What if I told you that the best tonewood in the world was a tree that farmers in Tennessee are cutting down for fun? While the rest of the tonewood world is in a mad dash for exotic wood, we have a tree in America that has journeyed across the millennia only to be cut down by a farmer because he’s bored and doesn’t like thorny trees. Where I grew up, the pinnacle of an Osage Orange’s career would be its promotion to firewood. Now, I see it as one of the most important tonewoods for the future of guitar building.
I was born into an off-the-grid cabin heated by a wood burning stove. Thus my interest in this Osage Orange was kindled on cold, winter firewood outings with my father. Even though locals make every effort to cleanse this species from their farms, they, like my father, share a fascination with the wood. Its unforgiving weight, sharp thorns and awkwardly large fruits have long incentivized a cocktail of fascination and hatred. It just doesn’t fit in with all the other hardwoods coveted by the great, flannel-shirted woodworking cult. We either see it all alone in the middle of a field, or in a grove of impenetrable thorns that keeps anything other than Osage from growing.
Where I come from, we call it “Bodock”. In the mid-west they call it “Bodark”. Hundreds of years ago the French trappers referred to it as “Bois d’Arc” - Wood of the Bow.
America's earliest encounters with the Osage Orange tree and its peculiar fruit are well documented in the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and the western expeditions he commissioned. But before it became a living fence or railroad ties it was revered by many Native Americans as the wood of choice for their bows and war clubs. Early western traveler John Bradbury noted that natives traveled over a hundred miles to procure this wood and that a good Osage Orange bow was worth "a horse and a blanket".
The tree's ties to the North American continent run deep. From producing a fruit that fed the mastadons and mammoths of the Pleistocene epoch to providing one of the hardest, most elastic and rot resistant woods for humanity's early engineers, Osage Orange is now poised to enrich the music and story of our handmade instruments.