A Sound Idea

By Hayhurst, Chris | E Magazine, March 2001 | Go to article overview

A Sound Idea


Hayhurst, Chris, E Magazine


Forest-Friendly Instruments Make Sweet Music

Greg Gaylord, a self-employed drum maker, works with wood almost every day. The lone owner and operator of aptly named Drum Solo in Novato, California, Gaylord spends his waking hours laboring over the many intricacies of his handcrafted snare drums. Each finished drum--its shell hewed from domestic woods like cherry, maple or walnut, or from exotic species like Paraguayan cancharana or peroba--is, in Gaylord's own words, "great-sounding from the get-go." Each drum is also utterly unique, extremely durable and, in most cases, because Gaylord buys the majority of his wood from a nearby lumber company called EcoTimber, socially and environmentally friendly.

A Global Scale

Welcome to the latest development in the war against deforestation, species extinction and social and economic exploitation. An increasing number of musical-instrument makers, ranging from companies as small as Drum Solo to those as large and well known as Nashville's Gibson Guitars, are carving, sawing and sanding their products from certified-ecological wood. "The wood is tracked from the forest floor to the sales floor and every place in between," explains Francine Stephens, a spokesperson for Richmond, Vermont-based SmartWood one of the country's biggest certifying agencies. SmartWood, a program of the Rainforest Alliance and accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council to certify forests and forest products that are ecologically sound, considers numerous factors when doing so--everything from the environmental sustainability of forest management and timber-harvesting methods to the effect those methods have on indigenous communities.

Through programs like SmartWood and Oakland-based Scientific Certification Systems, as well as similar programs in Canada, Europe and Africa, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has put its stamp of approval on nearly 50 million acres of forest worldwide. To be sure, only an extremely small percentage of certified land's trees goes to the "green" musical instrument industry. But also true is that only an extremely small percentage of all the world's trees are used in making musical instruments of any kind.

Traditionally, guitars are made from the world's finest cuts of mahogany and rosewood harvested from rainforests in countries like Brazil. Similar woods are used for drums, clarinets, oboes and wooden flutes and piccolos. Because such trees are typically scarce, loggers must destroy massive swaths of forest just to gain access. By the time they've built roads and bridges and rumbled away with prized logs, they've scarred the forest and opened an otherwise inaccessible land to habitation. Inhospitable jungle often turns to farmland. Fortunately, such practices are falling out of favor. Instead of pulling logs without regard to the consequences, many forestry operations are now following the guidelines of groups like the FSC. The result is eco-friendly wood and, for sectors like the musical-instrument industry, a brand-new market.

Its success depends on a number of factors. For one, consumers have been told for years that the best instruments are made from precious tropical woods like mahogany, ebony and rosewood--the very species most in danger. The thought of buying a guitar with an American red-cedar neck may, consequently, be less than appealing. Another problem is supply. Major manufacturers gripe over a lack of raw materials, claiming there just isn't enough high-quality certified wood to meet their production needs and make the process financially feasible.

Certified woods are nevertheless gaining ground among musicians, and by all accounts a program known as SoundWood is leading the way. A component of Britain's Fauna and Flora International and now based in San Francisco, SoundWood works directly with the music industry, harvesters, scientists, governments and consumers to develop species-conservation solutions.

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