Rare forests

🕔Jan 30, 2007

Under a tarp in Larry Stamm’s yard just west of McBride sits a carefully stacked woodpile. It’s a common site in northern BC, where winter temperatures can drop precipitously and it’s often joked that folks are more protective of their firewood supply than they are of their spouses.

But this is no ordinary woodpile, and it’s certainly not destined for a potbellied stove any time soon.

In fact, the hundreds of blocks of wood stacked under Stamm’s tarp are much more valuable than common cordwood. In the skilled hands of craftsmen around the world—including Stamm himself—these blocks of wood will soon be turned into high-quality stringed instruments such as guitars, violins, bouzoukis, and mandolins. It’s a business he has been building since 1992.

“I realized that in order to survive in woodworking you needed something high quality that didn’t weigh very much to ship out of here,” he says. “This is about as high value as you can get in wood.”

Material requirements

The wood Stamm sells comes from the unique inland rainforest of the Robson Valley, where cool, moist climatic conditions produce forests more akin to BC’s coastal rainforests. Here, a natural alchemy of temperature, precipitation and seasonal timing produces wood that is both strong and light, making it perfect for instruments.

Stamm explains how instrument wood grows in the lower trunks of these forests’ old-growth trees, in the relatively shaded understory below the canopy.

“By the time the base of the tree starts adding on wood it’s high spring or early summer and it just goes ‘boom’ and grows really fast. When this early growth stops abruptly in late summer, you get a really sharp demarcation between early wood and late wood.”

Unfortunately, Stamm has found his requirements for instrument wood at odds with today’s forest management conventions. Forests require centuries, if not millennia, to evolve into the old-growth stands that grow instrument wood. BC forests are managed more like crops, and old-growth stands are converted into short rotations of fast-growing young trees.

“In order to produce an instrument-quality wood you need to be growing trees under a canopy under old growth conditions,” he says. “I need three, four, five, six-hundred year old trees that have grown under canopy conditions. Nobody’s planning for that. Unless things change in terms of forest management, [these old trees] will be gone in 50 years, and that’s it for the foreseeable future.”

Today, most of the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest have been logged and converted into plantations, leaving only a few spots where people like Stamm can find sources for instrument wood. Outside the Robson Valley, these pockets can be found in Alaska, Northern Idaho and Washington, on the BC Coast and in the Skeena Valley.

Does Stamm think BC can change its ways and ensure a future supply of instrument wood?

“I think so, but something needs to happen soon,” he says. “I brought that up in the AAC (Annual Allowable Cut) analysis several times. Nobody’s thinking seriously about it commercially. Our system is set up for the throughput of commodities.”

Stamm recalls meeting a Swiss forester, who described how he managed his 6,000-hectare woodlot. “He knew just about every tree on his place, and they had been logging there since the 1200s—pretty much continuously. They cut thinnings, 60-year-old pulpwood stands, peelers, high-grade furniture wood, and produced a whole range of products…but they always had a few good spruce trees that they didn’t count on cutting until they were 200 years old or more.”

“That’s where we ought to be thinking,” he adds.

From farm to workshop

Walking into Stamm’s shop, one is greeted by a blast of heat from a squat wood stove in the corner. It’s a small space, about 16 feet long by eight feet wide, and its aspen-paneled walls add to its warmth. In the center and along one wall are workbenches, marred from long use, and a wide array of woodworking tools hang from hooks.

Although his involvement in the luthier’s craft officially began in 1995 when he attended David Freeman’s well-known guitar-building course in Saskatchewan, the idea came to him much earlier, when he was working on a farm in Alberta in the early 1980s.

“I was trying to help a heifer nurse her calf. She didn’t like her calf or me, and she beat me up pretty good. I was lying in bed recuperating and trying to think about what else I wanted to do. I played guitar—I’d learned when I was a kid—and I got the idea of building guitars.”

He demonstrates how he places a rough-hewn block of fir in a special jig and runs it through the bandsaw, slicing off five-millimetre-thick slabs of the clear, tight-grained wood. A sequential pair of these slices is eventually glued together edgewise to form the top of an instrument, “book-matched” (opened like a book) so that the grain is symmetrical on either side.

Stamm then moves over to the bench near the window, where he has a bouzouki top already cut in the shape of the final instrument. Fastening it to the bench with two clamps, he reaches over and picks out his favourite from a selection of hand planes (“I bought this one because it’s wide and heavy,” he says) and begins smoothing the wood. Perfect curls of the blonde wood emerge from the top of the plane as he works it in smooth strokes. It’s obvious he especially enjoys this part of his job.

Its final thickness confirmed by a depth gauge mounted on the wall, Stamm takes the bouzouki top and flexes it in his hands to show its strength. It doesn’t break. Then, he suspends it between thumb and forefinger and taps it with a finger on his other hand. Even in this early stage of its evolution, the wood produces a rich, resonant sound. It’s the quality of that sound that makes his wood so sought-after.

Planing wood by hand in front of a wood heater may give Stamm’s work an old-world feel, but he’s not opposed to taking advantage of technology. Using a microphone hooked up to his home computer, he records the sound the wood makes when tapped. Then he calculates the wood’s “modulus of elasticity” based on its dimensions and the frequency of the sound it emits.

“Left-brain luthiery,” he calls it, adding that only a certain type of craftsman is attracted to this brand of technical analysis.

Disappearing forests

Outside the walls of Stamm’s cozy shop, the local forest industry limps along amid the pine beetle crisis, the softwood lumber agreement (or lack thereof), and a declining timber supply. The local veneer mill has just shut down and rumours of malfeasance and unpaid debt pass each other on McBride’s quiet main street. In a town of only 700, dozens of families are out of work. An hour to the east, the Valemount mill is also closed.

“There used to be 50 mills in the Valley, some 800 people employed,” Stamm reflects.

The local instrument-wood business, however, appears steady and sustainable. An instrument top fetches an average of $75 US, and Stamm has built a loyal customer base of luthiers scattered around the globe. Many of his customers are in the US, but he has also shipped instrument wood to the Middle East, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, England, Ireland, France, and Germany.

“I had a really good customer in Beijing for a while, but he got in trouble for corresponding with a capitalist from North America, so he stopped buying,” Stamm says.

While it’s a steady business, Stamm is reluctant to prescribe instrument wood as a panacea for the Valley’s economy. At most, he estimates the current supply and demand is enough to keep six people working. Meanwhile, the forests that supply his raw material are rapidly being converted into two-by-fours, pulp and plywood before his eyes.

Rather, Stamm sees his business as a piece of a complex sustainability puzzle that involves rethinking forest management, increasing value-added manufacturing, and planning for the future. Another important puzzle piece, he says, is forest certification.

Forest certification is a process designed to assure customers that the wood products they purchase come from trees which were harvested sustainably—the same way the organic label works in grocery stores. The most stringent and credible certifier is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and FSC certification has the potential to open new markets and command a premium in the marketplace.

The kicker is that, as of yet, there is no North American supply of FSC-certified instrument wood.

“Every month or so I get inquiries about [whether I have] certified wood.” Stamm says. “Martin Guitars was up here. They said there was no certified wood available and wanted 400 certified soundboards per month. That would be pushing my limit.” However, FSC certification requires an initial investment, and local forest managers have yet to express a serious interest.

Last chance

Finally, turning to a stack of black instrument cases in the corner of his shop, Stamm pulls out a finished product and lays it on the workbench. It’s a classical guitar, built exclusively from local woods. The light from the window glints off its layers of varnish. He picks it up and starts to play.

“We’ve been making instruments forever,” he says.

You can tell by the way he says it that he’s hoping we can find the foresight to keep doing so.

Editor’s note: You can learn more about Larry’s work at www.larrystamm.com.