In thick Cedar and Hemlock groves tucked away in the McBride and Valemount community forests, stand Engelmann Spruce poking straight at the sky.
These special trees are just what Gordon Carson is looking for.
Though he has no stethoscope or probe, Carson, a life-time logger, has learned how to pick out the right logs for his other passion – music.
For years, he has sold Robson Valley wood to instrument makers across the continent for cellos, violins, violas, mandolins and grand pianos.
He recently drove to Quebec to meet with the company Pianos Bolduc that turns local wood into piano soundboards. He also got to play a Robson Valley soundboard grand piano.
“It had a really nice sound,” Carson said.
Due to competition from low-cost Chinese builders, the company recently changed their focus to producing only high-end pianos. The company they sell to is Heinzman.
The high-end stock means concert halls, professional musicians, and other performance venues may get a taste of Robson Valley wood.
Carson says the right kind of wood is hard to find – harder yet now that the company he supplies has gone high-grade. Now the wood he sends must be all-white – a fashion he says will make it far more difficult to make it worth his while.
“You can only buy a log with enough clear wood to be worthwhile. If you only get two clear boards out of a log, it’s not worth buying the load.”
He supplies the company with 2x4s and 2×6 pieces that are then glued together to produce the thin board that sits underneath the piano strings in a grand piano.
Carson must cut the log radially, like slices of a pie. That way the pieces are edge grain. Edge grain construction is very strong and stable.
To find out what the right tone is he says there is an element of listening to the 2×4.
“You do listen to it – see what kind of tone there is,” he said, tapping a piece with a knuckle. The tone of the piece was surprisingly reverberant, not a short tinny sound you’d expect.
In a closet in his house, Carson has a stock of guitars, violins and violas leaning against the wall, all made from local wood.
Carson says he first started selling instrument wood when a friend in Edmonton asked him for some wood to build a mandolin. He saw some wood laying around up the Kiwa Valley that was obviously good instrument wood – standing dead trees with perfectly straight grain and no knots.
“That’s the hardest thing to find.”
When his friend saw the quality of the wood, he told Carson he should sell it to other people too. Since then he has been able to make a living off the shipments.
Carson already knew the technique of cutting wood for instruments, since a few years before his father died, he had asked Carson for wood to build a fiddle. That’s when he learned how to select the wood and cut the log radially. He still has the violin he father built many years ago.
Carson attributes his method for choosing the wood as guesswork.
“You have to guess – guess well.”
The wood has to be cured at least five years before he can sell it. He says the best trees seem to grow in thick Cedar and Hemlock patches where there are only a few Spruce trees interspersed.
He says those grow tall with few knots and have a really nice sound.
As far as he knows, he is the only one in BC supplying soundboards. He says it’s not likely he’ll be opening a piano factory here anytime soon, since the market is a tough one.
During his trip to Quebec he stopped in on other musicians to whom he has sold wood as well – cello makers, violin craftsman, and others.