Is it the new farm-to-table?
The verdict is in on global warming, and we are definitely in trouble. Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt about dead trees when I flip the power switch on my bandsaw. Aside from the obvious catastrophic effect on our own personal finances, are we also doing harm to the environment by building guitars? Thanks to the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, used on NASA’s terra satellite, we know that forests in Madagascar and Brazil are rapidly being depleted. (Take a look at the satellite imagery.) Let’s take a look at this issue in the context of the guitar industry and see what we can do as luthiers to make our work more sustainable.
What does sustainability mean to woodworkers?
Sustainability in this context means that consumption and replenishment of a resource exist in a cycle that can continue indefinitely. As a very simple example, imagine a lake inhabited by 100 fish, where a single human relies on the fish for food. If the fish double in population every spring, that means the angler can catch no more than 50 fish between one spring and the next. In a world where our imaginary angler consumes even one fish too many, we have run out of supply completely by year 7.
This is a stylized example, of course, but it shows how the balance between our endeavors and nature can be tenuous at times. We do not build guitars out of fish — puns about basswood aside. The numbers are also much larger — so big that people often have a hard time picturing them. An article first published on Nature.com, “Mapping Tree Density At A Global Scale”, asks us to imagine starting with a tree population so massive that it would take 100,000 years to count; that would be three trillion trees. The time scale for growth is also much longer. Ash trees grow quickly and still take 60 years to mature enough for use as lumber, while a Sitka spruce may need to reach twice it’s age before becoming a soundboard. (Take a look at this 1984 USDA Growth and Yield Report.) We cannot draw simple mathematical conclusions as easily in this world, and there’s no correct answer, but we can look at history to try to figure out how to proceed.
A Brief History of North American Forestry
Not all science can agree on the specific definition of old growth forests; for example, the Pacific Northwest Research Station has put a new spin on the old definition. But one thing every source seems to agree on is that more old growth forest is a good thing. Large trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere, anchor soils, and move water around through evapotranspiration. When we don’t have enough trees things go badly. History is full of societies that experienced deforestation-related catastrophes. And though the most famous of these is Easter Island, England nearly ran completely out of trees in the seventeenth century. The whole country might have frozen if it weren’t for the dumb luck of having abundant coal deposits underground. (Check out this article in Scientific America.)
While these forests are undeniably important to life as we know it, there are also misconceptions. Much of what we understand to be ancient forest on the East Coast is a relatively modern phenomenon. As Charles C. Mann explains at length in his excellent book, 1491, Native American nations like the Haudenosaunee practiced active forest management using fire to control tree population density. The idea of “untouched” forest only appeared after the colonization of these areas. Mann also points out a parallel management style with rotating agricultural patterns in Amazonia. In short, people have always managed forests to meet their needs, and the practice of smart forestry may be the compromise that best preserves forests in both volume and biodiversity.
|Forests are dynamic|
The total area of forested land in the US has been steady for about a hundred years. It’s worth noting that the tree species that make up forests have not. Until the accidental introduction of the chestnut blight, as many as one in four hardwood trees in the eastern US was an American chestnut. By 1940, they were almost all gone. The Emerald Ash Borer threatens billions of standing ash trees today. Modern travelers introduced both of these invasive species by accident. While it is critical to continue to take measures against invasive species in the future, it is also naive to imagine that such a disaster won’t happen again. North American forests in fifty years will probably not look like they do today, but this is not a new phenomenon; forests are dynamic.
If this all sounds anti-tree, it’s not. Trees are the best! They keep the land from washing away, manufacture the oxygen that we breathe, and sequester carbon that would heat the planet if it got into the atmosphere. Air and dirt are necessary for continued human life on earth. Trees can be replaced, so we could even theoretically offset our lumber usage with a small donation to an organization like American Forests or the National Forest Foundation.
Weighing all of this together, I am arguing that non-endangered North American lumber is sustainable below the critical level of consumption. To return for a moment to our fish example, imagine the standing hardwood timber as the steady population. From this we subtract the annual harvest and natural losses due to fire or storm damage, and add all of the supply that has matured during the year. This seemed impossible not too long ago, but with software developments like OTB and applications like PointCloudITD, the sky’s the limit — or should I say, it’s a big part of future answers. But, as of now, the United States uses total forested acreage as a crude estimate of progress for their metrics of sustainability.
|Our choices front and center|
The Global Situation
This would be the end of the article, if we lived seven hundred years ago. Then again, in an unconnected world, local resources are the only ones that matter. We live in the world of global logistics and container shipping, and this means looking more broadly at how we use timber resources from around the world.
So what about imported lumber? The buzzword for guitar makers is CITES. That’s usually pronounced “SIGHT-eez” and stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. As the name implies, CITES is a multinational agreement to limit commercial cross-border traffic in certain plant and animal products. Once a species makes the list, documentation becomes necessary to move the raw material or products made from that material between countries.
Dalbergia is the genus that includes the true rosewood species, and CITES listed it in 2017. You can find it in this appendix, under the taxonomic family Leguminosae (Fabaceae). This led to its removal from many production instruments. Brazilian Rosewood has been a coveted material for vintage and boutique instruments since before its inclusion in CITES in 1992. In 2008, and again in 2011, Gibson factories were raided for violations of the Lacey Act, a US law regulating trade in endangered products. This event presaged a rocky decade for the brand and started a much needed conversation in our industry. NAMM has stepped up to help navigate these laws and advocate for the builders. (Check out what’s happening.)
Tropical hardwoods like true mahogany and ebony have become much more difficult to source in recent years. This is a result of centuries of unattainable harvesting throughout the growth range of each genus. (Just check out this information on Mahogany.) Thinking back again to our fishing pond, we can see that the mahogany has been removed at a rate considerably faster than it grows to maturity, leading to the present danger of population collapse. The export remains lucrative because of demand from wealthy countries, and nations home to endangered species deal with this problem in different ways. Belize, for example, has altogether restricted the logging of mahogany to ensure the future of both the environment and the industry.
In short, many imported wood species are subject to regulation that may interrupt supply. This regulation, in turn, is a reaction to unsustainable harvesting that leads to deforestation, which threatens the long-term supply. Luthiers have relied on rosewood, mahogany and ebony for hundreds of years, so how do we proceed in a modern world?
In deciding what to do, first we must consider the consequences of our actions. The aggregated amount of wood used in guitars is small. With roughly a million electric guitars sold in the US annually and 8 board feet of material consumed (counting waste) for an instrument, this segment may generously account for 10 million board feet per year. By comparison, furniture manufacturers use in excess of 4 billion board feet, which is roughly 40,000% more — take a look at the USDA’s report of timber consumption. Shipping pallets account for a shocking 7.6 billion board feet each year.
The difference, Pinterest projects aside, is that nobody gets on stage in front of a raucous crowd and strums out anthems on a shipping pallet. Pallets are strictly backstage in the modern economy. Furniture stays at home, out of the spotlight. Guitars are a uniquely visible cultural artifact, and they are a natural starting point to bring this discussion to a wider audience. By making a small change in our behavior and questioning tradition, we may all be able to do our part to get a conversation going around how we use resources and what it means for our collective future.
Instrument makers have three general options to proceed. The first, and least appealing, is to just not worry about it. Furniture, floors, and pallets account for the vast majority of endangered hardwood usage. When I use a tenth of a board foot of ebony for a fretboard or a few ounces of bookmatched rosewood for a back-and-sides set, I am not personally contributing to the extinction of these species in a meaningful way. I would be a hypocrite if I said this assessment was invalid, since I drive a car and justify that choice with the same logic. But what about when we run out completely? Or when the combination of scarcity and regulation makes prices untenable?
A second way forward is to use substitute materials to replace ebony, mahogany, and rosewood. The right piece of ribbon sapele is far more beautiful than all but the most highly figured mahogany. Substitution “rosewoods” are emerging right and left, including Pau Ferro, Katalox, and Chechen. I worked in a jewelry studio that used the latter two extensively and can happily report that they are both pleasing to work with and less allergenic than dalbergia.
The use of substitute species is a step forward from the “do nothing and see what happens” approach, because it acknowledges that we may need to consciously break with tradition to keep our craft vital. Unfortunately, substitutions may cause other problems. One could predict that other industries will catch on to the substitution and shift their consumption habits as prices for the original species become unprofitable. Are one-for-one substitutes simply expanding the problem to six fishing ponds rather than three? Sapele, for example, is not currently listed by CITES, but is classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Engineered materials present another exciting option. Richlite has been an increasingly popular substitute for ebony fretboards, and it’s made of resin-reinforced paper. Scientists and engineers have been experimenting recently with densified wood products, which could offer another durable and renewable option in the future. Unfortunately, the research and development with integrating these products into guitar manufacturing has left a bit to be desired. Natural wood moves and changes with age and environment, whereas densified wood products do not — leading to a slew of issues for which our industry has yet to develop solutions.
The best option in my view is to break with traditional supply chains completely. We can take an active interest and role in choosing where our wood comes from and design our instruments in a way that puts this choice front and center.
I call this idea “forest to stage”.
The nearest parallel in today’s pop-culture is the “farm-to-table” movement. While a comparatively small number of chefs, restaurants, and grocers initially embraced local/organic/seasonal ideologies at first, the cultural impact grew over time. Now it’s everywhere. The problems of industrial agriculture are still with us, of course, but widespread understanding is the first step to finding solutions. We will similarly experience deforestation for generations to come regardless of what we do right now. In light of these challenges, acknowledging the consequences of our actions and using those constraints to raise the bar in our own creative work is the first step to a better future.
Where did the trees harvested for your tonewood come from?
Which mill sawed it up?
Where did it go before it reached your bench?
These have become hard questions to answer in recent decades, but there is a trend at numerous levels in the industry toward greater vertical integration. A number of boutique builders have embraced the ‘use local’ concept, popularized in part by the European Guitar Builders’ Local Wood Challenge, which influenced Lame Horse Guitars’ all-texas-wood model, SaddlePal ‘Emily’. The idea isn’t new – we can see it from the earliest Flamenco guitars built of Spanish cypress and cedar for price and convenience. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor at Texas A&M, points out in a recent interview that legendary builders like Stradivari and Guarneri actually used poplar instead of ebony for fingerboards. These design choices were altered posthumously as imported woods became more fashionable than locally sourced materials. The historical overemphasis on ‘exotic’ wood used to build musical instruments is so pervasive that not even the greatest luthiers were immune to the trend.
Local timber has the added benefit of cutting greenhouse emissions, as it doesn’t need to be shipped across the world before it lands on your workbench. This approach has led me to some tonewoods that have fallen out of common usage. Fruitwoods like apple, pear and cherry are visually appealing and a pleasure to work with. Osage orange, golden and rock-hard, is grown in the Northeast area of America; this wood makes a fine fretboard and takes a polish as bright as bloodwood or ebony. The South-Western region of the U.S. has other great fretboard options like Mesquite. For a twist on local woods, thermal modification yields a deeper color and tonal palette for maple and spruce — our industry commonly refers to this process as ‘torrefied’ or ‘roasted’.
Sustainably harvested wood doesn’t just mean local timber. Guitar makers on multiple scales — from luthier groups like the Leonardo Guitar Research Project to giant manufacturers like Taylor Guitars’ Ebony Project — have invested in supply chain integration, sustainable growth, and replenishing of sources to ensure a renewable future. Finding a trusted supplier when you must use threatened species can be another way forward. This article is to help you make conscious harm reduction part of your everyday craft.
About the Author
Declan Ryan is a luthier who also has an MBA in finance. He is a creator of all kinds - from guitars to writing, to visual art and jewelry making. Check out more of Declan’s work at:
Follow him on Instagram @declandeclandeclan