How many times recently have you walked in to a guitar shop and seen acoustics made out of wood you’d never seen before? If you’re like me, you gravitate to those guitars out of curiosity. You pick them up, turn them over, pick out colors and patterns. When you turn it over again, do you stick your nose in the soundhole and take a whiff? Okay, maybe that’s only me and my friend Steve. But you get where I’m going, right?
I’m fascinated by the properties that different woods bring to guitars. I’m also concerned about deforestation, endangered woods, and the displacement of entire communities due to mismanagement of the forests where guitar woods are harvested. Fortunately, the time is ripe for a revolution in lutherie, and woods like cocobolo, jacaranda, bubinga, zebrawood and katalox have become part of the acoustic landscape. It’s also been a chance for makers like Rainsong, CA (Composite Acoustics), Flaxwood and Blackbird to push the boundaries of carbon fiber and composites—and it’s given Ovation a chance to say, “Told you so.”
Never ones to wallow in doom and gloom, we decided to do some fact-finding and get the lowdown on just how endangered some of our old favorites are, and just how viable some of these new additions have been. Our focus is flat top acoustics, so we talked to Richard Hoover of Santa Cruz Guitar Company, Nick Colesanti of Martin, Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars, Bob Long of Long Guitars, Bradley Clark of Cole Clark Guitars, and Chris Herrod of Luthiers Mercantile to get a broad perspective on this topic.
A bunya top on a Cole Clark Guitar from Australia.
Here’s some good news: spruce is not endangered, nor is it in danger of being endangered. That’s particularly good news, because the top is responsible for about ninety percent of a guitar’s tone.
The Sitka spruce so commonly used on guitar tops comes from a supplier called Sealaska, based out of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. In 2004, Fender, Gibson, Martin and Taylor were approached by representatives from Greenpeace, who invited them to visit Tongass and meet with the folks at Sealaska about Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification and the importance of sustainability. From this meeting the Music Woods Coalition was born. Nick Colesanti is very excited about the work the coalition is currently doing in assisting Sealaska to get FSC certified: “It’s a long, long process because they’re a big organization, and it’s a lot of lumber, and it’s a lot to do. We’re trying to help them and they’re trying to help us, and we really hope they get there because that would really be a huge success story for the coalition.” The five- and six-foot diameter trees that have been the bread and butter for guitar purposes are few and far between. Chris Herrod says it’s the old growth, very large trees that are endangered: “They’re hard to come by. People want those because the grain is very tight and straight and so forth.” Those trees are not just being turned into construction lumber or kitchen cabinets, either. Many old-growth trees are destined to be ground up and turned into pulp. Martin’s response has been to seek out those pulp mills and try to rescue some of the logs that are suitable for tops. They call it diaperwood.
“I’ll tell you what’s very sad,” says Colesanti. “You’re out in the woods and you’re looking at these mammoth trees, and they’re just beautiful and it took them hundreds of years to grow, right? And all you’re thinking is, wow, someone’s gonna turn this into a diaper? Isn’t there something more noble that can happen with this really cool tree?”
Bob Taylor says as spruce trees get smaller, makers will adapt, and players will “just get okay with it. Maybe by the time we wake up and smell the coffee, we’ve already chopped down all the [big] spruce trees. At that point guitar makers would just start looking at four-piece tops instead of two-piece tops. That’s just what guitars will be then.”
Cedar is another popular top wood for acoustic guitars, but Herrod says it’s not for every player: “Cedar may actually be more plentiful than spruce, but it doesn’t work on a lot of different guitars. It has a great sound on some fingerstyle guitars and classical guitars, but it’s not a really good choice for a hard-driving, flat-picking or strumming guitar. It just doesn’t quite work that way.”
Richard Hoover says Santa Cruz has made it a practice to look for supplies of wood that come from “reclaimed sources like fallen trees and even old structures; and there are an awful lot of spruce-like trees with similar degrees of tonal potential and workability.”
One small builder finding alternate supplies of spruce is Bob Long, who often uses old piano soundboards. “These pianos are typically between 80 and 100 years old when they start to need a rebuild.” he says. “Usually, one that’s rebuilt is a really good quality piano because it’s so expensive to rebuild one, so the soundboard has had really good care.” [See sidebar on how Long processes piano soundboards.]
Australian builder Cole Clark is using bunya, a tree native to Australia, for many of their tops. Bunya, according to Bradley Clark, is “18 percent stronger than Spruce, and gives nothing up for sound.” Approximately ninety-five percent of the bunya they use is plantation grown, and the other five percent is recovered from locally felled trees. Clark says, “I love it for acoustic guitar tops and backs, ukuleles and electric bodies. It is light, stable, resonate, machines very well, is relatively quick growing, indigenous to Australia, looks cool, and is plantation grown! By the way, the bunya nut is quite edible. You can shade, fuel, build, play [guitars], eat and tie up carbon,” all from just one tree.
A Tree’s Third Chance
Here’s a little perspective: Taylor says they use 150 spruce logs a year, which is probably very comparable to Martin’s use. A typical sawmill will process 150 logs in a single shift on a single day. At the other end of the scale, Santa Cruz makes in a year about the number of guitars Martin or Taylor will make in a couple days, and Bob Long makes in a year the number Santa Cruz will make in a week.
There are advantages to being a micro-builder. Long doesn’t have to worry about whether he can get enough of any kind of wood to satisfy a mass market. He gets much of his top wood from local piano technicians who pull it from pianos that need to be rebuilt.
The first step in processing is to take the bracing off: “The braces usually come off pretty easily,” says Long. “Then I sand them down to get the grime and the shellac off so they’re clear, and then stow them away and identify which piano each one came from. I do it so that all the wood in each guitar comes from the same piano. They go into the guitar exactly the way they came out of the piano. All the joints were made by the craftsmen at the Steinway Company or Mason & Hamlin.”
The idea came to him because his own family piano was no longer tunable and was going to be disposed of: “It needed too much work to afford to keep it, so rather than send it to the landfill, I took it apart and I used virtually every piece of that piano for something. I made coat racks and shelving— our house is full of old piano things, including two guitars.”
Long loves it that he can offer his customers a dimension beyond the ordinary story, “something with a family association or just the added bit of romance that exists when the wood is something more than simply visually pleasing. When somebody says, ‘Tell me about your guitar,’ and the story is ‘Well, it’s Indian rosewood and I gave the guy a check,’ it’s not a very romantic story. Over 100 years ago, someone had the foresight to realize a particular spruce tree, when processed into piano soundboards, had a value greater than newsprint or so many two-by-fours. That lumber then had the opportunity for a second life... a higher calling. The tree lived on as pianos, in homes, schools, churches, and theaters for the next 100-plus years. I like to think that I’m extending that life even further... giving the tree a third life. Where would we be without foresight?”