The issue of sustainability of guitar wood (and wood in general) is very complicated, with many different factors to consider, and I’m not going to go into any great detail about it here. This is just a quick rundown of the direction that I’m going in, wood-wise, and some explanation of my approach to wood selection. The traditional guitar wood choices 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. I think that the beginning of a sustainable future for high-quality hand-made wooden guitars is to forget the idea that there are a few magical “tonewood” species which are necessary to make great guitars, and instead rationally look at the mechanical, acoustic and aesthetic properties of individual pieces of wood, and the environmental impacts of using them, then make intelligent choices based on those realities. The skill and knowledge of the person designing and making the guitar is what will make it great, not having “master grade tonewood”: graded by whom, and using what criteria? Wood merchants mostly grade wood on aesthetic factors, which don’t necessarily tell you anything about the potential sound quality of a guitar made with that wood.
I believe that there is no real justification for using endangered/threatened species to build guitars when there are more sustainable and responsible alternatives which can work equally well (or sometimes even better). I have to admit that I’ve been quite lazy about actually changing my wood buying ways, because of the weight of traditional expectations about classical guitar construction, and because of the difficulty of finding high quality wood from sustainable sources. In the last couple of years, the sourcing issue has been partially solved by the increased availability of FSC certified woods (https://ic.fsc.org/en/certification), so at the beginning of 2016 I decided to put my money where my mouth is, and made up some responsible wood buying rules for myself. All the new wood I buy for my instruments will be either:
- FSC certified (which is not a perfect system, but it’s a step or two in the right direction).
- From a source which I personally know to be responsible/sustainable (e.g. from storm damaged trees, or small-scale uncertified timber production from sensibly managed sources).
- Reclaimed/recycled/waste wood (most people in the UK don’t seem to know a lot about wood these days, and it’s surprising what some people will just throw away or burn).
I’ve also decided to stop using any species which is listed in CITES appendix 1 or 2, from the beginning of 2017, which includes: Brazilian rosewood, Indian rosewood and all other dalbergia species, bubinga, Honduran mahogany and Madagascan ebony. All my new guitars will have a certificate listing the wood species used in their construction, to make import/export or traveling with the guitar as simple as possible.
I already have enough experience of working with a wide range of woods to be confident that I can make that change while continuing to improve the quality of my guitars. In fact, through the process of researching and testing new woods, I’ve actually found some which I think are better options than the traditional choices. I’ll be introducing various new wood options over the next year or two, and will be able to offer guitars made from 100% responsibly sourced woods from 2017. Then I’ll phase out the less sustainable woods over the following few years as I use up my remaining stocks and optimise my designs to use more sensible alternatives.
I’ve used various soundboard woods over the years, but have currently settled on using European spruce as my standard choice, because it gives a richness of tone colour which I don’t seem to get with other woods. European spruce is not endangered or threatened, and can be sustainably sourced, including from FSC certified sources. There is a question over the sustainable availability of trees large enough to make 2-piece tops, but a well made 4-piece top can work just as well and can be made from a much smaller/younger tree, so I have no immediate worries about the sustainability of soundboards.
Backs and sides:
The standard/traditional choices for classical guitar back/sides are both on the way to becoming endangered species, due to years of unsustainable overuse:
There are many alternatives which can make equally good guitars, but the main ones that I’m using at the moment are:
- African padauk: acoustically similar to rosewood (personally, I prefer it to Indian rosewood, acoustically and visually), and is available from FSC certified sources. This is my standard “rosewood-like” option.
- sycamore maple: a very traditional choice for instrument making, including guitars (used by Stradivari, Panormo, Torres, Hauser) and easily available from sustainable sources.
- European walnut: can make beautiful guitars, and is structurally and acoustically similar to maple. Available from sustainable sources.
- European cherry: also similar to maple, also available from sustainable sources.
There is a similar story with traditional neck woods:
But, again, there are good alternatives:
- Douglas fir: stiffer, and with a higher stiffness to density ratio (a good thing for a neck wood) than Spanish cedar, with about the same density and hardness. Available from FSC certified sources.
- maple and walnut can also make good necks for some models: they are a bit on the heavy side for a neck wood, but can work well with some larger/heavier styles of guitar. Both available from FSC sources.
- Spanish cedar is available from FSC certified sources, and I’m still using that as an option at the moment.
- katalox: harder, heavier, stiffer and more stable (all good things for a fingerboard, in my opinion) than ebony, and it’s available from FSC certified sources.
- plum: was a traditional choice for fingerboards on early string instruments (lutes, viols, etc.)
- rocklite: is an engineered ebony substitute materials which looks and feels very similar to ebony (only a real wood expert would be able to tell the difference). A good choice if you want a plain black fingerboard.
I do the majority of the work on my instruments with hand tools, but do use some power tools: I buy my workshop electricity from 100% renewable sources, from Good Energy – https://goodenergy.co.uk/about-us