Guitar tonewoods and the global timber market

Handmade custom electric guitars are made from wood which is sourced from all over the globe. The more boutique and custom the electric guitars are, often the more exotic and expensive the woods used.

Jules at Kanji Guitars keeps a keen eye on the global timber markets and is a woodland geek; he studied Geography at Manchester University and his thesis was on ancient woodland in the UK.

Kanji Guitars is a member of the Woodland Trust and we support sustainable woodland techniques and ethical timber production.

Our Tonewood Resource is aimed at providing our customers with some summary insight into the woods used in guitar manufacturing and in the woods used in their custom electric guitar builds.

Tonewood is a term which is often used in guitar manufacture but it’s not strictly defined; it means any wood which can be used to manufacture a guitar and which can be deemed to produce ‘good tone’. As a generalisation, Tonewoods have traditionally been defined as Maple, Rosewood, Mahogany, Alder etc.

As legal, regulatory and commercial constraints make sourcing of traditional Tonewoods less palatable, new Tonewoods are being explored by guitar makers (particularly boutique luthiers). It’s now more common to find guitars with elements of Pine, Meranti or Paulownia, for example.

Here are some key facts about global woodland (UNECE 2015):

NB The term ‘forest’ is often used to denote a wooded area. The correct term is ‘woodland’. Forests were originally royal hunting grounds, which may have included areas of woodland but which may also have been predominantly heathland.

–          Woodland comprises c31% of total land area on Earth ~ 4bn hectares.

–          The most woodland rich countries by gross area are Russia, China, Brazil, Canada and USA.

–          Of the total global woodland area, 36% is primary woodland, ie where indigenous species prevail and there is no evidence of human impact.

–          Planted woodland now represents 7% of total global woodland (with China showing the quickest rates of afforestation).

–          13% of global woodland is legally preserved for biodiversity.

–          Deforestation rates have halved in recent years:

  • o   7.3m hectare loss average pa 1990-2000
  • o   3.3m hectare loss average pa 2010-2015

–          Africa and South America continue to see the most dramatic loss of forest.

–          80% of total global woodland is publicly owned (eg by the state) but private ownership is increasing.

Timber is a commodity and as such the global timber markets are affected by the same economic drivers as other global commodities. Demand (global consumption) and supply (global lumber production) dictate market price of timber.

–          Developed countries are consuming 27% less timber than before the 2008 recession

–          However, developing countries are consuming 47% more than pre-recession demand

–          Whilst this means global consumption is still net 3% down, developed countries demand continues to rebound and growing global demand plus supply constraints mean that global timber prices could increase by 50% over the next 5-10 years (FIML 2015)

Increasing demand will drive increased timber prices and improvements in woodland laws, regulation, policies and national programmes mean that supply constraints will push timber prices up even higher.

Greater lumber productivity from SE Asia (in particular China and Vietnam) means that wage increases will be directly passed on to timber consumers in higher prices.

Consolidation in European timber organisations, along with beneficial (ie weak) exchange rates may mean that European timber production becomes more competitive (outside of Europe) in the coming years but drivers of global timber demand (increases in house building and exponential proliferation of paper packaging) and supply constraints mean that wood prices continue to rise.

The importance of global woodland as:

–          a sink for Carbon Dioxide,

–          protection against soil erosion, flooding and mudslides,

–          areas of rich biodiversity and

–          a source of socio-economic value (eg productive output)

…means that we understand why prices will continue to increase and as guitar builders, Kanji Guitars support all measures to retain primary and secondary woodland and active afforestation (in environmentally appropriate conditions).

We all know that Rosewood is now on the CITES sanction list. This means that it’s illegal to import Rosewood without very specific permission and so  it’s unlikely you’ll see many new builds from guitar manufacturers which use Rosewood (unless the wood is certificated as having been lumbered previous to the ban).

But did you know that the Rosewood ban also covers Kingwood, Cocobolo and (some varieties of) Bubinga? They’re all part of the same Dalbergia genus.

We’ll work with you to find the best combinations of Tonewoods for your custom electric guitar and we’ll also make sure that the wood used is ethically sourced.

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