I recently had a great experience building a new tenor psaltery. The great thing about it was, I had the opportunity to work with some extremely rare wood. I was asked to build the psaltery using some 2000 year old black bog oak found in Mississippi.
I had only heard of bog oak from hearing the news of the log found in the UK last year. You can see the pictures of it being excavated from the farmland on this web site -
That log was carbon dated to be 5000 years old and is fenland black oak. Very big news in the UK.
I didn’t realize we had something similar here in the US, but that’s understandable when you learn just how rare it is.
I met Ben and Janet Brooks last Feb. at the Southern Strings Dulcimer Festival in Hattiesburg, MS. We were booth neighbors in the hallway where the vendors had set up their tables to sell their products. Their website is http://brookshillmusic.com to see their work. They also sell on eBay.
That was the first time I got to see some of the bog oak. A few of the hammered dulcimers and plucked psalteries they displayed had this black wood. I didn’t know what it was and they told me a little about it. Those festival are very hectic, so I didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time visiting with them. I was teaching several workshops, leading jams, and performing. It was a good thing I had help from friends, Richard Switzer and Ford Weatherford with my sales table.
The festival ended and my wife and I made our way back home to East Tennessee and got back into the routine of building my psalteries and carrying on with life.
In early December I received an email from Janet. It seems she was bitten by the “I want a bowed psaltery” bug, which a lot of us understand. It seems she wanted me to build her one and that was very flattering, since her and Ben built instruments of their own, just not bowed psalteries.
Janet asked if I ever built psalteries using customer supplied wood. I replied that I hadn’t done much of that, but was open to listening to what she had in mind. She wanted a psaltery that incorporated some of the black bog oak that they have and had been using to build instruments. It was special to her and I wanted to oblige.
We discussed it and agreed on a plan. I told her the minimum sizes of the wood I would need to build the psaltery.
It took about a month for her to send me some pictures of a couple of possible boards. She told me her choice of the two boards and I had to agree, it did have the most character. Nice and black, full of worm/beetle holes, so she packed it up and shipped it to me. It's the bottom one in the picture below, darker color and full of character.
I received the board and started doing the layout for the cuts I needed to make. I have to admit, I was kind of nervous cutting into that board. When I cut in from the edge there were sparks that flew off of my bandsaw blade. That kind of shocked me, but figured out that it was due to some sand and dirt particles still lodged in the part that was on the outside of the log.
Speaking of those sand and dirt particles, that leads to the story of the wood and the log it came from. I have pieced most of this together from Janet’s emails, a conversation with Ben, their website, and one of their eBay listing descriptions. I hope I have the details correct.
The log was found in the edge of the Leaf River. The river had changed course twice over time to cover and expose it again. Ben told me he was in the business of salvaging logs from the river and this was the prize find of all of them. The story he told me let me know it was quite an ordeal to get the log out from where it was found. Several pieces of heavy equipment were used and many pieces of steel cable were broken in the process. The 34' log weighed in at 17,000 pounds and had to be cut in half to make it manageable to handle. It was a huge log, here’s a picture of it being sawn in half.
Janet and Ben paid to have the some of the wood carbon dated, and it came back that it was 1700 years old, but that was at the bark surface. Counting the growth rings dated the tree to be estimated at A.D. 90- A.D. 100. That puts it really close to 2000 years.
Ben said he thought the species to be white oak, and had just referred to it as “black bog oak” because of the color. The fenland oak website says the black color is the result of a chemical reaction occurring between the tannins in the oak and soluble irons present in the mineral subsoil.
Probably the most well known lake salvaged wood here in the US are the logs being pulled from Lake Michigan. The logs studied from there are said to be acoustically superior, because of the displacement of the sap by years being submerged in the water, perserving the wood.
Another hint that this log may be the only one found here in the US. Just go on eBay and search for “bog oak”, all of the listings are for wood that was found in Europe. That is, all except the listings for the Brooks’s instruments.
I know from my days working for an electricity supplier and dealing with wooden power poles, the poles would always decay right at the surface of the ground down to about a foot deep. What remained deeper was as sound as the day the pole had been installed, some as old as 80 to 90 years.
The psaltery really turned out great. That bog oak really looks great paired with this dark walnut I had on hand. I have included some pictures to share it with you. It is so rare, you may never have a chance to see it, otherwise.
The pair of bows and the double bow were also made from the bog oak.
I told Janet she truly had a one of a kind instrument and I was very happy to be a part of it.