learned some valuable lessons about ebony in recent years - but first
I want to relate a somewhat amusing anecdote concerning ebony and the
computer. When I first started my business some years ago, my wife was
trying to convince me that we needed a computer. Now, I was very happy
working at a profession that could really be done the same way it was
done three hundred years ago so I was quite reluctant. But she persisted
and, when she played the angle that it was crucial for my son's education
I gave in. My wife informed me that it would be quite useful for my business
in many ways, such as in finding materials. In truth, I was kind of in
the dark regarding how to find quite a few items. So we got the evil machine
and the first thing she taught me was to do a rudimentary search. Well,
I really didn't know a good source of ebony so I searched for "Ebony."
Most savvy surfers will see where this is going. My jaw dropped at what
appeared on my screen and I called my wife Barbara into the room and asked
her if this was why the computer was so useful. Of course, the monitor
displayed a young woman of African-American descent completely naked and
in a less than modest pose. Her name was Ebony.
that time I was really did not know what constituted a good fingerboard.
The blacker the better, right? One used to be able to get good straight
black ebony, but was that a thing of the past? I sure needed a source
though. There were a few wholesale distributors to luthiers that had good
boards but they were quite expensive. I finally found a supplier that
had fingerboards. He had a minimum order of 12 boards at about $90 apiece.
That was less than half of what the distributors sold them for. Eureka!
Still a dozen was more than I needed or could afford at the time. My friend
Mike Shank of Shank's Strings offered to go half, so that simplified the
deal. They came in and I was thrilled - truly black boards and quite oversized
all around. They were a little warped but being overly thick you could
true them out. I sent Mike his six and he promptly sent them back saying
they were not good enough for him to use. He said the grain was all over
the place. I was shocked - these were what I had been used to using in
a large "professional" shop. Well, Mike was always a true stickler for
quality and he had already learned what I was about to learn.
put one on an instrument and after much difficulty dressing it due to
irregular grain patterns the fingerboard was playing fine. The player
took his bass and was happy - these boards just took a little extra work.
Yeah, right. Two months later the customer calls me and says the strings
are buzzing - I tell him, no problem just bring it in and I'll take care
of it. Bass comes in and sure enough there are a couple of high spots
where there weren't before. That shouldn't have happened. I touch them
up and send it back out. Now I am worried that I may have wasted a thousand
dollars on these boards. I decide not to use any more for the time being
and I ordered a few more from my local supplier at roughly twice the price.
These came out of Germany - of course they didn't grow there it's just
where they were chosen, dried and machined. There was no warping and they
were very well machined, meaning that the gluing surface was very close
to true and the curvature and relief of the upper surface was also quite
accurate. Now of course the luthier needs to be able to do this machining,
but it's nice to at least have the rough work done. The real difference
though is in the grain pattern. The former boards were very black and
these German-made ones had a bit of gray in them but if you looked at
the backs of the boards in the sun you could see a world of difference.
The black boards had tremendous irregularities that looked liked waves,
swirls and knots. The Germans were completely even and straight in the
grain pattern. I started using these boards and had no problems. The problem
board came back again once more to bite me in the ass and I decided to
replace it for free.
I finally figured out had to do with the wood moving. When you choose
wood to make an instrument, generally straight vertical grain is best.
One major reason for this is that when the wood shrinks or expands due
to climatic conditions it does so in an even fashion. This helps prevent
distortion or checking that may occur in woods that have irregularities
in the grain. But does ebony move in the same way as a spruce top? Hell,
yeah! That's why I had a headache in the first place - it was moving all
over the place. Ebony may not move to exactly the same degree as spruce,
but it sure doesn't take much to put an accurate fingerboard out of tolerance.
So now when I choose a fingerboard, I take it out in the sun and view
the flat side. By rocking it back and forth the refractions of the grain
will clearly show any imperfections. Even a small knot or wave can cause
problems. I am only interested in the very best and I know the difference.
I keep one of those bad ones on hand just to show people the disparity
between it and a fine one. It's truly profound. An old friend of mine
once said, "Don't ever buy cheap shoes." That has always been a good lesson.
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