Tree of Life: Renowned for its incredible figuring and beautiful tone, Honduran mahogany from The Tree has inspired and mystified luthiers for decades.
By Adam Perlmutter | Illustration by Greg Betza
One day last summer, I sat with a guitar case at my feet, awaiting a return flight from the Healdsburg Guitar Festival in Santa Rosa, California. An older gentleman seated next to me was eyeing the case with a look that suggested he wanted to talk about instruments. Upon making an introduction, he unzipped his overnight bag, rifled inside it for a moment, and retrieved an object whose identity was obscured by Saran Wrap. Looking around nervously, as if conducting an illicit transaction, he carefully peeled away a bit of the covering to reveal a luminous brown portion of wood with the most intricate wavy figuring. “This,” he said, with a twinkle in his eyes, “is The Tree!”
As it happened, the gentleman was a seasoned woodworker new to guitar making. He’d gotten his hands on some singular quilted mahogany that for years has driven many woodworking and guitar enthusiasts to distraction. Unlike ordinary mahogany—the straight-grained and reddish-brown stuff—this timber is unique in its appearance, with heavy figuring that is thought to be the result of a genetic defect. Adding to its allure is the fact that this quilted mahogany, which has been used by Bedell/Breedlove, Lowden, Santa Cruz, R. Taylor, and other makers, is from a single tree—The Tree, as it has been dubbed—that has a long and fascinating story.
The legend of The Tree began almost 50 years ago, when a group of loggers deep in the Chiquibul Jungle of Honduras, now Belize, discovered a giant mahogany tree, 100 feet tall, with a 10-foot base and spiraled bark that gave a hint of its intense figuring. When the loggers felled the tree by ax, in 1965, things went terribly wrong. Against their expectations, it landed in a ravine, where it proved impossible to extricate even after being halved by a tractor.
The tree had been resting in the ravine for more than a decade when sawmill owner Alan Mauney rediscovered it. He brought it to the attention of Robert Novak, an American wood importer who happened to be in the area in search of rosewood. Flooding prevented them from visiting the fallen tree for a month. When Novak at last encountered it, he immediately sensed its magnificence and entered a protracted bidding war that involved several other parties.
The nature of their business ended up working out in his favor.
“The other bidders wanted the wood for the purpose of veneering, and they had a lot more money at their disposal than I did,” Novak says. “But after about a year, they became afraid that, because the tree had been down for so long, it wouldn’t veneer well. So, around 1981, I ultimately won out.”
Novak then faced the challenge of how to remove the tree. A clever solution was devised: the two felled logs were quartered with chainsaws where they lay. The wood was dragged out of the ravine and trucked, three pieces at a time, 100 perilous miles through the jungle to the Chiquibul River. There, a loader slowly pushed it, piece by piece, into the river and pulled it the final 100 feet to the carriage ramp of an ancient steam-powered sawmill. Novak, who oversaw all of the milling, finally got a glimpse of the tree’s intense figuring when it was flat sawn. “There was a strong wow factor,” he says. “It was some of the prettiest wood I’d ever seen in my life. And it still is.”
The Tree’s dramatic figuring is classified in three main categories. One pattern resembles a tortoise shell, its triangular shapes having dark veiny outlines. Another is often referred to as a sausage quilt, as its wide horizontal patterns bear a resemblance to links of that product, with rolling vertical lines that look like long, wavy tendrils. A third type of figuring is blistered, which, with its effusion of irregular curly shapes, is the wildest variation. While all three varieties are dazzling, the tortoise-shell pattern is most wildly coveted by guitar makers and their clients.
The milling operation for Novak’s wood stretched out for nearly two weeks and yielded 12,000 board feet of timber. (A board foot is 12 inches by 12 inches by one inch, or its volumetric equivalent.) The cut wood was then shipped to Miami, where, due to its density, it was kiln dried for 30 days rather than the standard dozen. It was then carefully stored and sold from a warehouse in Miami as well as through Handlogger’s Hardwoods, in Sausalito, California.
Nylon-string luthier Mark Berry, then a woodworker and avocational musician, recalls his first impressions of the wood. “I remember going to Handlogger’s and seeing the wood when it had just come in,” he says. “It looked incredible, but starting at 10 dollars per board foot, I thought it was outrageously expensive.”
Today, wood from The Tree sells for as much as $1,500 per board foot. Initially, however, it failed to make a strong impression on the guitar-building community, as mahogany was still considered a commonplace, budget tonewood. Richard Hoover, founder of the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, recalls picking up a sample of The Tree when it first arrived at Handlogger’s. His small, fledgling company was trying to make a name for itself—the boutique guitar industry had not yet taken off—and he decided that working with The Tree would be too risky. “At that time, mahogany was regarded as suspect, and rosewood was the choice tonewood for an expensive guitar,” Hoover says. “It didn’t make any sense to confuse the market or challenge our credibility as guitar makers.”
Berry was more the typical customer for the wood. He bought about 250 board feet of The Tree from Handlogger’s and used it to make high-end furniture. Because of the intensity of the figuring, he found it well suited to Japanese-style cabinets, with their elegant simplicity. Other craftsmen used their portions for applications like conference tables and wall paneling, where it lent a stately appearance. Widespread interest in The Tree ensued when Berry wrote an article about it for the September/October 1985 issue of Fine Woodworking magazine, and as supplies dwindled, the prices of the wood edged up. “People started telling me I could make a lot of money partnering up with a mill to make guitar woods from my stash,” he says.
Back in 1985, Berry had more than financial motivations in mind when he took a stash of The Tree to Luthier’s Mercantile; he wanted to see The Tree turned into playable art. The company processed enough of his wood for 50 guitar sets, but at the time it had yet to make traction with instrument makers. When Santa Cruz finally used wood from The Tree for a limited run of Vintage Artist guitars in the early Nineties, the going rate had reached that of good Brazilian rosewood, around $90 per board foot. The Tree wasn’t exactly the biggest draw of these 10 guitars, though. “We got a very good response to that series because it was such a limited edition, and because of the association with Doc Watson,” Hoover says. “But people didn’t quite know what to think about the wood.”
Around the same time, luthier Tom Ribbecke began building with wood sourced from The Tree. Beginning in the mid Eighties, he worked at Luthier’s Mercantile, where he built customized jigs and developed ways of efficiently cutting The Tree for use as tonewood. Ribbecke was on a hiatus from instrument making for much of the time he was there, recuperating from lung damage that he attributes to chemical overexposure through art projects and instrument making. Even so, he couldn’t help but wonder how he might someday put The Tree to use in a musical instrument. “When I first saw the wood, I was overwhelmed by its spectacular beauty,” he says. “But I was faced with an obvious question: How would a builder make it sound good?”
Once his health improved and he resumed building instruments, Ribbecke received a commission for a steel-string guitar with back and sides from The Tree. After closely studying the wood’s properties and behaviors, he engineered an internal bracing system to best suit its stiffness-to-weight ratio. “To make this particular mahogany move like a speaker cone, I developed an energy-efficient spider bracing based on the Fibonacci series,” he explains.
To Ribbecke’s ear, this wooden speaker cone had a splendid tone, resembling a cross between koa and rosewood, and it displayed an impressive amount of headroom. “The sound of The Tree is warm and beautiful, so woody,” he says. “[Guitarist and composer] Muriel Anderson once told me that archtops have no bass, but I’ve found carved-top guitars made from The Tree to have a bass response that is almost overwhelming.”
Ribbecke has now exploited the sonic and cosmetic beauty of The Tree in more than a dozen different guitars. The most recent is a matched trio of instruments—an archtop, a steel-string, and a bass—each featuring a one-piece back made from the tonewood. Having gotten to know the wood so intimately in the process, he speaks of it in the most reverential tones. “To me, this material is a gem of the earth, representing a sacred trust,” he says. “I’ve tried to bring it to the highest possible place in my work, to tell stories with this wood that has such a compelling history.”
Another artist celebrated for his masterly use of The Tree is Harvey Leach, the luthier also known for his inlay work and for the Voyage-Air folding travel guitar. Leach first learned of the wood through Ribbecke’s early work with it. “As with everyone who sees it, I was immediately stunned by its beauty,” Leach says. “But it took me a while to come around to building with The Tree. I’ve never been the biggest fan of mahogany, in general, and I initially refused to believe the hype.”
Leach first worked with The Tree in 1999 when a client brought him a coffee table made from the wood, which he wanted repurposed into an OM-sized guitar. The luthier initially balked, but when he was offered the remainder of the table as part of the deal, he couldn’t turn down the commission, as the wood’s value had then climbed to more than $500 per guitar set. When he strung up the completed instrument, Leach was dazzled. “The wood sounded magical,” he recalls, “in fact nothing like mahogany but more like the best rosewood, with this astonishing clarity and bass response.
“Last summer, I built two OMs at the same time,” he continues, “one with Tree mahogany and the other Brazilian rosewood. In the end, they actually sounded quite similar. But the guitar built from The Tree somehow sounded a little more like it was built from Brazilian rosewood than the one that actually was!”
Leach has now made 16 guitars from The Tree, and his experience in doing so speaks to the perils of working with a limited resource that can be difficult to control. “Because it’s so figured and has all this short grain, it’s really challenging to bend,” he explains. “It doesn’t bend perfectly—more like the sides of an accordion than smoothly curved. So I’ve learned to use a veneer softener for the sides when working with The Tree, leaving just enough time to bend the sides before they dry again and crack.”
Typical of those who come in close contact with The Tree, Leach developed a kind of fever for it and has stashed away a handful of guitar sets. His client Jay Howlett, a singer-songwriter living in Pacifica, California, and another fixture on The Tree scene, suffers from a similar affliction. “When I first came across The Tree at a guitar show in 1992, I was struck by its deep, tortoiseshell-like figure,” Howlett says. “I’d been a furniture craftsman for 25 years and had seen my share of spectacular wood, but I knew this was very special. I had no idea just how different it would sound from the mahogany on my old Martin D-18. It turned out that The Tree was more than just a pretty figure; it was a unique tonewood in itself.”
The weekend after the show, Howlett drove two hours to procure his own set from The Tree. He convinced a then-new company, Breedlove, to fashion the wood into a guitar, and this eventually fueled an obsession with collecting materials created from The Tree. “I started buying every set I could find around 2003, then began to hunt down boards and even conference tables made from The Tree,” Howlett says. Lately, he’s been finding boards from woodworkers who have sat on it for 20 or 30 years and are disinclined to use the material on account of its value.
For Howlett, buying boards of The Tree and furniture made from it has sometimes been a dicey proposition, in large part due to the nature of wood with such a long and twisted history. “I can say with certainty that there’s a surprise inside every board,” he says. “This was an old tree, maybe 350 years old. It sat on the jungle floor for 16 years, and its boards have been stored in shops, garages, and barns for 30-some years.”
The surprise in one giant board came courtesy of beetles that had stealthily infested it, resulting in the loss of 18 potential guitar sets. On other occasions, artifacts from furniture making have caused similar problems. Howlett once bought a table and left it untouched for four years. “When I finally began to plan the billeting,” he says, “problems I had not initially thought about came up. For example, there were 16 irregularly spaced screw holes extending halfway through the board, where the base had been attached. For some reason, people don’t like holes in their guitars, so this unfortunately reduced the usable area of the board.”
Howlett estimates that his work has resulted in about 100 guitar sets of The Tree, not including the holdings in his personal stash of an undisclosed volume. He has provided the wood for companies like Breedlove and Santa Cruz and luthiers like Leach, Jim Olson, and Michael Greenfield, among others, and he plans to make a documentary on The Tree. In the process, he’s helped bring attention to The Tree within the guitar community, while scoring a representation of these examples for himself.
Howlett’s guitars include the Harvey Leach–built 2-Trees, which has a one-piece back of The Tree’s sausage-curl variety, reclaimed from a former conference table, and a redwood top made from the famous Lucky Strike redwood tree, downed in a remote Northern California old growth forest by a thunderstorm in the latter half of the last century. “It’s a phenomenal piece of craft and a sonic wonder, as is the all-Tree Santa Cruz 00 that Richard Hoover at Santa Cruz built for me,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate in finding this stuff. My guitars far exceed my skill level.”
As Leach, Santa Cruz, and other makers slowly work through the remaining boards of The Tree and repurpose furniture made from it, one wonders if a similar specimen of tree might exist. If it does, though, it hasn’t been discovered in all this time. “Many years ago, Robert Novak offered a bounty of $1,000 to anyone who could find an example similar to The Tree,” Mark Berry says. “But to this day, no one has found mahogany that comes close to matching its splendor.”
This is a story from the July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. To purchase this issue, which includes features on Mike Campbell, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.