Monthly Archives: May 2014

What the market wants is not always what the research says is the best

This story has nothing to do with blackwood, but in the tonewood business this recent research regarding Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) should be causing considerable discussion.

Sitka spruce is the mostly widely used timber in soundboards in acoustic guitars. Sitka spruce grows in the NW USA, western Canada and into Alaska. It has been heavily logged over the last 100 years to meet many market demands and end uses. Consequently sources of big old trees suitable for the tonewood market are becoming scarce.

Tradition has it that slow, even-grown sitka spruce makes the best soundboards. This tradition of slow even growth for soundboard timber goes back centuries to the violin makers of Italy, and possibly before that time.

But with the supply of this kind of timber in peril, a bit of research can go a long way.

One of the major suppliers of Sitka soundboard timber is Pacific Rim Tonewoods, based in Washington State. They recently sponsored some research to compare the wood properties of Sitka spruce of different growth rates.

It’s not the best written report, and there is no presentation of statistical analysis. But despite this the results should be turning the musical instrument world on it’s head.

Guess what? After hundreds of years of tradition the research clearly showed that faster grown Sitka spruce had better sound qualities than slow grown Sitka!

Fast grown Sitka in this case was defined as having an average annual growth ring width of 4.5mm, compared to slow grown Sitka at 1.1mm ring width.


This is great news as it means that much more timber is now potentially available for the soundboard market. I say “potentially” because in the music instrument market traditions can be hard to break. You and I as consumers need to understand the consequences of our choices. But in this case changing our spending preferences is a win for us and a win for the forests.

So next time you go shopping for a new acoustic guitar, look out for those guitars with the nice even, wide growth rings. They will give you a better sound, and help save the forests. I noticed one in my local music store just the other day.

Thanks to Pacific Rim Tonewoods for helping us all make better choices for ourselves and the planet.

Storey (sic) needs a happy ending

The Mercury 10/5/2014.

It was great seeing someone from the special timbers industry, who understands that peace is fundamental to the future of the forest industry getting some good media coverage.

John Young

John Young, wooden boat builder and founder of the Shipwrights Point School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Franklin, had many interesting comments and suggestions to make about the past and current state of the Tasmanian forest industry, and forest management. And while I totally agree that peace in the forests is the first priority and absolutely fundamental to the future of the industry, Mr Young’s comments and ideas raised more questions than provided answers.

As a special timbers commercial competitor on private land, Mr. Young’s comments left me with the impression he does not regard special timbers as a commercial resource requiring fully dedicated profit-driven commercial management. Such a position clearly undermines the ability of Tasmanian farmers to grow commercial blackwood. It also shows a great disregard for Tasmanian taxpayers who are currently subsidising the special timbers industry, while our State health and education systems are in financial crisis.

If Tasmania cannot maximise the sustainable commercial return from it’s public special timbers resource then it should not be logged. Special timbers should not continue to be managed as a taxpayer-funded community service.

My other concern regarding Mr Young’s comments is that I’ve been reading and hearing “alternative” forest management strategies like this for the past 30+ years.  All of the dreams of “if only they” and “why don’t they” of a better forestry world. I think what the past 30 years have clearly demonstrated is that these dreams have never amounted to anything. The politicians, Forestry Tasmania and the forest industry “heavy weights” have never expressed any interest in changing the pro-industrial mass-harvest forestry model. Not in any comprehensive meaningful way. Certainly the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement (TFA) showed no change at all to the status quo and neither has the new Liberal State government.

And now the sector of the forest industry most clearly disadvantaged by this pro-industrial model, the special timbers industry, is being used by the politicians and sectors of the community as the pretext for returning Tasmania to the forestry wars. Tearing up the TFA is all about the special timbers industry. Blatant naked hypocrisy!

There is not bright new happy future. There is no special timbers business plan or management plan.

I think after 30 years of failed “alternative” forestry dreams it should be obvious to just about everyone that the dreamers are now part of the problem. They are now being shamelessly manipulated for political ends. Keep dreaming and you help to feed the cycle of forestry conflict and failure.

The Tasmanian community has paid a huge price for the forestry wars and it is time to stop.

It is blatantly obvious after 30+ years that Tasmania does not have the skills required to commercially manage its public native forest in a manner that is sustainable, maximises commercial returns, whilst minimising social and political conflict.

It is time for the forest industry, including the special timbers industry, to move 100% onto private land. To me that seems the only way we will ever put the forestry wars behind us.

For Mr Young and the wooden boat builders that will be a difficult transition. Mr Young wants peace and a happy ending. But the past 30 years have shown the reality regarding boat building timbers on public land, and that reality shows no sign of changing. On the contrary the situation is getting worse.

The only happy ending that is now apparent will be when we end public native forest logging. The last State election demonstrated that beyond any doubt whatsoever.

Bob Taylor wants more Tasmanian blackwood growers

The latest Wood and Steel magazine produced by Taylor Guitars just arrived in my mail box. Here’s a letter in the “Ask Bob [Taylor]” column (p.6) that just “ticked all my boxes”. I couldn’t resist posting it here. The Ask Bob column lists a selection of letters sent in by Taylor guitar owners which are then answered by Bob Taylor.

Bob Taylor

Here’s the letter:

I picked up a used [Grand Symphony] 426 with Tasmanian blackwood back, sides and top. After playing it a few weeks, it seemed to meld with my playing style (I got used to how to fingerpick it), and I’m one of those people who believes that good guitars will adjust themselves to a player’s sound. It sounds absolutely stunning with the kinds of blues I play. I think it sounds better than any all-koa, mahogany or walnut guitar I’ve heard. I’d bet you could find a pretty good market for this model with acoustic blues players looking for that really old-fashioned sound that can be elusive. Have you considered making this a regular model?

Jim Sabatke

And here’s the reply from Bob Taylor:

Actually, Jim, in some ways we prefer the sound quality of Tasmanian blackwood to koa. Both are acacia trees and are nearly identical, or as close as cousins can be to one another, but blackwood has a very nice sound. We have been considering using blackwood on a regular basis for many years, but the challenge is getting a regular supply of guitar-grade wood. We have spent considerable time and energy in the country, working and developing relationships. We want to obtain wood in the most ethical and environmentally sound manner, so we’ve backed away from the traditional logging supply in favor of more sustainable methods that benefit local people. Tasmania has so much going for it with the species available there, and the added plus is that it’s a well-developed country rather than a poverty-stricken country. This condition puts many wonderful rules in place, and we are now working on some wonderful possibilities for obtaining blackwood. Currently we have a great relationship with a man who gets blackwood in the most ideal way. You can expect to see at least limited runs of guitars with this wood for years to come. Someday it may also become a standard model, but it’s too soon to tell at this point.

Bob Taylor

I’ve been learning the guitar the last 4 years and like Mr Sabatke my inspiration are the old pre-war blues players; people like Skip James, Son House, Furry Lewis and Scrapper Blackwell. Just a man (or woman), their voice and an acoustic guitar. To me it’s the perfect combination. I would love an all-blackwood Taylor 426 like the one Mr Sabatke picked up (and featured in my December 2011 blog). The perfect country blues axe!

I think Bob Taylor’s reply contains many interesting points. Remember Bob Taylor is President of Taylor Guitars, one of the biggest guitar makers in the USA. So these comments should be of interest to many Tasmanians, especially Tasmanian farmers.

Bob Taylor’s response can be summarised as follows:

  1. We like Tasmanian blackwood a lot;
  2. We want to buy Tasmanian blackwood from private growers;
  3. We want more growers to help establish a regular supply;
  4. If we get a regular supply going then blackwood will become one of our standard timbers.

This is a clear signal of support for Tasmanian farmers to sit up and take notice.

Do Tasmanian farmers want to grow quality sustainable blackwood timber to supply Taylor Guitars?

Do Tasmanian farmers want to use their existing blackwood resource to build a sustainable supply for Bob Taylor right now?

There is a significant existing blackwood resource on private land in Tasmania that has the potential to supply the guitar industry. All we need to do is work together on this. This is a long term project. Utilise the existing resource and grow more blackwood.

Taylor’s “man” in Tasmania is Robert MacMillan of Tasmanian Tonewoods.

”Someday it may also become a standard model, but it’s too soon to tell at this point.”

I don’t think it’s too soon at all. I believe there is enough existing private “guitar-grade” blackwood on Tasmanian farms right now to make Bob Taylor’s wish a reality. With improved management and new plantations we can build this opportunity further.

So how can we make this opportunity happen?


To date Bob Taylor has been pretty quiet about his support for blackwood. No doubt running a major company keeps him busy. No doubt he’s also cautious about wading into the war zone that is the forest industry in Tasmania.

But the war zone shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon, so if Bob Taylor wants to get his wish then wade in he must. A visit to Tasmania with some discussion, promotion and media coverage will go a long way to getting this opportunity started. The local media could show more interest as well, and not just peddle the old forest war clichés.

Quality, Price and Supply

Travelling around Tasmania picking up small volumes of blackwood from dozens if not hundreds of farms will be a challenging business. Keeping costs low so that everyone gets their fair share of the rewards will be important. Having the right equipment for the business will be essential. Maintaining and building strong long-term relationships and trust will be critical.

Establishing clear simple pricing structures and clear simple sales contracts will be vital. I hear many stories of farmers who have very optimistic expectations whenever someone enquires about buying their blackwood. Certainly high quality figured blackwood is worth good money, but plain grain blackwood is another matter. Often the quality of the timber isn’t known until the tree is “on the ground”. Given the general lack of experience in the timber market and poor market transparency it may take some time before farmers become familiar with the blackwood timber market. And it does take time to build trust and good relationships.

Harvesting guitar-grade blackwood from Tasmanian farms will also generate volumes of blackwood not suitable for guitars but suitable for other uses. Markets will need to be found for this timber.

Hopefully all of this extra activity will encourage Tasmanian farmers to want to learn to grow commercial blackwood and help build a growers cooperative. That’s my wish!

So if you are a Tasmanian farmer/landowner and want to be a part of Bob Taylor’s wish then please contact me or Robert MacMillan.

Thanks to Bob Taylor for his continuing support and belief in Tasmanian blackwood. Congratulations on the 40th anniversary of the Taylor Guitar company. And please come to Tasmania and promote you dream.