Eco-Luthiery: 7 Cool Ways to Help The Planet and Have Fun Doing It
Although perhaps not widely acknowledged, guitar building has traditionally been in many ways an environmentally irreverent art form. Mass single-species deforestation, solvent-based finishing, the widespread use of plastics in construction, overseas shipping, plastic/polystyrene packaging – all of these environmental detractors can be linked with common guitar manufacture and supply processes. We all want to keep acquiring and playing great guitars though, so what to do?
In recent years in light of the 2009 Gibson tonewoods saga, a number of manufacturers pledged to improve their record by signing up to a Greenpeace initiative to help introduce alternative timbers and stamp out illegal import/export of protected old-growth forest timber.
In addition to this, many manufacturers are now moving away from solvent-based paints now that a number of high-quality water based lacquers have presented themselves as alternatives in the marketplace.
Sustainability and environmental responsibility has always been front of mind in my workshop. I come from a family background where conservation was a necessary part of survival; and just prior to registering this business had spent weeks hiking through drought-ridden parts of Europe. These experiences fuelled in me the desire to do everything I could to preserve our precious natural resources. I can’t state that I’m carbon neutral (a long-term goal), but there are a few consistent practices taken here to minimise environmental impact:
- All guitars are built using bolt-on necks with brass neck inserts and machine screws. This construction method allows for minimal wastage, as the starting thickness for the piece of timber can be a lot less than a traditional glue-in or neck thru-style attachment. Also, the method of attaching the headstock circumvents the neck-breakage issues that plague some set-neck designs (such as the Les Paul). Lastly, the mating of raw timber surfaces encourages the transfer and retention of vibration – and thus sustain – from neck to body.
- Guitar bodies are finished using either a) water based lacquer in a professional spray booth with high-quality carbon filters; or b) Organoil/beeswax oil/wax finish. Our lungs love that.
- The use of plastics is kept to a minimum. Humbucker bobbins and perhaps a plastic switch tip are about the size of it. Steamed timber bindings add a certain class to the instrument.
- Rather than using shell or plastic inlays, I’m moving towards marquetry (timber inlay) as an upgrade. Highly-polished plain timber fretboards can look shockingly beautiful, especially where the timber has a nice streaky figure. Given that shell dust inhalation is a common affliction amongst those who use it long-term, I’m happy to take another path.
- When sourcing timber for guitars I first consider the local availability of either Australian timbers, salvage timbers (some beautiful salvage Jarrah in stock at the moment), or imported timber that has been in the country in storage for some time. I find people who are looking to make a statement with something customised are often very open to using something other than the ubiquitous combination of Rosewood/Maple/Mahogany.
- Only the highest quality hardware and electrical components are used in my guitars, which means that they’re unlikely to turn up on someone’s nature strip for council collection within a few years. They’re built to last for many times my total output, designed only to ‘wear in’, not wear out.
- Hand tools are still used in many areas of guitar construction. I don’t shy away from power tools, I simply choose what will give the best result, regardless of the time taken. Neck and body contour carving, planing the neck scarf joint, bookmatching of feature woods — all done using files, planes, and spokeshaves. Where absolute precision is a must I design laser or CNC-cut templates for a result accurate to within 0.1mm (or better), but often I find that shaping a guitar by hand can get me really in touch with it so that I can deliver exactly what my customer is after.
So that’s my ethical ethos in a nutshell, but what about you? How do you feel about this issue?
Have a great week.