ince I grew up in a family that owned a lumber business, working with wood has been a lifelong interest of mine. While many fellow woodworkers tend to con­centrate on tools and methods of construction, I find that the real essence of the craft lies in the medium we use—the wood itself. The world provides a great many fine timbers and some of them, such as walnut, mahogany and rosewood, lend a certain prestige to the finished project. For me, the joy of woodworking comes from discov­ering the special properties of various species and learning how to choose the most functional wood for the intended purpose, regardless of its notoriety or reputation. Every wood has an application for which it is unsurpassed. The goal of good crafts­manship is to discover just what that application is.

There are literally hundreds of woods, some of them reasonably plentiful domestic species, that seldom find their way into lumberyards. Nevertheless, they are still out­standing woods for certain applications. A few of my favorites are catalpa, balsam poplar and black ash. Recently, I have added another one to my list—sassafras.

A member of the Laurel family—along with cinnamon, camphor and bay—sas­safras is well known for its sweet-scented oil used in cosmetics and soaps. Its buoyant, decay-resistant wood has also gained some popularity with boat builders. Cabinetmakers, however, have long dismissed sassafras as being too soft and brittle. Basically, these assessments are accurate; the challenge for me has been to find an appli­cation where this wood excels. Oddly enough, the answer has come from what many perceive as one of its negative qualities.

Sassafras is brittle, but its resistance to flexing gives it outstanding resonance when used as the soundboard in dulcimers. The bright, bell-like tone it yields is as pleasant as the spicy aroma of the wood when it is being cut, shaped and sanded. And what role could be more fitting for this uniquely American species than in helping to provide the voice for an American musical instrument?

I started making dulcimers only a couple of years ago, when my daughter, a music lover, chose to build one for a high school project. We bought a kit, but when I opened the box I realized that there wasn’t anything inside that I couldn’t make in my own shop, so I started to experiment. My only regret, so far as being a luthier, is I don’t possess a sense of music to go along with it.

Jon Arno displays a home-made dulcimer, fashioned from sassafras and osage orange. He is a wood technologist, consultant and freelance writer living in Troy, Michigan.



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