Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars recently released a YouTube video chronicling his involvement with ebony and the West African country of Cameroon. Taylor Guitars is one of the largest importers of ebony in the world because the company makes not only its own guitars with it, but supplies other guitar and violin makers as well. In fact, to efficiently and legally harvest ebony from Cameroon, Taylor partnered with another company to co-purchase a Cameroonian ebony mill. It was here that Bob discovered the way to fuse good business with responsible forestry.
First, a little background into how big timber works. Historically, companies would seek out a country with vast resources of ebony, and then move in and log until it was gone. Then these companies moved on to another country and logged its forests until that ebony disappeared. This had been the pattern for over 200 years in places like India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Congo, and Gabon. The ebony in these regions is now either non-existent or so scarce that it is illegal to log and export. For all intents and purposes, it’s gone.
This policy of total eradication doesn’t fuel the local economies, either. The cut trees are exported to rich countries that process the wood to make expensive objects—like high-end furniture and guitars. The value of these resources is realized only after they leave their country of origin. Besides underpaid societies, left behind are vast tracts of decimated rainforests, replaced by palm trees (for their oil, another global commodity) and cities. This, Bob Taylor recounts, is what you see from the air when flying over them. As far as the eye can see.
Take the case of Madagascar. It was the last great place to get ebony. Its species of ebony were particularly desirable: jet black, hard, perfectly smooth. But now the only big trees exist in national parks. And even these are being poached to the tune of 200 logs per day, destroying national refuges and protected areas. This all happens right under the eyes of governments and watchful environmental groups. Taylor doesn’t buy Madagascarian ebony because it can’t be legally sold or exported.
Then there is Cameroon. It’s the one place left in the world where ebony is still plentiful. Taylor Guitars never used Madagascarian ebony, but it has been building guitars with Cameroonian ebony for 25 years. So when Bob visited the operation during the due diligence stage prior to forming the new company, he talked to the workers. When he asked how things were going, the workers said not so good. Bob inquired further to find that they now have to hike as far as five miles into forests they could once log from the road. After searching, cutting, chopping, and hauling, the effort barely recovers the costs.
Well, why, in a forest of ebony trees, is it necessary to journey so far in? asked Bob. Because the ebony has to be A grade, was the response. It is the A grade that people want. You can’t log B grade wood; it’s one-fifth the value, and the factories won’t accept it. Bob asked what the problems with the B grade were. It turns out that there’s nothing structurally different about the wood. It’s all about color. B grade ebony is every bit as hard and smooth as A grade, it just has occasional gray spots and streaks of vanilla running through it. In other words, the difference is purely cosmetic.
But that’s not the worst of it. It turns out the only way you can differentiate A grade from B grade is to cut down the tree first and examine the stump. If the tree is B grade, it can’t be used, and so the effort is wasted, the felled tree just lies there on the forest floor to rot, and the logger moves on. Bob asked the next obvious question: How many trees do you have to cut down to yield an A-grade log? The loggers responded that a single load is about six tons, or two trees of A grade. In order to get those two trees, they must cut down an average of 20 trees.
Twenty trees to produce two. Only one felled tree in ten can be used, and all because guitarists want perfectly black fingerboards. Since he was the owner of this new company, Bob was now responsible for this business model. It was his customers that were fueling this wasteful and destructive practice. So Bob made a decision.
The good news, as Bob says in the video, is that there is now ten times the ebony in the world we thought there was. The other news is that now guitarists will start to see fingerboards with a little variety in them—different colors and figurations, all from the natural ebony that grows in abundance and is sustainable. By using what nature provides, Bob points out, we are living within our resources and practicing responsible forestry. It is, after all, still ebony—as hard and with the same resonance and properties as the black stuff. As Bob says, “That’s the truth of the forest.”
I’m hoping that we see the day when an all-black fingerboard will be, like a full-length fur coat, recognized for what it is—a relic from another time. But for new guitars, ones that musicians purchase today and from now on, ones that we play daily, on stage, on the road, and in recording studios, let’s all start showing a little color in our fingerboards, shall we?