Classical Guitars, Sustainability of Tonewoods

The industry has done too good of a job convincing the vast majority of guitar players that high end acoustic guitars must be made from rosewood, mahogany, ebony and spruce. And yeah, they work-but other woods work also.

Chris Martin IV, Martin Guitars

The traditional wood choices for classical guitar making were largely dictated by what was available in 19th century Spain, which is not a particularly useful criteria for choosing wood in 21st century England.

Martin Woodhouse, luthier

Sustainability of tone woods is topic that no classical guitarist wants to talk to me about, they change the subject or simply walk away. Many woodworkers I have met tell me that subject is taboo. No one wants to admit that there will be a day when all the wonderful old growth lumber that we have come to love will no longer be available. 

I grew up with the lumber industry, it put me through college and employed many members of my extended family, but I watched feller-butchers and loggers clear the 50,000 acres of private forest behind my parents house and witnessed first hand the long term damage it does to the local environment and economy. My hometown still hasn’t recovered economically from the shut down of lumber and paper mills; one mill site  continues to be a major super fund clean up site twenty years after it was closed and dismantled. 

If you are wondering, here is a definition of sustainability -  “In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

I recently researched current views of sustainability online and filled several pads of papers with notes-notes on sources and statistics about today’s global plight of illegal logging. Sources include Breedlove Guitar Company, the Smithsonian Institute, Yale University, University of Michigan, Cosmos Magazine and many more. One article pointed out that illegal logging in the United States alone was a one billion dollar a year industry.

I discovered that the Breedlove Guitar Company is making sure that the lumber that they use can be traced back to the original logging operation. Martin Guitar Company claims they are working hard at being ecologically woke. There are several other small acoustic guitar companies that are working to use wood from sustainable sources.

In my research I found only two classical guitar makers who are using tonewoods from sustainable sources, sources that are certified under associations such as the Forest Stewardship Council, the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification, or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. There was no mention of sustainability on other makers’ websites. 

Yes, the amount of wood used by classical makers is negligible compared to the guitar factories in China, and by the way, 90% of all guitars made in the world are produced in China, 90% of all rosewood that is harvested goes to China. Most classical guitar makers make about a dozen or so guitars year, perhaps that is why there is no discussion on sustainability.

But, what are we going to do when all the cool and groovy old growth tropical hardwoods, the old growth spruce and Western red cedar are gone?

The Leonardo Guitar Research Project was created to find if high quality guitars can be made using non tropical hardwoods. They commissioned guitar makers to make one guitar from tropical woods and the other from non-tropical woods, the guitars were then played by guitarists before an audience. I think you can guess the results of this research, you should read their findings and watch the beautifully edited video of GaĆ«lle Solal playing all the guitars made for the project - you will be surprised.

And yes, I purchase tonewood lumber from sustainable sources. I make sure that the tonewood supplier I am working with purchased legally harvested lumber. I remember that in about 2015, Luthiers Mercantile International  stopped carrying ziricote because they could not find a source in Mexico that had the proper documentation that the ziricote they were purchasing was legally harvested. Gilmer Wood Company  makes sure they purchase legally harvested wood. I buy  products from both suppliers.

All classical guitar makers will tell you that the best wood for a guitar is old growth wood, and I agree, but the thing is, only 7% of the world’s old growth forests remain intact. Here’s another statistic, in the year 2000 the United States Forest Service stated the “stands of century old forest now account for only 7% of forest cover in the United States.”

That means there’s not much forest left on this earth, old growth trees need time to grow.

Every now and then, I make a guitar using natives woods found in the lower 48 states just so a guitarist can try it out. The guitar will get high praises for its sound and playability, but most guitarists will say “So and So Big Name Guitarist doesn’t play a guitar like that”or “So and So Big Name Maker for Big Name Guitarist says there is no point in using native woods.”

I can’t guilt anyone into thinking about this topic. 

I seriously doubt that this post will persuade an even just one young guitarist to think about trying a guitar made from non tropical sustainable woods.

I can only hope. 




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