Arthur Robb - Luthier
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Conservation and Musical Instrument Making

The makers and players of modern musical instruments now have ecological responsibilities. Many species of rosewood and ebony are endangered, but the wood is still easily purchased. Some timbers and materials used by luthiers has legal restrictions, especially when crossing international boundries. 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 difficult to obtain. Below, you will find information about organizations 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

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 lute fingerboards.

In 2006 I was involved in a survey assessing the market for African blackwood (mpingo) in the UK. In the last few years, FSC African blackwood It is possible that a small amount of FSC-certified African blackwood will become available and I would be pleased to use this in my instruments. The Mpingo Conservation Project website is at :

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 restricions 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 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.

Musical Instrument Materials and Endangered Species

My Own Impressions

Due to the protection needed to ensure the survival of some species, trade in some of the materials used for musical instruments is now restricted by law. This protection comes in two forms, international trade treaties and national protective legislation.

The most important international trade treaty is CITES, The Commission on International Trade in Endangered Species. One hundred and fifty-five countries, including the United States and Great Britain, have signed this treaty and are obliged to enforce the limitations of trade imposed by it. The CITES treaty has three appendices, each with a list of species. Species listed in Appendix I are not allowed to be traded across national boundaries; species in Appendix II need permits from CITES for international trade. Appendix III lists national restrictions.

Musical instrument makers are directly affected by two species being listed in Appendix I: the African elephant and Brazilian rosewood.

Ivory has been used in musical instruments for centuries. The white keys on many pianos are covered with ivory and it has been used for nuts on guitars, lutes and other stringed instruments. Other uses are guitar saddles, violin bow tips, entire woodwind instruments and decoration on nearly any type of instrument. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has two lutes made of ivory and there are several modern lutes in England with ribs cut from a tusk. For stringed instrument makers, it is fortunate that cow bone is such an adequate material for nuts.

Even without the CITES treaty, many people, including myself, would refrain from purchasing or working ivory. However, the moral situation begins to blur when woodworkers are confronted with protected or endangered timbers. Consider the case of Brazilian rosewood - a timber which should not be confused with Brazilian mahogany. Brazilian rosewood, also known as Rio rosewood, palisandar and jacaranda, is a true rosewood; dark brown and hard with interesting grain patterns. For many years it has been considered the best of all possible choices of wood for the back and sides of classical guitars. It has also been used for pianos and is the rosewood of rosewood violin pegs. Because Brazilian rosewood has been felled near to extinction in recent years, this uncommon coastal tree was, at Brazil's request, placed in Appendix 1 in 1992.

The restrictions imposed on trade by Appendix 1 are intentionally severe. International trade in the listed species is banned. Ivory and Brazilian rosewood, and any object containing them, can be bought and sold within a country, but cannot be traded across international boundaries of countries which have signed the CITES treaty. The penalties for infringement are confiscation and fines. If the instrument (or antique) was made before the the ban was imposed, it is the responsibility of the shipper or owner to provide proof of this, along with proper documentation obtained from CITES, to customs officials. In theory, violin bows with ivory bowtips may be seized for lack of documentation at international customs. At present, this is not happening, but musical instrument makers, antique dealers and museum curators all need to be aware of this legislation.

More species are added to the Appendices every few years when the Commission meets. It is always the country holding the endangered species which asks for protection. Pernambuco, found in the same threatened coastal forests as Brazilian rosewood, is currently being given close scrutiny. Formerly, this timber was used in production of red and orange dyes. The wood is hard, strong and dark orange to brown. Violin bow makers claim that there is no wood to surpass the excellent qualities possessed by this timber: strength, flexibility, weight and colour. Pernambuco bow blanks are still easily obtained, but the limited number of remaining trees is giving concern. Pernambuco may well need the protection of Appendix I.

CITES may also reduce restrictions. At a meeting of the convention in June 1997 Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana requested and received permission to trade stockpiled ivory with Japan in 18 months. In some countries, ivory stockpiles have been burned and the people and countries presently holding ivory stocks are delighted to be able to sell. Conservationists fear that the stockpiles will now increase, that trade in ivory will be stimulated and point out that elephants are still being killed by the hundreds.

There are many species which are in some degree endangered but do not warrant or, for some reason, cannot be given the vigorous protection of CITES. These species are often protected by national legislation.

African blackwood, known also as Mpingo, is protected in this fashion. At a recent conference it was decided not to ask for CITES protection for the tree, but to allow countries to monitor and restrict trade as necessary. African blackwood once covered great stretches of Africa and has been grown in Asian plantations. It is a large, slow growing, gnarled tree but a small portion is usable, and is the preferred timber, for making oboes and clarinets. Possibly 100 thousand of these instruments are being made from African blackwood each year. The countries that hold mpingo are reporting some success at protection, but poaching is also suspected. As the life cycle of the tree is not yet understood, it is difficult to know what to protect. For example, many countries allow gathering of dead wood but it appears that dead trees may be the source of new saplings.

There are hundreds of species of ebony and almost every one can be considered endangered in some way. Some of the ebonies may already be extinct, certainly many areas where these trees occur naturally can no longer provide commercial timber. Indian rosewood is protected by Indian legislation which prohibits the export of logs. Only converted timber can be exported. Current research is beginning to show that trees of instrument-making quality and size still exist, but in limited numbers. Replanting programs are in existance, but as the tree takes 180 years to reach maturity it will be a long time before a new crop of large trees are available. Ebonies and rosewoods are freely available in musical instrument-making catalogues and are extensively used in factory production.

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.

Whenever a forest or plantation is well managed and replanting adequately replaces felled timber, the forest becomes a renewable resource. Timber can be harvested, local employment encouraged without threat to wildlife. There has been a long-standing need for a way to identify stands of timber that are well managed.

The Forest Stewardship Council, founded in 1993 in Oaxaco, Mexico, is attempting to identify and list such forests. When a forest is proved to be well managed according to the agreed environmental and social standards, it will be 'accredited' and timber harvested from the forest will be allowed to display the 'FSC trademark.

Instrument makers will be particularly interested in accredited sources of Brazilian mahogany and Indian rosewood. Indian rosewood grown in Indonesia is known as sonokeling and it would useful to know if these plantations are well managed.

Not only tropical forests and plantations will be investigated. Already plantations of native hardwoods in Great Britain and the USA have been accredited. In the future, products made entirely from FSC approved timber will also be allowed to display the trademark. The first guitars with this trademark have already been sold.

Fauna and Flora International in Cambridge, England, has been protecting plants and animals since 1903. They are involved in careful research about many species and in 1993 began a project to assess the status of ebonies and rosewoods. The project, now known as SoundWood, soon expanded to include all all woods used in musical instrument making. Their current information about the status of timbers is invaluable. The Good Wood Alliance in the USA is dedicated to encouraging forest conservation through responsible wood use and keeps a list of suppliers of sustainably-harvested timber.

With proper conservation policies and practices, musical instrument makers should be able to use many species of timber for centuries to come. Even Rio rosewood is not lost forever. Given time and research, the tree might well be grown in or outside its native forest. Conservationists are looking to the musical instrument making industry for financial help with such forestry and that help is just beginning to arrive.

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.