Arthur Robb
0044 (0)1666-822945

Conservation and Musical Instrument Making

The makers and players of modern musical instruments now have ecological responsibilities. Many species of rosewood, ebony and mahogony are endangered, but the wood is still easily purchased. Some timbers and materials used by luthiers has legal restrictions, especially when crossing international bounderies. Local sources of timber and imports from sustainable forests are logical alternatives, but these are not always easy to find and players are often hard to convince.

Reliable information about these issues is often difficult to obtain. Below, are organisations which can supply the current and accurate data needed by makers in their decisions on use of timber.

My own impressions of the current state of the use of endangered species in musical instruments is further below.

Recent News

In January 2017, CITIES added all rosewoods, ebonies and some mahoganies to Appendix 2. This means many instruments will now need CITIES to be sold outside the European Union. I recently sent an 1849 Louis Panormo guitar to the USA and an export permit was needed. As it was built in 1849, the permit was granted.

Start your search for a UK export permit here: CITES UK

FSC approved African blackwood is now available in the UK. One company that offers it is Sound and Fair Ltd. They are on eBay and from there I purchased two electric guitar fretboards, about 9mm thick. When cut into pieces about 4mm thick I was able to make blanks for eight lute fingerboards.

Mpingo Conservation:

Fauna and Flora International

FFI logo

Fauna and Flora International, founded in 1903, is involved in many conservation projects all over the world. The website gives conservation news from around the world. If you care about these things, this is where the information can be found.

The CITES Convention

CITES logo

The CITES Convention (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) seeks to protect species by restricting trade. Ivory, or rather the African elephant, has been protected for several years now. A later addition is Brazilian Rosewood, Dalbergia nigra, the long favoured wood for classical guitar backs and sides.

The CITES Convention works by listing species of plants or animals in appendices. Each appendix imposes trade restrictions as follows:

Appendix I : No commercial trade allowed in the species

Appendix II: Trade is allowed but import and export permits are required. These are granted by the CITES Management Authorities of the countries concerned.

Appendix III: This concerns national legislation. A species may be listed on Appendix III by a particular country and that country should have no trade in the species. This also means that no country abiding by the CITES convention should allow imports of that species from the country that listed it.

The Forest Stewardship Council

FSC Logo FSC Trademark

The Forest Stewardship Council supports well managed forests by introducing a labelling scheme for approved forest products. This trademark, on the right, indicates that the labelled product comes from a forest where the management is environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable. The forest will have been certified as meeting the FSC Principles and Criteria of Forest Management.

The FSC was founded in 1993 as an attempt to standardise the assessment of well managed forests. The FSC does not assess forests but does approve the bodies which do this. One organisation from the UK empowered to assess is The Soil Association.

The FSC Trademark appears on timber from approved forests and on objects made from this timber. Forests from all over the world have gained approval. Very recently in Cornwall, forests belonging to the Prince of Wales have been approved. Guitars made entirely from wood from FSC approved sources are available.

Musical instrument makers will be looking at this scheme for several reasons. Firstly, sources of ecologically acceptable are made available. Secondly, it will be hoped that instruments with the FSC Trademark will be purchased in preference to instruments without.

The Way Forward

Fortunately, there are now many positive aspects of conservation that need encouragement. Perhaps the most helpful and simple approach is encouraging the use of native timbers. In North America, walnut, cherry and maple are grown in forest plantations. In Great Britan an effort is being made to replant areas with native hardwoods. Ash, sycamore, cherry, apple, pear, holly and walnut all have their place in instrument making. Locally grown timber should never be overlooked. The ecologists' advice to 'think globally and to act locally,' and to 'reduce the number of miles goods travel before purchase,' can surely be applied to musical instrument manufacture in the factory and the workshop.

In the future, musical instrument makers will find it makes sense to rely on local materials and to only use foreign materials only from approved sources. Instruments do not need to be made of rare and valuable materials to play well nor does every modern instrument need to be a copy of the highly decorated (but hardly used) instruments held in museum collections.