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Martin Guitar Sees the Forest for the Guitars

by Mary Jasch

A Conversation with Dick Boak, director of artist relations and public relations, of CF Martin & Co., The Martin Guitar Company, Nazareth, Pennsylvania

What kinds of spruces do you use for your soundboards?
Dick Boak: Many varieties - Sitka from the Pacific Northwest, Englemann from the Rocky Mountains, Italian Alpine Spruce that Stradivari used, Carpathian from the Georgian Mountains in Eastern Europe, Adirondack from New York State. Those are the typical spruces we use for soundboards - the top of the guitar. For the back and sides, the traditional woods are rosewood, mahogany, and koa from Hawaii.

What woods do you no longer use and what are alternatives that you use instead?
Brazilian rosewood is extremely rare and we're no longer able to purchase it. We discontinued it as a standard offering back in 1969 because of difficulties of availability. In favor of that we use East Indian rosewood, but we also, from time to time, acquire other rosewoods, such as Amazon rosewood, Cambodian, and Madagascar rosewood. East Indian is very heavily government regulated and only available by government auction. That's how they control it. All the logs that are harvested come from either fall-downs or plantations where rosewood is used to shade tea and coffee crops. When the tree becomes too large, they've already planted another tree in its place. They harvest the trees and they go to government auction.

How do you find these interesting sources?
Sometimes they find us because people that have these woods would know that they are tonally viable for acoustic instruments and we are the primary manufacturer of acoustic instruments at least in the price range that could possibly use these woods. They're expensive woods.

What rare woods do you still use?
All the tonal woods for guitars could be considered rare at this point because they're all difficult to acquire. It's a dwindling resource. We're trying to encourage responsible forestry and management, but it's a difficult job and all the woods have pressure on them from China and other countries and different manufacturers that want to use the wood.

There are zillions of guitars being made by tons of manufacturers
Mostly China. China is exporting in the millions of guitars. I don't know the exact number but more than a million guitars into the United States. That puts tremendous pressure on the resources.

So what does that say about the future of guitars?
Good guitars come from Nazareth, PA, and the Chinese guitars are like Chinese toys. Those are low-end instruments that are generally not well crafted.

Do they use different woods than the kinds you use?
They use whatever they can get. They have a lot of buying power. They have a lot of money. They're putting tremendous pressure on wood resources that are typically purchased by us.

Martin has adopted sustainable forestry practices which encompasses judicious management of forests and responsible use of traditional natural materials.
We started many years ago. We were on the board of directors of one of the very early initiatives for responsible forestry called WARP - WoodWorkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection. After that we experimented by making many prototypes in all different types of wood to determine the viability of all the different tones, after which we pursued an arrangement with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and SmartWood to produce guitars made predominantly with more than 70% woods that were certified by SmartWood and the FSC. The problem was that any of the spruces were not available as certified from SmartWood and the FSC, and the result was we were forced to give up our certification status because they required 100% certification. The problem was there were no certified spruce and that amounts to about 30% of the guitar. So we've been trying to develop certified spruce sources, there are none frankly, and we were forced to institute our own program, “The Sustainable Wood Series."

We no longer have FSC and Smart Wood certification. However, we still buy a number of woods from certified sources. We can no longer use their names and logos in connection with our Sustainable Wood Series of Guitars, but Sustainable Wood Series of Guitars utilizes certified cherry, basswood, mahogany, machiche (from Central America), certified paduk, certified red birch, plus several more certified species that are used.

Tell me about your using reclaimed spruce.
It's not certified but we wanted to do something right in that respect and we were able to reclaim woods which were destined to become pulp wood.

Why were they destined to become pulp wood?
The wood is quite valuable but the paper pulp industry buys and harvests Sitka spruce in the Pacific Northwest and sometimes they harvest trees that have no business being made into pulp. Wood that is appropriate for a guitar is very, very valuable. Wood that is harvested for pulp wood deserves nothing more than weeds. Our spruce vendors regularly visit pulpwood yards looking for trees which have been purchased by the paper industry that would make good guitar tops. We buy them at a premium price.

Is it the size of Sitka spruce that makes a good guitar?
It's the size of the tree and the grain orientation. Most trees grow in a spiraling shape. As they grow they twist. That's not good for guitars. We're looking for straight-grained, evenly-grained Sitka spruce large enough for guitar tops that also has no twists in the trunk.

A one-piece top versus book-matched on an acoustic guitar?
There are no one-piece tops because trees don't grow large enough to make one-piece tops and also the wood has to be quarter-sawn, which means it's a radius cut from the heart of the tree outward, not a slab cut so that the grain is vertical as you look at the piece. It's called quarter-sawn. It's the hardest way to cut the wood but it has to be that way for the stress and tone of the instrument. And also, guitars with book-matched tops will have a symmetrical distribution of sound, which is what you want - you never want a one-piece top. There are no one-piece backs and there are no one-piece sides, except perhaps on tiny instruments like violins and ukuleles.

CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Does Martin Guitar follow their directives?
100%. Unlike the rest of the world in the industry, we follow it to the letter and it requires tremendous amount of paperwork and logistics. Any wood or material that's controlled or regulated by CITES has to have documentation showing a chain of origin and, in the example of Brazilian rosewood - part of CITES 1 which is the highest regulation, any wood that's purchased has to be pre-1991, pre-CITES and documented as such. If you ship a guitar made of Brazilian rosewood, it has to be documented in accordance with the CITES regulations here as well as the country it's being sent to. So you have to have documents at both ends and it takes a better part of a month to secure the documents for one instrument. We're playing 100% by the rules.

Why is this important to Martin?
It's the future. We certainly want to be prepared to be able to be making high quality instruments for forever. If you don't pay attention to these issues or help promote them, you will be caught with your pants down with respect to not having a plan for the future. But also it's critical to educate the clientel now about the viability of different tone woods.

Tell me about your alternative wood guitars.
We also make guitars out of alternative materials with are not made with wood at all high-pressure laminate. It's a mica and a material that occupies about 30% of our production and takes a tremendous amount of pressure off solid wood guitars.

Their initiative with us is called SoundWood, which is intended to encourage responsible forestry in the Sitka region of Alaska where the Sitka forests are somewhat in jeopardy due to over-harvest. It's a very complicated issue. Greenpeace collaborated with many key players in the music industry to establish the SoundWood program intended to help the native Alaskans recognize how much extra value there is in having a sustainable supply of musical tone wood, especially spruce, as opposed to simply clear-cutting everything for paper pulp. The larger trees that are perfect for musical instruments can bring them a tremendous amount of revenue for the wood that would be wasted in other areas. Greenpeace is helping them establish a sustainability procedure and program that would extend their revenues and protect the forests, so that's a good thing.

The world of lumbering is changing.
It's a hard fight. You can't simply exert a lot of pressure and muscle on people without making it sensible. Boycotting and shouting and stamping your feet doesn't work. You have to work with people. In this situation, it looks like it's going to have some successful results.

You now use wood with natural cosmetic characteristics that were formerly unacceptable. Like what?
When I came to Martin there were hundreds, if not thousands, of spruce tops which were not used because they had tiny little character markings, things that were natural in the wood. This is a terrible thing because the wood is valuable. We came up with a grading plan, for example, pieces of wood come in book-matches and they get graded. A grade of “8" is flawless. Anything that has a tiny grain squiggle or bear claw or a grain wider than acceptable or standard, would get a point selected for everything the inspector sees in the top. So if there's an unmatched bear claw and a grain squiggle, and the grain gets wide at a certain area, they would subtract five or six points and it would no longer be a grade 8, it could be a grade 2. Grade 2 tops get used on lower cost models and grade 8 tops get used on the highest, most premium models. We also have backpacker guitars, very tiny, and anything that doesn't make guitar-grade can get downgraded and used on the Backpacker. So instead of wasting any wood, we re-grade it so it can be used on the appropriate models.

Innovative guitar designs to maximize the yield of precious woods - how do you do that?
For example, the three-piece back was instituted back in the late '60s. It used to be if a two-piece back had a knot in the pattern where it would appear on the guitar, they would reject it. When the three-piece back was initiated, it enabled all of that wood to be remarked for three pieces instead of two and the shape of those pieces is two wings and a wedge, which gives tremendous flexibility to using those pieces. Instead of rejecting wood, we reallocate it and use it appropriately.

What else do you want people to know about your practices in using sustainable woods?
Traditionally, musicians are considered very forward-thinking people that are aware of ecological issues and the paradox is that most musicians, in the same breath, are very, very traditional with respect for what they want or will accept in terms of their guitars. That's why we feel that it's absolutely critical to educate people that there are viable alternatives to the traditional tone woods, so much so that we require our dealerships to participate in the program. Every dealer has to participate contractually in the sustainable wood program. That's the only way we've been able to - I hate to use the word “coerce" - coerce the marketplace to even look at some of the alternatives. It"s a difficult process but the intent is to educate people so they realize the viability of the alternatives.

Martin Guitar:

**All images courtesy Martin Guitar

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published December 27, 2007

Photos to enlarge

Sustainable Wood Series guitar, DCE, with sustainable cherry, poplar & maple and rescued Sitka spruce

Sustainable Wood Series, SWOMGT, with sustainable cherry and rescued Sitka spruce

OMC Cherry with three-piece back to save small pieces of special woods

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