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.

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Comment by Sharon Kirby on February 6, 2013 at 6:47am

What beautiful work, Rick!  Both the psaltery and the bows.

Comment by Dave Holeton on February 3, 2013 at 11:32pm

Thanks for the soundclips Rick

The psaltery sounds as beautiful as it looks.  What a treasure!


Comment by Dave Holeton on February 3, 2013 at 11:32pm

Thanks for the sound clips Rick

The psaltery sounds as beautiful as it looks!


Comment by Terry Butler on February 2, 2013 at 9:36am

Love it with amplification.  

Comment by Rick Long on February 2, 2013 at 7:24am
Comment by Rick Long on February 2, 2013 at 6:59am

A decision on if it would be possible for someone to do research, would be up to Janet and Ben.  You can contact them, through their website at www.brookshillmusic.com 

I'm sure it would need to be approved by the other folks involved in the logs salvage.

Comment by Dave Holeton on February 1, 2013 at 7:53pm

That's a beautiful psaltery, Rick.  Did you happen to save a couple of sound clips?  I would love to hear some "2000 year old" music.


Comment by Rick Long on February 1, 2013 at 11:03am

I don't really have any first hand knowledge of the log, just what I've been told.  I believe Janet is going to join the group and maybe she can shed a little more light on what has been done.  I don't know if the log has already been sawn into lumber, or if some of it is still intact.

Wow, had to look up dendrochronologists.  I think you are correct, that log may be of great value to historians and also to most any lover of rare wood, just the knowledge of it.  I believe this is the most rare and may be the only one found here in the states.  I've never heard of another.  There have to be more, but will they remain buried or will that river reveal another some day?

Comment by Rick Long on February 1, 2013 at 10:33am

A few things I forgot to mention, and one I got wrong.  Two doctors were the land owners and paid for the carbon dating.  They were also involved in helping with the salvage process.  There was another lady that owned some of the land needed for access, but Ben knew her well enough to gain permission for that.  Ben said he had worked with one of the doctors for years and the doctor had a big quantity of river salvaged wood.

Ben is disabled and told me it was from the years in the kind of work he was in.  Very hard and dangerous, he said he had been "broken up" a few times, which sounds rough.  Any kind of work in logging is dangerous.  Ben told me he works from a stool in his workshop, and keeps a recliner there to rest in, when his back pain is too great to keep going.  Gotta admire someone with that kind of fortitude.  I told him it was great for him to have the talent to be able to stay at home and do his limited amount of work.  Most folks would retire to bed.

Ben also told me a fellow had requested a small block of the wood to test as bagpipe drones, he hasn't heard back about that yet.  Another tie to Ireland?

The other thing that was interesting, he told me that just before salvaging the log he had looked at the area on Google Earth.  The log was visible on there.  Amazing!!

Comment by Rick Long on January 31, 2013 at 7:06pm

Yes, I did see that the website for the fenland bog oak mentioned that it was sub-fossilised.  I found out that this means it has partially undergone the process of fossilization.  This wood is 3000 years younger, so I don't know if that was it.  I only noticed the sparks when cutting through from the bark edge.  The bark was long gone, but the coarse surface probably holds quite a bit of sand and grit.  It was fine on into the board.  Really odd to see that black sawdust on my machinery surfaces.

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