Old wood, new axe: How a 17th-century shipwreck is giving guitars their unique sound

·2 min read
Greg Fleming has played guitars for years. He is delighted that the shipwrecked wood he uses to make guitars has a sound unlike anything else he has played. (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Greg Fleming has played guitars for years. He is delighted that the shipwrecked wood he uses to make guitars has a sound unlike anything else he has played. (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Greg Fleming has played guitars for years. He is delighted that the shipwrecked wood he uses to make guitars has a sound unlike anything else he has played.
Greg Fleming has played guitars for years. He is delighted that the shipwrecked wood he uses to make guitars has a sound unlike anything else he has played.(Mark Cumby/CBC)

When Greg Fleming was looking for some old wood to make a new guitar, he knew just where to look. What he didn't know for a while was just how old that wood was.

The St. John's guitarist got in touch with a relative to use some old wood that had been in a garden in Renews — wood that had been dredged up from the nearby harbour decades earlier from a shipwreck.

"I cut the first piece of wood open and I'll never forget it. When I split the wood, I spent about 20 minutes looking at the grain.… It was absolutely amazing," he said.

After arranging for carbon-dating tests through an Ottawa lab, he was astonished by the results: the wood from the shipwreck was roughly dated to 1661.

Fleming was astonished to learn the wood that had been recovered from the harbour in Renews had been there since the 17th century.
Fleming was astonished to learn the wood that had been recovered from the harbour in Renews had been there since the 17th century.(Mark Cumby/CBC)

"It's give or take some years, of course," he said. "I was absolutely floored. I couldn't believe how old the wood was. It's absolutely amazing."

Fleming has been making instruments from the wood through the Tidebreaker brand. He says the wood gives the guitar a unique sound and tone … and that there's no need to be gentle with such an old piece of source material.

"It's also really good when you want to get loud and rock it out," he said.

WATCH | Greg Fleming shows how shipwrecked wood has found new life as musical instruments:

For the Love of Music

We're delighted to bring you some of the stories about music and musicians in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Our first instalment was about rock-and-roll pioneer Lew Skinner, who over the years has also built a formidable collection of guitars. You can watch that segment below:

We also told you about Modern Archetypes, two friends who have taken their decades-long interest in electronic music to the studio:

Watch for it every second Thursday on Here & Now, and right here on cbc.ca/nl.

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