Eye fillet, sausages and guitars

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I’ve recently been engaged in an email discussion with the supply chain manager of a major guitar maker that has opened my eyes to some of the wood resource and marketing issues facing the industry.

The conversation started when I enquired whether the company would be interested in buying farm-grown Tasmanian blackwood to use in their guitars. The unequivocal answer came back that to date the company has found it difficult to sell guitars made from Tasmanian blackwood and hence would be reluctant to purchase more timber.

This and a few other comments they made got me thinking.

For the past 100 years and more the guitar industry has been able to access the very best cuts of wood available from around the world with which to build guitars. Rosewood, mahogany, ebony, quilted koa and maple, etc. All of these premium cuts have been accessible largely due to the plundering of the worlds old-growth and rainforest that is now coming to an end.

The guitar industry was like a butcher shop that only sold eye fillet steak. No mince, no sausages. Just premium quality meat. The fact that the rest of the forest products went to other markets helped the guitar industry enormously.

But the wild herds of bison, like the old growth and rainforests, have nearly all gone. Now the butcher shop has to start stocking rump steak, as well as the mince and sausages in order to stay in business, but after 100+ years the customers are finding it hard adjust to this change in diet.

So too the guitar makers are finding it difficult to identify and source sausages and mince that customers might want to buy. Many guitar makers appear to still be peddling nothing but premium cuts.

The words “alternative woods”, “sustainable” and “certified” are slowly becoming part of the daily life for guitar makers, and less so for consumers.

But the butcher shop analogy does have its limitations.

Many of these alternative woods are perfectly good for making quality guitars. In no way do they reflect a move to mince or sausage grade timber, but they do reflect the changes being forced upon guitar makers and reluctant consumers by a changing wood resource. But to the ordinary guitar buyer it feels like an eye fillet vs sausages decision.

What’s worse, the eye fillet, mince and sausages are often all priced the same. So given the choice the consumer is reluctant to try the alternative woods. I think this has been one of the problems with introducing Tasmanian blackwood onto the international tonewood market. Customers often need some incentives to try a new product.

And it’s not just new species of timber that is challenging guitar makers and buyers.

In some cases the eye fillet steak has simply been wood that is highly figured like maple and koa, with plain, straight-grain maple and koa having never featured in the guitar market to any extent. So the above major guitar maker has excess quantities of straight-grain koa and maple wood that they cannot sell to the guitar-buying public. Beautiful timber and great for making quality guitars but it’s just not eye fillet steak!

This is curious because straight grain rosewood and mahogany are perfectly acceptable to the guitar buying public. Years of being fed eye fillet steak has clearly made the market resistant to change.

Now from a forester and commercial blackwood grower’s view point all of this is a bit of a disaster.

Going back to the butcher shop again, a cattle farmer would quickly go out of business if they could only sell eye fillet steak. To be viable the farmer has to sell the whole animal with the various cuts of meat priced according to the supply and the demand. Basic economics 101.

Ditto for tree growers. Highly figured wood is rare. Straight-grain wood is more common. But the guitar market doesn’t reflect this supply situation, either in price or in marketing.

If guitar makers want to help tree growers, then they need to adjust their product development, marketing and sales to better reflect the supply situation regarding plain vs feature grain timber. Plain grain koa, maple and Tasmanian blackwood are great quality tonewoods just like plain grain mahogany and rosewood. Feature grain wood of any species should attract a premium price that is clearly over and above plain grain guitars.

Some guitar makers are better at product design than others. Putting a clear finish on a plain grain guitar especially if the wood is new or alternative may not meet with much buyer enthusiasm. Staining, edge-shading,  a bit of bling, and a price to encourage buyer interest will go a long way to help overcome the conservative guitar buyer.

But for the moment it seems that this major guitar maker won’t be encouraging Tasmanian farmers into the commercial blackwood tonewood market anytime soon.

Comments and ideas?

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2 responses to “Eye fillet, sausages and guitars

  1. No surprises there Gordon, guitar grade timber is only a small portion of the products that can be cut from even a large diameter blackwood. Yes, aiming for the highest value market is great but what do you do with all the other cuts? Perhaps a better way of looking at things is to consider markets for the bulk of the product that can be produced (sawn timber for cabinetry, furniture and flooring, perhaps veneer) and if there is a market for the small portion of timber that is suitable for guitars on top of that then great.

    • Hi Stuart,
      Besides the local and international tonewood markets, the only other markets currently available for private blackwood growers are a very small volume of custom furniture and craft makers, and then there is the export log market. The major existing cabinetry, furniture and flooring markets are all bound to the Crown sawmillers and the public native forest resource. They don’t appear to be interested in supporting private blackwood growers, and perhaps they have limited ability to pay a competitive market price after years of dependence on a taxpayer-subsidised blackwood price.
      My other reason for focusing on the tonewood market is the quality of the existing (unmanaged) private blackwood resource, which is best suited to supply the short log length, high-value tonewood market.
      But my main point anyway was that the tonewood market needs a better approach to shifting from an eye-fillet steak market, to a whole-of-cow market.
      Cheers!

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