Chamaecyparis Lawsoniana | Tonewood Profile | “Port Orford Cedar”
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Port Orford Cedar is the largest cypress in the world, obtaining heights of 200 feet and a trunk diameter of 8 feet with trees attaining ages of up to 600 years. It is a coniferous evergreen tree with feathery foliage in flat splays.
It’s natural range is a small coastal area along southern Oregon and northern California, about 200 miles long and 40 miles inland.
The first discovery of Port Orford Cedar was made in 1854. It was made by collectors working for the Scottish based Lawson & Son nursey and was initially used in horticulture for garden planting but soon gained popularity as a timber.
Following then, heavy logging and fire have reduced the already limited distribution of this tree. The export has been steady with Japan the main market as a Hinoki substitute.
In the 1950’s the root fungus Phytophthora lateralis, introduced into the United States caused a fatal root rot. It spread throughout much of the range of Port Orford cedar causing further decline.
However naturally resistant trees are not unusual and coupled with it’s enduring popularity as an ornamental, the Port Orford Cedar future looks safe.
The current stands are managed closely with very limited commercial logging.
The lumber has a faint yellowish white hue with very fine grain and an even texture. It is stiffer and lighter than Alaskan Yellow Cedar. The aroma is peppery which is typical of the cypress family.
In use, it is durable and easy to work. It was once used as arrow shafts due it’s split resistance. Now luthiers find it is more resistant to splitting than any other top wood. It has a Janka rating of 720 lbf and a specific gravity of 0.44.
As a tonewood…
It’s great stiffness and lightness has appealed to flattop makers Greg Byers, James Goodall and Les Stansell.
Les Standsell says: “Oregon Cypress (Port Orford “White” Cedar) displays all the most desirable structural and resonance qualities sought after by instrument makers…….it has the highest stiffness/weight ratio of “all” wood species. In addition, when compared to all other North American softwoods, POC ranks highest in elasticity and resistance to crushing, shearing, denting and splitting. POC is deal for Flamenco guitars as a substitute for: other Spruces and Cedars (tops and bracing)………. Spanish Cypress (backs and sides)………and Spanish Cedar (necks).”
I would broadly characterise the tone of Port Orford Cedar as bold and direct throughout the fundamentals with little overtone content. It has slightly better headroom to Sitka spruce and but responds to the touch in the same way. This is my experience of flattop guitars made from this topwood.
Heavy exports and the small supply of trees with limited logging make the instrument grade logs very high priced. Commercially, it is only occasionally available to instrument makers.
Les Standsell Guitars http://www.stansellguitars.com/
Special thanks to Les for his time, data and pictures
Port Orford Cedar facts: http://www.stansellguitars.com/Port_Orford_cedar_Facts.htm
Pictures copyright individual holders.- Les Standsell. Used with permission.
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