Taylor Guitars

Finished Taylor Guitars

Finished Taylor Guitars

We visit home, California, a couple times a year.  While here we bask in the fresh food, family fun and general goodness that is the Bay Area.  It also gives me an opportunity to visit with the wood workers and craftsmen that consume the hardwoods we work so hard to cultivate and protect in the tropics.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit the Taylor Guitar facilities in Southern California.  Taylor is a world class acoustic guitar producer that has become one of the leading proponents of sustainable hardwood sourcing.  They use Genuine Mahogany, Cocobolo, Sapele, Koa, Rosewood, Ebony and other species for their guitar components.  After a substantial number of processes, including milling, drying, sanding, laser cutting, treating, sealing and more, the incredible aesthetic potential of these woods is revealed in spectacular fashion.  The shapes, patterns, color and luster were a vivid reminder of why these woods have been sought and traded for so long.

My host was Chris Cosgrove, wood buyer for Taylor Guitars.  He, better than most, understands the finite nature of these endangered woods (most are cites appendix I or II listed) and we’ve been discussing long-term sourcing solutions for their instruments.  To the company’s credit, they work with responsible suppliers and concessions and do their best to buy from sustainable sources.  Recently they’ve invested in a concession and mill in Cameroon, a move that was risky but possibly necessary to secure the medium term availability of precious hardwoods, particularly ebony (Diospyros crassiflora).

Taylor’s Spring Limited Edition Granadillo and Ebony Guitars

Since I’ve always been a huge fan of Mahogany and its viability as plantation species we spent quite a bit of time discussing its qualities and availability.  In their warehouses we saw Mahogany from Fiji, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.  (Only the Fijean lumber is plantation sourced, however Fijian politics and bureaucracy have severely limited its viability.)  Tropical Mahogany is one of the most important tonewood species, used by generations of instrument makers for its workability and balanced tonewood qualities:

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Genuine Mahogany (darker boards) at the Taylor facilities

In general most tropical tonewoods are sourced from natural (non-plantation) forests, which means of course that they are being depleted without being replaced.  Species like Cocobolo and American Rosewood are already difficult to acquire and must be extracted from isolated forests, which even if purchased legally (bought through a concession) will be subject to less oversight.  (see National Geographic’s recent issue on Mahogany for the many problems with concessions: June 2013)  Essentially there is and will continue to be a need for plantation tonewoods, even moreso in the next decade when the concessions dry up.  Musicians and lute makers alike would do well to consider the future of their craft and consider and support the only viable, not to mention sustainable, solution for their longterm raw material needs: meaning an international tonewood reserve & plantation needs to be established and supported as soon as possible.

A few photos from my visit:

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The case for Genuine Mahogany

Last month, an article about Genuine Mahogany was featured in National Geographic magazine.  In it the author discusses its threatened state, demand, and solutions to curbing its illegal harvest.  Since most large Genuine Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) stands are found in the remote forests of South America controlling its illegal harvest has been difficult, despite its endangered species status (cites.org).  Apparently logging companies will buy or lease legal forest concessions, usually quickly depleted, but then will use these permits to sneak into adjoining protected forests or indigenous territories.  These circumstances are met with increased patrolling and stricter trade laws but in the end, like drugs, the product will make its way to the consumer.  Its a great read, but I ask myself why one of the world’s great timber species is still rejected as a plantation crop.  I know the answer, I’ve worked with foresters and timber investors my whole life, it all come down to a pesky insect.  The Mahogany shoot borer (Hypsipyla grandella), damages trees when its larva bores into and kills the terminal shoot. A lateral branch grows upward to replace the lost terminal shoot, resulting in a crooked main stem. Also, the damage to the terminal breaks apical dominance, resulting in excessive lateral branching. (Howard and Meerow 1993). Small trees whose terminal shoots are attacked repeatedly in successive years become extremely deformed, severely reducing its commercial value/potential.  The shoot borer has created a situation in which the only considerable plantations are located on islands (exotic to mahogany) where the moth doesn’t exist, namely Fiji and the Philippines.  That said, and despite what you may hear, the shoot borer can be controlled.  We’ve been doing it for years.  There is a cost effective, easy method for doing so, the only requirement is consistent management.  The big argument is that individual control is too labor intensive and therefore too expensive.  In Guatemala, we recently did a cost study of shoot borer management for 13000 trees.  In the first year we averaged $0.16 per tree, in the second year when the trees are taller and more difficult manage, that increased by 25%.  By the third year, no more control was necessary due to height and hardening of the shoot.  Furthermore mahogany requires less formative pruning than other species because it naturally grows vertically.  There is significant data on its growth, recently a comprehensive study conducted by the University of Munich estimated optimal rotation length for mahogany at roughly 25 years, which is more than competitive when compared to other hardwoods.  This estimate is roughly in line with our own growth predictions.

Geniune Mahogany stand with zero bifurcation

Genuine Mahogany stand with zero bifurcation on lateritic soil

The biggest advantage of Mahogany against, say Teak, is its incredible robustness.  Mahogany can grow on very poor  and diverse soils, which is evident when you consider its wide distribution from Mid-Mexico all the way down to the Southern Amazon.  Meaning, even if the labor requirements are slightly higher, you can establish it on cheaper lands.  In Panama’s Western Darien “teakable” lands cost anywhere between $4000 and $7000 per hectare, marginal lands may be procured at half of that price.  That ratio remains roughly consistent throughout Central America and I speculate Brazil is similar.

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Mahogany’s wide distribution is a testament to its vigor and durability

Mahogany is a “cites” listed species, meaning endangered.

The other side of this story is calculating market value for plantation mahogany and how it sizes up to Teak expectations.  And of course a quality comparison between natural and plantation mahogany.  I will be discussing both subjects in an upcoming entry.