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BC Operation Hits the Right Note

Vancouver Island's Timbre Tonewood, helped along in its marketing by a Vacouver guitar producer, is remanufacturing salvage wood into guitar components that are shipped all over the world.

By Paul MacDonald
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

When Canadian country music star Shania Twain toured Canada this summer, it's quite possible that members of her band were using guitars made from salvage wood that has been remanufactured by a small company on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Music stars are not likely to credit Timbre Tonewood Ltd. of Ucluelet, BC, in any of their concerts, but that's just fine with president David Lapeyrouse, who has been quietly staking out a market for the company's guitar components over the last several years. Lapeyrouse expects to ship some 250,000 guitar soundboards this year, with sales edging towards $3 million. A soundboard is the hourglass-shaped front of an acoustic guitar, over which the instrument's strings run.

According to Lapeyrouse, Timbre Tonewood is a prime example of the small niche markets that exist for wood product manufacturers in Canada, as well as demonstrating the value that can be added to the timber resource.

"I've always been interested in optimizing what was in the forest and raising it to its highest value," explains Lapeyrouse, who has worked in cedar block salvage for more than 20 years, primarily on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was also a pioneer in helicopter salvage cedar operations in the region, which includes Clayoquot Sound.

"We started shipping soundboard cedar blocks from our salvage operations a few years ago, through an agent, when we discovered there was a market for blocks that were high quality in terms of the colour and grain of the wood," he says. Spanish guitar makers are world-renowned and very selective when choosing the type of wood they will work with.

Today, the company continues to ship some cedar blocks to Spain, but has also taken the business a step further and started a new enterprise which supplies guitar manufacturers all over the world with soundboards manufactured with cedar and spruce from BC's coastal and interior regions. More than 70 per cent of their production is exported to markets such as the US, Japan and Europe.

The opening chord for the guitar soundboard business came, oddly enough, from a proposal for another business. Lapeyrouse commissioned a study in 1994 from Thin Kerf Technologies of Langley, BC, and used it as the basis for a proposal to Forest Renewal BC (FRBC) for a plant to manufacture finger-jointed bevel siding from salvage cedar. Since salvage cedar is normally used for manufacturing shakes and shingles, the move into siding in itself would have been a step up the value-added ladder. One of the offshoots of the siding plant was to involve capturing a small amount of high-quality wood that would be suitable for producing soundboards for the guitar industry.

"We didn't get much of a response from FRBC, and after finding out a bit more about guitar making and what the preferred materials are, we decided to go ahead anyway," says Launie Gratto, general manager of Timbre Tonewood who joined David Lapeyrouse's company two years ago. A small start-up loan was obtained through the Community Futures Development Corporation, a provincial government funding body.

Three years after start-up, Timbre Tonewood is now selling its soundboards to major guitar manufacturers, such as Gibson and Martin, and Jean Lanivee of Larrivee Guitars in Vancouver. Lanivee was, no pun intended, instrumental in opening the door to the established guitar makers, says Gratto.

"The musical instrument industry is fairly close-knit," he explains, "and they all know each other. Jean Larrivee is a world-renowned guitar producer and he provided us with an introduction to the business. What he did was give us instant credibility. We might have had to spend years developing business, but he is on a first-name basis with some of the owners of these guitar companies. With Jean's help, we were able to establish ourselves as reliable producers of quality tonewood, which is what these manufacturers are looking for, and they were quick to provide us with a portion of their business."

Marketing is extremely important, Gratto says, but it is just one of three aspects that make the business successful, the other two being production and a steady supply of wood.

The production process at Timbre Tonewood starts with a raw log, rather than a cant, as cants don't produce the precise quality soundboard characteristics that guitar manufacturers demand. The logs, some of which are salvage wood, are bucked in 24" lengths, then hand-split into pie-shaped pieces called billets. Hand-splitting the wood avoids wood grain "run-out", where the grain runs out of the board or into the board. Grain run-out, while difficult to see at this stage of the production process, can result in the grain running at different angles.

"If there was wood grain run-out, you'd see a huge shading difference in the wood, particularly once the two pieces that form a soundboard are glued together," explains Gratto. "It would look like the equivalent of mismatched carpet. There's also an assumption that you are taking away from the structure and rigidity of the wood, which is considered important for tonal qualities."

The two primary saws are small horizontal band mills with carriages that dog the blocks above the blade, dropping the blocks down incrementally as the carriage passes over the blade. Almost all of the equipment at Timbre Tonewood is what Gratto describes as specially designed prototypes, rather than standard manufacturing equipment.

The bandmill operators pay close attention to rotating each wood block to catch the edge grain and to levelling the block so it is cut parallel to the split face of the piece. Operators are constantly re-adjusting blocks - essentially manually optimizing the wood. The bandmills allow them to alternate between two thicknesses: 5 mm and 3/4". If a section of the block is not of sufficient quality for a guitar soundboard, a thicker piece will be cut. This piece is then sold to guitar manufacturers for bracing stock, which is used on the inside of guitars to support the soundboard.

Once the two pieces that form a single soundboard are cut, each pair is kept together through the rest of the operation so they match in terms of grain and colour when they are glued together. From the initial cut, each pair of boards goes to a trim saw, where the operator trims each piece to a width of 9". Machine operators follow a laser line on the trim saw and use templates as guides to capture a good-quality soundboard.

"Our operators trim each piece to the right dimension and pay particular attention to where the glue-up joint will be in the middle of the guitar soundboard. What they are really doing is optimizing that board. We typically start with a board that is 12", 14" or 16" wide, and it may be up to 18" if it's from a good-sized Sitka spruce. But what we are interested in is the best 9" that will make up one of the two pieces for the 18"-wide soundboard."

Once the matching soundboard pieces are trimmed, they are sent to one of four small kilns, which reduce the moisture content to 10 per cent, thus stabilizing the wood. The pieces are then hand-sorted. Timbre Tonewood sorts into six standard spruce grades and one sub-grade, in addition to custom grades and grade mixes.

The two individual soundboard pieces are then usually shipped to customers, but the company has recently taken the value-added initiative even further. It now takes the two matching pieces, lightly sands them with a SandyaWin SCM belt sander from Eurotech Services BC of Vancouver, and glues them together to form the final soundboard. Gratto says this finished soundboard product fits well with manufacturers who operate on a "just-in-time" basis, since they are looking for finished guitar components to complete their production process.

Manufacturing at Timbre Tonewood is labour-intensive, and David Lapeyrouse and Launie Gratto make no apologies for that. "That's part of the process," says Gratto. "We employ far more people per cubic metre versus the industry average." Although Timbre Tonewood is relatively small - with 18 employees - the company says it employs eight times the BC industry average of 0.9 jobs per 1,000 cubic metres of timber. A top-end set of guitar soundboard pieces Will fetch $70 from customers. That makes their musical instrument components the highest value of any products manufactured from BC forests, the company says.

This high-end product should result in astounding revenues, when measured against what can be produced on a per-cubic-metre basis. But Gratto notes that they have to produce a range of soundboards from the timber they are working with, and not all are wood is destined to become components in expensive guitars.

'We have to cover the range from the lower end at $1.80 to the high end at $70. You can't go out and buy what you think is top-quality timber without ending up with some low-quality guitar tops." Once a log is opened up, they are able to produce a small number of high-end pieces, but the majority of pieces are in the middle and low end.

Sourcing the select wood required for soundboards is a challenge. The fact that David Lapeyrouse's salvage operation, Windfall Cedar Products, is integrated with Timbre Tonewood certainly helps. But most of the Western red cedar, Sitka spruce and Engelmann spruce is sourced by two full-time log buyers who travel throughout BC to purchase the select logs required for producing soundboards.

Gratto expresses the sentiment of many wood product manufacturing companies in BC these days-both small and large - when he says "it's not an easy job obtaining the wood."

"We're buying hand-picked wood and we're making small purchases in big yards. In some yards, we may take one log in 10,000. Initially, we may have been considered a nuisance, but we've refined our purchasing and our approach to the yards and we're now accepted as part of the system." Of course, Timbre Tonewood is also paying a healthy premium for the wood.

To Launie Gratto and David Lapeyrouse, there is great reward in manufacturing a product that meets the demanding standards of musical artists around the world. But there is also a benefit in knowing that some select timber, originally destined to produce a run-of-the-mill 2X4 at a high-production Interior sawmill or perhaps even wood headed for the chipper, is being put to its highest use and is creating jobs and a viable business with markets all over the world.

Launie Gratto

Launie Gratto, general manager of Timbre Tonewood, with a guitar incorporating a soundboard produced by the company.

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