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.”


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