In a recent company meeting, Bob Taylor gave a talk on the topic of tonewood sourcing with about 50 attentive Taylor staffers on the Taylor campus in El Cajon California.
“As we design new guitars, it’s incredibly important for us to stack more reasons into why a guitar should exist,” he says. “It can’t just be because it’s a good guitar, or because a player wants it, or because it will sell well. There has to be an additional component of environmental sustainability and responsibility.”
This declaration won’t come as a surprise to anyone already familiar with Taylor’s ebony initiatives in Cameroon over the past four years, or the company’s conservation-minded mahogany forestry partnerships in Honduras over the past 13. But now more than ever, with Andy comfortably established as the creative wellspring for the next generation of Taylor guitar design, Bob has been freed up to devote much more time to another of his passions: developing innovative wood stewardship programs and partnerships.
“I don’t have words to express how lucky I am to be able to go away and concentrate on these projects and come back knowing that Andy is making our guitars sound and look better in every way,” Bob says. “And they’ll continue to get better, because Andy’s a better guitar maker than I am.
“I’m worried about 50-75 years from now,” he tells the group. “Are we just going to make mahogany and rosewood guitars until there’s no more mahogany and rosewood, and then confront it, or are we going to start doing things now for the future, because the future will come whether we do something or not. So we want to jump in now.”
The truth is that with ebony and mahogany, Taylor jumped in a while ago. But Bob’s current thinking represents an even deeper and more ambitious commitment to the extended future, even though he’s unlikely to see the benefits in his lifetime. But that’s precisely the point. Hopefully future generations of guitar players will.
More than ever before, many of the classic tonewoods of the world face an uncertain future. Many woods that are coveted by acoustic guitar makers and players, such as rosewood, mahogany, koa, ebony and cocobolo, are sourced from exotic, tropical regions of the world. In some cases those forests have been gradually depleted due to decades or even centuries of overharvesting and, especially in many developing countries, the lack of the type of forestry management that would support a sustainable consumption of the resource.
In recent decades, provisions have been established in an effort to protect wildlife resources from commercial exploitation. One that might be familiar to guitar players or wood workers is CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international agreement between governments, to which they agree to adhere voluntarily. (The agreement is complemented by the national legislation within each country.) Species that face threats to their longterm survival are categorized into one of three appendices depending on the degree of threat.
Guitar players may also be aware of the 2008 amendment to the U.S. Lacey Act, or its recently enacted EU equivalent, Forest Law Enforcement,
Governance and Trade (FLEGT), which bans the commerce of products made from illegally logged woods. The legislation has compelled manufacturers who source wood to ensure that it has been harvested legally and in accordance with its local governing authority, which has helped stem the flow of illegally cut wood. Nonetheless, between past consumption and the increased demand for woods in an ever-growing world, more than ever, responsible forestry is a critical component of ensuring future availability.
For Taylor, compliance with CITES and Lacey merely represents the bare minimum given the stakes. Bob feels that developing bolder, more innovative solutions is also part of Taylor’s ethical responsibility to the environment.
“We’re starting to see the doors slowly close in front of us, and we’re trying to prop them open to build a future,” he says. “There are ways to manage a forest sustainably if you follow certain rules. But in some cases we’ve had to make new rules. We’re doing it in Africa; we’ve done it in Honduras.”
Signs of progress in Cameroon: Above: A view of Crelicam’s grounds shortly after Taylor’s co-purchase of the ebony mill; Below: A similar perspective during recent construction and landscaping projects
One of the biggest investments of Bob’s time and Taylor’s resources over the past several years has been their coownership and operation of an ebony mill in Cameroon.
In the process of researching the ebony trade in Cameroon prior to purchasing the mill with partner company Madinter Trade, a longtime wood supplier to Taylor, Bob discovered that nine of 10 ebony trees cut in Cameroon were being left on the forest floor because they didn’t feature the pure black color that was preferred by instrument makers. The revelation led Bob to encourage other instrument makers to broaden their grading specifications and use more wood with color variegation. Taylor’s work there is meant to transform the ebony trade in almost every way: to reduce waste by using more of the ebony; to use Taylor’s expertise to reduce cutting inefficiencies; and to bring tools and training to Cameroonian employees at the mill, which will enable them to add greater value to the wood by processing it into instrument parts, and in turn enjoy a greater financial return on their natural resource. (Taylor’s work in Cameroon was recognized with the Award for Corporate Excellence in January of 2014, presented by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.) The good news is that Cameroon has fairly good laws governing the harvesting of ebony, and if followed, in most opinions could yield a sustainable supply. The challenging part, Bob says, is curbing the portion that is removed illegally.
Bob goes on to explain how furthering these initiatives can help conserve ebony over the long term.
“The more we transform the ebony into parts, and the more we increase yield, the more income we derive from the ebony we cut, thus lowering the amount of ebony needed to pay the fixed overhead of operations,” he says. “Ultimately this will allow us to take less ebony from the forest and provide more economy for the locals, while still supplying customers.”
Despite the amount of dedication required to improve the milling operation in a developing country such as Cameroon — Bob says it’s the most challenging initiative he’s ever taken on - he’s willing to continue that investment into the future because of the greater long-term benefits.
Bob’s first-hand experiences in Cameroon, Honduras and other remote areas in developing countries have given him a thorough understanding of the many challenges of sourcing wood from these regions. Factors such as remote location, primitive tools, and other inefficiencies, along with the sometimes glacial pace of doing business and shifting political winds, can be frustrating, to say the least. While Taylor is working to address the issues it can control through better tools, training, building ethical relationships, and other innovative solutions, Bob knows that it’s nearly impossible to predict the longterm future, say 75 years from now, when operating in a developing country. As a result, he and others have been exploring additional forestry solutions within the U.S., whose laws and forest management infrastructure currently make long-term implementation more viable. Developing sustainable tonewood forestry programs domestically, he says, may prove to be an essential ingredient of a diversified blueprint for the future of sourcing by helping to relieve some of the supply pressure on other more stressed regions of the world.
Looking Ahead: Maple and Beyond
Bob with Steve McMinn in front of a maple tree in which a section of bark was removed to look for evidence of figure. Even if figure is discovered, there is no guarantee that it will be prevalent throughout the entire tree
For many years, one of Taylor’s valued supplier relationships has been with Pacific Rim Tonewoods, their longtime provider of spruce, maple and cedar, and whose mill also cuts the Hawaiian koa logs that they source from Hawaii. Taylor and PRT wood teams have developed a highly collaborative, solution-minded working relationship, and Bob considers PRT founder and owner Steve McMinn both a sharp minded industry colleague and great friend.
“I’ve always looked for intelligence and passion and longevity with our suppliers,” Bob says. “Steve embodies that to the fullest, and so does Vidal from Madinter Trade, our partner with the ebony mill in Cameroon.”
“A lot of guitars we’ve made over the years, from limited editions to other models, have been influenced by a desire to utilize more of the wood from the trees that Steve harvests,” Bob says. “The fact that we make the Baby Taylor and the GS Mini, for example, allows us to use smaller pieces of spruce that can’t be used for bigger guitars.”
That symbiotic manufacturer-supplier relationship has led to unique and multifaceted collaborations between Taylor and PRT that may also prove to be key components of a framework for future tonewood forestry. One project involves innovative research that McMinn has pursued regarding the propagation of maple, which is prolific in the Pacific Northwest, where PRT is based. Maple’s proximity, coupled with McMinn’s extensive knowledge of the local ecosystem and good forest management, has led him to explore the possible cultivation of tonewood forests, where maple trees could be grown in ways that are optimal for musical instruments.
“Our forests in the U.S. aren’t pressured and endangered in the same way,” Bob says. “They’ve been properly cultivated and cut and regrown.”
Another collaboration Bob and Steve recently launched was the formation of a company in Hawaii with the intent to engage in sustainable koa forestry there. While the venture is only in the early stages of development, both are excited about the long-term potential there. Because of Hawaii’s diverse array of climatic zones — the state features 11 of the 13 that exist in the world — it might also be possible to cultivate other species there in the future. Some of the research findings on tree propagation from Steve’s maple research may have broader implications in Hawaii down the road.
“We’re looking into growing mahogany and doing a study on the possibility of growing ebony,” Bob says. “Before I die, we’ll have forests planted there, and those forests are going to be able to supply our company and other companies with some good tonewoods.”
Bob feels fortunate that he personally and Taylor as a company are in a position to pursue these kinds of forward-thinking initiatives.
“It’s exciting to have an opportunity to do something really good for the future of guitar making,” he says. “It’s really that same feeling I got in Cameroon, where I thought, we’re not going to do things that way anymore because it’s my company now and I can change the rules. We’re going to start taking care of forests. And with Taylor, it’s a combination of first generational ownership and entrepreneurship. My partner supports me, and I don’t really have to ask approval from a board of directors.”
The fact that Taylor is now a large manufacturer also helps.
“Now we have the girth to accomplish something, whereas when we were smaller, we didn’t,” Bob explains. “We didn’t order enough of anything. When you’re smaller, you really have to just take what you get. I like to think that being bigger now allows us more power to go do something right, instead of more power to do something wrong.”
Another of Bob’s hopes for the future is that the innovative projects that Taylor and its partners pursue will in turn inspire others.
“We’re going to push the envelope, and, realistically, some things will work and some won’t,” he says. “But we’ll learn as we go. One reason I’m going forward with projects like in Hawaii is to be an example, to encourage others. Hopefully they will do an even better job than us.”