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Wood Scarcity

By LMI Sales Manager, Chris Herrod

Recently, at Bryan Galloup’s Northwood’s seminar, the topic that the attending luthiers most wanted me to address was that of wood scarcity. Prices are climbing, good and interesting woods are becoming harder to find. What’s going on?

I was happy to oblige but the mood grew steadily gloomier as I delved into these questions. I suppose people would like to cast blame at some “foreign superpower”, the ubiquitous veneer manufacturers or the large guitar factories. Many consider them guilty of cornering the market and making it hard on “the little guy”. True, these forces are at play as they have always been, but their influence is actually diminishing. Wherever the blame may lie, the essential problem that needs to be addressed is that there are very few trees left in the world’s forests. Needless to say, our consumption of these woods will in no way help the situation, even if harvesting is done in the most conscientious way possible. Gloomy.

Waiting for someone to stumble across a large stand of wide, old-growth Cocobolo trees? A hidden Hawaiian oasis of Koa? A lost Alaskan island crowded with ancient Spruce trees? I am sorry to say that this is not likely to happen. Even where the species is healthy (Koa, for example) the scarcity of trees that are large (old) enough and figured enough to satisfy the instrument market is down to very, very few. Young Koa trees are growing, and much faster than many other tropical species grow -but can you wait 80 years?

Buying wood that has been harvested and/or exported illegally is simply commonplace throughout the instrument making world. Luthiers have pulled the wool over their own eyes, naively and wishfully thinking “that the wonderful guy selling me tonewood wouldn’t be involved in anything sketchy”. And is hard not to succumb to the sizable market forces that “demand” the use of rare, often illegal and often endangered, exotic species in their instruments.

Certainly, doing the research and practicing the scrutiny of one’s suppliers that the law unequivocally requires (the dreaded Lacey Act) is hard work, performed in murky waters. Based on LMI’s experience, this scrutiny often leads to a familiar conclusion: this beautiful wood being offered by this noble old company is not perfectly legal. Are the laws unfair? Well, the stories of unfair enforcement are widely known, but the gist of the law has a pretty simple ethical basis. Briefly, the law states that no woods, domestic or foreign, old or new, shall be purchased if they were not harvested, sold and/or exported in accordance with the laws of all applicable countries.

Although not all lutherie woods are strictly ‘endangered’, absolutely all of them have been impacted in one way or another by over-consumption, forest loss (where forests are removed for cattle ranches, agriculture etc.) and poaching. Let’s take a brief look at some of the traditional species used in guitar making.

Brazilian Rosewood: Brazilian has long been recognized as being among the most beautiful woods on the planet. For centuries the forests of South America have been plundered for Brazilian Rosewood for a multitude of uses. Many of the grand old homes and castles of Europe (and other places) have staircases, paneling, floors, and beams made from Brazilian Rosewood. Of course, instrument makers have “exploited” its fantastic tonal properties for just as long.

Having reached the brink of extinction, Brazilian now has top-tier CITES treaty protection, ranking it with Elephant Ivory and tortoiseshell. For the most part, it is not allowed to be harvested or exported from Brazil. Old material can be traded within the borders of the United States, but nearly all of it lacks documentation to prove that it was not poached or imported illegally. It needs this documentation (no matter when it originally arrived here) to be deemed legal according to the Lacey Act. Most luthiers are wise to abandon the use of it altogether. It is best to simply avoid vendors claiming their wood is “pre-CITES” or has “paperwork”. There is an extremely strong chance that these claims have not been scrutinized, are flimsy at best and at worse, are downright dishonest.

Other Rosewoods (and their substitutes). Only two species of Rosewood are being routinely harvested under strict control: Indian Rosewood and African Blackwood. Blackwood trees that are wide enough, and defect-free enough for guitar parts are extremely rare (hence the high price), but the species is fundamentally healthy at this time and there are firm restrictions on harvesting in place.

The Indian Rosewood trade is strictly controlled by the Indian government. Forest harvest is rare, but the quality of plantation wood (where years ago it was often planted as a windbreak) is basically good and it should remain available for the foreseeable future. As time goes by, expect steep price increases and dwindling availability of dark colored and tight grained material.

All other Rosewoods (Cocobolo, Madagascar, Panama, Amazon, SE Asian etc.) have been devastated by poaching and over-harvest. Most are restricted under CITES appendix II. These woods (Cocobolo especially) continue to appear on the market, but at LMI we have found that most of them do not carry a strong paper-trail demonstrating legality. Government regulators in the country of origin (mainly Mexico but elsewhere in Central America) is overrun with corruption as is the market itself. We may see a very small trickle of Cocobolo arrive from time to time that passes Lacey Act muster, but the era of a consistent supply of Cocobolo, and the other Rosewoods listed above is now fundamentally over. The same is true of the other fine hardwoods that come from the same tropical forests where Rosewoods grow: Ziricote, Macassar Ebony, Malaysian Blackwood etc.

Ebony: Until recently (around 2011), trees cut down in the West African forests (where most Ebony grows) were left on the forest floor to rot if the wood was not significantly black in color. Now the market accepts striped and colored Ebony in order to make use of this wood’s other fine qualities (hardness, machinability). This acceptance has opened the future of the Ebony trade, for a while at least, though quality will remain a challenge and prices will climb steadily, as we have already seen happen. Madagascar Ebony has befallen the same fate as Madagascar Rosewood (see above) and is no longer being purchased by LMI.

Mahogany: Genuine Mahogany from Central and sometimes South America has benefited from CITES II protections and the species will probably remain in use for the foreseeable future. Still, most of the large, old-growth trees have vanished and, once again, we face a dramatic decrease in quality and increase in price. There are promising Mahogany substitutes available (Sapele, Khaya, Filipino) which are gradually gaining acceptance in the guitar market. Spanish Cedar was once thought to be a good candidate to replace Mahogany, but now it too falls under CITES Appendix II protection.

North American Woods: The once mighty forests of North America are not immune to the problems that have fallen on the Amazon, West Africa, and the South Pacific tropical forests. Most of the North American species luthiers use (Spruce, Maple, Redwood, Koa, Walnut) are not strictly endangered, but the large, old-growth trees have been over-harvested, and poaching and high prices lay claim to the what little remains in the forest. Keep in mind that the Lacey Act applies to both imported and domestic wood, being the end users need to practice the ‘due diligence’ necessary to confirm legal harvest and transport.

Moving forward, luthiers will need to accept soundboard wood with wider annular rings, and sky-high prices for figured Maple and Walnut. LMI no longer regularly carries the thick (3”x4”), quartersawn Maple neck blanks (or Mahogany) due to the scarcity and expense of good material in this dimension. The situation is most clearly reflected in the Koa trade where large trees bearing figured material are nearly all gone, though young trees are growing readily –just in time to supply the luthiers of the mid-22nd century!

And so it is time to imagine what the future of lutherie will look like with many prized species of wood growing more and more impossible to acquire.

The emergence of hand-made guitars as a genuine force in the marketplace is a relatively new phenomenon, with roots in the 60’s and 70’s and reaching a zenith in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Since then, with the luthier option now firmly positioned vis-a-vis the factory guitar, we have seen the kinds of ups and downs in the market for handmade instruments that one would find in other craft industries. But gone are the days when there were just a small handful of barely known crafts-people working away in obscurity, whose works were appreciated by just a small cadre of artists and collectors.

Alongside the appreciation of fine, custom instruments came an appreciation for rare and often dramatically distinctive materials. Certainly, among the luthier’s many skills, is the know-how to procure exotic woods. Working with rare materials demonstrates commitment and daring. Bending a figured side piece worth several hundred dollars can be like walking a tightrope! Fine woods compliment and substantiate the luthier’s building experience and the value of the detailed work that has been put into the guitar.

But rare woods are certainly not essential to the craft. They are auxiliary. A fine example of this can be found in the violin world. Sure, it is important to include some fine figured maple for the back and ribs, but nowhere in the culture of violin appreciation does one find the brash fetishization of flamed figure that you find in the guitar trade. You are not likely to ever hear a violin purchaser saying “This violin has an AAAAA grade flamed back!” Another example can be found in the vintage Steel String world. Those great, old Martins that unleashed a tidal wave of inspiration among luthiers, were often made from the coarsest of top materials (in terms of cosmetics, not tone) and the plainest of Rosewood back and sides. Their value exists far away from the materials used to make them. Their acclaim lies in their tonal power and the brilliance and originality of C.F. Martin’s designs.

Nonetheless, a luthier’s handmade instrument must stand out as something that embodies exceptional value. For the sake of example, let’s imagine a luthier several decades in the future who can no longer lean on wood choices to lend value to his or her creations. How does she or he design an instrument that is superb and innovative, that is a true work of art, an heirloom whose value can potentially increase with age -in the absence of rare, exotic woods?

Unique ornamentation on guitars has certainly been as much a part of the modern luthier’s palette as fine woods have been. But more is not necessarily better. Sometimes just a small inlay, rosette feature or bit of unique joinery (i.e. an arm bevel) can demonstrate a craftsperson’s command of their tools, but such features must be artistically compelling. If it is even a little bit garish then the whole instrument suffers. Balance is key. An ornately decorated guitar that also features dramatically figured tonewoods can seem gaudy, an ‘overkill’ effort to impress.

Not all ornamentation requires fine workmanship, and not all great workmanship is ornate. Though it is easy to accept that it isn’t 100% essential for great instruments to have interesting cosmetic embellishments, most of the instruments found on the ‘top shelf’ need to exhibit both beautiful details and perfect execution.

Some say that appreciation of sound is subjective. Others believe that great sound is quantifiable. It’s a big topic (no room for it here) but I believe the future of lutherie will involve a greater understanding of sound and hearing, a greater facility for communicating about tone and a greater ability to measure and quantify the attributes of sound that are important to us. Regardless of the shape of these discussions and developments, great sound will continue to be important and may, in fact, be more important than it is now; especially if the value of future guitars grows less dependent on a ‘fancy’ appearance. Marketing great tone is a challenge that will require luthiers to develop a vocabulary and a ‘poetry’ of tone that is, almost completely lacking at this time.

Of course, a particular wood’s acoustic and mechanical quality has a bearing on the sound of the guitar, but I think it is overstated. We know already that cosmetically inferior soundboards can be tonally excellent and it is a largely agreed upon ‘fact’ that the back and side woods have only a minor role in sound production in comparison to the soundboard. Other design factors (bracing, body cavity volume, scale length, bridge position etc.) have a much, much greater impact on an instrument’s sound than whether the back and sides are made of this or that kind of Rosewood –especially when a skilled luthier is able to ‘tweak’ the design (for example the bracing, the top thickness) to counter or compliment the tonal features of the wood. Sadly, we have seen many beginning luthiers include exceptionally valuable tonewoods on their first instruments in the hopes that the quality of the wood will lend value to the instrument -presumably, where their undeveloped skills cannot.

Finally, this discussion would not be complete without mention of alternative materials. Carbon fiber, Nomex-honeycomb soundboards, torrified woods, tone stones, and myriad composite materials have all captured the attention of luthiers. Their use and acceptance by some very accomplished builders open the door to greater acceptance industry-wide, though, for the time being, none has laid out a pathway that the majority of builders feels compelled to travel on.