus: making), which word literally signifies “the places where things are made”.

Most of us know that the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (A.S.I.A.) holds a national Symposium every year or two, comparable to the Guild of American Luthiers’ Conventions. And most of us know that these two events are functionally comparable. Yet, their etymologies differ slightly, possibly in a way that can be seen as humorous.Convention comes from con (with) and venire (come, come together; venue, from the same root, generally means place, location, site, position or ground). So a convention is a coming together in a place for a common purpose, activity or discussion. Symposium, on the other hand, comes from syn (together: as in synonym, synchronous, synthesize, syntax, syndicate or synergy) and posein /variant of potein (to drink, as in potion or potable; or Poseidon, the water God) — in other words, a drinking together. This meaning comes down to us from the Greek and Roman custom of having a convivial meeting after a dinner, together with drinking, for the purpose of having intellectual conversation and mutual enjoyment. Put in a more homely way, a symposium is your basic drinking party.

We work with woods from all over the world: it’s one of nature’s most plentiful resources. England, however, has rather little of it: it is, in fact, Europe’s only wood importing country. England used to be mostly covered by forests (remember Sherwood forest and Robin Hood?) but from the seventeenth century on its forests were systematically cut down in service of the needs of the Industrial Revolution, which that country gave birth to. For one thing, raw wood was needed for construction of England’s growing cities and also to build ships for navies of war, commerce, trade and exploration. Second, huge amounts of coal and firewood were needed to stoke the furnaces of the growing iron and glass working industries. As the ground was dug up and trees were cut down, the forests began to disappear. Simultaneously, English landowners found that raising sheep on their lands [to supply the textile industry’s ravenous need for wool] was more profitable than having peasant farmers on it — so they further cut their lands bare to make pastures for sheep and thereby displaced the traditionally rural peasant population into the cities, where it could provide the labor pool for the Industrial Revolution’s work force. The upshot of such deforestation was that the English soil became rapidly denuded of its natural protective cover and erosion on a ferocious scale became, for the first time, a fact of life. Floods and flooding in towns became common events — so much so that drowned domestic animals were often found lying on the ground after a storm had passed. This has given us the phrase about a downpour so intense that it rained cats and dogs.

All plant life has an innate heliotrophism; that is, the tendency to grow toward sunlight and to follow it on its course across the sky. Sunflowers come to mind as an example, but trees do this too — albeit their ability to move is not so noticeable. Trees will want to face the sun with those parts of themselves that first receive sunlight in the morning, and they’ll twist a little bit throughout the day to try to follow it. The degree of twisting will be a function of the species of tree, how much sun it’s getting through the canopy of its neighboring trees, etc. But as a result, over the years, a tree will grow in a corkscrew pattern which is sometimes discernible through the bark and certainly underneath it: just look at some of the trees and telephone poles in your neighborhood. You’re looking at wood runout.

Not all trees exhibit the same orientation of runout. Because the earth rotates on its polar axis and most sunlight lands at the equator, trees in the Northern and Southern hemispheres stand in a mirror-image rotational-angle relationship to the sun. Think of it: artists in the Northern hemisphere prefer Northern light because it’s the most even, and Southern exposures are useful to other purposes. But on the other side of the equator it’s the opposite. And just so for trees. The resultant heliotrophic effect is that trees in the Northern hemisphere tend to turn clockwise, as seen from above (or even below), and trees in the Southern hemisphere tend to turn counterclockwise.

Tropical-region hardwoods get an interesting bonus in the matter of runout. They get the “sunspin effect” in alternating directions as the sun travels back and forth seasonally across the equatorial axis: they get to grow like Northern hemisphere trees some of the time, and like Southern hemisphere trees some of the time. Thus they can grow in layered, alternating directions as a result. This is why woods like mahogany, zebrawood, purpleheart, etc. can grow with internal structures of mixed-direction grain — which property gives them great stability. This kind of interlocked grain is nature’s own plywood.

Hardwoods and softwoods are not named because they are actually hard or soft. Taxonomists have labelled them according to the shapes of their leaves. Softwoods are, by definition, trees that have long, thin leaves; hardwoods are identified by their having broad, flat leaves. The fir that your flooring may be made of, which can stand up to many years of use, is a softwood. On the other hand balsa wood is a hardwood.

Balsa wood, which some luthiers use for bracing, is a South American tropical hardwood named for its use and not its discoverer nor its Latin name: balsa, in Spanish, means raft. Raft-wood is simply the tree that people made rafts out of since the time they first noticed that it wasn’t all that good for flooring.

Good luck on your next date! With any luck it’ll produce an anecdote or trivium worth writing down. And if you know any other trivia to add to this list, I’d love to hear about them.