View Full Version : The cost of luthier quality wood

Pete Howlett
10-04-2011, 11:03 PM
This is why tonewoods from a luthier’s supplies cost so much:
• Travel costs to wood yard : $60
• Time costs to travel and sort wood: $160
• Raw cost of 12bd ft of English Lacewood (US sycamore): $50
• 4 hours spent selecting, cutting billets and re-sawing: $160
• Wastage to get premium sets– 6bd ft
• Final yield: 12 tenor sets
The total cost is now $430 with each set on the shelf having an initial value of $36. The next stage would be to add 40% for profit and other costs and we get $50 a set retail.

Although it looks an attractive proposition, buying your own raw wood and converting it yourself is not always going to be as cost effective as you first thought….

I expect Rick has a different cost analysis and would be interested to see it. This is what this small one-man business in the UK has to invest before he even picks up a try-plane and bottle of glue :)

Liam Ryan
10-04-2011, 11:30 PM
I'm finding the exact same thing. I can get a $5 piece of bland timber that'll yield 3 B&S sets. Except it takes three hours to go get the timber and then saw up and sand using one-man-band level machines. They become $50 sets by the time I factor my time, wear and tear, consumables, electricity etc. And I've lost time I could have spent building.

Necks on the other hand, using the same $5 plank I can get 3-4 neck blanks, to the same point as a bought one, in about half an hour. That makes them $9 neck blanks. Cheaper than I've found to buy.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
10-05-2011, 06:48 AM
That's why I've just stopped milling my own sets. Too much wasted wood and too much wasted time. Even with a stumpage fee of $7 a board foot for down and salvaged koa it's often no bargain considering the amount of rot and other defects you run into. The small percentage of useable wood from some of these logs just aren't worth the time for me. These days I'm happily paying $150 to $200 per koa set to have someone else to do all that work for me.

10-05-2011, 09:39 AM
What do you consider a "set"? Is that top, back and sides?

Pete Howlett
10-05-2011, 10:05 AM
Ukulele sets for me are 6 piece if you are looking to bookmatch. On most of my export work I am looking for one piece tops and backs and there is the rub - very few luthier suppliers sell 9.25" wide koa for ukulele and trying to get one piece in this size is next to impossible. It's why I still try to source koa boards despite the shipping and duty expense because one piece tops and backs eliminate the commonest warranty issue in koa - seam separation. And before you say it, when I visited a famous boutique luthier's factory in Texas (you may guess fairly accurately now) in the repair shop was a koa guitar with splits either side of the neck block - despite the high quality control most of us operate under, koa is a menace for doing what it wants to do, especially that highly figured stuff our clients seem to love.

Rick Turner
10-05-2011, 10:14 AM
Well, I have to admit, it's a whole different thing for me. I have a 20 hp horizontal band resaw and a 43" wide belt sander. I'm really set up top process billets into sets. When I bought the resaw in 1998 (well, lease purchase), I was paying $42.00 a set for walnut guitar backs and sides for my thin bodied Renaissance guitars. When I started resawing my own, the cost of the walnut dropped to below $8.00 a set for the wood, and about $4.00 a set for handling, blades, etc. I was buying large wet billets, and we stickered and air dried the wood on site here. With the number of guitars I was making, the saw literally paid for itself over three years time just on my production, and then I got into doing resawing for other people...which is how I wound up with a nice stash of Brazilian rosewood...in trade. Then there's the fall-down...wood that's nice that is too narrow for guitars...but perfect for ukes. I have a lot of it...walnut, sycamore, flame maple, etc. So for me, much of my uke building is done with scrap from years of guitar making, and doing my own resawing really pays off.

Pete Howlett
10-05-2011, 10:32 AM
Yep you got Rick - wet wood will being the costs right down. When I visited a client in the Alsace region of France we went and visited their local joiner. He had three enormous sheds stacked with French oak and Larch that he had felled and converted himself. He had complete chain of custody and that's great if you can do it. But we are luthiers and our requirements are very, very particular aren't they... I'd hazard a guess if you were a one man operation like Chuck, Ken and all the others who chip in here, you would have an entirely different experience buying and converting wood. Oh and that Brazilian stash? Better use it quick because I suspect your government is sooner or later going to sequester every last stick of it.

BTW - cocobola is moving up the CITES list. Wanna know why? Illegal logging by the drug cartels in South America is driving this decision. These criminals are logging out areas so they can plant coca. Drug dealers/businessmen? Seems that they are one and the same :(

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
10-05-2011, 10:45 AM
Luckily I still have a few hundred sets of koa that I milled and made up when the prices were more reasonable. At todays prices of 5A koa running up to $100 abf it makes no sense for me to buy either log or board any more and be stuck with the waste.

Concerning the cocobolo and coca plant Pete, either way you're paying up the nose.

Pete Howlett
10-05-2011, 11:17 AM
I've used cocobolo for fingerboards but just cannot see it's attraction for anything else - it just doesn't hold its colour...

10-05-2011, 11:38 AM
I've used cocobolo for fingerboards but just cannot see it's attraction for anything else - it just doesn't hold its colour...
Well, it's a great sounding tone wood. I love the stuff.

Rick Turner
10-05-2011, 11:52 AM
Pete, you're entirely correct. If I were back in a one man shop, I'd be buying sets from the usual suspects here in the US.

I am the one who found the Baker resaw for Todd at Allied Lutherie, and then the folks at Roberto Venn School got one as well as LMI. I shared the trick of modifying the guides so the saws would handle the 3/4" Timberwolf resaw blades, and so now there are four Bakers set up this way...three in California, one in Phoenix, AZ. I'd trust any of them to custom saw for me if I didn't have the Baker.

Now my saw sits idle most of the time, but it's paid for and it really comes in handy those one or two days a month when we need it.

And the Brazilian I have is all from long felled trees, but I, like practically everyone else I know, have no papers for it. I feel entirely in the clear ethically; I just can't prove it, so it's Napoleonic Code time here. Hey, I've also got a 1962 D-28 with no papers on the Brazilian.

I wonder if Brazilian can be carborized and turned into carbon fiber?

10-05-2011, 12:01 PM
I wonder if Brazilian can be carborized and turned into carbon fiber?

I bet it can, but you will still need the paper work!!

Pete Howlett
10-05-2011, 12:20 PM
It's that 'paperwork' that prevents me seeking it out for fingerboards - just love BR fingerboards... How do you get on with walnut for fingerboards - I am right you use it for this purpose no Rick?

Rick Turner
10-05-2011, 12:32 PM
Pete, I'm just about to do an electric bass with a walnut fingerboard, and I'm going to epoxy treat it...two or three coats of this System 3 stuff that is very thin and should penetrate and harden up the wood almost as though it were acrylic impregnated. I often use purpleheart for fingerboards on the kits I make for my uke in four days students, and it's really beautiful...if a bit shocking. I may try vacuum impregnating some walnut with epoxy; I'm just not sure about the waste factor with the epoxy. It could be significant. The acrylic impregnation processes use a heat cured acrylic, so they can be impregnated under vacuum (and more to the point, vacuum release), taken out of the vacuum chamber, and then heat cured. It's really difficult to find the right materials for this...nobody wants to give up the secrets for "wood stabilization". I've had some done, and it's very, very promising. It might be time to give a second look at this. The wood can be dyed in the same process, if so desired. Google "Wood Stabilizing" or some such. You've probably got someone doing it in the UK. It's very popular here among custom knife makers for scales and with hobby pen makers who turn ball point pen casings out of stabilized wood or DymondWood.

I've got a guitar in my spray booth with a bird's eye maple fingerboard, and it looks amazing with two coats of System 3 clear coat epoxy. The depth of the figure is wonderful, and the color is really beautiful as well. These thin epoxy treatments pop color and figure in wood at least as well as an oil finish.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
10-05-2011, 01:34 PM
I would think thin ca would penetrate even better than Systems III Clear Coat.

Pete Howlett
10-05-2011, 10:05 PM
Before or after slotting? Are you spraying the epoxy... ie do you fill and then cut back? Problem with system 3 as I see it is the critical mix proportions and requiring digital scales to mix it, having enough fingerboards ready and prepared to justify using it. Would other thin epoxies work?

Rick Turner
10-06-2011, 03:43 AM
CA would work, but I hate working with it on large surfaces. We're brushing on the epoxy with a foam brush and then wiping back with blue paper shop towels. Yes, slots, and then we're cleaning out the slots with thin tapered dental burrs afterwards. On maple, I do a full finish before fretting; I hate the Fender/Rickenbacker method of lacquering over the frets; it's incredibly refret unfriendly.

I have to say here that many of my methods and designs are informed by many years...well, decades of doing lutherie repair work. I honestly don't see how any builder can move the state of the art forward without a lot of repair experience. There are some very basic seriously bad issues with "traditional" guitar and yes, even uke design. Issues that result in the same repair problems over and over and over. Issues that inhibit tone. When you see the same problems come to you year after year, you start to think about what the underlying design flaws are. That experience has greatly informed my guitar, bass, and uke building ideas. I want my instruments to sound great, but also survive and then be reasonably easy to repair 50 or 100 or 200 years from now.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
10-06-2011, 06:37 AM
I've found a good way to use Systems III Clear Coat is to hit it with a heat gun or blow drier immediately after brushing, and then hit it again with the brush. It warms the stuff up, opens up the pours and really allows it get where it needs to go.

10-06-2011, 09:26 AM
You are absolutely right Pete. I have just learned this lesson the hard way. Am in the process of starting a small online buisness catering to the ukulele and guitar building market. I started out by sawing one hundred curly koa soprano and concert bookmatched b/t/s sets. Figured on selling these for $65/$70 a set, based upon the idea that one set equals say a half a board foot. Sounded good to me, that equals one hundred and fourty dollars a board foot. Good money,right? Wrong. Here was my first realization. It became clear to me that one set also equals a half board foot of waste. This means I would end up selling curly koa for $70 a board foot. And thats only part of the problem. You see I have not even factored in all the resaw blades, all the sandpaper for the drum sander, electricity and my time. So now I know that these sets must sell for no less than$90/$100.Tenor sets $150/$200. Unfortunatey still going to have to keep the day job. Im probably better off just selling the raw wood. Will see. Live and learn. Oh yeah, the other thing I learned was instead of cutting a hundred soprano sets, cut 50 tenors instead.Thanks for the forum.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
10-06-2011, 09:31 AM
I figure on about 2 board feet per tenor set, all things considered including waste and poor buying choices. I never deliberately cut soprano sets, they are a by product of my tenor cutting.