Knock on Wood
Wood on C. F. Martin Guitars
It appears that guitars made by C.F. Martin in the 1830's when first
coming to New York may have been made with tops of Alpine Spruce from
Early Martin Stauffer Style Guitar
1837 Martin Hudson Street Guitar
In most of the years before World War II, Martin used wood for their tops
often called "Adirondack Spruce" as it was generally sourced from the
Adirondack region of the Eastern US, mostly from suppliers in Vermont, but
more properly named "red spruce".
The finish can affect the appearance of early Martin guitars, as Martin
often used shellacs which added an orange tone.
1840's Alternate X Brace Spanish Style Martin
Without the orange tone sometimes imparted by shellac, the top wood on
early Martins is generally pale and even in tone, in addition to having a
uniform even, straight grain.
Martin 1840's Spanish Guitar
1850's Martin Ivory Fingerboard Stauffer Headstock Guitar
Martin Style 5 Mandolin, 1899
The top wood seen on the highest grade Martins is extremely pale and even,
leading one to think that Martin might have used European spruce for their
best pearl inlaid guitars.
The question is confused by the fact that German spruce has a similar pace
appearance, while "German Spruce" is in fact a variety of spruce grown in
America, and it's generally understood that German spruce was used for
pearl inlaid Martins after their revival in the 1960's.
Martin Style 42
C. F. Martin Style 5 mandolin from 1899
This 000-42 was special ordered by the Ditson Company in 1918 with a cloud
shaped pickguard inlaid into the spruce top.
In 1919 Martin briefly broke with tradition and used Sitka Spruce, known
at the time as "Airplane Spruce", for the tops of their guitars.
Sitka can often be distinguished by darker, reddish grain lines and
prominent resin canals which cross the grain of the spruce.
1919 Martin 0-45
1930 Martin 0-18T
The 1930 Martin OM-28 and OM-45 DeLuxe
Martin used the finest material on their pearl inlaid guitars, and
used the highest grade woods available for the DeLuxe.
1930 Martin OM-45 DeLuxe
1930 Montgomery Wards 0-17S
1937 Martin 00-18
1939 Martin D-28
1940 Martin 00-18
Red Spruce can often be distinguished from Sitka Spruce on Martin guitars
by the appearance of sapwood, which could be placed at either side, but
was generally placed by Martin at the middle of the top, forming a light
colored band. Sapwood appears on Engelmann and German Spruce as
well, but never on Sitka.
Sapwood is seen most often on Martins from the 1940's, when more larger
guitars were built. These spruce trees are quite small, as opposed
to the relatively giant Sitka trees, so it became difficult to find enough
wide enough logs to accommodate 000 and Dreadnaught guitars without using
the sapwood, especially as the supplies of appropriate red spruce
1943 Martin 000-18
1944 Martin D-18
1945 Martin 000-18
In 1946, as supplies of their preferred sources of spruce dried up, and
Martin had used the last smaller pieces to creat four piece tops, Martin
began using Sitka spruce from the Northwest.
The Sitka used in this first year of 1946 has a distinctive dark brownish
tone, and tends to have the distinctive light swirls in the wood known as
"bear claw". This figure is considered to be desirable as it can
make the board stiffer as well as for it's appearance.
1946 Martin 000-18
1951 Martin D-28
1952 Martin 000-18
In 1953 Martin used a batch of Engelmann Spruce which was acquired as
government surplus wood. It's possible that Martin also acquired a
small supply of red spruce which was also used in 1953. Martin did
acquire a supply of red spruce which appears on Martin guitars built in
1953 Martin 0-18
1957 Martin 00-18
1962 Martin 000-18
1964 Martin 0-18
1965 Martin D-35
1966 Martin D-35
In 1922 Martin introduced the 2-17 with a mahogany top as well as back and
sides. The Style 17 line was soon expanded to include single 0
and 00 guitars.
1936 Martin 0-17
An all mahogany Style 15 was added to the Martin line in 1940.
A variety of woods were used for the backs and sides of early Martin
Martin Stauffer Style guitar with maple backs and sides.
This Martin guitar has been described in several books as an
unusual early example made with koa back and sides.
Recent testing has shown this wood to in fact be Goncalo Alves from
Eastern Brazil, commonly referred to as "Tigerwood".
The back of this guitar is made with two pieces of koa, joined without
either interior or exterior center strip.
Guitar Backs of Rosewood Veneer Over Spruce or Mahogany
By the 1840's, most all Martins were made with rosewood backs and
Some of C.F. Martin's earliest guitars were built with rosewood veneer
over spruce backs.
This "Hudson Street" Martin Guitar, from 1837,
has a spruce back on a slight diagonal.
You can see why I think of this as a decorative rosewood veneer,
rather than a laminate. C.F. Martin was a cabinet maker by trade, and
the finest furniture was often made with beautiful rosewood veneers.
If spruce provided the best tonewood for a top, why not for a back as
well? Martin was always leery of using anything but the
more stable quarter sawn rosewood. Veneers allowed Martin to use the
more attractive but less stable slab sawn rosewood on their finest
The two sides of this guitar are made from one continuous
strip of rosewood.
The rosewood veneers never predominated in any period. We tend to be
starstruck by the most beautiful decorative Martins, but if we pay
attention to more of the plainer examples, we often get a more complete
I have four examples of Martins with rosewood veneers over mahogany
backs, all finer examples from the 1840's. Most are on
higher grade Martin & Coupa guitars. One is on a high grade
"Spanish" Martin from the same period, with the mahogany/rosewood back.
1840's Martin Presentation Guitar
My wonderful Renaissance Martin, a sister to this Spanish example, with
many of the same features, does not have the rosewood veneer back. While
being one of the most beautiful Martins ever made, it is a lower grade
instrument, with herringbone borders rather than pearl.
In the "Post-Martin & Coupa" period, the spruce/rosewood examples
appear again, but once again, only on certain models.
It appears again that Martin was using the rosewood veneer to allow him
to build more attractive guitars with a more decorative grade of
Martin built with spruce backs under rosewood veneers on their
"presentation" grade guitars, such as the ivory fingerboard example:
1850's Martin Ivory Fingerboard Presentation Guitar
Martin used rosewood veneers on the early Style 27:
On the more decorative Civil War era variants of the Style 30:
And on the Style 24, a model known for holding over old world elements:
You will not see the spruce backs on Style 28 or other "lower grade"
guitars from the period, which tended to use the more standard quarter
Koa Wood Guitars
In July of 1916, with Hawaiian music all the rage, the C.
F. Martin Co. shipped six samples each, of Hawaiian koa wood guitars
with appointments generally similar to Martin's styles 0-18, 0-21,
and 00-28, to the
Southern California Music Company of Los Angeles, a chain of
SouthernCalifornia music stores, and one of Martin's largest accounts.
SoCal provided Martin with the koa wood
from Hawaii, and asked that the trim on these
guitars, designed for playing in the Hawaiian
style, be as close as possible to those of
SoCal's popular ukuleles. These early
samples had koa wood back and sides and tinted spruce tops, but after
seeing the samples, SoCal decided to offer all koa guitars, and to
market the three models as the 1350, 1400, and 1500.
The koa on the SoCal Martins varied tremendously, some highly flamed and
some rather plain.
The fancier koa was sometimes but not always used on the higher grade
models, however. The guitar on the right in the photo of
two examples above is the higher grade Model 1500.
Three Piece Rosewood Backs
In 1965 when the supply of Brazilian rosewood large enough for
Dreadnaught size backs was dwindling, Martin began to produce the D-35
with a three piece back which used smaller pieces of rosewood which had
been cut for sides.
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