Mahogany’s Sprawling Family Tree

Scroll Down

Scott Paul unpacks the confusing array of naming conventions associated with mahogany.

Mahogany is often called the “King of Woods.” Used by native peoples across Central and South America for time immemorial, the tree was noticed by Europeans during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and introduced into international trade as early as the 17th century. Steady imports into Europe, North America and, eventually, the rest of the world continue to this day. Mahogany was introduced on steel-string guitar necks in the early 1900s when American luthiers noticed it being brought into New York to make wooden molds for iron foundry castings, and for furniture. Locally abundant, it made sense for companies like C.F. Martin to use it as a substitute for Spanish cedar, given its similar characteristics. A century later, mahogany remains the most utilized wood for guitar necks, and today it is common to see it also used for guitar backs, sides and soundboards too.

Squaring mahogany logs for export in British Honduras (later renamed Belize) in the 1930s. Source: Handbook of British Honduras by Monrad Metzgen and Henry Cain.

A Rose by Any Other Name

As many guitar enthusiasts might have noticed, the word “mahogany” is often preceded by a descriptor, such as Big-leaf, Honduran, tropical, neo-tropical, genuine, Fijian, Indian, African or Philippine. It can get confusing, especially considering that some of these examples are referring to species that are taxonomically unrelated, meaning they are not even from the same genus. In short, it’s not the same tree. Yet they are all called the same. Why? Simply because since it was first introduced into international markets, mahogany has remained so popular that almost any lumber that looked like it, and that had similar physical properties, was marketed as it.

I’ve bought bottles of sparkling wine marketed to me as “champagne” that were not technically champagne because the grapes were not produced in the Champagne wine region of France under the “rules of the appellation.” I was blissfully ignorant. But at the risk of insulting an entire nation, I was fine with it — I ushered in the new year; it did the job. And historically, that’s the way it’s been with wood. Remember, humanity didn’t really start examining broader ecosystems or conducting species-level analyses, especially in the tropics, until after World War II. So, until relatively recently, when it came to wood, especially from the tropics, almost everyone has been blissfully ignorant, and, until recently, few cared.

But this is all changing. It has to change because we can’t unknow what we now know. Science is naming, describing and classifying living organisms at an astounding rate, unlocking behavioral, genetic and biochemical variations explaining how life on Earth works. It’s important stuff, especially in a time when eight billion people are devouring the planet’s natural resources at an ever-increasing rate.

If you believe in concepts like “sustainable development,” then you would have to agree that it’s important to understand what species of tree we’re cutting, trading and, yes, building guitar parts out of. We need to develop a more sophisticated understanding than we needed to not that long ago, not only because it’s morally correct (and ultimately our survival may depend upon it), but because, increasingly, it’s also the law. For example, as readers of Wood&Steel might know, more and more commercially traded timber species are being listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). So, as a guitar builder, it’s important to document exactly what species, what genus, of wood we’re bringing into the country because, increasingly, different levels of compliance and documentation are required.

In the words of Bob Taylor: “The easiest day to buy wood to build guitars is today, because tomorrow is going to be harder.” Bob’s right, of course, but I would just add “…harder, but not unmanageable.” As a company, Taylor Guitars is now organizing, digitizing, tracking and monitoring our wood use like never before. And, as a result, we’ve decided moving forward to just say “mahogany” when describing our finished guitars, and to drop any additional descriptor.

I understand that this might seem counterintuitive. Don’t we need more specificity, not less? Let me explain our thinking.

What’s the difference between a species and a genus?

Read More

How We Got Here

During the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the first species of mahogany noticed by Europeans (Swietenia mahagoni) is what we commonly call Cuban mahogany today. It was perhaps first observed in Cuba. As the tree is native to the broader Caribbean bioregion, it is also sometimes called West Indian mahogany, hence that name. In the years that followed, a second species, what we today call Big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), was noticed by Europeans on the mainland in Honduras. So, that’s why people sometimes call it Honduran mahogany, despite the fact that the species is native north of Honduras into Mexico and south of Honduras all the way into the Amazon basin. Its native range is considerable. The point is that just because someone told you your guitar is made of Honduran mahogany doesn’t mean the wood is actually from Honduras.

The historical range of Big-leaf mahogany

Incidentally, a third species of mahogany (Swietenia humilis) can be found on the Pacific Coast of Central America, but it’s a small tree and has limited commercial utility. Cuban and Big-leaf, however, do, and their eventual reputation as the King of Woods did not emerge from a marketing campaign. It was built over time based on their fantastic stability and woodworking characteristics. Characteristics deemed so valuable, in fact, that over decades and centuries, they were introduced as a plantation species across the world. Swietenia (Cuban, but mostly Big-leaf) can now be found in far-flung places such as Australia, Fiji, Guam, Hawaii, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Sri Lanka. Attempts to plant it in tropical Africa proved less successful, due in part to its inability to defend itself against certain insects that like to deposit their eggs on new leaves, ultimately resulting in mortality.

Bob Taylor in front of a mahogany tree that was planted by the British in Fiji.

But wait, if Swietenia didn’t fare well in West Africa, why do I see guitars made with African mahogany? The short answer is that several different West African tree species, genetically unrelated, each a different species and a different genus, were similar enough that they were simply called mahogany. Khaya (Khaya ivorensis), sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum) and sipo (Entandrophragma utile) are examples of tonewoods commonly marketed as “African mahogany” although none are of the Swietenia genus. This, in and of itself, doesn’t mean that the wood makes a better or worse guitar part. And no, nobody tricked you, because for a long time, everyone just called these trees African mahogany. In many ways they are very similar, though accomplished luthiers have their own particular preferences for any given guitar part.

A Quick Recap to this Point

So far, we’ve established that “genuine mahogany,” meaning trees of the Swietenia genus, are native to the Americas and that Cuban and Big-leaf were so popular that their seeds were planted in many countries across the Tropics outside their natural range. Today, Taylor guitar necks are often made with genuine mahogany planted in Fiji, and for our back and sides, we typically use genuine mahogany from India planted long ago as boulevard trees. Such trees typically grow to large size and are thus big enough for a traditional two-piece guitar back. So, when you think about it, Taylor has been using urban wood far longer than our 2020 introduction of Shamel Ash or our 2022 introduction of Red Ironbark eucalyptus. We just never thought to mention it before.

A mahogany guitar body.

We’ve also established that several other tonewoods called mahogany are not “genuine mahogany” because they are of a different genus. Khaya, sapele and sipo are examples. Now, finally, to make matters more complicated, I’ll point out that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, genuine mahogany (a.k.a. Swietenia) was planted in the Philippines, but there have long been other species coming from southeast Asia, mostly of the Dipterocarp genus, that are marketed as “Philippine mahogany.”

Why does any of this matter? For a guitar player, maybe it doesn’t. The only thing that should matter is whether or not you like the guitar regardless of what collection of woods came together to build it. Pick it up and play it. Do you like it or don’t you? Don’t get hung up on what’s been marketed to you. However, for a guitar manufacturer, or for anyone who imports wood, it does matter because ethics and legality increasingly demand it.

Increased Regulation

By the late 20th century, with mahogany’s natural range across the Central and South America increasingly cleared or degraded, the aforementioned multilateral treaty to protect plants and animals from unsustainable levels of international trade, known as CITES, began to take notice. Initially, the concept of listing such a heavily traded commercially timber species was controversial. After several failed attempts, Costa Rica, then Bolivia, Brazil and Mexico unilaterally choose to list their populations of Big-leaf mahogany under the less burdensome Appendix III. To be honest, for such a listing, few, if anyone in the private sector needed to pay that much attention. But this all changed in 2002, when, after a high-profile campaign waged by Greenpeace, CITES voted to move “neotropical populations of Swietenia macrophylla” to Appendix II, requiring higher levels of transparency and documentation for governments and the private sector alike.

The story of mahogany and CITES is helpful for two reasons: It signals an early milestone for increased levels of protection for commercially traded high-value timber species; it also explains how the term “neo-tropical” entered into the lexicon of guitar makers. Neo-tropical denotes a zoogeographical region of North, Central and South America, south of the Tropic of Cancer. The neo-tropical distinction is important, as CITES intentionally decided to exclude Swietenia plantations, even if naturalized, introduced to places like Fiji, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, who by this time were major exporters of plantation-grown timber. Equally important, species that went by the common name “mahogany” but were not of the Swietenia genus, such as khaya and sapele, were all exempt.

The New Normal

Since the listing of neo-tropical populations of Big Leaf mahogany on Appendix II in 2002, several additional tree species have also been listed, including several tonewoods. In 2017, the entire Dalbergia genus (rosewood) was listed on Appendix II, and in 2022, one of the so-called African mahoganies, khaya (Khaya ivorensis), was listed. Pernambuco (Paubrasilia echinate), used to make bows for stringed instruments such as violins and cellos, was originally listed in 2007 and revised in 2022. It is not clear which commercially traded tree species will be listed next, but it is clear that more will be. Undoubtably some will be tonewood.

Taylor Guitars will stay engaged in the CITES process and will monitor changes in legislation home and abroad. The world is changing, and we have to change too. As I said earlier, we’re organizing, digitizing, tracking and monitoring like never before. And part of that process is to get a little more deliberate, a little more consistent, about what we call the woods we use. So, moving forward, if it’s genuine mahogany of the Swietenia genus, we’re just going to call it mahogany, regardless of whether it grew in its native range in the Americas or if it was long ago planted elsewhere. We’ll continue to call sapele sapele, although when we first introduced it on our 300 Series in 1998, we did for a time call it “African mahogany.” All this said, rest assured, that behind the serial number, we’re tracking everything closely.


Eco Trip

Scroll Down

Scott Paul traces the history of musicians and environmental advocacy and talks with Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies about the band’s involvement in environmental causes.

In June, the band Barenaked Ladies came through San Diego on their “Last Summer on Earth” tour, and I was interested in going to the show. As luck would have it, I learned that REVERB, a nonprofit that partners with musicians, festivals and venues to green events and engages with fans, had reached out to Tim Godwin, who heads up Taylor’s Artist Relations team, for a guitar donation. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, for the past few BNL tours, Taylor has donated a GS Mini that would be signed by the band and raffled off to support REVERB’s efforts.

I’ve known about REVERB for a long time, but I had never had an opportunity to interact with them. Influenced in part by Bonnie Raitt’s nonprofit Green Highway, REVERB started in 2004 when environmentalist Lauren Sullivan and her husband, Adam Gardner of the band Guster, founded it to address the environmental impact of touring bands. Guster, BNL and Dave Matthews Band were early adopters. (You can read more about how they got started here).

While I was meeting with Tim Godwin one day, he suggested that I interview Ed Robertson, BNL’s lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, to talk about “sustainability stuff.” I had never met Ed before, but he’s a longtime Taylor player and an old friend of Taylor Guitars, and I knew the band’s reputation for being environmentally mindful. Tim reached out to Ed, and before I knew it, everything had been agreed to. As the concert date got closer, however, I started to get a little nervous. I am very comfortable being interviewed, but I had never had the responsibility to be the interviewer. So, I started researching a little more about Ed, the band and, ultimately, the history of how musicians have used their art and platform to advocate for environmental issues.

Even Before the Summer of Love

Not surprisingly, the nexus of music and environmental advocacy started coalescing in the 1960s. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which documented the environmental harm caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. This book is widely cited as being a catalyst for the modern environmental movement. Pete Seeger’s 1966 God Bless the Grass is often cited as being the first environmentalist album. Proceeds from the song “My Dirty Stream” supported environmental protection efforts for the Hudson River. Unsurprisingly, there are so many examples during this period, as it was a time of considerable social upheaval, the emergence of counterculture, and a turning point in popular music itself reflected in folk-infused rock, the British Invasion and Motown. In 1970, the Amchitka concert, featuring Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs, took place in Vancouver. This event is cited as being the first environmental benefit concert, raising almost $20,000 for what would become Greenpeace’s first direct-action protest.

Pete Seeger’s 1966 God Bless the Grass is often cited as being the first environmentalist album.

I Want My MTV

All this got me thinking about the music I listened to as a kid, and the times that an artist’s messages connected with me. Undoubtedly exposing my age and upbringing, I thought of Midnight Oil’s 1987 hit song “Beds Are Burning,” about Aboriginal land rights, which became an anthem for environmental activists such as myself. Midnight Oil once played a concert in the middle of a clearcut on Vancouver Island, and the band’s frontman, Peter Garrett, went on to become the President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, a board member of Greenpeace and Minister of the Environment and Arts.


Upon further reflection, another example that came to mind is the legendary Mexican band Maná. I had not been exposed to their music prior to their 1997 release Suenos Liquidos. At this time, I was working at Greenpeace in Washington, DC, when a band representative reached out asking for our presence at concert venues for their upcoming U.S. tour. The band had recently created the Selva Negra Ecological Foundation, which is still going strong today, dedicated to preserving the environment and community development in Mexico. At a few concert stops, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Fher, their lead singer, and I’ll never forget how passionate he was about the environment. I watched him on stage with the crowd in the palm of his hand as he talked about it. It was from the heart. It was inspiring. I’m a big fan of Fher and the band’s music to this day.

A Newer Wave

There are so many examples of musicians such as Jack Johnson, Ben Harper and Jewel (to mention a few Taylor players) who do great work on the issues they believe in. The deeper I looked into music and environmental advocacy, the more interesting things I found, across the spectrum of genres. The lyrics of artists like rapper Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez and hip-hop artist Childish Gambino frequently cite the perils of climate change. Billie Eilish’s “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” and Lana Del Rey’s “The Greatest” speak to the climate-fueled wildfires that are burning California. Paul McCartney’s “Despite Repeated Warnings” from the album Egypt Station and Neil Young’s “Green is Blue” on Colorado are recent examples of these artists’ frustration with inaction. Will.I.Am, Miley Cyrus, Imagine Dragons, Lonnie Rashid Lynn (a.k.a. Common), Weyes Blood and The Weather Station have all explored the topic in their music.

A Different Kind of Ecotourism

Recently, I crossed paths with Ian Tellam, a Londoner turned Amsterdam local. Once a nomadic musician jamming his way across Europe, Ian hit the pause button to overeducate himself with environmental science degrees. Now, he’s mixed his passions to focus on sustainability in the music industry with his company ECOTUNES. Ian and I had talked in the past, and we reconnected, ruminating on the music industry’s impact on the environment. Ian exposed me to some really cool stuff happening in Europe with bands like Coldplay and Massive Attack baselining, tracking and reducing the carbon footprint of their tours in partnership with, for example, researchers from Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. In turn, I told Ian about REVERB’s Music Climate Revolution campaign, which has raised over $5 million for climate projects that measurably reduce greenhouse gas pollution; and REVERB’s more recent Music Decarbonization Project, which helped replace diesel-powered generators with solar-powered intelligent battery systems at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion Festival.

Fusion Goes Sustainable

More recently, I’ve noticed the emergence of a more avant-garde fusion of music, art and environmental advocacy. For example, San Francisco’s Climate Music Project connects people to climate science and action through the emotional power of music and blends art and science into a science-guided music and visual experience that educates and motivates. And, of course, if you’re talking about merging art and science through music, look no further than conceptual artist and musician Beatie Wolfe’s beautifully disturbing “From Green To Red” environmental protest piece, which uses 800,000 years of climate data to visualize rising CO2 levels. Beatie’s work was featured internationally at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the Nobel Prize Summit and South by Southwest.

Starting a Conversation

All of this brings me back to Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies. He was kind enough to sit down with me before their show in San Diego for a conversation about his involvement with environmental issues, which we captured on video. As I watched the rough cut later with Tim Godwin, we hatched the idea of creating a series of conversations with other artists who are passionate about any number of environmental or social causes.

Though the prospect once again seemed a little daunting, I realized that, as Liam Neeson might say, I have a particular set of skills… that could lend themselves to these conversations. Prior to coming to Taylor, the majority of my career was spent as an activist and forest policy specialist, including 14 years at Greenpeace. I’m the first person in over a century to be convicted of Sailormongering, part of a campaign that ultimately saw Bigleaf mahogany uplisted on CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Seriously, google it. I’ve worked as a Park Ranger in Costa Rica and as an intern at The White House Office on Environmental Policy. I’ve spoken before the United Nations and served as an NGO advisor on U.S. delegations to U.N. conferences. So, why not me? I talk to people all the time about “sustainability stuff.”

So, I hope you enjoy my chat with Ed. I look forward to doing more of this with other artists in the future and sharing these conversations with you. If you follow artists who are doing interesting environmental work, we’d love to hear about it.

Header image of staff from Taylor Guitars and the Crelicam mill in Cameroon standing around a sign for the Ebony Project in French


Back to Cameroon: An Ebony Project Update

Scroll Down

Four years after their last trip to Cameroon, Scott Paul and Bob Taylor returned and saw firsthand the promising growth of the Ebony Project.

It had been four years since I last visited Cameroon. As part of my responsibilities under the Taylor Guitars Ebony Project, I used to go regularly to meet with team members at The Congo Basin Institute and to visit project sites where participating villages plant ebony and fruit trees. It was also a chance to get caught up on the latest scientific research being conducted by Dr. Vincent Deblauwe and his team. As readers of Wood&Steel may recall, the Ebony Project was launched in 2016 with the objective of conducting basic ecological research and planting ebony and fruit trees. If you’re interested in the details, annual progress reports can be found at

After achieving our original goal of planting 15,000 ebony trees in 2021, the project established new goals of planting an additional 30,000 ebony and 25,000 fruit trees by the end of 2026. To date, Bob Taylor has personally paid for almost all of it. Others have contributed, and Taylor Guitars provides a lot of in-kind support.

On March 19, 2020, just as Bob and I were preparing for a spring trip to Cameroon, everyone at the factory here in El Cajon was unexpectedly told to go home. COVID-19 had come to San Diego, and trips to Cameroon — trips anywhere — were off the table. Three years later, this past February, Bob and I finally made the trip back. In the lead-up to going, however, I found it hard to wrap my head around the fact that I hadn’t visited since April 2019. The pandemic really did play with my perception of time. But now that I’m home, having visited and returned, it all makes sense. The project has grown, and seeing the change seemed to put time in context. So, I thought it was a good opportunity to provide a project update.

Joining us on the trip was Cameroonian-American singer-songwriter, guitarist and actress, Andy Allo. Andy, the daughter of a well-respected ecologist, was born and raised in Cameroon but left when she was thirteen years old. She had not returned since. As fate (and talent and hard work) would have it, Andy grew up to play guitar in Prince’s band the New Power Generation. She’s put out several solo records and is currently an actor on the T.V. show Chicago Fire, the Amazon series Upload and Star Wars: The Bad Batch on Disney+. Andy plays a Taylor, and when she wanted to learn more about what we’re doing in Cameroon, our Director of Artist Relations, Tim Godwin, and I drove up to L.A. to have lunch with her. By the time the check arrived, she was fully committed to joining us on our next trip. Yes, she’s awesome.

Fast Forward

I met Andy at the airport in Paris, where we both connected for a flight to Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, that would arrive that evening. Bob had traveled a few days earlier to spend some time at the Crelicam mill. He and the mill’s director, Matthew LeBreton, met us coming out of baggage claim. It was midnight by the time Andy and I stepped into the humid tropical air. Andy, having grown up in Cameroon, acclimated with ease, but I was born and raised in Massachusetts, and my body will never get used to it. I began to sweat. I was back in Cameroon. 

In 2022 alone, 6,372 ebony trees were planted across all project sites, bringing our total to 27,810.

A few days later Bob, Andy and I joined Dr. Vincent Deblauwe and his team for the long drive to Somalomo, where the Congo Basin Institute has a research station just steps from the Dja River, the other side of which was the Dja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site established in 1987. There are now six villages along the road that leads to Somalomo that participate in the Ebony Project. There were only three the last time I visited. Additionally, there are now also another two on the far side of the Dja Reserve, bringing our total to nine (including Ekombite, a village closer to Yaoundé). I would visit these two new villages on a separate trip a week later, but for now, I was focused on where I was, a place I had been several times before. Quite frankly, I was shocked by how much the project had grown.

In 2022 alone, 6,372 ebony trees were planted across all project sites, bringing our total to 27,810. The project also planted 5,402 fruit trees last year. On this day, village nurseries were flush with young ebony and fruit trees ready to be planted in a few months when the rains came. Villagers expertly demonstrated their fruit tree grafting skills, a horticultural technique practiced for centuries to propagate plants but introduced to the project villages only a few years ago. Several of the fruit trees planted at the beginning of the project were now bearing fruit and feeding people. The promise of hundreds more was on the horizon, perhaps only a few years away. Several of the ebony trees that I saw planted years ago were now as tall as I was, some taller. We hear repeatedly from every project participant that the planting of ebony helps clarify local land tenure.

While land ownership in Cameroon is complex, there may be grounds for program participants to have their individual ownership of the trees they plant recognized by the national government. This year, the Ebony Project fully implemented sylvicultural booklets across all of the project sites to help document who planted what, where and when. While these booklets themselves do not provide land tenure, they do contribute evidence for both local/customary ownership and formal recognition.

A Moment of Reflection

Taken in its entirety, our visit to these six villages was extremely rewarding. Four years had indeed passed. It was clear to me. But for me personally, it was most rewarding to see Bob’s reaction. Bob has been to Cameroon countless times over the past 11 years and spent hundreds of hours at the Crelicam mill in Yaoundé. But this was his first opportunity to visit the Ebony Project field sites, and what was once theoretical was now unfolding right in front of us. He had paid the lion’s share to make it happen, and you would have to be made of stone to not be moved by what we were seeing.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

A few days later, we were all back in Yaoundé. Time for showers and laundry. Bob prepared to return to San Diego. Andy had a few more days that she would spend visiting childhood places and friends, and connecting with the local music and arts scene. Meanwhile, I prepared for a trip to the new project area in and around Zoebefam, southeast of the Dja Reserve. The project wasn’t active in this area the last time I was here, but one village was already in its third year of planting; another was on its second.

Several of the ebony trees that I saw planted years ago were now as tall as I was, some taller.

On this trip, I was joined by Virginia Zaunbrecher from UCLA. Since the Ebony Project’s inception, Virginia and I speak regularly. She and I are the major points of communication between Taylor Guitars and UCLA, who oversees the Congo Basin Institute. Vincent, of course, came along. And so did his three project managers: Jean Michel Takuo, Zach Emanda and Josiane Kwimi, three Cameroonians who each have a degree in agroforestry. They, too, were new to the project since my last visit, but they each now seemed like old hands, and I was looking forward to spending time with them in what promised to be a quieter, more intimate setting than the trip a few days earlier.

Upon arrival to the new project area, I was struck by how different it was. And how much it was the same. It’s hard to explain. The region felt more forested. Fewer people from the outside visit here. Fewer international projects have worked here. But in many ways, it reminded me of being in the Somalomo region five years earlier when the project was first being introduced. It was inspiring, yet felt tenuous. I could only hope that in five years, the project would take root and grow in a similar fashion to the villages around Somalomo. But I knew that each region, each village, presents unique challenges. Some villages are Bantu, and some are Baka. This brings politics that I myself am just beginning to understand but that, thankfully, are understood by the project team. Some villages have active participation from multiple members of the community; others have a small handful of champions doing the work. Each village has varying degrees of challenges with food insecurity, access to fresh water, healthcare and education.

We slept in tents and cooked over the fire. At night and in the car rides to and from the villages, the team and I talked about the Ebony Project — what was working, what was needed, and the pending challenges of expanding to new villages. After several years of negotiations and waiting (and more negotiations and waiting), the first allotment of a $1 million, 5-year project grant from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) would soon be released, and with it the Ebony Project will expand to three more villages. But which villages? And where? Should we expand along the road near Somalomo on the northwest side of the Dja Reserve, or were there opportunities to consolidate our foothold and grow on the southeast side near Zoebefam? Should we attempt to open a new project cluster on the eastern edge of the Dja Reserve near Lomié? There were pros and cons for each option with financial, logistical and staff capacity considerations. There was a lot to learn. A lot to think about. I was grateful to have such a talented team at the Congo Basin Institute to work with.

When I returned to Yaoundé a few days later, Bob and Andy had left. The house was empty. Vincent, Matthew, Virginia, Jean Michel and I met with representatives of the Cameroonian Government, the GEF and the World Wildlife Fund about the soon-to-be-released funds and our plans to expand the project. Over the next few months, the team will have to figure it out. But I am confident.

The project’s slow, methodical growth has been our secret sauce, a reflection of the flexible and adaptive philosophy of Bob Taylor.

The project’s slow, methodical growth has been our secret sauce, a reflection of the flexible and adaptive philosophy of our primary funder, Bob Taylor, who brought a business-centric start-up mentality that has been critical to our success. It was the same approach he and Kurt Listug used to build Taylor Guitars. Simply put, when something was not working, it was discussed and revised. When something was overly complicated, it was simplified. Despite the considerable strings attached to receiving funds from a large multilateral institution like the GEF, I am confident. Learning this new bureaucratic dance will make us stronger and hopefully prepare us to expand again more dramatically years from now. But for now, our goal is to plant an additional 30,000 ebony and 25,000 fruit trees by the end of 2026, and to expand to three more villages. Vincent will soon release a new peer-reviewed original scientific research paper that I hope to talk about in the months to come. And I have a feeling that we have not seen the last of Andy Allo in connection with the Ebony Project.

In 2021, I wrote an article in Wood&Steel titled “The Ebony Project: Growing Into Phase 2.” In it, I dreamed of a day when the Ebony Project would expand beyond the Dja Reserve, across all of southern Cameroon, and one day, further still into a region referred to as the Tridom, a vast area that includes portions of southern Cameroon, Gabon and a bit of the Central African Republic. I still have this dream, albeit with a slightly more realistic understanding of what it would take. But it can be done. The plan is working. The team is small but excellent. And that, I still hope, will be the subject of a future edition of Wood&Steel.


Conventional Wisdom

Scroll Down

After attending the recent international conference for the CITES convention in Panama, Scott Paul reports on how the growing focus on tree species could impact the future of musical instruments.

In mid-November of 2022, Bob Taylor and I traveled to Panama City, Panama, to attend the 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the CITES Convention, held November 14-25. I’ve previously written about CITES, which is short for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The conference, an event that has taken place roughly every three years since 1976, was established to help ensure that plant and animal species are not adversely impacted by international trade. Taylor Guitars has been attending CITES meetings regularly since 2016, roughly coinciding with its enhanced focus on tree species.

With few exceptions, the musical instrument industry sources a tiny fraction of the total volume of internationally traded wood species, but new policies and restrictions agreed to at CITES impact all users, from large to small. Further, it turns out that no finished wooden product crosses international borders more frequently than musical instruments, so it’s fair to say that decisions made at CITES can impact instrument makers and traveling musicians as intensively as anyone. It’s getting serious enough that Bob Taylor wanted to join me in Panama. He wanted to experience firsthand how this once-obscure convention can have such a profound impact on our industry. (I wrote about this in the fall 2019 / Vol. 95 issue of Wood&Steel.)

Many observers point out that CITES seems to be increasingly less about trade and more about conservation. It’s hard for me to judge, but in my mind, this seems to be the case. But times change. The planet is losing intact forests, climate change is real, and it went largely unnoticed that on the second day of the conference, the human population hit 8 billion while the size of our planet didn’t seem to get any bigger. It’s a much different world than it was in 1976, and governments are using the tools available to them to address a global environmental crisis.

The venue in Panama City was packed with representatives from 184 countries who wrestled with hundreds of issues ranging from parliamentary procedure, such as the adherence and refinement of the rules, ethics and customs that govern the convention itself, to the monitoring and control of an ever-expanding list of animal and plant species added to the Convention. There was even discussion as to whether CITES should expand its mandate beyond a species-level approach and consider the impact that international trade has on the broader ecosystem (i.e., forests). Also in attendance were delegates from various United Nations bodies and their specialized agencies; intergovernmental organizations; non-governmental organizations; and the private sector. In the back corner of the room was a placard that read Taylor Guitars.

In Panama, a record number of commercially traded tree species were added to the convention, meaning that some degree of increased documentation and monitoring will be required to trade in the species. Trumpet trees (Handroanthus, Roseodendron and Tabebuia), pod mahoganies (Afzelia), Cumaru (Dipteryx), padauk (Pterocarpus) and African mahogany (Khaya spp.) were all listed on Appendix II and assigned Annotation #17. Taylor Guitars doesn’t use any of these species, although a few guitar manufacturers do use Khaya. Under Annotation #17, Khaya importers will now have to be in compliance with CITES paperwork requirements, but a guitar made with Kyaha will not need documentation to cross international borders.

The planet is losing intact forests, climate change is real, and it went largely unnoticed that on the second day of the conference, the human population hit 8 billion.

As a policy position, Taylor Guitars fully supports the listing of these species. If CITES believes that the international trade of any species merits increased monitoring to ensure its survival, then we’re happy to adhere to whatever procedures and paperwork are required to legally (and ethically) import the wood we use to make guitars. We also understand that at some point, some species may be removed from international trade altogether. We accept this. But we also believe that the Convention is sailing into uncharted waters as it looks more seriously at the trade in forest products, as they now must do.

Representatives of the music industry need to be in attendance to help decision-makers understand the implications of the decisions they make, as for most of its almost 50-year history, CITES has focused largely on animals. Until recently, plant discussions have largely been an “off-Broadway” affair. But all this is changing, and changing rapidly. As one delegate said a few years back, “Rosewood is the new elephant.” And it’s clear that more tree species will be listed three years from now at CoP20, and more three years after that at CoP21. It only stands to reason that some will be species used to make musical instruments. We’re preparing for a rapidly changing world, and attending meetings like this will help separate fact from opinion. In the words of Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

As one delegate said a few years back, “Rosewood is the new elephant.”

Spotlight on Pernambuco

By far the big issue impacting musical instruments at CoP19 was Pernambuco (Paubrasilia echinata), long renowned as the perfect wood for making bows for stringed instruments. It’s not a wood traditionally used to build guitars. The tree is endemic to the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, an eco-region that runs along the Southeastern coastline of South America, also home to Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) — the only tree species currently listed on CITES Appendix I, which allows trade only in exceptional circumstances. The proposal heading into the CoP was to also list Pernambuco on Appendix I.

A History of Colonizing and Cutting Forests

The Portuguese first landed off the coast of Brazil in 1500, when a fleet commanded by Pedro Álveres Cabral dropped anchor at what is today Porto Seguro. At this time, the Atlantic Forest was thought to stretch some 390,000 to 580,000 square miles (1,000,000 to 1,500,000 km2) and an unknown distance inland. But the coastline is where Europeans settled first, and a few centuries of logging and land conversion to agriculture, ranching and settlement can take its toll on even the mightiest of forests. Today, it is estimated that only 7 percent of the original forest is left. This, of course, is not unique to Brazil. It’s the story of Western civilization — colonize, subjugate, clear land, and use forest resources for shelter, food, trade and defense. Iceland was once forested with trees including sequoia, magnolia and sassafras, but they started disappearing when the Vikings moved in over 1,000 years ago. Iceland isn’t really known for its forests these days.

My point is that, historically speaking, what happened to the Atlantic Forest of Brazil is more the rule than the exception. The demise of the forest was not driven by bow makers using Pernambuco or guitar makers using rosewood, but nonetheless, for about 100 years, guitars were made with Brazilian rosewood, and for over 200 years, Pernambuco bows have been used by professional musicians and advanced players of stringed instruments. Such bows last for generations and can have multiple owners spanning several lifetimes. Performers often “trade up” as their career advances, and as a result, bows trade hands frequently. There are hundreds of thousands of bows in existence today (no one really knows how many for sure), and only a very trained eye can distinguish bows made in one period from another. And importantly, at least in a regulatory context such as CITES, controls have never been applied to finished bows. For hundreds of years, they simply existed and were passed from player to player. Documentation is rare, and provenance is often based on oral tradition, as no one thought to ask for, and few kept, official paperwork.

In England, archdeacon and geographer Richard Hakluyt, seeking a royal charter to establish British colonies in North America, justified his proposal on the vast wealth of trees to be found, arguing that colonists could immediately be put to work. At this time, the British Island, itself once heavily forested with oak and hardwoods in the south and conifers in the north, had, over the centuries, been largely converted to pastures and farms, with additional forests felled to run the iron forge, smelt copper or to make salt, to say nothing of the wood needed for ship building. The lands across the sea to the west, Hakluyt argued, already being exploited by Spain and Portugal further south, had an inexhaustible supply of trees. A few hundred years after Hakluyt’s proposal was accepted by King James I, in the late 1800s, the U.S. government was growing concerned with the loss of its eastern forests due to settlement, agricultural conversion, logging and the emergence of a pulp and paper industry.

Not That Long Ago and Not That Far Away

No one can dispute that what remains of the Atlantic Forest is among the most biologically rich and diverse forests in the world; what remains is still home to a surprisingly high number of species that can’t be found anywhere else on Earth. But the larger ecoregion that once was is today home to the vast majority of Brazil’s population, industry and economy, and the primary drivers of forest loss are linked to agriculture (primarily sugar cane and coffee), urban sprawl, cattle ranching and eucalyptus plantations.

Concern about the fate of the Atlantic Forest is not new. In 1967, the Brazilian government banned log exports of Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) but continued to allow sawn wood to leave the country. Brazilian rosewood produces a beautiful and fragrant wood that was popular in European markets by the early 1800s and used in a variety of products, principally furniture and cabinetry. In 1992, a few months before Brazil was set to host the U.N. Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, the government proposed the species for listing on Appendix I at CITES CoP8 in Kyoto, Japan, effectively removing it from international trade altogether. Up until this point, no notable commercially traded timber species had ever been listed before, let alone put on Appendix I. It was a shrewd move for the host nation on the eve of what was to be the biggest environmental conference in history.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the United Nations first acknowledged that illegal logging even existed.

The listing was a milestone in conservation history, and for CITES in particular, but the blunt truth is that for a variety of reasons, there was a period of time — months, years, up to a decade depending on who you ask — when enforcement was lax. It appears that most relevant government agencies and industries largely ignored the listing, and for a period of time, trade continued largely as before. In the immediate aftermath of the listing, this was somewhat understandable. It was a time before the Internet, and word of the listing spread unevenly. Further, several governments questioned the relevancy of CITES to address the issue all together. And nothing like this had ever happened before. Customs agents were not trained to identify specific wood species. Invoices rarely included scientific names, and no one had ever asked to see a CITES document for wood before. Right or wrong, it was a different time.

At both CoP8 (when Brazilian rosewood was listed) and three years later at CoP9, proposals for the inclusion of other commercial timber species were also made, most of which had to be withdrawn or were rejected after heated discussion. Particularly proposals concerning ramin (any number of swamp-growing hardwood trees found in Southeast Asia) and mahogany were disputed. Debate centered largely around whether CITES was an appropriate forum for addressing commercial-scale timber species, with several governments arguing the issue was better situated to be handled at a national level.

In his book The Evolution of CITES (2011), Willem Wijnstekers, who served as the CITES Secretary-General from 1999 to 2010, cites a “lack of motivation” and a “widespread lack of interest in plant conservation” at this time. This opinion lingered with many leading up to CoP12 in Santiago, Chile, when the subject began gaining momentum following a Greenpeace campaign that exposed illegalities in the mahogany trade and made claims substantiated by the Brazilian government. This is a time I remember well, as I was part of a Greenpeace team in Brazil documenting the sector. In 2002, at CoP12, CITES voted to list Bigleaf mahogany on Appendix II, marking the most dramatic timber listing since Brazilian rosewood a decade earlier.

Iceland was once forested with trees including sequoia, magnolia and sassafras, but they started disappearing when the Vikings moved in over 1,000 years ago. Iceland isn’t really known for its forests these days.

To take even a wider view, keep in mind that it’s only been in the past several decades that concerted efforts to bring greater transparency to the international forest products trade began in earnest. It wasn’t until 1997 that the United Nations first acknowledged that illegal logging even existed, and not until 2008, when the U.S. amended the Lacey Act, that importing illegally logged wood was even deemed a crime. (Similar legislation in Australia, the European Union, Japan and China soon followed.) I vividly remember attending an international conference on environmental crime in 2010 at Interpol’s World Headquarters in Lyon, France, where the central theme was “environmental crime is crime.” The slogan seems a bit sad in retrospect, but at that time, crimes involving natural resources were rarely taken seriously within the broader policy and law enforcement community.

Meanwhile, Back at CoP19 in Panama

Throughout the CoP, the conversation surrounding Pernambuco was intense. Inflaming passions, there is currently an active investigation involving Brazilian and U.S. law enforcement that may expose illegal activity in the Pernambuco trade. Of course, no one could talk about it while the enforcement action is underway. But it was in the room. You could always feel it.

In Panama, everyone seemed frustrated. Pernambuco had originally been listed on CITES Appendix II in 2007, but since then, the Atlantic Forest has continued to be degraded, just as forests around the world have. In the end, CITES agreed to keep Pernambuco on Appendix II but revised its governing annotation (Annotation #10) to require CITES permits on all Pernambuco, including finished bows, when they first leave Brazil, but then after that, finished musical instruments, parts and accessories made of Pernambuco will be exempt from CITES permit requirements.

A new set of associated action items was also agreed to for CITES Parties and Committees to discuss, monitor and, in some cases, voluntarily enact over the next three years before the next CoP, when the issue will be raised again. Recommendations include efforts to consider systems for documenting the legality of bows and Pernambuco stockpiles, certifying plantation-grown wood, and supporting capacity-building for enforcement and conservation efforts within Brazil and among Parties. This is all fair enough and supported by representatives of violin and bow makers and touring orchestras that were in attendance.

The decision was a compromise that will allow time for governments to better understand the full consequences that well-intended new CITES restrictions would bring to bear. Perhaps government negotiators recalled the repercussions of the hastily drafted rosewood annotation at CoP17 in 2016, which caused such a kerfuffle for musical instruments and CITES Management Authorities alike and needed to be amended three years later at CoP18. Perhaps some recalled their Mark Twain. I can only speculate. But it does seem clear that, politically, plant issues are now being treated with the same importance as animal issues within CITES. (Remember, “Rosewood is the new elephant,” as my colleague said.) And this is a good thing.

But in regard to day-to-day international travel and cross-border movement of CITES-listed species, a musical instrument is not an elephant. (I’ve never seen anyone carrying an elephant while waiting to get my passport stamped by a customs officer an at airport.) And the frequency of cross-border travel of musical instruments will only increase with the relative ease of travel, the portability and popularity of instruments, and when selling a guitar across the world is as easy as selling it across the street. Suffice it to say, it looks like the future of musical instruments will be forever intertwined with CITES, and it’s important that both sides better understand each other.

Scott Paul is Taylor’s Director of Natural Resource Sustainability.


Branching Out

Scroll Down

As Taylor’s urban wood initiative expands to include red ironbark, Scott Paul explains the value of our work with West Coast Arborists and how eucalyptus trees became so prolific in California.

Taylor Guitars first introduced urban wood into its product line at NAMM 2020 with the release of the Builder’s Edition 324ce, featuring Urban Ash (better known as Shamel ash, Fraxinus uhdei) back and sides. This particular species of ash, as far as we know, had never been used as a tonewood before, at least not on a dedicated model. The tree, native to Mexico and parts of Central America, had been planted prolifically across Southern California’s expanding urban infrastructure following World War II. Considered a great shade tree, it is still commonly planted today.

We source our Urban Ash from West Coast Arborists, Inc. (WCA), who, in addition to planting and caring for trees across the state, removes trees when requested to do so by the municipalities it services. WCA happens to be our local arborist here in El Cajon, where the Taylor factory is, but they also serve communities across the Golden State and even in parts of Arizona.

When we released the Builder’s Edition 324ce, the “former street tree” backstory struck a chord with many players, but, irrespective of where the wood came from, Urban Ash was critically acclaimed as a tonewood. In fact, Bob Taylor has called Urban Ash “the mahogany of Southern California,” and Andy Powers referred to it as the golden retriever of tonewoods because “whether you’re cutting it, sanding it, bending it, gluing it or staining it, it just wants to please you.” Andy likes it so much that we have since incorporated Urban Ash onto several different dedicated models. It’s a great wood and comes from a responsible source.

To coincide with our original release of the Builder’s Edition 324ce, I wrote a column, “Seeing the Urban Forest for the Trees” (W&S Vol. 96), in an attempt to describe Taylor’s interest in urban wood, the broader need to create an economy for urban wood, and ultimately the importance of maintaining and expanding urban tree cover in cities around the world. In that article, I referenced the day I took Bob, Andy and a small team from Taylor to visit a WCA wood sort yard where the arborist takes trees it has removed from greater San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

Pat Mahoney had founded WCA back in 1972, and some 45 years later, his son, “Big John” Mahoney, a larger-than-life figure who happens to be a competitive beard grower and chainsaw sculptor, convinced his dad to have the company buy a portable sawmill. Big John and another WCA employee, Jason Rose (John’s friend since first grade), pitched the company to elevate their existing wood recycling program, which had included milling reusable logs to make wood benches from recycled street trees in addition to its firewood program. The expanded efforts would further reduce disposal costs by turning former street trees, whenever possible, into usable raw lumber or live-edge slabs for sale to the public. They rebranded their endeavor Street Tree Revival and started sorting incoming wood into various categories — for firewood, as had long been done, but now for lumber and slab tables. Occasionally, as the spirit moved him, Big John set aside a particular tree to satisfy his chainsaw art passion.

By the time Bob and Andy were standing in one of WCA’s log sort yards for the first time, Street Tree Revival was separating large logs with promising wood by species and sealing their ends to prevent cracking. They had a portable Wood-Mizer and a collection of chainsaws. Bob and Andy immediately gravitated toward certain log piles and quickly identified several theoretically promising species for guitar parts.

A few days later, samples were cut and brought to Andy’s shop for further evaluation. Shamel ash, the “golden retriever,” was the first species that found its way onto a dedicated line of Taylor guitars, but now we’re pleased to introduce another. After much analysis, Andy has selected red ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon), a species of eucalyptus we’re calling Urban Ironbark, as the back and side tonewood for Taylor’s newly redesigned 500 Series.

Elsewhere in this edition, Jim Kirlin talks with Andy about the sonic virtues of Urban Ironbark and the multiple reasons, from a builder’s perspective, why Andy loves this wood. I, on the other hand, want to take the opportunity to update you on Taylor’s expanding use of urban wood, to again underscore the importance of maintaining and expanding our urban tree canopy, but primarily to talk about eucalyptus.

All About Eucalyptus

There are over 700 species of eucalyptus in the world, most native to Australia, but a few native to the neighboring islands of New Guinea and Indonesia. Today, Eucalyptus is the most widely planted tree in the world, with some 30 to 40 species being grown in a commercial forestry setting in over 100 countries. The trees are fast-growing and produce quality timber and pulp. Certain species are also used for colored dyes that chemically bond well to materials such as silk and wool. Further, the distinctive oval-shaped leaves of some species, after being dried, crushed and distilled, produce an oil used in fuels, fragrances and insect repellant.

Eucalyptus is the most widely planted tree species in the world.

Being the most widely planted tree species worldwide, however, has not come without some controversy. The 1990s, for example, saw a major escalation in the establishment of large plantations of improved varieties of eucalyptus, principally in the tropics. The controversy stemmed from large plantations needing large amounts of land, and thus large swaths of native forest and grasslands were converted, disrupting ecosystems and raising concerns about biodiversity loss. Complicating matters further, there is a long history of such projects being used as a vehicle to gain wealth and territorial influence by separating local and indigenous peoples from their traditional lands.

Taylor Guitars is sourcing its red ironbark eucalyptus from Southern California through our partners at West Coast Arborists. The tree is native to the dry desert interior of eastern Australia, and even by eucalyptus standards, it is considered particularly well adapted to stressful conditions. At maturity, the tree can range in height from 30 to 80 feet. Its distinctive bark is tough and thick and can either be gray, brown or black, one of a scant few eucalyptus species that does not shed its bark. The tree also produces flowers that can be creamy yellow, pink or red. Cumulatively, these traits have made red ironbark a favorite for developers and city planners alike.

Eucalyptus is now so prolific in California that it has become as iconic to the landscape as the palm tree, another largely non-native tree.

Eucalyptus was first introduced to California as a cash crop during the gold rush of the 1850s when the American West was projecting a timber deficiency. Farmers were encouraged to plant eucalyptus with the promise of significant profit in as little as 30 years. By the dawn of the 1900s, however, the dream of a California eucalyptus market had faded as Americans, accustomed to old-growth Douglas fir and redwood, were unimpressed with the wood derived from the relatively young Australian imports. As a result, thousands of acres went unharvested. Left abandoned, the trees thrived in coastal California with its Mediterranean climate of winter rainfall and summer drought similar to Australia. Today, there are roughly 250 different species of eucalyptus found in California, no longer planted for commercial reasons but instead as windbreaks along highways and farmland, and as shade and ornamental trees in cities and gardens. Between the naturalized remnants of earlier plantings and ongoing urban planting efforts, eucalyptus is now so prolific that it has become as iconic to the California landscape as the palm tree, another largely non-native tree.

Urban Trees and Urban Wood

Stepping back from eucalyptus specifically, looking at the urban tree canopy more broadly, its importance cannot be understated. And there’s a growing body of evidence that proves it, ranging from the amount of carbon dioxide trees absorb to their role in cooling air temperature through both shade and evaporation, thus quantifiably lowering energy use. The urban forest canopy also significantly improves water quality by mitigating rainfall runoff and flooding, and it blocks strong winds and lowers noise impact. Trees filter air pollution and provide important habitat for songbirds and other wildlife. In addition to these environmental and economic benefits, there is also mounting evidence that city trees provide a plethora of social benefits, including improved mental health and community cohesion.

We all know that we need to expand and diversify the urban canopy, but, of course, trees are living things, and all living things die. And for countless reasons, city trees are removed — damage from disease, invasive pests or storms, public safety and construction and development, to name a few. So, while expanding the urban tree canopy is imperative, more trees ultimately mean greater throughput and more trees that will reach end of life in the future. It’s simple math. As a result, increasingly, people all around the world are looking for ways to turn end-of-life urban trees into high-value products that can support the regreening of our urban infrastructure and ease the pressure on forests elsewhere.

To see another great example of a nationally branded company mainstreaming urban wood, check out Room & Board’s Urban Wood Project, which makes beautiful furniture from urban wood sourced from Baltimore, Minneapolis, Detroit and Sacramento. The company is currently exploring additional opportunities across the United States with the intent to expand its urban wood collection in the future.

Our partnership with West Coast Arborists has opened a new and promising supply of quality tonewood to build guitars into the future. And while the urban wood backstory is interesting and I would argue environmentally and socially responsible, we wouldn’t be investing in it if it didn’t make long-term sense for our business. We’re not interested in producing a one-off novelty series of “eco” guitars to greenwash our company. Wood is wood, regardless of where it comes from, and we need quality, quantity and predictability to make it work. Trust me, knowing what he knows now, Andy would want to be building guitars out of Urban Ash and Urban Ironbark regardless of its origin, as long as it’s responsibly sourced.

One final thought: It’s still more expensive to purchase urban wood from California than wood from existing, well-established supply chains, even from across the world, but WCA is building a bridge from their side, and Taylor is building from ours. And as Bob Taylor likes to say: “In 10 years we’ll be glad we did it.”

In the video segment above — part of a longer discussion about sourcing urban wood — Taylor content producer Jay Parkin talks with Taylor Director of Natural of Natural Resource Sustainability Scott Paul, chief guitar designer Andy Powers, and master arborist Mike Palat from West Coast Arborists. The four discuss what an urban forest is, the factors that make sourcing urban wood harder and more expensive than one might think, and what prompted West Coast Arborists to begin to create the infrastructure to support this new sourcing model.



Fast Times at Taylor Guitars

Scroll Down

Amid a rapidly changing landscape, it’s more important than ever to adapt and innovate.

In March, Fast Company named Taylor Guitars one of the world’s most innovative companies in the manufacturing sector. Citing our global environmental and sustainability efforts, we were honored to be included at no. 9 of the Top 10. It became official while I was attending the seventy-fourth meeting of the Standing Committee for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Lyon, France. It felt appropriate to receive the news at a CITES meeting, as in many ways the award is a reflection of the changing landscape for makers of musical instruments, the very reason I was at this meeting. Sitting behind my Taylor Guitars placard in the back of a large auditorium, I thought about that changing landscape and about how I, a former Greenpeace Forest Campaigner who was once arrested for Sailor Mongering, came to represent a guitar company at multilateral treaty negotiations aimed to ensure that international trade does not threaten plants and animals.

The last time I attended a CITES meeting was for the 2019 Conference of the Parties (CoP) meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, when an informal group of musical instrument interests successfully lobbied to amend the rosewood listing to permit finished musical instruments, parts and accessories to be exempt from requiring CITES permits. (To learn more about the history and resolution of the CITES rosewood listing, see the article “Rosewood Musical Instruments Exempted from Requiring CITES Permits” in W&S Vol. 95, Fall 2019.)

Buying wood for musical instruments in 10 years is going to be very different than it was 10 years ago.

Under normal circumstances, there would have been several in-person intersessional meetings following the Geneva CoP, but we haven’t exactly been living in normal times since the pandemic hit. In fact, this meeting in Lyon was the first time CITES has met since then, and it will be the last time before the next CoP in Panama later this year. Only a CoP can make changes to the Convention, and due in part to the lack of meaningful consultation over the past two years, it’s anyone’s guess whether significant changes to the Convention, such as listing new species, will be adopted. Regardless of what happens in Panama, new CITES tree listings are coming in the future, and it’s inevitable that some will be species that are used as tonewoods. The landscape is indeed changing.

Taylor Guitars fully supports CITES. We are not opposed to additional CITES listings or any legislation designed to protect forests and bring greater transparency to the forest products trade. Like everyone else, we simply want policy to be scientifically justified and the language shaped by consultation with issue experts and affected parties. To achieve this, the musical instrument community needs to “be in the room where it happens,” as the saying goes, because change is coming, whether our industry is paying attention or not.

From How It’s Always Been to How It Has to Be

For some 200 years, the music industry has enjoyed access to a reliable supply of largely old-growth wood, but, relative to other industries, instrument makers have consumed a very small percentage of it. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, the industry has always been too small to influence international trade patterns. Even now, I estimate that the global guitar industry uses less than one-tenth of one percent of the global trade in the species we use, with the only exceptions being koa and ebony. But for the purposes of this article, our historical consumption is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that today, the global forest estate is shrinking and becoming more fragmented, and that buying wood for musical instruments in 10 years is going to be very different than it was 10 years ago.

When it comes to sourcing tonewoods, I’ll always remember Bob Taylor saying that during the course of his career, he feels like he has stepped through the doorway from how it’s always been to how it has to be.

Consider for a moment that in the last few years, Taylor Guitars pioneered the use of variegated ebony fingerboards and has incorporated Southern California urban wood into multiple product lines. We have increased our use of both domestic and plantation-grown species. We also continue to expand our palette of species used for guitar tops, and we are preparing for a future where four-piece spruce tops are far more commonplace.

Why four-piece tops? Simply put, as currently distributed, there are not enough commercially available large-diameter spruce trees to supply two-piece guitar tops for all the guitars made in the world moving forward. Theoretically, there are, but only a fraction is suitable to build instruments, and the vast majority of what is taken is sold to other sectors for construction, fiberboard and wood fuel pellets. Of course, there are also impressive stands of spruce in protected areas (a fraction of what once existed) that will hopefully never be touched.

There are two reasons why two-piece guitar tops became traditional. First, because large-diameter spruce had always been plentiful, and second, because a two-piece top required less work to make (fewer pieces to saw and fewer joints to glue). With fewer large-diameter, high-quality logs being directed toward guitar makers, it simply means we will need to adapt and embrace the task of doing more work to fabricate a high-quality guitar top — the way piano makers do. (A piano soundboard is constructed with many planks of spruce.) 

We will be talking more about four-piece spruce tops in the future, but the point is that all of this innovation (i.e., variegated ebony fingerboards, urban wood, plantation wood, more domestic species, changes in design and build, etc.) is happening at the same point in history and for the same reason. The traditional forest resources that we have always relied upon, with little forethought, are changing, and in some circumstances, we are coming to the end of the commercially available supply, at least in the volume and grade we are long accustomed to.

The Three Horsemen of Forest Loss

For over 150 years, luthiers used small amounts of largely old-growth wood sourced from different regions of the world brought to market mostly by other larger industries who sourced wood to build ships, planes, buildings and furniture, to name but a few. For a luthier, wood from both temperate and tropical regions has always been plentiful, and particular species were selected for their acoustical considerations, physical properties and workability. But as each decade passed, as the human population grew, as technologies advanced, as global markets become more interconnected and forest cover decreased, many of the industries that drove the forest products trade changed. Some substituted one species for another or adapted to faster-growing plantation species. Some industries changed materials altogether, switching from wood to metals, concrete, plastics or composites. But for musical instrument makers, such change is not so easy. Tradition is valued, and technical specifications are rigid.

Still, everything was fine for luthiers, much like it had always been, until just a few decades back when some started seeing horsemen in the distance (metaphorically speaking). You see, when it comes to buying old-growth forest products, telltale signs of trouble are changes in price, quality and geography — what I call the three horsemen of forest loss. If you see one, things are probably OK, but if you see all three, you’ve got a problem. Of course, your ability to notice such things will differ depending on the volume and regularity of the wood you buy. For example, if you’re a luthier and produce five guitars a day, you’re far less likely to notice than if you produce 500, or even a thousand.

In an industry dependent on quality wood of exacting standards, if you start seeing the horsemen, you have two options: You can close your eyes and pray or you can innovate. If you’re a luthier, it might mean breaking from traditional approaches to building, incorporating variegated ebony, using urban and plantation wood, expanding your palette of top species, and making some four-piece tops, for example. The world is changing, and in the words of Taylor master builder Andy Powers, “You don’t know what you can make until you know what you can make it from.” I find that an interesting comment from a guy whose career will largely take place on the other side of the aforementioned doorway that Bob Taylor has stepped through during his career.

Invest in the Inevitable

Taylor Guitars has always innovated and adapted to change, and the quality of our guitars keeps getting better. And it will continue to — that much I know for sure. There is no denying that it’s getting harder to get good materials to build guitars. Moving forward, wood supply will increasingly be an important factor that will require us to further adapt. But in addition to manufacturing innovation, the industry needs to start taking the long view when it comes to forest management, looking ahead 30, 60, 100 years or more.

The world is changing, and in the words of Taylor master builder Andy Powers, “You don’t know what you can make until you know what you can make it from.”

The Ebony Project in Cameroon, our koa work in Hawaii with Pacific Rim Tonewoods (PRT), PRT’s own pioneering work with maple in the Pacific Northwest, and Taylor’s urban trees partnership with West Coast Arborists are all steps in this direction, but they need to grow into more. Other manufacturers and organizations are engaged too. In fact, next to me here at the CITES meeting are representatives from the League of American Orchestras, the International Association of Violin and Bow Makers, and the Confederation of European Music Industries.

Other well-known manufacturers have attended meetings in the past and, collectively, our industry must continue to engage in these international discussions and also find innovative ways to give back to help expand forest cover, diversify forest ecosystems, grow trees with superior genetic traits, and use our influence to drive forestry that focuses on high quality in order to rebuild the extraordinary resources that gave rise to our industry.

Scott Paul is Taylor’s Director of Natural Resource Sustainability.


Plastic Surgin’

Scroll Down

We take a deeper dive into the growing problem of global plastic pollution as we search for ways to reduce our own plastic use.

In March, Fast Company named Taylor Guitars one of the world’s most innovative companies in the manufacturing sector. Citing our global environmental and sustainability efforts, we were honored to be included at no. 9 of the Top 10. It became official while I was attending the seventy-fourth meeting of the Standing Committee for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Lyon, France. It felt appropriate to receive the news at a CITES meeting, as in many ways the award is a reflection of the changing landscape for makers of musical instruments, the very reason I was at this meeting. Sitting behind my Taylor Guitars placard in the back of a large auditorium, I thought about that changing landscape and about how I, a former Greenpeace Forest Campaigner who was once arrested for Sailor Mongering, came to represent a guitar company at multilateral treaty negotiations aimed to ensure that international trade does not threaten plants and animals.

It all started last year when Bob Thorp from our Facilities team learned that the bales of used stretch wrap we create were no longer being recycled as we had assumed, but were instead now being landfilled. I’m referring to the plastic film we use to secure pallets of stacked guitars (in their cases) being transported, or to wrap wood we move around the factory on pallets. Walk into a warehouse almost anywhere in the world and you’ll see stretch wrap securing pallets. Buy a new couch, it’s likely covered in it. Rent a moving truck, and they sell it along with boxes and moving blankets to protect your possessions.

Anyway, one day, Bob Thorp, Bob Taylor and I stood in a small corner of the Taylor campus, the final destination for our trash before it’s hauled away. We were looking at several bales of stretch wrap that we had just learned were destined to be landfilled. After a few minutes, Bob Taylor gave the word to cancel pickup and removal until we figured out a more responsible solution. We all agreed that until we did, Bob Thorp would move the bales and stack them up in the most visible place we could find: smack dab in the middle of a parking lot on campus. I loved the idea, but as the months went by and I watched the pile grow from my office window, I confess that I started to worry. You see, the more we tried to understand the problem, the more we looked for solutions, the more confusing (and depressing) the situation appeared.

The Global Plastic Problem

In the film classic The Graduate, Mr. McGuire had just one word for Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a recent college graduate with little direction in life. “Plastics,” he suggested. “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.” The future of plastics indeed looked bright in 1967 — the lightweight synthetic or semi-synthetic material could be molded into a variety of useful products. Today, a mere five decades since Benjamin ignored Mr. McGuire’s counsel, the planet is drowning in plastic pollution.

According to the UN, in the 1990s, plastic waste more than tripled over the previous two decades, and in the early 2000s, global output of plastic waste rose more than it had in the previous 40 years. There is no value or market for the vast majority of our plastic waste, so about 90 percent of it is landfilled, burned or shipped overseas. Ultimately, a lot ends up in the oceans in what are commonly referred to as massive garbage patches that collect in one of five planetary gyre, gigantic circular oceanic current systems, where it floats and degrades.

The Recycling Myth

Until recently, much of the world was largely oblivious to the true reality of our plastic problem. We slept comfortably under the impression that robust recycling programs turned our plastic waste into useful recyclable products that we bought, used ever so briefly, and recycled again just like the system’s iconic Möbius loop symbol suggested. If you didn’t think about it too much, it all made sense. In reality, the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan don’t recycle much of their plastic waste but instead ship it overseas. Out of sight, out of mind.

A warning shot of reality was fired in 2017, when the Government of China notified the World Trade Organization that it would no longer import much of the world’s plastic waste. Few in the general public noticed, but the fact is that there are no good answers for what to do with the staggering volumes of plastic we now consume. As a consumer, living a plastics-free life is surprisingly difficult, as so much of what we interface with on a daily basis comes in plastic.

According to the World Economic Forum, 32 percent of plastic packaging ends up littering the environment somewhere in the world.

In reality, most plastic we consume and dispose of has a negative economic value, meaning it costs more to sort and process than it does to make new virgin plastic products. In the U.S., only a small percentage of higher-value plastics, such as PET or HDPE bottles and jugs, are recycled domestically. The vast majority of plastic we consume never reaches a recycling facility.

According to Jan Dell, an independent chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, an NGO established to end plastic pollution, only about 9 percent of plastic waste is even collected for recycling, and until 2017, about half of that was being sent to China, where the material was sorted, largely by hand. Much of the plastic shipped to China still ended up being dumped or burned, just far from sight of the people who purchased, used and discarded it. According to the World Economic Forum, 32 percent of plastic packaging ends up littering the environment somewhere in the world, largely finding its way to our oceans, rivers, and coastlines, and floating in the air. Another 40 percent is landfilled, and 14 percent incinerated.

To oversimplify, for decades, while global consumption of plastics skyrocketed, the system functioned because the West imports containers full of products from China but exports little in return. As a result, shipping rates to China are far lower than from China. Once in China, thanks in part to low labor costs, it was profitable for a few Chinese companies to sort and turn some of the material into pellets for resale. The percentage that was too useless to turn a profit was landfilled or incinerated. For decades, this is how much of the global “recycling” infrastructure worked, but eventually, the Chinese Government came to realize the external cost associated with the trade, such as human health and pollution, so in 2017, they informed the World Trade Organization that the game was over. Of course, plastic waste is still shipped regularly to places like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and India, where the material is sorted and cleaned, largely by hand, to be recycled, with the percentage deemed to have negative value there dumped or burned. People in every country consume and dispose of plastic products at an alarming rate, but most purchase what they want/need/can afford, often with few options to avoid the plastic products and packaging that are so aggressively marketed to them. Producers and manufacturers are rarely assigned any responsibility for the treatment or disposal of their products post-consumer.

Meanwhile, Back at Taylor Guitars

For several months, I looked out my office window and watched the cube of plastic stretch wrap grow. We posted a picture on social media, wrote about it in our company newsletter, read reports, contacted other companies, and consulted with environmental experts such as John Hocevar at Greenpeace and Jan Dell at The Last Beach Cleanup. We also started looking at other examples of plastic usage at the factory. As we tried to separate fact from fiction and better understand several apparent contradictions, a funny thing happened. Apparently, the giant cube of plastic, that nuisance to anyone looking for a parking spot, spurred a lot of conversations across the Taylor campus, leading to the implementation of several solutions to use less plastic and to find alternatives. For example, pallets of guitar neck parts routinely moved by forklift from building to building here in El Cajon or shipped between El Cajon and our factory in Tecate, Mexico, once secured by stretch wrap, are now secured using cardboard shoulders with metal bindings. The same thing goes for multiple container bins filled with various guitar parts that are shipped back and forth. We’re also exploring packaging design changes to our ebony guitar slide to move away from the plastic blister pack, and we’re trying to use paper to protect our TaylorWare items (T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, etc.) when shipped for delivery. Sure, you can say we should have done this years ago, and you’re right.

Whatever Happened to the Big Plastic Cube?

As we talked with various companies looking for the most responsible way to dispose of our stretch wrap (some said we needed to pay to have it removed; others said they would pay us), we asked a set of questions. For example: What are you going to do with it? Would you sell it, landfill it, burn it, recycle it? If recycled, into what? How far would it be transported? Will it be exported? We weren’t looking for specific predetermined answers. We were just trying to understand the situation, and we held the basic belief that recycling is obviously better than a landfill, and that transporting it to a closer destination was better than one farther away. Whether we paid or got paid wasn’t a factor, as it wasn’t a lot of money either way.

Of all the plastic that ever existed, more than half was produced in the last 15 years.

Taylor is now working with a company called PreZero, which has a recycling facility a little over 100 miles north of us in Jurupa Valley, California. PreZero recycles our stretch wrap into pellets, which are shipped up to their facility in Oroville, California. The Oroville facility uses the pellets to make polybags for many name-brand stores you might see at shopping malls. PreZero’s Oroville factory is one of the few facilities we could find that makes polybags with recycled material. (As I’ll explain in a minute, we use polybags in conjunction with shipping guitars.)

For months, many of the experts we consulted about our stretch wrap problem encouraged us, if we have to buy plastics, to buy plastics with recycled content because we need to drive the recycled market. Again, the cold truth is that virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled, and as a result, the infrastructure to recycle plastic is pathetically small.

The Truth About the Polybags Taylor Uses

As longtime readers of Wood&Steel know, we have long maintained that the single greatest cause of damage to solid-wood acoustic guitars results from overly dry or humid conditions. We feel so strongly about humidity control that not only is every guitar and wooden guitar case that we produce built in a humidity-controlled environment, but before our encased guitars are boxed in our shipping warehouse, the case (or gig bag) is placed inside a polybag to further protect the instrument on its journey across the country or around the world.

When a guitar leaves our factory, it is in ideal condition, but its journey to you can be an arduous one. It will likely travel on a semi-trailer truck, and maybe it will be loaded into a metal container and placed on an ocean-going cargo ship. Before you ever touch your guitar, it may have been warehoused and, depending on the time of year, traveled across regions with significantly different climates and humidity levels. Exposure to significant changes in temperature and humidity, especially low humidity, can cause wood to shrink (or swell in high humidity), negatively impacting sound and playability and potentially leading to damage to the instrument. That said, a fine-quality guitar that’s properly cared for will last generations.

Until recently, our polybags were made with 100-percent virgin resin, but now, thanks to that giant cube of plastic that once haunted me outside my office window, we’re transitioning to bags with 60-percent recycled content (that I hope will soon become 80 percent).

So, to summarize, our discarded plastic stretch wrap (which we’re using less of) is now recycled into pellets in Jurupa Valley, California, which are shipped to Oroville, California, where they are made into polybags. We now buy these same polybags to help protect our guitars, replacing the virgin fiber polybags previously used. It’s not a perfect solution. But it’s better than what was happening. This is an example of why we try to avoid claiming we are a sustainable company or that our guitars are sustainable because (a) when you look at the entire manufacturing process, we’re/they’re not, and (b) sustainability must be seen as a never-ending journey.

And just to clarify, the intent of sharing what we’re doing isn’t to score a pat on the back. We’ve got more plastic issues to deal with. Honestly, we’ve only recently starting looking at it comprehensively. And I apologize for that. We’re simply trying to be transparent about where we are and what we’re trying to do about it. And we have a long way to go. In fact, we’re lucky to have found PreZero, a reasonably local recycler for our plastic film, and we’re lucky that it is clean, industrial plastic waste of one type. It also is in a decent quality and quantity to pick up in bales.

So, here we are. Of all the plastic that ever existed, more than half was produced in the last 15 years. As individual consumers, we can focus on reducing plastic waste generation, consume less and consume with more discretion, but, honestly, the best thing we can do is hold companies accountable, vote, pass legislation and call out greenwashing when we see it. And that includes at Taylor Guitars, so please address your concerns directly to me. We’ve already got a list going. The recent steps we’ve taken at Taylor with our stretch wrap and polybags are good, of course, but right now are more mitigation than solution. There is much more that we can all do to clean up our own house. Remember, sustainability is an ongoing journey, and we need to pick up the pace.


The Ebony Project: Growing Into Phase 2

Scroll Down

A decade after buying an ebony mill in Cameroon, our efforts to ensure an ethical ebony supply chain have led to new scientific discoveries and a scalable community planting program that’s on the verge of doubling in size.

In March, Fast Company named Taylor Guitars one of the world’s most innovative companies in the manufacturing sector. Citing our global environmental and sustainability efforts, we were honored to be included at no. 9 of the Top 10. It became official while I was attending the seventy-fourth meeting of the Standing Committee for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Lyon, France. It felt appropriate to receive the news at a CITES meeting, as in many ways the award is a reflection of the changing landscape for makers of musical instruments, the very reason I was at this meeting. Sitting behind my Taylor Guitars placard in the back of a large auditorium, I thought about that changing landscape and about how I, a former Greenpeace Forest Campaigner who was once arrested for Sailor Mongering, came to represent a guitar company at multilateral treaty negotiations aimed to ensure that international trade does not threaten plants and animals.

As readers of Wood&Steel may recall, a decade ago, in 2011, Taylor Guitars and our Spanish tonewood supply partner, Madinter, purchased the Crelicam ebony mill in Yaoundé, Cameroon, with the goal of creating a socially responsible value chain for ebony musical instrument components. After spending the first several years adapting to the realities of operating in Cameroon, rebuilding the mill, training employees to use new machines and tools, and changing our sourcing specifications to reduce waste and increase yield (e.g. using ebony with variegation and not just the pure black wood), we turned our attention to another facet of responsible supply management: developing a scalable ebony planting initiative.

In 2016, the initiative was officially launched as The Ebony Project. We partnered with the Congo Basin Institute (CBI) in Yaoundé with the initial goals of conducting basic ecological research on ebony propagation (surprisingly little research on ebony was available) and leveraging what we were learning to develop nurseries and a community-based planting program that eventually could be scaled up. The first milestone target was to plant 15,000 ebony trees along with an undefined number of fruit trees as a food and income source for villages that participated in the program.

Over the past five years, The Ebony Project has made slow but steady progress, and we’ve been learning a lot. In 2020, we surpassed our goal of planting 15,000 ebony trees, and the project’s lead researcher, Dr. Vincent Deblauwe, has published scientific papers that are quickly becoming the definitive syllabus for the species.

Each year, the project team produces a progress report to document the successes and challenges of the previous year and articulate goals and opportunities moving forward. The reports are intended to be an honest assessment of the state of the project at each given moment in time and are publicly available, so if you’d like to read more, you’ll find the latest report at

As the project has evolved in recent years, we signed a public-private partnership with the government of Cameroon, and both the Franklinia Foundation and University of California have provided some funding. But by and large, thus far the entire endeavor has been personally funded by Bob Taylor.

Expanding with Outside Funding

After slowly establishing proof of concept with our community-planting paradigm, the work of The Ebony Project has attracted greater attention — and now additional funding. The Ebony Project will be included within a broader $9.6 million forest conservation initiative in Cameroon funded by the Global Environment Facility. (The GEF is a multilateral trust fund whose financial resources enable developing countries to invest in nature and support the implementation of major international environmental conventions on issues such as biodiversity, land degradation and climate change. The Government of Cameroon and the World Wildlife Fund will manage GEF funds in Cameroon).

The Congo Basin Institute will receive funds from the GEF grant that will allow us to build on our experience of the previous five years and expand from planting in six villages to planting in 12. The investment will also bolster the project’s already groundbreaking scientific research into the ecology of West African ebony and the Congo Basin rainforest. It’s an exciting moment for the project… but wait, there’s more.

Increasing Fruit Tree Production

The U.K. government-funded Partnerships For Forests (P4F) program has partnered with CBI to better understand the possibilities of expanding The Ebony Project’s fruit tree production and explore ways to access local and regional markets as an economic incentive to keep biodiversity intact, while further addressing food insecurity issues. Though we call the initiative “The Ebony Project,” planting locally desirable fruit trees was always part of the equation, although, truthfully, the fruit tree aspect of the project has lagged behind the ebony planting and scientific research. But it’s been getting better each year, and perhaps with P4F we can improve it further. Depending on the results of the analysis, P4F is poised to invest further to help enhance fruit tree nursery production and stimulate trade.

Meanwhile, Dr. Deblauwe and his team continue to make crucially important scientific discoveries that expand our understanding of the Congo Basin’s rainforest ecology. In fact, that project-based independent research was instrumental in the 2017 IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List re-evaluation of West African ebony, originally classified as “Endangered” 20 years earlier but subsequently moved to the more optimistic status of “Vulnerable.” (To learn more about that re-evaluation, please see my Sustainability column in W&S Vol. 94, Summer 2019). The project has improved our understanding of the multi-year fruiting cycle of ebony, and innovative night-vision trap cameras have identified, for the first time, the insects that pollinate the ebony flower and the mammals that eat the fruit, carry the seeds in their digestive tract, and disperse them through defecation, thus helping the tree reproduce.

Developing a Powerful Data Dashboard Tool

Meanwhile, Steve Theriault, our Business Intelligence Manager at Taylor, has been working with Dr. Deblauwe to convert project data that has been collected by hand or on laptop into Tableau, an interactive data visualization software platform. Tableau was originally created to help companies better understand operations through data analysis, providing historical, current and predictive views, including graph-type data visualizations. It’s cool. And Steve is the equivalent of a triple black belt in Tableau. What he and Vincent have created is incredible. With a few clicks, a highly intuitive dashboard allows us to share information in an easily understandable way. At any given moment, we know, for example, how many ebony and fruit trees are in any given nursery and what year we expect they will be ready for transplant. We can track annual seed collection, and we know who planted what and where. We run macro queries across the entire project or zoom in and analyze village-level data. It’s really going to be helpful and I think somewhat unique within the global restoration movement.

Entering Phase 2

I’ve taken to calling the first five years of The Ebony Project “Phase One: The Start-up Years,” which were largely paid for by Bob Taylor. We had our successes and failures, we grew our community planting partnerships to six villages, and we hit our goal of planting 15,000 trees. We learned a lot about the basic ecology of the species and about the communities of people that live in the extended buffer zone of the Dja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we work. Bob and CBI founder, Professor Tom Smith of UCLA, set up an endowment to ensure the project’s survival into the future, regardless of outside funding.

By 2025, we aim to plant an additional 30,000 ebony trees and 25,000 fruit trees.

Now, with funding from GEF and P4F, along with Franklinia and the University of California, we have entered Phase 2 and will double the number of villages that would have otherwise been supported. And we have a new five-year goal. By 2025, we aim to plant an additional 30,000 ebony trees. For the first time, we also have a fruit tree planting goal: 25,000 trees in the next five years. If successful, we will have enhanced the biological integrity of the area adjacent to the Dja Reserve, helped local communities overcome food insecurity issues, and maybe, just maybe, someday long after we’re all dead, someone can buy one of the ebony trees we’ve planted to make a guitar.

Phase 3?

Finally, allow us to dream. We can’t help but look beyond the current project area, the Dja UNESCO World Heritage Site, and across all of Southern Cameroon, and further still into an area referred to as the Tridom, a vast area that includes portions of Southern Cameroon, Gabon and a bit of the Central African Republic. It’s said to be the most intact forest block left in the Congo Basin. The so-called Tridom region is home to a dozen or so large protected areas. Of course, people live here — traditional peoples since long before recorded history, and more recent settlers, too. There are roads and towns, logging and agriculture. But it makes us think. If over the next five years, The Ebony Project is successful in the Dja region of Cameroon, it would be interesting to replicate the model around similar protected areas within the Tridom. That, I hope, is a subject to explore in a future edition of Wood&Steel.

Hawaii Reforestation Update: Planting Koa

We wanted to share an update on our latest forest stewardship work in Hawaii. As a recap, back in 2015, tonewood sawmill/supplier Pacific Rim Tonewoods and Taylor Guitars formed a company called Paniolo Tonewoods. Our joint mission was to work toward preserving a healthy future supply of koa for musical instruments by regenerating native forests that include koa trees.

Paniolo’s initial projects in Hawaii borrowed from an arrangement first implemented by the U.S. Forest Service, exchanging value of wood for services provided. Instead of paying the landowner directly for koa logs or harvesting rights, Paniolo was allowed to cut a select number of designated koa trees, and in exchange, agreed to pay for a host of forest improvement projects on the land. These improvements, whose value equaled that of the wood harvested, included installing new fencing to keep feral sheep and cattle out, removing invasive plants, improving fire breaks, and planting and maintaining koa seedlings grown in nurseries.

As we previously reported, another initiative was set in motion in 2018, when Paniolo acquired 564 acres of rolling pastureland on the north end of Hawaii Island. This land will continue to be managed by Paniolo, which was tasked with returning much of the land to a native Hawaiian forest after having been cleared for pasture about 150 years ago. The plan was for Paniolo to plant a mixed-species native koa forest for future timber production when the forest is mature beginning roughly 30 years after planting and continuing in perpetuity. The planting is projected to yield more than twice the volume of koa wood that Taylor Guitars uses today via selective cutting and replanting of trees.

This past June, Paniolo Tonewoods began to turn back time by planting over 3,000 koa and a little over 800 mixed native tree and shrub species on 10 acres of the property. Afterward, Paniolo project manager Nick Koch shared more details about the land, the planting and the plans ahead.

“The picturesque land of Kapoaula sits between the two historic ranching communities of Waimea and Honoka’a, with a rich history of Paniolo culture. Cattle grazing has been a way of life here since the 1850s, a tradition that continues to this day but has also resulted in the demise of native forests. Not only here but throughout Hawai’i.

“The views from the property to the surrounding valleys and mountains are spectacular. On a good day you can even see the distant island of Maui in the haze. These views will be lost to the growing trees in the next 10 to 15 years, but we believe it is a price well worth paying for a property that will ensure the future availability of koa for Taylor guitar making. Sweeping views will be replaced by lush native forest with an abundance of healthy, maintained koa trees and plentiful habitat for native birds. Wood is, after all, the ultimate renewable resource, and through projects like this, we are indeed doing our part to renew the forests and ensure their future health.

“In the next decade, our plan is to plant 150,000 trees on this property. In the last year, Paniolo has planted 3000 trees. We’re starting small to minimize our mistakes as we continue to learn how to cultivate healthy trees.”

Please Use Fewer Plastics. We’re Trying, Too. 

Last issue, Jim Kirlin wrote about our recent efforts to better understand the use of plastics in our manufacturing process. The article (“Bad Wrap: Inside a Growing Plastic Problem”) discussed issues related to our use of plastic stretch wrap to secure pallets stored or moved from one place to another.

As we began to better understand the issue, we learned that we no longer had what we once thought was a responsible way to dispose of our used shrink wrap. So, Bob Taylor and I decided to stack it up in the center of the main parking lot where employees could see it. Bob told me, “Until we figure something out, we’ll just keep it there, and we’ll all watch it grow.” So we did. And the pile grew. Meanwhile, a group of us has been working on the issue. We did more research. We talked about it in our employee newsletter, and soon stories of small innovations and reductions started coming in from across the campus. We posted the story on social media and received (mostly) encouragement and a few helpful suggestions, too. Thanks for that!

Soon, we hope to tell you about what we believe will be a major step forward in reducing our plastic footprint. We’ve connected with a company that may offer a viable solution, and right now we’re cautiously optimistic. It will only be a first step, but the first step is always the most important. Plastics are a huge problem across the planet. The statistics are sobering. It’s going to be a long and difficult road, but we all need to get on it. Stay tuned for an update in our next edition.


No Finish Line

Scroll Down

Our drive to develop better and more eco-friendly guitar finishes demonstrates that environmental stewardship will always be an ongoing effort.

Here at Taylor Guitars, we like to say that sustainability is a journey, not a destination. It’s a mindset that keeps us from getting complacent. Accordingly, we’re looking at a range of issues — beyond the obvious topic of wood consumption — including energy use, plastics and single-use disposable products, and even the T-shirts we sell, in order to find ways to act more responsibly, without compromising the standards that built the company. We’re far from perfect, but we’re making progress. Like I said, it’s a journey.

Part of being a responsible company is transparency. So, in this article, I wanted to focus on guitar finishes and explain where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re trying to go.

I should start by acknowledging that among guitar enthusiasts, finish can be a surprisingly emotional topic. Trust me, if you want to ignite a debate among luthiers and opinionated players, walk into a room and start talking about finishes. This is due in part to the long history of finishes for string instruments, but also to the range of opinions about how different finishes impact a guitar’s sound, feel and look.

More Than Just a Coating

Guitars that reach the finish department in our factory in El Cajon, California, transition through a series of processes, including sanding, staining, grain-filling and topcoat finish application. Think of a good finish not merely as a protective coating, but as a refined system, often incorporating different materials and technologies, applied in a succession of integrated layers that each serve a specific function. For example, grain filler penetrates and stabilizes the wood, especially open-pore species like mahogany. Another finish layer will protect the wood and provide just the right amount of damping. (For more on finish and damping, see our sidebar.) Another layer of a finish system is the topcoat, typically applied with the aesthetic appearance in mind, sometimes highlighting grain patterns and enhancing color consistency.

Finish Materials Through the Years

Throughout the centuries, many different materials have been used to finish wooden musical instruments, such as oils (e.g. linseed or tung), waxes, shellac (a resin secreted by the lac bug of India and Thailand), varnishes and various lacquers. At a fundamental level, most finishes have three components: a solid (such as resin), a binder (to help the finish adhere to the wood and solids to each other), and a vehicle (e.g., solvent, oil) that helps dissolve the resin to make it spreadable.

To better understand the evolution of guitar finishes, including our own, it’s helpful to look back at the instruments that influenced their development, such as the oud and lute. Centuries ago, the wood on these instruments was protected using locally available natural ingredients like glair, a concoction of sugar (used as a resin for durability), egg white (a binding agent), and honey (the application vehicle, which also gives the surface a degree of flexibility). Sometimes hardened sap, perhaps from an acacia tree, might have been incorporated.

finish spraying machine applying finish mist to an acoustic guitar inside the Taylor factory

A Word on Finish Thickness and Damping

There is a definite correlation between finish thickness and damping. For example, here at Taylor, we’ve talked about this alongside the introduction of some of our thinner, tone-enhancing finishes over the years. Too much finish will overly restrict the guitar’s resonance and musicality. But what you might not realize is that too little finish — or no finish — won’t provide enough damping control, which can lead to clashing overtones and sometimes a shrill acoustic voice. So damping is not an inherently bad thing when it comes to sound.

French Polishing

Wooden instrument finishes really came of age starting in the 1600s, with the violin setting the tone (both literally and figuratively) for the instrument finishes that followed. A high-gloss wood finishing technique called French polishing migrated from the violin world to classical and parlor guitars in the 1800s and 1900s. The technique took its name from its extensive use in France by Victorian-era furniture makers. The highly labor-intensive process involves applying many thin coats of natural shellac, secreted by the lac bug, dissolved in denatured alcohol, and rubbed in with an oil-lubricated pad. Because alcohol evaporates quickly, the drying time between each application is very short. The downside is that each coating is so thin that the process demands the application of hundreds of coats (no exaggeration) to achieve the highly polished surface that people love.

Nitrocellulose Lacquer

In 1921, the chemical company Dupont invented nitrocellulose lacquer for the automotive industry. The first modern, synthetic finish, it was durable, dried to the touch in minutes, and could be applied with a spray gun, making it perfect for the dawn of mass production. The process was soon adopted by woodworkers, including guitar makers.

Nitrocellulose lacquer wasn’t without its problems. For one thing, with conventional spraying methods, the transfer efficiency — the amount of finish that actually attracts to the target rather than just going into the air — was only about 10 percent. On a wooden guitar, the solvents required to apply it required upwards of two weeks to air cure. In fact, that solvent off-gassing process can continue for months and even years, making the finish thinner but denser. Over time, nitrocellulose finishes are also prone to yellowing, and in the face of dramatic temperature fluctuation, can produce small hairline cracks, commonly referred to as “finish checking.” For some vintage guitar collectors, such characteristics enhance the aesthetic charm.

Solvents and VOCs

What was little understood in the early days of nitrocellulose lacquer was that the solvents used were not without problems. Especially if applied with a spray gun in an open factory setting, nitro released significant levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), many of which are dangerous to both human health and the environment. Yes, VOCs are ubiquitous and also occur naturally. Open a bottle of wine and VOCs are released. It’s just a gas, and some gasses are harmless, while others are not. But the VOCs released when nitrocellulose lacquer is applied with a spray gun can be poisonous and cause adverse human health effects, including short-term eye, nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, dizziness and skin problems. Longer-term effects can include damage to the lungs, liver, kidneys or central nervous system. Nitrocellulose lacquer finishes are still commonly used today in several industries, including guitar making, albeit in a far safer application environment, in order to protect workers.

Taylor’s Finish Evolution

Over the years, scientific advancements in the world of plastics and polymers produced new forms of finishes, and several, such as conversion varnish, urethanes, polyurethane, polyester and acrylic, have been adopted by the guitar industry. All are simply different resins based on evolving science, and each releases various levels of VOCs. When Taylor Guitars first set up shop in 1974, the fledgling company adopted a variety of finishes and application methods common to the industry at the time, from nitrocellulose lacquer to conversion varnishes, and later, polyurethane. Each brought its own inherent environmental issues, with the common denominator of a lengthy curing time.

Around 1985, Taylor completely phased out nitrocellulose lacquer finishes. Over the years, Taylor’s finish team has continued to radically transform our processes, progressing from a highly manual, labor-intensive approach to a sophisticated, technology-driven science.

Crisis is the Mother of Invention

Bob Taylor has always been a self-driven innovator, but sometimes the motivation can come from external sources. Like the day in 1991 when Bob received a letter from the State of California informing him that Taylor Guitars would soon no longer be permitted to use many of the finishes common to the industry. Other guitar makers could use them, just not those based in California. For a young company with a growing workforce, that must have been a difficult pill to swallow.

Bob Sees the Light

Not long afterward, Bob attended a seminar on using ultraviolet (UV) light to accelerate the finish curing process. He returned to the factory and declared, “This is where we’re going. I want to do whatever it takes for us to develop cleaner, UV-curable finish for our guitars.” The only problem was that UV curing didn’t yet exist for three-dimensional objects like a guitar, and finish manufacturers weren’t exactly lining up to help a small company in an obscure sector. So, we hired a chemist who worked with Bob and Taylor’s finish department manager at the time, Steve Baldwin, to formulate a new finish and develop a process of getting a UV-curable top coat and paste filler. Meanwhile, Taylor machine and tool designer Matt Guzzetta designed and built a custom UV curing oven, which enabled the finish to be cured in 30 seconds — compared to the 12-day air curing time required with nitrocellulose lacquer.

The new finish was polyester-based, contained fewer solvents, and thus reduced harmful air emissions. Unlike nitrocellulose lacquer, the resulting finish was much less likely to yellow with age and didn’t fall prey to checking with temperature fluctuation. By 1995, UV-curable finish application became part of the production process, making Taylor the first guitar company to adopt ultraviolet finishes. They proved more durable and enabled a thinner coating to be applied, which yielded tonal benefits too. The extreme reduction in drying time drove manufacturing efficiency and resulted in a dramatic reduction of off-gassed VOCs.

Remember those three fundamental components of conventional finishes mentioned earlier: a solid, a binder and a solvent or vehicle? As Taylor master builder Andy Powers explains, UV-cured finish was a game changer because the technology essentially eliminated the need to use solvents.

“The UV finish has a solid and a binder only,” he says. “The two components are catalyzed and shift from liquid to solid. They don’t use a solvent to make them spreadable. In other words, the solid and binder start out as spreadable, then change state once they are spread out on the surface with the help of UV light. So the way they use less solvents is by largely eliminating them. This is also the reason why we don’t spray ten coats, with 85 percent evaporating; we spray two, with nearly everything remaining except the little bit that gets sanded or polished away.”

Good for the company. Safer for employees. Better for the environment.

Buffy the Guitar Slayer and Electrostatic Attraction

The next big advancement at Taylor was driven by a desire to relieve the physical stress of the manual buffing process, and to improve the consistency from guitar to guitar. Implementing the new technology was a challenge, and early efforts to program a robotic buffing system earned the machine the nickname “Buffy the Guitar Slayer,” but in time the team figured it out.

Several years later, robotic technology was applied again, this time to finish spraying, resulting in improved transfer efficiency, which in turn meant less over-spraying and material waste. The transfer efficiency was further improved with the adoption of electrostatic attraction technology between the finish and the guitar, which incorporates a rotary atomizer and a climate-controlled environment to optimize finish attraction. In the end, the transfer efficiency was increased from about 15 percent via manual spraying to about 85 percent with the robotic/electrostatic method. Again, fewer VOCs, less waste, more consistency and a safer working environment.

And for the record, these new robotic technologies did not replace any jobs. We kept everybody. We just made their lives a little easier and greatly reduced the company’s environmental footprint.

Our robotic buffing system enables greater consistency and eliminates the physically demanding workload of buffing manually.

Getting Even Thinner

The arrival of Andy Powers in 2011 ushered in an era of developing even thinner finishes at Taylor (made possible by the technologies we had embraced). These envelope-pushing efforts required an even more disciplined manufacturing process, as a thinner finish reduces your margin for error on the shop floor. With any finish, you don’t “build up” via multiple coatings, but instead sand down to hit your desired level. For tone-enhancing purposes, Andy wanted a thinner finish, and Steve Baldwin’s successor, Chris Carter, and his team helped reduce our gloss finish thickness from 6 mils (.006 inch) to as low as a 3.5 mils (.0035 inch) on some models. To give you some perspective, a sheet of office paper is 3 mils (.003 inch) thick. (And in case you were wondering, we can accurately measure finish thickness on a guitar with an ultrasonic gauge.)

Water-Based Finish

In 2019, Taylor began using a precatalyzed water-based finish on select models. It offers strong adhesion upon application and produces even fewer hazardous VOCs. In addition to being more environmentally friendly, many players say water-based finishes feel better to the touch.

The origins of water-based finishes at Taylor Guitars stem from both a serendipitous car ride and a global pandemic. One day Bob Taylor was driving Chris Carter in his new Tesla, and the two were admiring the wooden dashboard. Chris assumed it was treated with a water-based finish and promised to look into it. Soon thereafter, Chris started running experiments and conducting tests on scrap guitar bodies. After about six months, he was confident that we had an alternative satin finish that was safer and easier to use than conversion varnish. Chris mentioned it to Andy Powers, and a few weeks later Andy began using it on a still unreleased prototype he was working on. The tests yielded great results.

Then on March 19, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered the unexpected shutdown of the factory, followed a few days later by the closure of Tecate factory. We were all told to just go home, as were people around the globe. And a funny thing happened. People got bored. And a lot of them dusted off their old guitars or decided to buy a new one.

Our American Dream Series was born at this time, a pragmatic reaction to the realities of returning to work and building guitars during a pandemic, when supply chains were disrupted and unpredictable. To summarize, after a quick look at our existing wood inventory, Bob and Andy started talking about “cooking with what’s in the pantry” and building a utilitarian guitar, with solid-wood construction and Taylor’s V-Class bracing, but also something that could be produced in the U.S. and sold more affordably. The resulting American Dream guitars have been a big success, but less discussed was the leap forward Taylor made at that time with water-based finishes.

When small skeletal crews were allowed to return to the factory under new safety and social distancing norms, they were under pressure. We needed to stay alive as a company, and we needed to do more with less. A faster, less labor-intensive finishing process would help, and Chris and his team were ready with a new water-based finish that was ultimately used on several of the new American Dream models, and for the new GT Urban Ash guitar too. It was an immediate success, considered more durable than a conversion varnish. And the application process was also more environmentally friendly.

Less Is More

I’ve mentioned in previous Wood&Steel articles that the first, most important and often most overlooked aspect of sustainability is efficiency. The simple act of using less. And Taylor’s continuing innovations with guitar finish are a good case in point. California’s ever-increasing environmental regulations spurred our development of cleaner, thinner, UV-cured polyester finish. An initiative to relieve the physical stress of the manual buffing process (and increase consistency) led to the an era of robotic buffing and spraying, resulting in improved transfer efficiency. A drive in Bob’s Tesla followed by a pandemic expedited our adoption of water-based finishes. All result in using safer materials, and less of them. Better for Taylor Guitars. Better for the people that work here. Better for the environment. And better for players.

women working at tree nursery


Seeds of Change in a Changing World

Scroll Down

In an age of climate change, growing the right tree in the right place is more important than ever. Here’s why.

Over the past decade, reforestation has become a worldwide movement. Think of it as the equivalent of the world’s largest (and longest) music festival, with live events taking place on stages all around the globe. Headlining acts include the Bonn Challenge, with its global goal to bring 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes into restoration by 2030; the Paris Agreement, created to combat climate change; and the New York Declaration on Forests, an international plan to halt global deforestation that has 200 endorsers including national governments, multi-national companies, groups representing indigenous communities, and non-government organizations.

Supporting acts might include regional restoration efforts like Initiative 20×20 in Latin America and AFR100 (the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative) in Africa. On the smaller side stages, you’ll find local and upcoming initiatives, where community roots are often strongest. Here you’ll find Taylor Guitars’ work via the Ebony Project in Cameroon, Paniolo Tonewoods in Hawaii, and our emerging efforts with urban trees in our home state of California. Meanwhile, there are countless others around the world also jamming away on festival side stages and even in the parking lot.  

Taken together, the scale of forest restoration initiatives now either underway or under discussion is unprecedented. So, we thought it might be a good time to share a few thoughts on this increasingly hot topic. But first, it’s worth acknowledging that the Earth has several important terrestrial ecosystems, and not all are dominated by tree cover. These include open-canopy woodlands, peatlands, grasslands, chaparral, tundra and deserts. So, let’s just assume I’m talking about reforestation in areas where it is appropriate. 

Forests & Agriculture 

Although growing trees seems like a straightforward act, like many things, deciding what and where to grow isn’t so simple. For example, in taking care of a global population of 7.8 billion people and counting, with increasing escalations in the demand for food, fiber and fuel, arable land is at a premium. The word “arable” comes from the Latin word arabilis, meaning “able to be plowed.” It’s the flat land where it is most economically efficient to grow temporary crops or temporary meadows for mowing or for pasture. Competition for this land is one reason why, in temperate regions, you tend to see remaining native forests on hillsides or in ravines, where agricultural activity would be costly. It is also a reason why so much agricultural expansion is taking place across the tropics, where there are vast areas of flat land with few rocks and lots of sun. Over 70 percent of tropical forest loss is due to the conversion to large-scale agricultural production.  

Over 70 percent of tropical forest loss is due to the conversion to large-scale agricultural production. 

Meeting the world’s growing demand for food, fiber and fuel in an era of climate change helps explain why most of the largest tree-planting projects over the past several decades have prioritized the planting of a few profitable, often exotic, tree species. It might also help explain why you often see two seemingly contradictory statistics — that in some countries forest cover is increasing overall, while native forest is shrinking. There is no universally agreed-upon definition of a forest, let alone reforestation. Your opinion likely varies depending on whether you’re a palm oil company, forester, ecologist, social scientist, environmental activist or government official. 

From an economic perspective, exotic species often enjoy years, even decades, of rapid growth due to the fact that they are separated from the natural predators of their native range. Growing trees sequester carbon, and wood is increasingly being seen as an environmentally friendly building material over steel and concrete. Growing more trees can also reduce the rate of deforestation of nearby native forests, as people may have less need to enter native forests for their timber or fuelwood needs. So having fast-growing, short-rotation trees makes sense, but we need to balance our portfolio. For our planet (and our metaphorical festival), in order to survive, we need to make informed and deliberate choices, and we need diversity to be resilient. 

From an ecological perspective, growing native trees provides the best return on investment, as native species have evolved to compete and survive in a symbiotic relationship with surrounding flora and fauna. Further, native tree species tend to support more insects, an important food source for native birds, which in turn distribute seeds and help a wide variety of plants reproduce. Healthy insect populations also prey upon native plants, keeping their populations controlled. The importance of protecting and expanding native forest lands cannot be overemphasized, a fact that comes into clearer focus as we gain further insights into the ecological systems that support life on Earth. 

The Climes They Are a-Changin’ 

Conversations about what to plant and where to plant are not new. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, climate change is changing everything, and it’s a driving force behind many internationally funded reforestation efforts, as policymakers mobilize funds and look for incentives to slow, reduce and eventually reverse greenhouse gas emissions. But climate change is also impacting the act of growing trees itself. To understand how, let’s look at Iceland, the volcanically active island in the North Atlantic region. 

Although people might imagine Iceland with its characteristic sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers, the island was, in fact, once heavily forested. With colonization some 1,000 years ago, land was cleared and livestock were introduced, exposing soil on the notoriously windswept island and creating conditions that kept the forest from coming back. 

In an attempt to restore the forest, Icelanders began planting native species, but after a few decades, they realized the new forest was dying off. Conditions had changed — winters were milder, and summers were longer — and many of the native trees couldn’t survive.  

Trees are gradually shifting latitudes or into higher elevations. Yes, over time, trees migrate too.

When the country incorporated several exotic species that were better adapted for current conditions, the forest began to take hold. The takeaway? In some places, climate change is outpacing the evolution of new traits in trees that help determine, for example, how much heat they need in the summer, how tolerant they are to drought, and when to start or stop growing seasonally. In regions all over the world, we’re seeing plants and animals abandon their historical territories and move to more suitable zones or perish altogether. Tropical fish are migrating north or south away from the equator to cooler waters. Trees, too, are gradually shifting latitudes or into higher elevations. Yes, over time, trees migrate too. 

In another example of how climate change is changing the game, one closer to home for us at Taylor Guitars, the U.S. government is now advocating for the planting of “climate-ready trees” in California cities. These trees are suited to changing environmental conditions, such as the increased likelihood of drought. Many of the trees suggested are from places like Australia, India, Mexico or Brazil. 

Get Growing 

Climate change is an enormously complicated issue, and scientific research indicates the best thing we can do to mitigate its impact is reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. Growing trees is not a panacea, but it’s a great idea. So we simultaneously attempt to restore natural systems while caring for an ever-expanding global population — which sometimes can feel like having the Sex Pistols on one stage and the New York Philharmonic on another. 

On March 1, 2019, the UN General Assembly officially adopted a resolution declaring 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and in 2020 the World Economic Forum in Davos launched the Trillion Trees platform to support it. Through initiatives like TerraMatch, the for trees, they are funding experienced local groups dedicated to doing reforestation the right way. And researchers are also getting better at seeing where trees are growing with the help of satellites, helping track progress toward those ambitious goals. Everywhere you turn, it seems that something is happening.  

As we grapple with the challenges and intricacies of reforestation around the world, it is helpful to keep in mind that archaeological and ethnobotanical evidence shows humanity has survived and prospered by manipulating the environment and by moving plants and animals from one place to another. Now, it suits our needs to enhance, not diminish, the world around us. As the proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” 

With the right partners and resources in place, local knowledge, and the empowerment of affected communities, we can make our global restoration festival a never-ending event.

Taylor Guitars staff at a lumber yard


Growth Potential

Scroll Down

With two planting projects in the works, Taylor’s collaboration with partners like West Coast Arborists sheds light on the challenges and benefits of creating a circular economy around urban trees.

Elsewhere in this edition of Wood&Steel, you’ll find stories on two new guitars made with Urban Ash: the GT Urban Ash and the 326ce, a new Grand Symphony featuring our soundport cutaway. These guitars join the Builder’s Edition 324ce, released at the Winter NAMM Show to kick off 2020. We’re sourcing the ash, also known as evergreen or Shamel ash, from our local arborist, West Coast Arborists, Inc. (WCA), who provides professional tree maintenance and management services for nearly 300 public agencies, including cities and counties across California and Arizona.

We love Urban Ash as a tonewood. In fact, Bob Taylor has taken to calling it “the mahogany of Southern California,” but the truth is, until we embraced it, there was no cost-effective infrastructure in place to get the wood to our factory with the quality, quantity and predictability needed to make it work. Shamel ash trees are scattered across the vast landscape of Southern California, on both public and private lands, governed by a patchwork of municipalities, each with their own subset of jurisdictions. When a city needs to remove a tree, an arborist safely takes it down, cleans up the mess and plants another if instructed. The entire system is designed to dispose of the remains as quickly and cheaply as possible. It sounds logical, unless you might want to make something out of the wood.

Of course, some small woodshops and artisans have long acquired urban wood through informal networks and personal relationships, but it’s unpredictable, and the vast majority of good wood is disposed of before anyone knows it was even there. In the grand scheme of things, shopping for urban wood to build a dedicated model of guitar is like looking for needles in a field of haystacks.

Why? Simply put, the practice and infrastructure of removing city trees evolved with little serious consideration for the need to identify usable wood or to make it available for woodworkers and manufacturers. With so many agencies, jurisdiction and lawyers, it’s just simpler to get rid of it.

Several years ago, a beautiful black acacia tree (a.k.a. Tasmanian blackwood) was being removed from a school about a block from Andy Powers’ house in Carlsbad, California. Andy being Andy, walked over and noticed a “very special” section of the lower trunk that had beautiful coloring, and from the area where the bark had chipped away, he could see some curly figure. The crew was cutting the tree into smaller, manageable sections for disposal and chipping up the branches when Andy asked if he could have the piece he’d seen, pointing to his woodshop and offering to pick it up himself with his little Kubota tractor. Not surprisingly, he was politely denied. That wood was all eventually mulched. I’ve heard that story more than once, and I can always hear the slight tinge of pain in Andy’s voice when he thinks about the guitars he would have built.

The Perfect Partner

For a manufacturer like Taylor Guitars, complications surrounding the sourcing of urban wood in any meaningful way have long been a minor frustration. Bob Taylor has been building guitars for a long time, and when it comes to urban trees that have already been cut down, I’ve heard him say more than once, “The moment they know you want it, you can’t have it.”

But as it turns out, there was one place, and one company—WCA—where it all might work for Taylor to build a dedicated line of guitars using urban wood. And ironically, it was right next door to the factory. In fact, on some days I can look out my office window and see their trucks go by. WCA is our local arborist here in El Cajon. They also deal in volume, caring for over six million trees across the state. They have infrastructure, plus a tree inventory software program that shows the species and maintenance records of every tree where they work. As I came to learn, they also had a rather unique log sort yard in Ontario, California, about 120 miles from the Taylor factory. Most importantly, they were also willing to think outside the box.

Until about the year 2000, most of the wood that came to the Ontario yard was sold for firewood or landfilled, but to get ahead of state regulations and offset disposal costs, WCA began separating wood by species as it came in. In Ontario, they had the luxury of space. In time, they began sealing the ends of large, quality logs to prevent cracking, and they bought a Wood-Mizer portable sawmill, launching an urban wood recycling initiative dubbed Street Tree Revival focused largely on selling live edge slabs and dimensional lumber.

Still, the first time anyone from Taylor Guitars stepped foot on that property, only bits and pieces of a supply chain capable of turning discarded city trees into a Taylor guitar existed. WCA might have a sophisticated operation to plant and care for trees, and to safely remove them when called upon, but in the disposal yard they had only basic milling capacity and the ability to deal with urban wood peculiarities such as pieces of metal fence line or nails that are occasionally embedded within city trees. And although they had software to track trees across their network, only trees within a 25- to 50-mile radius were brought to Ontario. It simply didn’t make economic sense to haul trees farther just to turn them into firewood, and they already had more rough slabs than they could sell.

Could this infrastructure really supply a dedicated line of Taylor guitars? Could it be sustained? A venture capitalist might have walked away, but to us, if it couldn’t work here, it couldn’t work anywhere.

To be clear, people have been running urban wood businesses for decades, but I think it’s fair to describe them as provincial enterprises—persistent but small-scale and existing in relative isolation from one another. What we were proposing was something different. Several things would need to be worked out as we went, but in life things tend to happen because people decide to make them happen. And in this case, Bob Taylor, WCA founder Pat Mahoney, and Steve McMinn from Pacific Rim Tonewoods decided to make it happen.

Think of guitars made with urban wood like the early days of solar panels. For decades, solar panels really didn’t make economic sense, but nonetheless people bought them because they felt it was the right thing to do. Much of the manufacturing momentum was fueled by subsidies and grants. Over time the technology improved, problems were overcome by innovation, supply chains evolved, and a viable manufacturing infrastructure was created. Today, I see solar panels on roofs all over Southern California, and they are saving people money and reducing our consumption of fossil fuels. It’s all come a long way since the University of Delaware created Solar One, one of the first solar buildings, in 1973. We’re not asking for subsidies or grants to build guitars, but some interesting things are happening nationally in regard to planting urban trees, creating jobs and providing environmental services.

Grants to Plant Urban Trees

When we introduced the Builder’s Edition 324ce at Winter NAMM 2020 in Anaheim, I wrote in Wood&Steel about the importance of urban trees and the need to plant more. I also mentioned our interest in being a test case, helping to create a circular economy that generates jobs and supports the planting, maintenance, disposal and repurposing of urban trees. It’s obviously still the very early days, but with the release of the 326ce and the GT Urban Ash guitar, we wanted to share some progress.

Here in California, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has an Urban and Community Forestry Program that provides technical assistance and administers grants to local governments and non-profit groups across the state to optimize the benefits of urban forests. Funded projects are designed to synergize with the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Think of things like carbon sequestration, environmental services such as clean air and water, storm water management, reduced energy use, public health, and initiatives like urban revitalization and producing useful products like cleaner energy and quality wood. If you like any of these things, then plant and care for urban trees.

And thanks to Mike Palat, the San Diego Regional Manager at WCA, Taylor Guitars is now part of two such CAL FIRE grants. Mike was one of the first people I met when Bob asked me to start looking at urban trees, and he helped educate me on the issues, including the Kafka-esque labyrinth of associated politics that comes with it. Mike and I are now on the board of Tree San Diego, a non-profit dedicated to increasing the quality and density of San Diego’s urban forest. There are similar organizations across the US and, increasingly, worldwide.

This year, Tree San Diego received a CAL FIRE grant to plant 1,500-plus trees on residential private property in disadvantaged communities in San Diego County, including reservation land in East County, in 2021. The project is called Branch Out San Diego and utilizes aerial imaging data provided by San Diego-based FireWatch, who is really pushing the envelope with aerial imagery to quantify and monitor the benefits of trees and urban forests. Local partners Mundo Gardens and One San Diego will help with community outreach, education and planting events, ensuring that once planted, trees are watered, mulched and monitored. Taylor staff will join in, and we will help get the word out. More on this when the time comes.

Taylor Guitars is also involved in a second CAL FIRE grant that was awarded to the California Urban Forests Council, a group that WCA has long been involved with. The AMPlifying California’s Urban Forestry Movement grant seeks to improve and diversify urban forests in disadvantaged and low-income communities throughout California by planting some 2,000 trees in cities statewide in 2021. The name “AMPlifying” was inspired by Taylor’s commitment to support the project. We’ll be talking more about this one too as details emerge, but confirmed project cities include: Chino, Concord, Glendora, Livermore, Orange, Palm Springs, Pico Rivera, Paramount, Santee, Tracy and Woodland. Both of these grants emphasize planting and caring for trees in disadvantaged and low-income communities because it’s just a fact that well-off neighborhoods tend to have many trees (and all the aforementioned associated benefits), and less-well-off neighborhoods don’t.

As mentioned in a previous article, it’s important to understand that more trees ultimately means greater throughput and more trees that will reach end-of-life in the future. It’s simple math, and even today, many arborists and city officials are struggling with disposal costs. Figuring out a circular economy that creates jobs and supports the planting, maintenance, disposal and repurposing of urban trees is going to be increasingly important. Taylor Guitars will have a bit more to say about this, too, in future editions of Wood&Steel. As Bob likes to say, “Invest in the inevitable.”

Scott Paul is Taylor’s Director of Natural Resource Sustainability.


Three Part Harmony

Scroll Down

Our innovative efforts to preserve the future of ebony, koa and urban trees reveal three profoundly different approaches. Yet all are linked by our commitment to improving local ecosystems and the communities that rely on them.

Elsewhere in this edition of Wood&Steel, you’ll find stories on two new guitars made with Urban Ash: the GT Urban Ash and the 326ce, a new Grand Symphony featuring our soundport cutaway. These guitars join the Builder’s Edition 324ce, released at the Winter NAMM Show to kick off 2020. We’re sourcing the ash, also known as evergreen or Shamel ash, from our local arborist, West Coast Arborists, Inc. (WCA), who provides professional tree maintenance and management services for nearly 300 public agencies, including cities and counties across California and Arizona.

All are connected, however, by our underlying commitment to give back to the people and places where we source while attempting to create a better future for the tonewoods used by our company to build guitars. 

One important reason we want to bring a lens to these projects, beyond our desire to operate with transparency, is to demonstrate what is possible and to inspire others. We may be “just” a guitar company, but with innovative thinking, a collaborative mindset, and the willingness to persevere, we believe a lot can be accomplished.

Meanwhile, as we continue to shape our dynamic new digital platform for Wood&Steel, we look forward to providing a more immersive range of content around these three projects, all in an effort to enrich your perspective into this work. In many ways, the Ebony Project website experience we launched back in 2018 set the stage for the type of storytelling we hope to bring you, and over time, we plan to create more of these experiences through this new Wood&Steel format.

Cameroon: The Ebony Project

Ebony’s Journey: From Forest to Fingerboard
Follow the life cycle of an ebony tree, from a plant in a community nursery in Cameroon to the forest, where it will grow big and tall over many decades; to the Crelicam ebony mill in the country’s capital of Yaoundé; to the Taylor factory in El Cajon, California; and ultimately to the hands of a musician as an integral component of a guitar.

If you’re not familiar with what has developed into what we call the Ebony Project, allow me to recap. It all began in 2011, when Taylor and Spanish tonewood supplier Madinter purchased the Crelicam ebony mill in Yaoundé, Cameroon. We did so for several reasons, but, first and foremost, it allowed us to take direct responsibility for our sourcing of ebony, an important tonewood that our industry has traditionally used. (Every Taylor guitar features an ebony fretboard and bridge.) In short, once Crelicam was purchased, the ethical buck stopped with us. 

The first few years, admittedly, were tough, but we slowly made much-needed physical improvements to the factory, advanced working conditions, and increased efficiencies. In 2013, our efforts were recognized with the U.S. Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence, which recognizes a U.S. company that upholds the highest standards of business and adds value to the communities where they do business abroad.

About this same time, we also became interested in planting ebony for the future. We established an ebony nursery at Crelicam, but the initial results were mixed. As Bob Taylor and others tried to research ebony propagation, they learned that there was a surprising lack of information available pertaining to the species itself (Diospyros crassiflora Hiern). Bob commissioned an independent literature review, which confirmed the dearth of basic information about the ecology of ebony, such as how the tree reproduces. The review concluded that the silviculture of African ebony was largely incomplete. 

For this reason, in 2016 we launched the Ebony Project in partnership with the Congo Basin Institute (CBI). The plan was to conduct basic research into ebony ecology and to plant 15,000 ebony trees in several small communities that buffer the Dja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southeastern Cameroon. Because food security is an important issue in this region, the plantings also include fruit trees to provide a recurring food source for participating communities. Bob and his wife Cindy personally funded the entire project. (For more on these efforts, check out the Ebony Project website along with a few back issues of Wood&Steel, including Vol. 91 / Summer 2018 and Vol. 94 / Summer 2019.   

Since then, CBI’s Dr. Vincent Deblauwe and his research team have made several landmark scientific discoveries, including some of the first documentation of the insects that pollinate the ebony flower and the mammals that disperse the seeds, and have had great success producing and planting ebony. This year we will surpass our original goal of planting 15,000 trees. Several thousand fruit trees have been planted too. 

In 2019, the conservation forecast for West African ebony was improved on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species — due in part to a greater understanding of the species because of Dr. Deblauwe’s work. That same year, a scale-up feasibility study for the Ebony Project was completed, as called for in the Public-Private Partnership Agreement between Taylor Guitars and the Cameroonian Minister of Environment signed at the United Nations Climate Convention negotiations in Bonn, Germany in 2017. Think of the scale-up study as a roadmap for growing the project beyond what Bob and Cindy can fund alone. This year we welcomed the support of the Franklinia Foundation and the University of California, whose contributions will further support ongoing scientific research and have enabled the project to expand from a planned total of six villages to eight by this year’s end. In 2020, participating villages will plant as many as 9,000 ebony trees and 2,800 fruit trees.

Southern California: Urban Ash

Taylor’s Urban Wood Initiative 
Scott Paul explains the vision behind Taylor’s urban wood initiative and our collaboration with West Coast Arborists

At the 2020 Winter NAMM Show held this past January, Taylor unveiled a new guitar, the Builder’s Edition 324ce, and with it also introduced a promising new tonewood to the acoustic guitar world: Urban Ash, more commonly known as Shamel or Evergreen Ash (Fraxinus udhei). What we call Urban Ash is native to the semi-arid regions of Mexico and parts of Central America but was brought to California by Archie Shamel in the early 1950s. Shamel worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and thought the ash species desirable as a fast-growing shade tree amid Southern California’s post-war home construction boom. The species was propagated by local nurseries and planted across the region, and today is common from Northern to Southern California. While still planted today, some older trees are reaching the end of their lifespan and are being removed.

The Challenges of Maintaining an Urban Forest
On public land, the city or town decides what to plant, when to plant, and whether to care for or remove a tree. Unfortunately, tree planting, maintenance and removal are typically grossly underfunded line items on any given city’s budget, often competing with other vital public services like police and fire departments for scarce resources. As a result, in the United States, the average life span for an urban tree is only eight years. Trees are often neglected (not adequately watered) and sometimes uprooted by an everchanging urban environment. This said, many trees do survive, grow, thrive and become large in time. 

There are many legitimate reasons why a city tree must eventually be removed, such as old age, public safety if the tree is weakened by disease, invasive pests or storms, and in some cases to make room for development. This gives rise to social tension. Simply put, we all want to plant more trees — after all, trees are a good thing — but existing city trees have a finite life in spite of the multiple benefits that they provide. When a city does decide to take down a tree, many citizens understandably get upset and, on occasion, may seek to save a tree without fully understanding the need for renewal. To further complicate matters, historically there hasn’t been a high-value market for the wood from these removed trees, and the cost of disposing city trees is becoming increasingly expensive.

A Second Life for Urban Trees
With the release of the Builder’s Edition 324ce, Taylor has opened up a new sustainability initiative that is exploring ways to turn end-of-life urban trees into high-value products that can hopefully support the regreening of our urban infrastructure and, perhaps, in time, ease the pressure on forests elsewhere. In doing so, we are aware of both the decline in urban tree cover worldwide and the fact that arborists and city officials are struggling with escalating disposal costs and the political turmoil that can accompany urban tree removal.

As we do with everything, Taylor Guitars will attempt to use business to drive positive change. As I described in my Wood&Steel column, “Seeing the Urban Forest for the Trees” (Vol 96 / 2020 edition, page 8), figuring out a circular economy that creates jobs and supports the planting, maintenance, disposal and repurposing of urban trees is going to be increasingly important. Our goal is to see that the maximum benefits of trees are considered for all of society to enjoy, such as air and water quality, energy savings, and mental and spiritual well-being. We obviously can’t do this alone, and this is why we’re partnering with our local arborist here in El Cajon — West Coast Arborists, Inc., a well-established municipal tree maintenance company that works across the entire state of California. Together, we can attempt to lead by example. In time, we hope to expand our efforts everywhere our brand can reach. Soon I hope to update you on several urban tree planting initiatives that Taylor and WCA will be involved with. 

To learn more about the Builder’s Edition 324ce and our new partnership with West Coast Arborists, please see Wood&Steel Vol 96 2020 Issue.

Hear the Builder’s Edition 324ce
Taylor’s Andy Powers plays a Builder’s Edition 324ce featuring Urban Ash back and sides.

Hawaii: Native Forest Restoration

Many Wood&Steel readers will recognize the name Paniolo Tonewoods. A joint venture between tonewood sawmill/supplier Pacific Rim Tonewoods and Taylor Guitars, the company was established in 2015 with the goal of cutting koa trees to make guitars while simultaneously contributing to the long-term vitality of native Hawaiian forests. I realize it may sound counterintuitive to cut trees in the name of forest recovery, but due in part to the nature of island ecology, and Hawaiian koa in particular, Paniolo will improve the quality of the Hawaiian forests where it operates over time. Let me explain how.

Island ecosystems such as Hawaii’s are especially vulnerable to invasive species. After all, Hawaii is among the most isolated archipelagos in the world, resulting in unique plant and animal species, which developed in this isolation and are thus ill-suited to competition and disruption. A majority of forest ecosystems in Hawaii have been in a state of slow decline due to invasive weed species, fire and predation by introduced grazing animals such as sheep and cattle. Kahili ginger, for example, forms in vast, dense colonies that choke understory vegetation, earning it the dubious distinction of being included on the Invasive Species Specialist Group list of 100 most invasive species in the world. Such invasive “transformer” plant species have the capacity to modify or displace entire ecosystems. Various grass species, which have evolved with fire, have been introduced in Hawaii to improve grazing quality. They also provide the fine fuels to carry devastating fires into native forests, which are not at all fire-adapted. Exacerbating all this, understory grazing by non-native deer, feral sheep and cattle lead to the chewing, stomping and destruction of young trees, which lack defenses. Naturally germinating young koa is like an all-you-can-eat salad bar for these roaming ruminants. This is why fencing, weed management and fire breaks are all so important. The Hawaiian native forest areas where Paniolo Tonewoods operates need proper management to recover. And proper forest management is not cheap.  

Paniolo Tonewoods was created to ensure a future supply for koa tonewood by regenerating koa within native forests, installing fencing, providing fire protection, and removing invasive weeds. This is complemented with the natural germination of koa seeds that remain buried in the soil or by the planting of thousands of koa seedlings grown in nurseries. Despite these lofty goals, during its first two years, Paniolo obtained koa the same way we always have, by purchasing select logs from private lands as they became available. This changed in in 2016, when Paniolo began working with a private ranch on Maui.

This ranch had 20-plus acres of 30-year-old planted koa trees in two groves that had started to decline and show signs of rot. (Koa wood is very susceptible to rot, and the ranch managers knew that these trees would only get worse.) These unique groves had originally been established on a remote part of the property, and unfortunately, wild deer found their way through the fence and began eating the young koa saplings, stunting and disfiguring their growth. Conventional wisdom in 2016 suggested that 30-year old koa under the best of circumstances was of no real economic value. Nonetheless, Paniolo worked with Taylor to address quality standards and found the guitar wood in these trees. Proceeds of this sale allowed the ranch to build additional new deer-proof fencing and to expand their ongoing koa planting and maintenance efforts on their property. They continue to plant koa on their property at a rate of 10-15 acres per year. 

The next project for Paniolo Tonewoods was Honaunau, on forestland owned by the largest private landowner in Hawaii. Here again, Paniolo Tonewoods used an innovative approach pioneered by the U.S. Forest Service. Instead of paying for logs or harvesting rights directly to the landowner, which is the norm, Paniolo was allowed to cut a select number of designated trees, and in exchange, was responsible to pay dollar for dollar for a host of forest improvement projects. These include new fences to keep damaging feral sheep and cattle out, improved fire breaks, and environmental and archeological studies. To date, this has resulted in the re-investment of over $500,000 into the koa forests of Honaunau. This project also continues and is projected to re-invest an additional $500,000 in the next few years — all of this on land that the landowner did not otherwise plan to regenerate and protect. Thus, another 1,600 acres of Hawaiian native forest is being improved and protected.

Paniolo’s Future Koa Forest
On March 9, 2018, Bob Taylor purchased 564 acres of rolling pastureland on the north end of Hawaii Island. This land is now managed by Paniolo Tonewoods, who will, over time, re-create a native Hawaiian forest on lands that had been cleared for pasture use for at least 100 years. The plan is for Paniolo to plant the steep-sloped areas in mixed-species native forest and to plant the more gently sloped areas with koa for timber production. Apart from a simple road network and small mill site, when the forest is mature (beginning roughly 30 years after planting and continuing in perpetuity), it will remain in relative closed canopy and is projected to produce more than twice the volume of koa wood that Taylor Guitars uses today via selective cutting of trees.

It is important to understand that as of today, Paniolo itself has only planted a few trees. Our work to date has enabled others to do so and has protected 1,600 acres of native forest in Honaunau (not an insignificant achievement), but, having been around for a mere four years, Paniolo is only starting. In 2020, we will start planting out Bob’s property, but to do it right takes time. As we go, Paniolo will continue its research into growing trees with superior quality and hopefully add to growing seed and plant improvement efforts statewide.

Scott Paul is Taylor’s Director of Natural Resource Sustainability.