Spruce for musical instruments now rare in Bohemia's forests

Photo: CTK

The deep forests of the Sumava Mountains in South Bohemia used to abound in spruce trees whose wood was of such high quality that it was used for the production of musical instruments in workshops around Europe. But environmental change and forest management means these legendary tone spruce trees are becoming increasingly rare.

Photo: CTK
Musical instruments cannot be made from any old wood. It is a delicate process which requires the best quality material from handpicked trees. Jaroslav Norek of the Czech musical instrument maker Strunal explains what distinguishes tone wood from ordinary timber.

"The wood has special acoustic features. The trees need to be over 110-120 years old and need to grow very slowly and evenly. The grain has to be tight and straight. Such wood usually grows in certain locations, in the middle of forests and on northern slopes. It mustn't have knots and has to be straight, not spiralled."

Such locations can be found in the remnants of the virgin forest in the Sumava Mountains where spruce tone wood for the soundboards of violins, pianos and other instruments has been harvested for centuries to be exported to workshops around Europe. It is said that Mozart himself played on pianos made from Sumava wood. "In the Czech Republic there is an ideal location - the Sumava Mountains where at a certain altitude we can find spruce trees which are perfect for musical instruments. They have been logged there since time immemorial. But since Sumava has become a natural reserve and logging has been limited, tone timber has been in short supply."

Tone spruce used to be so plentiful in the Sumava that it was processed right there at local sawmills. But it is not only increased protection of the environment but also commercial logging which makes tone wood scarce.

"In recent years tone wood has been in short supply. It is because of high demand for timber. The wood is logged before the tree has time to grow to the required size and the locations become exhausted. Also, if you log the trees around a potential tone spruce, it starts growing faster, the grain is loose and it is no good for our purposes."

Musical instrument making has a long tradition in the Czech Republic and Central Europe but with the declining supply of tone wood, local producers have started turning elsewhere, such as the forests of the Austrian Alps and Bosnia Herzegovina.