The Environmental Consequences of Guitar Making: The Present, and the Future
ndustry forges ahead, doing the “right thing” – even as tree-hugging musicians still want that Brazilian rosewood
Guitar and accessory makers are getting increasingly progressive and sensitive to the global impact of every product they make, changing and refining their ways through adhering to and going beyond international guidelines, consistently implementing new conservation policies, and in some cases, developing radical new products.
There are no laws mandating this. There’s certainly little or no demand from players for it either. No money to be made. Many state they don’t think they sell a single extra instrument or package of strings because of their green efforts. Yet, they look ahead to the inevitability of limited resources and what it’ll mean to future generations.
“A lot of the hardwoods have sustainability problems,” says Rick Nelson of Flaxwood. “There’s increasing international trade regulation, and certain woods require documentation.”
Michael Blank, of Zuni guitars, thinks the future involves all the guitar makers doing what he’s doing – which is going out and physically cutting the wood themselves. He sees treasured hardwoods continuing to go up in price, along with the temptation toward illegal practices. “Don’t believe those ‘it blew down in a hurricane’ stories,” he says. The future? Switching to more plentiful woods, like maple.
As the industry embraces non-governmental international organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) practices and their certification process, there’s no easy answer and no quick fixes. Will there be a point when certain woods are completely unavailable?
“The furniture manufacturers and homebuilders are using a ton more wood than the guitar industry, so I see shortages happening in other areas first,” says Jody Dankberg of Washburn. But none seem to be waiting for the canary in a coalmine. They are acting now.
The Issue of “Tonal Woods”
Taylor Guitar’s Bob Taylor takes the long view: Progress will need to be measured not in two or 10 years, but a generation. Yes, manufacturers are setting up mandates to have FSC certified woods to build guitars, “but that doesn’t mean the suppliers can supply those woods. So we’ve made a step forward and told suppliers that they have to help us figure it out.”
There have been “wood summits” where guitar makers meet with suppliers who work with all the guitar companies, though both Chris Martin of Martin Guitars and Taylor are always quick to point out MI is not just competing against each other for these resources – that would be easy. Martin not-so-jokes that those in the funeral business are still making caskets out of some tonal woods. Then of course there are the furniture makers and homebuilders.
Taylor and others are working to certify spruce, which is further complicated because so much is on Native American land and treaties and Congressional acts need to be worked through. “Someday we’ll have it, and then it’ll be ‘Great! Let’s go [certify] mahogany!” Taylor says they typically need a container of mahogany every month just to make necks, and there are five or six logs of wood in a container. Recently they stopped putting mahogany necks on their babies, 100 and 200 series, and some of their electric guitars. This has cut their need for mahogany by 60 percent.
“Last year we parachuted our operation into two additional villages in Honduras, and now we’re in a total of three. We’re talking super primitive – donkey and chain saws here, all to get five or six logs a year per community.” Visits are made, loyalty is built, and even this past year when the high-end guitar market took a hit like everything else, they still bought wood that the orders didn’t necessarily justify. “I didn’t want them to know there was a global recession,” he says. “And we also are the source of 40 percent of their economy.”
Washburn also sources most of their wood through certified green suppliers. But woods like koa are often the exception because the amount available is so small it would be hard to get certified, says Dankberg, director of marketing and artist relations. “We have, from time to time, initiated our own programs, too – like planting a tree for every guitar sold.” They also support green organizations through donations.
Martin requires their dealers to participate in their special sustainability program and stock FSC models. Despite that, the results are not overwhelming. “I’d like to tell you that we’ve doubled or tripled sales [of FSC wood models],” sighs Dick Boak, Martin Guitar’s director of artist and public relations. “But it’s a tough sell because there is a tremendous amount of education required. Guitarists are all tree huggers right up to the point they buy their guitar. Then they all want Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce.”
Yet Martin has doubled the number of FSC certified wood models they offer – there are now two series for a total of eight models, all 100 percent certified woods. “In the past two years we’ve seen growth of 13 percent in sales from the green initiatives. But that’s only about 1 percent of our total. So we’d like it to be more. It’s a start, and we’re committed and sticking with the program.
“There are people who have moral integrity and environmental conscience who are accounting for the sales [in FSC certified wood] we’ve had now,” he adds. “We’re going to continue to require dealers to participate in a program we think is important and right. Right now it’s a bit of a tough sell. We need to have the dealers. If they aren’t able to educate the customers, we won’t see any progress.”
As far as the FSC is concerned, Taylor has been blunt to them: “I told them their certification process is too stringent. You’ve got groups like Greenpeace, who can be divisive, but guitars bring red states and blue states together. Frankly, we’re not going to sell one single more guitar because it’s FSC certified. But we’re all pushing for it because it’s the right thing to do.” Taylor suggests a tag that says, “The neck is FSC certified” because right now, an all or nothing approach for this guitar makers won’t work.
The FSC isn’t the only guide. Rebecca Eddy at Paul Reed Smith says the company is aware of and conscientious about the environmental sustainability of the various woods used in the manufacture of PRS Guitars. “PRS is a member of the International Wood Products Association (IWPA), and is committed to supporting sustainable forest management practices,” she says. “The IWPA promotes efforts to achieve the fastest practical progress towards environmentally sound permanent forest management worldwide and supports responsible national and international efforts to focus attention on the various threats to the world’s productive forests. Hugh Reitz, the international wood buyer for PRS Guitars, is an IWPA member and has served on the IWPA Board of Directors.”
The company uses about 24 different kinds of wood to manufacture its instruments. “The facts and practices surrounding the acquisition of each of these woods are very different,” Eddy points out. “PRS Guitars closely examines the circumstances of each wood purchase and is careful to only purchase woods that are harvested under ecologically sustainable practices. As part of its wood procurement procedures, PRS now purchases certified woods whenever available that meet PRS quality standards.”
In some instances, PRS will not purchase wood because the company believes that the wood was harvested using unsustainable ecological practices. “The PRS Wood Team goes into the field with loggers and saw mills monthly and personally evaluates the practices that are used to acquire various woods. PRS Guitars is committed to purchasing wood that is harvested and marketed in a lawful and ecologically sustainable manner.”
Musicians as Environmentalists? Not So Much…
Do player’s care?
“That’s a good question,” Black Diamond’s Ron Van Ostenbridge answers bluntly. “I don’t honestly know. I know we promote it. I know we think it’s the right thing to do. I think customers appreciate goods that don’t harm the planet.”
“Guitar players are essentially collectors, and they don’t need the instrument. It’s an emotional buy,” Dankberg says. “They are most influenced by what their favorite artist plays – that’s more likely to affect the purchase then any green concerns.”
“People want their Les Paul or Taylor or Martin made of Brazilian rosewood and then they sing about saving the rainforest,” Taylor says. “People care about global warming and the environment in a general way, but not the day they buy a guitar. They don’t want one out of oak. They want the guitar they want and then say, ‘You Bob Taylor handle this issue for us.’ Best I can do is set it up for the next generation.”
Martin’s Boak ponders: “Is a musician willing to sacrifice a little tone to do right by the environment? Or will they just do as they’ve been doing until the woods are not available and have disappeared? Brazilian already has. African Blackwood pretty much has. Mahogany and ebony are both problematic, and harder to get every year.”
Popular musicians typically embrace environmental concerns – think everyone from Crosby, Stills, & Nash to Dave Matthews. But it’s not clear it’s transferring to the instrument itself, though perhaps that’s changing.
Washburn recently released a signature with George Lynch guitar. “He was very insistent that the instrument be as green as possible,” Dankberg reports. “He lives out on the desert and is very much in touch with nature. Actually, through the process of working with him, I personally learned a lot more about these issues!”
Over at Sierra Guitars, Craig Toporek says that “Sierra artists are very interested in Sierra’s eco-friendliness and it is just one of the many reasons they choose to endorse Sierra. Some Sierra endorsers, such as Ashleigh Flynn, perform at the green-themed High Sierra Music Festival in California, which raises awareness and funds for worthwhile organizations related to music, art, education, and social justice.”
Jim D’Addario of D’Addario wants to work more with their artists who are especially passionate about this issue. “We need to focus more on that, because I know we have certain endorsees just because of our environmental stand.”
“Promoting green models has always been a tough sell, especially when you make a product so highly esteemed,” adds Boak. “Nonetheless we’re really committed at Martin to promoting our FSC wood models as well as our sustainable wood models and educating the public about the viability of these models.”
Zuni Guitars hand makes all their guitars out of North American hardwoods that are readily sustainable and not on any endangered list. Zuni doesn’t even put plastic on their guitars – all pickup rings and cover plates are made out of sustainable figured maple, and most of the knobs and tuners are made out of elk or deer antlers that are shed naturally
Recently they updated their Web site to further promote their eco-friendly guitar making ways. They’ve added pictures of themselves cutting the wood in Michigan. “I cut every piece of wood we use,” says president Michael Blank, who spent the early part of his career getting wood for Gibson and Washburn. He also launched birdseyemaplewood.com, a site offering wood he’s cut himself that is of especially high quality. “These are freaks of nature and very rare, and some can go for $10,000 a log,” says Blank.
Blank’s family helps cuts the trees, find the materials, and work the sawmill in southern Illinois. It’s not a high volume company – to date they’ve completed 28 guitars. And they are not cheap. But “even the strings are made in America – everything on this guitar comes from North America.”
Mark Payung’s Glasstones guitars feature patented technology that replaces traditional wood components with glass. The idea is that every part of his guitar that touches the string is glass – from the nut (typically brass) to the frets to the saddle.
“Glass is made of sand, and sand is a plentiful resource,” Payung says. “With global warming, there’s more sand then we know what to do with.” But it’s not environmental concerns that fuel the GlassTones approach. “There’s a clarity of tone that’s never been heard before. It’s a fundamental change.” But the green aspects of the guitar cost green: the instruments have a MSRP of $5,500. They are also offering a modification kit.
Montreal businessman Danny Fonfeder found his foot into the business in the sands of the island of Bali, where he would create instruments that combine craftsmanship and art. Instruments are hand made by indigenous crafts people with extraordinarily sustainable material. The company is Blueberry guitars, and the story is certainly unusual.
Vacationing on the island, he had lost his guitar, so he went to buy another one. “There weren’t any music stores, and I ended up at what can be described as a 7-11 where I found a low-quality one for $20 that wouldn’t stay in tune.” This led to him wondering why they couldn’t make them there? The island was rich with experienced woodworkers. Thus began his journey.
The wood used is Balinese rosewood. There’s also a Balinese koa, Balinese tempo wood, and white angelwood being used. “All made in a little village that has looked the same for 300 years.” Instead of spraying a finish on, the finish on all the instruments are done with linseed oil applied by hand. “I don’t think it’s possible to leave a smaller footprint in this business then we’re doing,” Fonfeder exclaims. “If you play our Balinese rosewood and compare it to an instrument made with Brazilian rosewood, there’s no difference – only one is rare and one isn’t.”
But here’s is a difference: The team has discovered that carving on the guitar does more than just add beauty to the guitar, but enhances the acoustic properties. “With groves, the whole guitar vibrates and resonates better and louder. You couldn’t do this with cedar, spruce or koa. This processes adds a 20 percent boost in sound properties.”
On the topic of raw materials, economics are having as much influence as environmental concern at Black Diamond. Prices for copper and silver has risen, and Van Ostenbridge says they absorb the increases as much as possible, raising prices only as a last resort. “We have a great cost containment philosophy: when we do raise prices, it’s truly necessary.”
The company is one of the many doing things that they don’t necessarily “have” to do.
“We’re totally into the environment and do anything we can to preserve or protect,” says Van Ostenbridge says. “So with our packaging, it’s a priority to try to use all recyclable material. We’re looking at different types of packaging both economic and environmental – and we’re also experimenting. And it’s no secret that some of that is to prevent corrosion.” He adds that any and all changes are tested against three equal goals: economics, customer satisfaction, and the environment.
Van Ostenbridge points out that “plastics” is a not a dirty word, and some of it biodegrades quite well, which is really important because, “while everything we put out is recyclable, not everybody in the real world recycles. So if some of our packaging material does end up in a landfill, we want it to biodegrade as quickly as possible.”
They have their strings coming in a vinyl pouch, which while recyclable, does not biodegrade too quickly. So efforts are being make to improve on that, yet keep the product fresh and from the elements – which can be daunting: “You’re transporting a lot of your goods by ship and they can spend as long as 35 days on the ocean where they are exposed to a lot of harsh conditions. So it needs to be packaging that gives the customer what they are paying for, but is still as environmentally friendly as we can make it.”
D’Addario, who in the late 1970s operated out of a building with a too-close-to-ignore landfill he had to look at every day, has been on the forefront of this issue for years. Most recently the company has focused its efforts on products shipping out under the Planet Wave name. “We’ve been trimming back the packaging on that, shrinking the sizes down,” says Jim D’Addario. “We used to have those products in an elaborate box, but now we came up with packaging that cuts back raw material use from 30 percent up to 70 percent.”
But is there a danger in doing so much that the product becomes less appealing to grab? “We spend a lot of time making whatever packaging look even better then before. And we’ve gotten nothing but compliments – people are glad we’re being responsible. Plus, dealers like what we’ve done because more products can fit on the hook. Yes, I suppose we might lose a customer wanting an Apple iBox [type container], but the vast majority of consumers are in tune with the efforts.”
Blank of Zuni says his wholly sustainable production is key to his marketing strategy: “When people come to look at the guitars, they can tell they are made with love and are environmentally sound.” Blank also doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for those who still go after the tropical hardwoods, which he points out you can’t even import in Europe. “A lot say they are re-growing, but it’s hard to ‘re-grow’ 300 year-old hardwood. That’s why I decided a long time to take the path I’m taking.
“And eventually they all are going to have to do what I’m doing. They will have someone on their staff in the woods. With their own chainsaws.”
D’Addario has made their ecologically friendly efforts part of their marketing strategy since 1991 – sort of. “We could do more,” he laments. “We’re not educating people enough about how serious the problem it is, and how much we’ve done to address it.”
The people at Black Diamond also think they can do a better job marketing their green efforts too. “We don’t do a good job at that,” Van Ostenbridge says. “Probably because it’s not the main reason we do it – we do it because it’s morally and ethically the right thing to do. Marketing wise, we focus more on the quality of the product. We’re happy with the quality and service we give. We have a good product. ”
At Flaxwood, Nelson says they have internal discussions about how much – or if at all – to promote the environmental aspect of their guitars. “The unfortunate reality is at the end of the day, most guitar players don’t really care. They want to play a guitar that sounds great.” Still he adds that they are making inroads in promoting this aspect of the instrument, but “guitar players are very conservative, and anything new and different takes time.”
Challenges & the Future
The process of getting the wood is part game, part strategy, and sometimes luck is involved.
“The biggest part is planning,” Dankberg says. “A lot of it comes from overseas and they have different schedules, priorities, and languages, so the planning really comes into play.” And sometimes no amount of planning can help. Dankberg tells that last year the government shut down the industry because of the Olympics. Factories that were going seven days a week went down to two; busy ports were made to idle.
Sure, plenty of woods are plentiful even here in the states. “We’re making guitars out of Cherry that are quite wonderful, but is it fair to compare those to the ones made out of Brazilian rosewood?” Boak asks. “The physical properties are different.”
He explains that it’s difficult to complete tonally with the woods that have been traditionally used. “Just like a Stradivarius violin, there’s a level of tonality that sets a standard, and if you want it you’re going to have to pay for it,” he says. And the pay off may just be worth it looking at history – a vintage Martin D 28 guitar made with these now hard-to-get woods in 1939 is now selling for up to $75,000.
Yet most agree it’s going to matter more and more to future players.
“I’m 33, and I grew up in the generation where they celebrated Earth Day when I was in grade school,” says Dankberg. “It’s never really gone away, and I don’t think it will.” He adds that if we see more long-term affects of greenhouse gases, if the society continues to push for more fuel-efficient cars and green buildings, it’ll continue to be more important with everyone’s everyday purchasing decisions.
D’Addario says that it’s cross-generation: It’s an attitude that reaching the entire population. “If I can get the same result from this car as that one, this packaging instead of that one, and do less damage to the planet, why not? Younger people are paying more attention, but so are the 60-year-olds. It’s universal. People speed right up to my electric cars when I’m driving them, take pictures, give me the thumb’s up – people are paying attention to this.”
“We’re going to get to more sustainable instruments, because that’s where the world is going,” says Taylor. “Our kids won’t let this go.”
|Doing More with Less
“We are continually looking for new ways to optimize the production and efficiency of our guitars,” says Craig Toporek, Sierra Guitars product manager. “Minimizing wood usage and wasted materials while maintaining a quality product is the goal.”Martin is creating soundboards from recycled pulp logs, purchased right before they were ground up, says Martin Guitar’s Dick Boak.
Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars is looking at how they can make their guitars more efficiently using fewer materials, and he says the best decision they made was made over 10 years ago with how they bolt on their necks. “I can’t say we use less wood because of it, but we can use all the wood.” So instead of standing in a mill and taking one piece out of 20, they can take all 20 pieces. “We use all the wood from all the trees, so we’re not cutting 20 trees to get four trees’ worth of wood.”
Also they’ve embraced veneering a guitar, something that had a bad reputation going back to the 1970s because that’s what was featured on all the poorly made guitars coming out of Asia at the time. But Taylor maintains it wasn’t the idea itself that was bad, but the way it was done. Today they take a Rosewood log and use it as a veneer, which “is a big step for someone like Taylor. Our 100 and 200 series are veneered and they are incredible.”
D’Addario has refined the processing of string making, not only using everything including the scraps, but getting the raw material from the tire industry – pieces that are too small for them to do anything with are just right for strings. Switching to materials that already are brass plated keeps them from having to use tin, and works just as well to prevent corrosion. They’ve nearly completely eliminated their use of caustic chemicals in the process.
“A lot of left over hazardous materials that would end up in a landfill are being re-filtered and reused,” says Jim D’Addario. “It’s a real reduction on the impact of the environment. And we’re looking at the manufacturing process all the time.”
“Streamlining the manufacturing process is one of our biggest priorities right now,” says Washburn’s Jody Dankberg. Using materials smarter and wasting less has bottom-line benefits too, “especially on the Parker Guitar side of things. Parkers are made out of wood combined with carbon fiber technology, which provides more strength and no warping or bending. This process gets the guitars down to a real low weight, below five pounds.” But all this is labor- and material-intensive. “We’ve recently come up with ways so that they come off the CNC machines without wasting material – that’s been a major undertaking.”
|Carbon Fiber & Wholly Sustainable Material: Catching On?
Ellis Seal of Composite Acoustics (CA) reports he’s seeing a surge in their all human-made carbon fiber guitars. “I think a lot of it is that people are becoming aware of who we are and what he do,” he says. “Being a small company, it takes a little longer to get the word out. But the more stores stock our guitars, the more the guitars move out the door.”Today they offer five different body styles, with models having various features.
Yet despite the ecological implication of their non-wood guitars, Seal doesn’t promote or market that aspect. “That is a decision we leave up to the customer,” he says. “We don’t really promote that aspect, though through the feedback we get, it does affect the buying decision for a certain number of players.” Still advancements continue to be exceptionally eco-friendly: Their latest is a new finish that’s raw and using no paint whatsoever.
“We don’t want to create an environmental battle between us and wooden guitars, so putting it out front doesn’t do anybody any good.” That said, more are selling their wooden guitars to make a CA their primary instrument, as opposed to having it as a secondary instrument. Next up is all carbon fiber electric guitar, followed by an acoustic bass in 2010.
Meanwhile, in Heinävaara, Finland, a new process of “molding wood” is creating an ecologically friendly, recyclable tone material by Flaxwood. Rick Nelson, director of sales in the USA, has been at the company for just a year, though previously he worked at Fishman Electronics and Parker Guitars.
Nelson says while Parker was a revolutionary great guitar that literally broke the mold, the reality is the unique design was not appealing to many players. “What’s exciting to me is that Flaxwood is so much more esoterically appealing.”
What they have done in Finland is taken an exceptionally renewable resource, Flax seeds, or linseed, used with spruce, one of the more quicker growing woods which are plentiful in northern Finland, and molded it. “They’ve come up with an extremely resonate instrument that resonates not unlike ebony,” Nelson says. “It’s has unusual sustain capability, and the high pressure injection molding system they use to create it allows for a consistency of sound that I’ve found to be astounding.”
Flaxwood came from a desire of a small group of luthiers concerned about the ecological ramifications of harvesting hardwoods for guitar. “The primary motivation was to look at their surrounding environment and create an instrument that didn’t harm that.” At the moment they are using hardwoods for the fretboard, but are currently experimenting with material to replace that. Though again, not an inexpensive guitar: They start in the $2,000 range though they are currently working on a line that will come in below that.
Most importantly to Nelson is the sustain and playability, plus the consistency issue. “The neck has no dead spots – it’s very highly regarded, and recently the instrument won an award and a great review from Premiere Guitar Magazine.” This is what they are promoting first: “You put it in the hands of a dealer or a player and say, ‘Check it out.’ They fall in love with it and then you tell the story and the ecological benefits.” Like similar non-hardwood guitars, these instruments too are not susceptible to heat and humidity.
|Q&A with FSC President Bill Hayward
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was founded in 1993. Today the Bonn, Germany-based organization represents the world’s strongest system for guiding forest management toward sustainable outcomes. The FSC-US was established in 1995, and currently Bill Hayward is its CEO. Haywood is also CEO of Haywood Lumber, a 90-year-old building materials company, and the first in the country to stock FSC lumber.MMR: What is the purpose of the FSC?
Bill Hayward: To ensure forest stewardship. The forests of the world have a valuable place in our eco system. The dream of when the FSC was founded was to educate people to the true value of a forest – which is much more than just wood. It’s air, plants, water, animal, life.
MMR: What is “bad forestry.”
MMR: Describe the FSC certification process.
MMR: Some guitar makers feel that some wood can’t be certified because it’s too rare.
MMR: What’s the relationship like between the FSC and the guitar makers?
MMR: There is competition for this wood not so much within our industry, but with other industries – like furniture. Can the FSC control what industry gets what?
MMR: Is there any progress being made because of the FSC?