The McKnight Spar Guitar

The McKnight Spar Guitar (completed version):  The Story of the Spar Sitka
Denis Merrill, February 2010

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

In 1976, in a cove near La Conner, Washington, I spent the better part of a summer fitting the interior of a ferro cement sailboat bound for one of the South China Sea boat races.  During that time, the Coast Guard patrols received notice of a large log-like obstacle in the shipping lane.  They searched for several days and finally found it and parked it in the cove.  It appeared to be part of a spar or the top of a mast from a sailing ship.  The area is notorious for ships lost during the Alaskan gold rush and through the early 1900s.  Based on holes and fittings, it was likely from the 1890s. 

With the help of a tractor, we hauled it out onto the beach above the tide line so it was no longer a hazard.  It was covered in sea life and stunk more than you can imagine.  I was able to convince some friends with chain saws that it could be sawn up and used for decking or trim.  It was tough going.  The chain saws would dull after a cut or two – the smell was horrendous.  It continued to smell bad even as sawdust!  Much beer was consumed and bonfires were considered, but the spar stayed wet for months.   

It was during this period I realized that I wanted to make guitars from it.  Sadly, nearly all of the wood was water damaged, but I remained hopeful that some useful timber might be recovered.  Oh, the folly of youth!  At the end of the summer, we attacked the Spar in earnest and were able to reclaim only enough wood to make everyone mad at me - “this thing is only good for a few mandolins – you’ll never get guitar sets out of this!”  I had a beam of varying width, up to 9 inches in spots, about twelve feet long and 1 to 3 ½ inches thick.  It took two more years of careful drying and thirty years of storage before I finally milled it.  I managed only eighteen sets of mandolin and guitar tops total.  

It was worth it.  The wood has fantastic resonance, a truly bell-like chime, sustains like a big Chinese gong on the lows, has incredible color and wonderful grain lines.  It is unfortunate indeed that so few instruments will be made.  Luckily, it no longer smells like bait left in a bucket on a hot day.   

Only three luthiers will be making instruments from this wood world-wide – myself (Denis Merrill); A.J. Lucas of the UK; and Tim and Mary McKnight.  A. J. Lucas specializes in recovered wood instruments which are highly praised by the world’s top classical and finger-style players.  People will cross an ocean to pick up an A.J. Lucas guitar.  The McKnights are well known for the excellence of their guitars.  They constantly seek opportunities to raise the bar on every level of design and playability, and have achieved remarkable success getting great tone.  Their Spar Sitka guitar is truly one of a kind, fit for a king.  They have devoted a great deal more time to building this one instrument than they usually lavish on their already labor-intensive builds.  They are perfectionists and have captured their vision for the romance of the ship-wrecked spar.  I can’t afford it, but I’m sure some of their loyal clientele may pool their money and get it before someone slaps it in a museum.

Clint Bear says “the wood determines what kind of a guitar it will become.  The soul of wood has to be let out to let it sing.”  The soul of the Spar Sitka is finally finding its voice, a century after it last set sail. 


Newport/South Florida Auction

McKnight Spar Guitar: Mary McKnight

February 25, 2010


A day prior to the 2009 Healdsburg Guitar festival, in Santa Rose CA, Denis Merrill met with Tim and me in a parking lot. We were able to leisurely pick our choice of Sonic Sitka woods from the stock pile located in Denis’ trunk.  After that deal was finished, Denis mentioned that he had a couple pieces of another Sitka wood that he would like to sell so he could have a little gas and lunch money. He said he had often thought of making a guitar out of it, but realized he hadn’t cut it to a size that he could use.

He mentioned that the wood had been sunk under water for a long period of time.

I raised my eye brows, cocked my head and inquired.  “Long period?  How long?  The Lord has perfect timing so maybe He wants us to check this out.”

As Denis told the history of the Spar wood, my mind instantly began creating the McKnight Spar Guitar.  Tim didn’t want the wood for fear it will have a “less than perfect sound.” I became rather adamant on this subject of taking the top.  My mind’s eye was seeing a subtle piece of art that would musically honor the ship it once belonged to. 

“Have faith. I REALLY want this top.” A Bible verse for the label came to my mind. 

Mark 4:39 (King James Version)   39And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

I am not a lady with nautical background so I spent months researching for facts.  I contact I contacted several museums who directed me to Matt and Kent Bale, The Spar Shop, The Historical Seaport, 712 Hagara St., PO Box 2019, Aberdeen, WA 98520, who said, “There were probably 100 ships that could fit this description.  Occasionally, parts just wash up onto the coast after mud and old fasteners rot away to release them.”

The general consensus is that nobody can guarantee the name of the ship in which the McKnight Spar Guitar is made of.  However, I will forever be curious.

I feel the Lord washed this Sitka to shore in his own perfect timing so the McKnight Spar Guitar could be made to honor Him. 

The McKnight Spar Guitar description follows. 


  McKnight Guitars sing to your eyes before your ears ever hear them.


McKnight Spar Guitar Description:

Top – Sunken Sitka found off the Oregon coast

            *French Polished - hand applied (top only)

Back – African Blackwood

Double sides – African Blackwood (outer) Mahogany ( inner )

Inner back - Brazilian Rosewood

Binding – African Blackwood

Rosette – Brazilian Rosewood /Ship's wheel

Top Purfling – Pau Abalone

Headstock – Ebony, South Florida Guitar Show logo in various natural shells

Fretboard – Ebony with MOP and Abalone shell inlay of tall ship in ocean

(fret board represents -The wind and the sea)

Manzer Wedge incorporated into the McKnight Deacon body 

Ship inlay on back – Quilted Big Leaf Maple, Curly Rock Maple, Honduran rosewood, Mahogany, Ebony, Mother of Pearl, ocean waters created from Reconstituted Jade stone (Back represents “ a great calm.)

Bone nut and Saddle

Nut  - 1  ¾"

Scale Length – 25.4"

Bridge pin Spacing – 2 ¼"

Hook Anchor shaped side sound port

  ***Hebrews 6:19   Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil;


A Calton Case will provide a secure home for this beloved guitar.