Buying wood for guitar builds

Introduction

In the summer of 2017, I decided to set myself up for making guitars at home, having attended two guitar-building courses at Crimson Guitars where I bought the woods from them.  Before getting really stuck into guitar-building, though, there were some preparatory steps to be taken.  I needed to buy a number of tools and prepare a working space in my garage – both of which I will probably document in the near future – and I had to obtain some wood, which is the subject of this article.

I ordered the woods online for my Sunrise bass build (see here) and then I wanted to establish a small stock of attractive woods for future guitar builds, from which I can select pieces when I start making a new instrument.  I wanted good quality woods that can be shown off in the finished guitar, and not cheap woods that get covered up with paint, and a bit of variety.  After the experience and expense of buying woods for Sunrise, I also wanted to find some cheaper sources of good wood, because prepared blanks from the specialist tonewood suppliers are rather expensive and you can easily spend €200 or more without getting anything particularly rare or exotic.  Actually, if you buy a prepared body, top, neck and fretboard, you will need to look for the cheaper options to get under that price.

This article therefore focuses on buying very small quantities of good quality hardwoods.  For those in regular production who buy larger quantities, other options are available but I don’t have that experience.  This is just some tips from my experience so far, but I strongly encourage everyone to explore their own channels for obtaining wood because it will depend on factors such as where you live, your budget and your requirements.

Buying on-line

These days, I buy almost everything except groceries on-line, and in many ways that’s the easiest option.  There are a number of timber merchants that have excellent websites and sell woods that are prepared as guitar parts, or suitable for that use. For Sunrise, I bought some body and neck blanks, plus a fretboard, from Espen in Germany.  They have an excellent website with a large selection of guitar blanks, mostly photographed individually.  Body blanks, for example, range in price from about €50 to €150, with most in the €70-100 range.  They also have some prepared bodies which are already shaped and routed, which are obviously dearer.  Tops range from about €20, and at the time of writing the most expensive ones are €410!

One of the places that I visited in England, Exotic Hardwoods (part of a timber merchant called Timberline), also has a good selection on its website with many individually photographed pieces.  I found, however, when I visited that only a part of their stock (perhaps a quarter) is shown on the website, so it was certainly better to visit them in person.

Four tops that I bought from Exotic Hardwoods, prices ranging from about £33 to £115.

It’s worth looking for other wood suppliers too, not only those that specialise in guitar woods.  Again, for Sunrise I bought three pieces from another German website, Edelholzverkauf, which sells some (expensive) guitar woods but also supplies small craft pieces for things like wood turning or knife blanks, which is where I found the pieces that I wanted.

You need to be careful to check whether you will actually get the piece depicted, or something similar.  Most of the pieces I ordered online were individually photographed, but the fretboard I ordered was not and I wasn’t very impressed with the piece that I received.  In fact, I most likely won’t use it for Sunrise as intended, and I bought another fretboard when I visited Exotic hardwoods that I think is more attractive (the top one in the photo below).  It’s much better if you can see the woods yourself before buying.

The fretboards that I bought from Exotic Hardwoods

Timber Merchants

The common thread with the online guitar wood suppliers is that they are rather expensive.  If you don’t mind paying the price and want the convenience of prepared blanks, that’s fine.  However, I felt that I could probably find suitable woods at lower prices at timber merchants that don’t sell wood as guitar blanks, and so I researched potential suppliers.  First I looked close to my home in Belgium, and visited a couple of local suppliers, but I didn’t find anywhere very useful and again they were rather expensive (which tends to be the case in Belgium, a very bad country to buy things in due to limited choice and high prices).  I was planning a trip to England in the summer, though, so I also researched possible suppliers online that I could visit while I was there.

The best search term is “hardwood” and the town or area where you are looking, and I did this for many places in the south of England that were on my routes.  Most timber merchants don’t sell exotic or high quality hardwoods, focusing more on large quantities for fencing, decking or trade buyers, so you really have to whittle the list down.  I was looking for suppliers that mentioned some of the woods I wanted, such as padauk, bubinga, wenge, mahogany, maple and purpleheart, so you can also use those as search terms or look for them on the websites.

The most productive places that I ended up visiting were Exotic Hardwoods in Tonbridge and Surrey Timbers in Guildford (see their web shop here – it’s a pain to get there from the homepage).  The latter has a great selection of exotic woods which they sell mostly for high-end furniture-making, but I found some great pieces that I will use for guitar bodies or necks.  For example, I saw an unplaned partial plank of sapele that cost me £46 and will easily make two nice guitar bodies, and that’s probably less than a single body blank from the specialist suppliers.

A plank of walnut and the sapele plank, which I asked them to cut in two to fit into my car

I also bought from them a piece of wenge that will make two bodies, for £115, and some walnut that will easily make a body and perhaps a neck too, for £53.  The best piece, however, was a padauk plank with some dramatic colours that cost £106 and will make two great-looking bodies that won’t need a top.  That will – I hope – let me make two bargain-priced but unique and striking guitars.

The padauk plank, in front of all my other wood purchases.

For me, that was the perfect place to find woods, particularly for bodies and necks although you could also potentially get pieces that you can cut down for fretboards or tops if you have the right tools (which unfortunately I don’t, at the moment).  You need to be careful about the wood grain for necks in particular, where quarter-sawn, straight grain down the length of the neck will reduce the risk of warping later on, whereas if you buy a prepared neck blank that should already be taken into consideration by the supplier.  The advantage, though, was finding some beautiful pieces of exotic woods that are not so common in guitars without paying exorbitant prices.

The wenge plank at the top – also cut in two – and various other miscellaneous pieces

I also contacted or visited a few other timber merchants that didn’t have anything useful for me, and from my experience the vast majority of wood suppliers will not have suitable pieces.

Other options

Recycled wood can be a great source of inexpensive pieces, from building renovations or other places.  In my second course at Crimson Guitars, my mahogany body came from an old staircase, and my son’s came from an old billiard table.  There are some places that specialise in recycled (or “repurposed”) wood, although I didn’t get around to visiting any – maybe next time (I found one in Abingdon, near Oxford, called Oxford Wood Recycling).  Of course, it will be hit and miss whether they have anything useful, but it’s probably worth a try.

Secondhand furniture can also provide some nice woods, so you could visit junk yards or secondhand auctions, or look at small ads for old, solid-wood furniture.  For me, that would be too time-consuming, but it may be a good option for some people.

There are doubtless other good sources – use your imagination and your local knowledge to hunt them down!

Conclusion

It’s not easy to find good quality woods at reasonable prices.  My two main recommendations are:

1 – Do your research to find potential sources

2 – Preferably find sources that you can visit in person rather than ordering online

Good luck!