Hinoki – Part 3 – A short story about sourcing wood.

I told a tale of cutting down a Hinoki tree, and chainsawing it into quarters and processing it… This rendered wood that I can use for braces in a few years. Not a big tree, but worth the trouble and a good experience.

The fellows that have been helping me scout for more Hinoki said we’ll find a tree one meter in diameter in the mountains and go cut it down. I was thinking that will be a back breaker of a few days and then 5 to 7 year wait for wood to dry. Alas a good idea, but not what I really and truly wanted to go through, as macho as it makes you sound. Out of the green, because everything in the Japan country side is green, a call came last week that a large Hinoki tree had arrived in a lumber yard about 15 miles away and they are holding it until I can get over to explain how I want to have it sawn.

There were a couple of days before I could get there and my wood angels and I talked about what we may find and I had to be ready to direct the gigantor band saw operator to slice this tree. I’ve never done that before, I was getting a nervous wondering if I know enough to direct the sawing of a big tree the in the correct way. In theory I know who it is supposed to be done, but I think there must be other things to know before you start hacking up a tree. Does anyone have the guts to cold call how a tree should be cut for instrument lumber without prior experience? I thought, well it should go XYZ, theoretically, but what if I screw something up? Would I be buying a ruined tree?

Arriving at the yard we asked about the “tree situation” in the front office. A phone call was made and a guide walked us deep into the yard to a large storage building.There was no tree to be seen. Against one wall were leaned a few hundred wide, thick planks, and in the center of the room were stacked big post timbers; 80% of which were flat sawn from large trees, the other 20% were quarter sawn and about 10% were complete vertical grain. I realized suddenly that there never was any tree, my friend the retired carpenter asked the local lumber yards to be on the lookout for a big tree, by the time the message circulated and got back to me the message was that a tree had been located, actually what had been found, or reported to me via the wood grapevine, was a stash of lumber from big trees that had been cut 15 or more years ago.

I asked if they were local trees or from another area, there said it’s been too long since the trees arrived and were cut to tell where they came from, but for certain they came on a flat bed truck from somewhere in the mountains of Kyushu, probably the Southern half. Kyushu is 350 miles long and 200 miles wide, more or less. Some of the mountains are very high altitude ( and very volcanic! )  and the slower growing Hinoki is valued for being harder than the softer wood that grows lower amidst the timber bamboo thickets. I’ve seen a lot of softer Hinoki that you can drive your thumb nail into, it dents easily. The tin roof building was full of much Hinoki that resisted the ‘thumbnail punch’ that I have used to figure out which boards will be hard enough to make instruments with. The cross grain stiffness and density is always a mystery, but usually if the board is difficult to nail mark and you can read the grain as not full of twisties, the chances are it will be good to build with.

Now the best part, besides having found a stack of 16 year old high quality vertical grain Hinoki planks that can be sliced in half to make cello backs, is that I saw a stack of resawn cedar siding scraps and nosed around to find the band saw they were ripped out on. Not too far from the cedar siding tailings I saw a band saw with a 3″ wide blade, wheels a meter wide and a resaw fence. My friend Tsukamoto-san, the retired carpenter, was watching me make the connection as he discovered it at the same time I did. There was not even time for the dual light bulbs to go on over our heads when he said to our yard guide, “Can you resaw smaller than 10mm?”

The yard guy said yes and I said: “Nana milli?” (7mm) He said “Yon milli.” ( 4mm) and laughed.

Previous to having found a resaw facility Tsukamoto-san used his table saw to cut three guitar backs for me from a plank of Hinoki I had bought. It was a huge waste, the board should have given 4 maybe even five backs, but I was so desperate for materials and lacking money that we just cut them so I could get going. We were both happy to see I can give the boards to the Izumi Mokuzai ( Izumi =the town – Mokuzai = lumber mill) and they will be able to saw cello/guitar rib stock and slice down the planks I will use to make the next cello.

I’m very excited to get this wood, we’ll go back in few days to capture it and have it cut. This Hinoki is comparable to English Sycamore or Poplar in density, strength and surface hardness and I feel it will be well worth the time to make it into a cello. If the first one works, there is more of this aged wood to be had. I’m halfway though a flamenco guitar with Hinoki which promises to be a winner for these instruments.


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