Sustainability in Guitar Making

Ethics, Environment & Economics

Each year more and more species of exotic hardwood are becoming trade restricted under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This is a direct result of the species becoming endangered and being put on the brink of extinction through rapid and often illegal deforestation. Because of the decrease in availability and increase in cost of tropical woods there is a very real need to find economically and environmentally sustainable alternatives for making guitars.

I feel it's our responsibility as luthiers to highlight the issue of sustainability, to raise awareness and to help our customers make informed decisions about the woods they choose.

I'm proud to be involved with the Leonardo Guitar Research Project (LGRP). The main goal of the project is to study, demonstrate and communicate the possibilities of building acoustic and classical guitars from non-tropical woods. One of the key research areas has been in sound preference. In the first round of research conducted in 2014, they found that whilst blindfolded there was no significant preference for guitars made with tropical timber compared to those made entirely with non-tropical timber. However, when the blindfolds were removed there was a significant increase in preference in favour of the tropical guitars. This suggests that there are visual indicators and aesthetic preconceptions which influence the audience's preferences in sound.

Further information from the initial research can be found here.

In 2015 I completed a pair of guitars, identical in every way with the exception that one was made entirely of non-tropical timbers. For the backs & sides, I chose to use Laburnum & Ovangkol because they are much closer in colour than say sycamore & rosewood. This was an effort to have some kind of control over any potential visual influences. Ovangkol is less well known than the ubiquitous rosewoods, yet it exhibits similar properties, and at the moment represents a viable tropical alternative. Whilst the focus here is on the material choice for the backs and sides, the neck, fingerboard and bridge are other key features which traditionally use tropical timbers. The table below outlines the various components and the timber choices made for each guitar.

Component Tropical Non-Tropical
Soundboard European Spruce European Spruce
Back Ovangkol Laburnum
Sides Ovangkol & Balsa Laburnum & American Black Walnut
Neck Utile Alder
Fingerboard Indian Rosewood Laburnum
Bridge Indian Rosewood Laburnum
Bridge Plate Cherry Cherry
Headstock Veneer Ovangkol Laburnum
Top Bracing European Spruce European Spruce
Back Bracing Cedrella Odorata European Spruce
Linings Willow Willow