At J. Gibson McIlvain lumber company, we know that the last thing our customers want to do is compromise quality in favor of sustainability. At the same time, many are seeing the necessity of responsible harvesting practices. As lumber industry specialists, we have a vested interest in sustainability, and yet if customers don’t want the lumber we make available, we won’t be in business long enough to appreciate the long-term results. But you don’t have to take our word for it.
In May 2012, the President of Taylor Guitars produced an insightful video detailing the issues he’s seen with Ebony. To be clear, we don’t actually deal in Ebony; however, the type of quandary that Bob Taylor describes applies to many species of wood that we do carry.
Unethical logging practices are certainly not limited to the Ebony market, or what falls beyond legal limits. Like Taylor Guitars, we consider irresponsible practices—legal or not—to be off-limits. The scenario of 10 Ebony trees cut down for just 1 completely black one that are taken to the mill is a sad commentary on our acquired tastes and their socioeconomic implications.
Since Ebony with color boasts the same quality as pure black Ebony, Tayor believes that “living within the truth of the forest” is more important than bowing to a narrow view of beauty, causing unnecessarily wasted natural resources and manpower. His assertion rings true with many lumber species: “The nature of what we thought was beautiful needs to change.” If Taylor’s mentality takes off, the ramifications for the Ebony industry would be remarkable: Instead of 9 trees left to rot on the forest floor for every 1 that’s milled, all 10 would be utilized.
Instead of such a pro-active approach to increased B grade wood appreciation, some species have undergone a change in valuation based on limited supply or change in tastes. For instance, Cherry with sapwood was once seen as lower grade, while today, it is the norm. Knot-free Walnut was also seen to be unacceptable, while today’s customers appreciate wood with “character,” understanding that no organic materials are quite perfect. When we learn to appreciate B grade materials while A grade is still available, we increase sustainability and set the industry up for long-term success.
Interestingly, Taylor Guitars is not exactly issuing a plea for luthiers or instrumentalists to accept B grade Ebony; instead, they’re uniquely poised to control the Ebony market. With a virtual monopoly over the Ebony market, Taylor can actually determine that colored Ebony will be harvested, milled, and sold. Just like we at J. Gibson McIlvain have to purchase a certain amount of short boards with some exotic species, Taylor customers as well as other luthiers will just have to come to grips with the fact that Ebony may not always be pure black.
So does prioritizing sustainability lead to compromise? There is a difference between compromising traditional perceptions of beauty or standard sizes and compromising quality. At J. Gibson McIlvain, we side with Taylor Guitars in thinking outside the beauty box while continuing to provide top-quality lumber.
Photo credit: Bottom © Elnur / Fotolia.