Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Traditional Instrument Makers Struggle Under Federal Endangered Wood Rules

Photo by Mose Buchele

Tom Ellis has been making mandolins in Austin since the 1970s. He says the restrictions on importing and exporting some rare tone woods have had a chilling effect on small traditional manufacturers.

Mandolins, guitars and banjos line the walls of the Fiddlers Green Music Shop in Austin, Texas. Every instrument has its own unique sound, something that depends on craftsmanship and musicianship and something else: wood.

“This is a Dreadnought. This would be in the style of a Martin, this has an Adirondack spruce top. And then Indian Rosewood back and sides. It’s all solid wood,” says employee Ben Hodges, as he tours the shop floor.

Each year, thousands of trees are harvested for the tonal properties of their wood, some of them  so rare that they’re in danger of going extinct. But the law, created to help save rare species of trees, has had an unexpected effect on the musical industry. Ever since the U.S. government put endangered woods on its list of items restricted for import, some guitar makers, sellers, and even musicians have worried that they could be breaking the law simply by owning or trading in wooden instruments.

photo by Mose Buchele

Guitars at the Fiddlers Green music shop.

The law has even caused some in the  industry to say they’re being unfairly targeted. Hodges says he agrees with laws to protect endangered woods, but that the instrument business has become a scapegoat.

“The flooring industry and the furniture industry. You really haven’t heard of too many of those companies being slapped on the wrist, and instruments really make up way less than one percent of those [wood] imports,” he says.

That ‘slap on the wrist’ he’s referring to was a high profile incident last year when federal agents confiscated pallets of endangered Madagascar ebony in a raid on the Gibson Guitar Company. Since then, some big instrument makers say they’re being more careful how they buy wood from overseas. Charlie Redden is the supply chain manager for Taylor Guitars. He says using sustainably harvested wood makes sense from a business perspective.

“Most of the traditional materials that we use to build a guitar are starting to fall into this category of endangerment, and we’re really trying to stop that before it becomes too late,” he told StateImpact Texas at last year’s SXSW Eco Conference.

Taylor considers itself a poster child for ethical wood sourcing. The company even bought its own sawmill in Cameroon to verify the ebony it gets there is harvested and sold legally.

“The most difficult thing we’ve dealt with is to buy, harvest and cut ebony in Cameroon without bribing anyone,” Redden said.

If big manufacturers have trouble staying on the right side of the law, it’s not surprising that some small independent craftsmen say the rare wood restrictions are nearly impossible to comply with.

The Mandolin as Endangered Species

Photo by Mose Buchele

Wood is shaped and crafted into traditional mandolins at Ellis Mandolins in South Austin.

From his backyard workshop in South Austin, Tom Ellis can produce about two high-end mandolins a week. When it comes to buying wood legally, he says he just has to trust the word of established vendors. Exporting his mandolins is pretty much out of the question.

“The laws and the regulations and the information that you have to know are so extensive, that it’s basically impossible for a single person to be able to do all of that and also be able to export,” Ellis says. “Which is what I think the government wants is to only deal with large exporters.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for regulating endangered species, including wood, has taken some steps to ease the burden. Last fall it launched a program to waive an export fee for smaller shops. But what Ellis and other guitar makers really want is an amendment to existing law that would give legal protection to someone who unknowingly owns a guitar made of endangered wood.

That rule change failed to pass Congress last year. Until it does, Tom Ellis’ partner Cathy Pelosi says the laws will have a chilling effect on the industry.

“There’s a lot of emotion that goes into guitars,” she says with a rueful laugh.

Adding to the pressure on U.S. instrument makers is competition from less expensive Chinese-made instruments, Pelosi says. She thinks the laws, coupled with that competition could change the very nature of U.S. instrument manufacturing in the future. Certified sustainable wood — like the kind Taylor plans to sell — will likely cost more. And some larger producers may start experimenting with different materials.

Some manufacturers will “have to come up with alternate materials that are going to cost less,” Pelosi says.

But new materials could be a hard sell.

Selling the Sound

Photo by Mose Buchele

Clay Levit, owner of Fiddler's Green music shop, thinks the market may slowly make alternate building materials more appealing.

Back at the Fiddlers Green music shop, owner Clay Levit says some instruments sound just fine without traditional tone wood. He picks up a ukulele made of bamboo to prove his point.

“It has a very bright, kind of cheerful sound,” he says, strumming the instrument.

But when it comes to guitars and violins, he thinks most buyers still want the sound and look that only traditional woods can bring.

“I think a lot of it will be price-driven,” he says. “So if the mahoganies and rosewoods get to be so expensive because they get rarer and rarer, they will only appeal to the people who can afford that. And the cheaper alternatives will make more of a showing.”


  • david@tinponydesign.com

    The continued use of ‘traditional’ tone woods is largely down to the instrument industry, individual luthiers, and collectors having fetishes with materials like Brazillian rosewood. Is Brazillian Rosewood an excellent wood for guitars, absolutely. Is there 1 player in a thousand that could hear the difference between new guitars made with Brazilllian or Indian Rosewood, or even Walnut for that matter, I would doubt it. The vintage instruments we all dream of, and that sound so magical when played has far less to do with what they are made of, as to the simple fact they are old, and have been played for the last 50 years.

    • paulpixel

      David, I play and own both a Brazilian, and an Indian Rosewood luthier made guitar. (hand made by a builder, not from a manufacturer). There are differences in any instrument, but the richness of the tone produced by a brazilian rw body is immediately apparent. The wood is far denser, has more sustain, and far deeper more complex voice. ANYONE can hear the difference. And the BRW’s just get better and better over time.

      Luthiers are going to have to start using other materials for finger boards (Paduk is good, as is birds-eye maple) than ebony. Ebony is not so much a tone wood as it is used for dressing, and the hard parts of an instrument such as archtop bridges, and fingerboards. You can stain a piece of rock maple to black.. And it will serve just as well. Those combinations of Spruce, and Rosewood, or Mahaogany are going to be a real problem. People have been making string instruments a long time, and there really just aren’t many alternatives that are just as rare (like Zircote)

  • Gretsch

    Thank God (or Allah or whomever) that the U.S, government is taking care of the important things, instead of wasting time tending to little problems like unemployment or illegal immigration.

    • the wizzle

      Yes because protecting endangered species is a waste of time. Better we use it all so there is not left in the future. Great idea Gretsch, you’re really using your head.

    • Trolley fish

      If the forests are wiped out, unemployment and immigration will be the least of our problems. How about a little perspective?

    • a nony mouse.

      illegal immigration is only a problem to bigots.

    • wildoo

      Can I get an AMEN or ALHAMDULELLAH to that ?!!

  • Art Aficionado

    Gibson seemed to be singled out among hundreds of businesses that use Amazonian woods. The raid on Gibson appeared to be politically motivated. The owner is a Republican.

    Whether or not someone can hear the difference between Indian Rosewood and Brazilian Rosewood, the latter has become the Holy Grail of fine acoustic guitars. Only movie stars, rock stars and well-heeled politicians can afford them anymore.

    • Bryn

      Your first paragraph is hilarious, and your second a wonderful summation of one aspect of the article. Nicely done. :)

      • Art Aficionado

        I could raid the 401k for a Brazilian Rosewood guitar but my lovely wife would probably club me with it. IMO East Indian Rosewood guitars are the poor man’s Brazilian Rosewood and will appreciate in value as it gets replaced by newer materials.

    • paulpixel

      Art, among builders it was well known that Gibson was skirting the law (and it gave them a competitive advantage).. the owner also basically dared the gov to do anything about it. He was using materials from sources he knew to be bogus, he was busted once, kept doing the same thing got nailed again.

      I’m neither a movie star nor a rock star.. Just a working player. Any good pianist will spend 10-20k on their baby grand. A lot of people are driving around in 25-30k automobiles or own expensive motorcycles or boats. It depends on priorities. Players.. well I drive a 12 year old station wagon, but my guitars are the tools I use to make a good part of my living. We spend what we have to on them.

      • Art Aficionado

        Maybe Gibson had it coming. I like your priorities. I play just for fun so for me a $3000 guitar is big purchase. I like to minstrel on raft trips with my friends. Nobody would pay to hear me play but this way I have a captive audience ;-)

        Martin 000-28VS

        • How much will it cost to have you to stop posting your ignorant remarks? If we could take you for being annoying jek you would be bankrupt in a week.

    • wow really

      the usual right-wing paranoia.

  • crice

    Instrument manufacturers should get ahead of the curve and start bio diverse plantations for species rejuvenation, with a portion going for harvest. The payoff may not be for 50 – 100 years out, but if such were to start, they may find they could create some offset agreements.
    I’ll pay extra for fine tone woods if there were plantation offset policies.
    All of the above is just a quick thought. But it seems like species replenishment should be part of the willing consumer costs, as well as alternate materials innovation.

  • HylaPicta

    I own property and live in way-rural Belize. Mahogany poachers are a huge problem here. Once roads are put in, these poachers are the first wave of despoilers. They sneak in and cut down our choicest trees, and haul them out on weekends when the forest police dont work. They are armed, so when (if) we hear their chain saws and approach them to make them stop, there is violence. If it is a standoff, then they threaten to kill us and our watchmen’s families. All so people in America can have cheap lawn furniture or “plantation grown” kitchen floors.

    Thanks to the US Government for at least attempting to restrict or control the import of rare hardwoods from third-world forest trees that are hundreds of years old and growing in untouched jungle environments. Musicians, if they must have high-end, craftsman-made guitars & mandolins, will just have to pay extra for certified wood or use an alternative wood harvested in the US. If they are good musicians, somehow they will survive.

    • Art Aficionado

      I think the Lacey Act is good for the reasons you cited. It’s not just Americans who drive demand it’s the entire globe. Who are the mahogany poachers ? Aren’t they people from your own region ? It takes two to despoil the forest.

  • We just finished with one war and still fighting another for 2014, 2015? Our larger cities have turned into crime ridden dystopias and yet we are fighting local craft makers over endangered wood.

  • fart

    This also applies to international travel with an instrument old or new that happens to be made of a now endangered tone wood with no certification. That is really the stinker about the law to me.

  • trimmerman

    I just watched a show where a ship from Roman times was copied. They used traditional building methods, chalking methods, handwoven cotton sails. To build this little ship, approx. 150 feet long they used nothing but hardwood. Thick planks of very exotic looking wood from Africa. The people that built that little ship used more wood than will be necessary for all the guitars to be made in the next hundred years. I did not see anyone complain. I can’t have a 1/4 of a board foot of rosewood for a fingerboard?

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