Bob Taylor on the Future of Tonewoods

Ensuring that Taylor Guitars will have the woods it needs to produce instruments far into the future has become a top priority for Bob Taylor, who understands perhaps more clearly than anyone in the guitar manufacturing industry what is at stake if measures are not taken to create and/or preserve habitats for essential tonewoods such as ebony, mahogany, maple, and spruce.
Image placeholder title

An ebony tree in a Cameroon forest.

Ensuring that Taylor Guitars will have the woods it needs to produce instruments far into the future has become a top priority for Bob Taylor, who understands perhaps more clearly than anyone in the guitar manufacturing industry what is at stake if measures are not taken to create and/or preserve habitats for essential tonewoods such as ebony, mahogany, maple, and spruce. Having placed much of the responsibility for guitar design in the hands of the über-talented Andy Powers, Taylor has freed himself to concentrate on the heavy lifting that’s required to create sustainable harvesting operations in various parts of the world—from as nearby as the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii to as far away as Tasmania and the West African nation of Cameroon.

As Taylor sees it, what’s on the line here is the viability of his company into the distant future, and it takes someone with extraordinary vision and sense of responsibility to expend the time and financial resources in order to achieve a goal that is well beyond his lifetime. It’s a high-stakes challenge for Taylor, who is steering his company along a path that points to a whole new way of thinking about how we deal with the world’s diminishing resources. I sat down with Bob Taylor at Summer NAMM in Nashville in July to learn more about what he is doing to stay ahead of the forces that are endangering many of the woods we take for granted on our guitars.

Give us an overview of the current status of wood procurement at Taylor.

It’s really the law to know where your wood comes from now, and every piece of wood we get is vetted pretty closely. When you think about guitars, of course, every wood we, as an industry use, is a poster child for everything that’s endangered or close to it, so a lot of real corrective action needs to be taken to make sure that the wood we get from everywhere—whether it’s traditional wood or a new wood—is copacetic all the way through. A lot of people feel that we need to be discovering new species of wood, but, in reality, there’s no new frontier. Any new species we get will still come from a forest, and is still going to come from an exotic place, and is still is going to receive the same potential mistreatment as any other wood. So there’s really a multi-pronged approach with wood procurement. Sometimes, you go out and find a new species and you sustainably harvest it—like the “black” wood we get from Tasmania, or black heart sassafras. These are dead or dying trees on private ranches, and they’re being taken out by someone who has been there for a long time, and who knows every rancher in the area. These are trees that are coming out anyway, and rather than being turned into firewood, they’re turned into something that’s valuable in the form of guitars. So the farmer gets some money, the cutter plants new trees in their place, and propogates a cradle-to-grave practice.

Harvesting ebony requires traveling to remote, roadless places in Cameroon. The wood has to be cut into sections on the spot and hand carried out of the forest.

How far does that approach go toward supplying the needs of your company?

Well, it’s a really great story, but it’s not going to feed the world with guitars. We think a lot about our food sources now, and how we all need to grow organic stuff, but the fact is, there’s not enough organic food to feed the world. And so while some of us can go that direction, others can’t. So you also have to fix the mainstream problem, too—not just what you can buy at Whole Foods or something like that.

So then we come back to our normal wood, and we start looking deeper into the future. I think a lot of your readers are probably aware that we own an ebony mill in Cameroon. The reason we bought that mill is to take over the governance of how it’s done, and to improve the ethics, the sustainability, and the return on that wood that the people in the country get. Because the government is getting its fees and taxes— which is good—but it’s the people involved in it that really need better pay, better conditions, and a better future. So I’m spending a great deal of my time and a great deal of Taylor Guitars’ energy and resources to improve this particular system.

For those who may not know, can you explain how the Cameroon operation came about?

Three years ago, we bought this mill along with our Spanish partner Madinter Trade. It was a 12-year-old business that was doing ebony cutting in an antiquated method: Take a lot of wood out of the forest, cut it poorly, throw away the bad stuff, and export only the purest black ebony. And when that’s not enough because it was so inefficient along the way, they’d go back into the forest, take a lot more wood, and repeat the process—to find one pure black ebony tree they would fell ten, leaving others on the forest floor.

So we’re going in here and saying, “Wait a minute, what needs to change here is to take less wood, and use it all. We need to use the stuff with color, and we need to use the stuff with some problems. It’s all ebony, and ebony is rare.”

Again, people say, “Why don’t you use another wood?” Well, it’s the same circus, different tent. Whose country am I going to go into now, and take rare hardwood out of their forests, and put it on guitars?” The truth is there are no new frontiers, because what has been done forever is we use a place until the wood is gone, and then go over to another country and get new wood to feed our appetite. I’m saying we’re done doing that. So, with ebony, we’re staying put right there, and we are improving the situation with the goal of being sustainable— which means kind of forever. For as long as we can see, we want to be able to supply ebony, and the reason we would be able to perpetually supply ebony is because we’re not taking more than we’re giving. This has become a career for me now.

Can ebony be grown in a reasonable amount of time to be sustainably harvested?

Yes, but the time involved is 60 to 80 years—maybe even 100 years. But that’s reasonable, because when we’re talking about spruce, we’re talking 250 to 350 years. Maple for sides and backs could be 60 years, but there’s no guitar wood that’s going to grow in, say, 10 or 15 years. So, in a place like Cameroon, what you need to do is not ruin the forest. There are new laws there that I think are going to help the sustainability of ebony, and, ironically, that involves opening up some areas where other wood is being taken, but ebony is not being cut. There’s actually a lot of ebony in the forests of Cameroon, and if you take a little bit from a lot of little places, it has the chance to recover.

Custom Taylor with a smoky ebony fretboard.

Are these areas divided up in some particular manner?

Yes, they’re called concessions, and there are 30 or 40 concessions in Cameroon that don’t even cover all the forests. There might be 50,000 acres or more where a person has a concession to log. The owner divides it into 30 equal sections, and then when they log, say, section number one, they can’t return to it for 30 years. Even better, in that section they can only remove a third of the trees, so you don’t kill the forest. That’s all you have to do.

People think you have to go out there and replant the trees, but, in reality, the forest plants its own trees if you don’t log the whole thing away. While we cannot cut from concessions right now, they’ve put new laws on the books in Cameroon that haven’t been ratified yet, which would allow us to work with a concession owner, and while they’re in a section taking one third of the wood, we would be able to have a forestry plan to only take the amount of ebony we need. One concession out of 40 could probably give our company all the ebony we need, and it’s all done in a way that incorporates the highest levels of traceability and certification into its program. Things move slowly in Cameroon, though, so we think it will be two years before we’ll see the fruits of these new laws.

What other places are you planning to obtain woods from?

I’ve just formed a company in Hawaii with another partner, Pacific Rim Tonewoods, who cuts our spruce and our maple. We want to do sustainable koa forestry there, and our goal is to also plant mahogany trees on empty sugar cane land that can be returned to forest. We’re even doing a university study on the viability of growing ebony there. I believe that Hawaii affords us an opportunity to bring some of the woods we use in guitars into the borders of the United States, where we can have economic and ownership plans that can stand the test of time.

I don’t really know what, say, Guatemala will be like 100 years from now, but I have faith that Hawaii will still be Hawaii. So we’re literally preparing ourselves to plant wood that we would harvest in 100 years. It’s going to be expensive, but somebody has to spend the money, and it’s going to be me. That’s what it takes to get those seeds in the ground on land that we lease or buy, and I’ll do whatever else it takes so that Andy Powers’ grandkids will be able to use that wood.

What are the challenges of growing trees other than koa in Hawaii?

Hawaii is unique because there are 13 climatic zones in the world, and the big island of Hawaii has 11 of them. One of the challenges there is volcanic fog, which they call “vog,” and a lot of non-native species can’t thrive in it. Koa drinks it like espresso in the morning, but mahogany doesn’t like it. So if you want to plant mahogany, it has to be in the perfect place. It has to be down where it’s humid and wet all the time, but if it’s too close to salt water, the salt will kill it. If it’s in the vog belt, that will kill it, too. So you take a chance and do the best you can. But I do believe the time has come to plant wood, and that people have to be willing to invest for a return that’s twice their lifespan. Companies have to look at it that way, and I’m prepared to do it.

Bob Taylor and crew at the Cameroon sawmill. Taylor is investing in heavily in this facility by bringing in modern equipment and improving conditions for the workers.

How is maple is factoring into your plans now?

Andy and I have been working closely together, and our project for this whole year has been to redesign the maple guitars. Why don’t we sell more maple guitars? There are a couple of reasons. One, people think they’re too bright sounding. Well, Andy can fix that. Two, 90 percent of people simply don’t want a blond guitar. We’ve looked at violins of the past, and we’ve realized that maple is actually very hard to stain a beautiful color of brown because stains have particles in them, and the particles have to be able to go into a hole in the wood that’s a similar size in order for it to stain. So what happens a lot of times is that some parts of the stain don’t like to stick to the maple, and the part that does stick looks orange. Thus, what should have been a beautiful, deep brown, ends up being a little too orange for peoples’ tastes. Well Andy figured that out. He just dogged it until he came up with a staining method that gives us beautiful colors.

What’s the advantage of using maple in the first place?

Well, it grows in America, and it grows in 50 to 60 years. Our supplier, Pacific Rim Tonewoods, is already deeply involved in the cloning of the better maple trees. This is tissue cloning—not messing with the seeds à la GMO [Genetically Modified Organism]— so it’s like making a small adult of a wonderful tree, and planting those trees for the future. Everyone is worried about what is going to happen to guitars tomorrow, and by “tomorrow,” I’m thinking 30 years from now. I just think it would be good for the guitar industry, the player, and the planet if more guitars were made out of maple, and less of them were made out of tropical woods. We need get off the “unobtainium” boat, because we’ve whipped that horse as buyers and as builders. Right when forests are in their least healthy state, guitar buyers are saying, “Show me the newest, coolest wood that you can barely get, because I need a 27th guitar, and I don’t want it to be the same as my other 26 guitars.” So what we’re starting to say now is, “We’re going to give you your 27th guitar—or maybe even your first guitar—but it’s going to be made out of honest materials and crafted with incredible attention to detail.

A renaissance of the maple-bodied acoustic?

Well, it’s kind of funny how you’ve never seen a rosewood violin, and when you think about archtop guitars, they’re all made of maple. Jimmy D’Aquisto was famous for saying, “Rosewood is great for paneling your office, but maple is for guitars.” I don’t think people have reached the perfect place to make a maple flat-top really popular, though. So that’s the nut we’re going to try and crack. But you have to be able to make the product first, and then enculturate the players into thinking of it as a viable option. We’re really proud of what we have so far—it’s a beautiful guitar, and its tone will blow you away.

Andy said to me, “I know how to make a guitar out of maple that will sound like a guitar I want to play.” So he changed up the back bracing a lot—it doesn’t even touch the sides now—and what a huge difference that makes. The top bracing is different, too, in the way he has formed and placed it so that it gives him the sonic qualities he wants. It’s a great guitar for a bluegrass band—it makes you feel a foot taller when you play it—but it’s really good for singer-songwriters, too, as it has those wonderful deep, rich notes that we’re accustomed to from rosewood and mahogany. I wouldn’t have been able to make that guitar without Andy’s help. He’s that good of a guitar builder. And, in the future, when we offer that new maple guitar, we can proudly say it’s made from our American maple, our spruce, and our ebony from the mill that we’re running. End of story!