BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
What do you see when you pick up your ukulele? A dear friend? A work of art? A song machine?
“I think people see an extension of themselves when they look at their instrument,” says Jenny Haase, who took up the ukulele as an adult, and became serious about playing after retirement. “I see the woods I played in, the seedlings I grew that are trees today.” Growing up a rural Oregon native descended from four generations of loggers gave Haase a first-hand view of forest devastation from the industrial side. She spent 41 years in the Department of Forestry, mostly in the Oregon reforestation nursery, where she learned and taught “the ins and outs, from start to finish, seed to seedling” of reforestation. Chief grower of conifer seedlings—“Douglas fir, hemlock, pine, the trees reforested after logging, and other diverse, less popular species, like bigleaf maple, myrtle, Port Orford cedar, red cedar, Sitka spruce”—her relationship to wood and woods is personal.
Haase chose a Kanile’a tenor ukulele because she was impressed with not just their instruments, but also the company’s commitment to replenishing Hawaii’s forests: “putting something back,” she says. “After I got into playing it, I recognized I really wanted to hear it sing, not just sing myself and strum it as backup. The ultimate ukulele was what I was looking for.”
Which led her to look in her own backyard. [Luthier/musician/Ukulele contributor] Aaron Keim is “just down the road,” she says. “I think it’s neat that he builds his [Beansprout] ukes close to home. I watched all the YouTube videos with Aaron talking about his materials: Pacific Northwest woods; Doug fir from a pig barn; walnut from a carpenter ant stash. I love how down to earth he is, salvaging woods. It really touched me.” Now, when she picks up her Keim-made myrtlewood baritone with the Western red cedar neck—all local woods—she says she “couldn’t be prouder.”
Whether a bespoke heirloom or an inexpensive starter model, your ukulele was made somewhere, by someone, from… something. Most likely, a good chunk, or all of it, is made of wood. Learning about your instrument and the footprint it left behind can be a great way to explore the concept of sustainability.
Here’s some perspective: Forests now cover 30 percent of the earth’s land surface, but that number is shrinking rapidly. In the past century, it is estimated that the world lost more than one third of its remaining old-growth forests, which are the world’s largest storehouses of carbon, with intricate biodiverse ecosystems more than 8,000 years in the making. Only 36 percent of these forests are protected. Secondary forests, in which the largest trees have been removed, can hold up to 70 percent less carbon than their virgin counterparts, and while a primary forest can become secondary in a matter of days, it takes centuries for a secondary forest to have the possibility of true regeneration. Changes in climate, introduction of non-native insects, and the destruction of underground fungal microbial networks may prohibit them from ever returning.
Sustainability is a multi-dimensional concept that goes beyond managing forests. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development outlines a plan of action “to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production,” envisioning “a world where human habitats are safe, resilient, and sustainable, in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources—from air to land, from rivers, lakes, and aquifers to oceans and seas—are sustainable.”
Of course, there have been numerous international treaties dealing with forest conservation through the years, but most of them have lacked teeth. Particularly with wood coming from the tropics, there have always been ways for unscrupulous loggers to get around the rules.
The best-known conservation treaty affecting the musical instrument world is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (known as CITES), adopted in 1975, and offering different levels of protection for some 35,000 plant and animal species threatened by human activity. In the U.S., the Lacey Act, which was the first federal law protecting wildlife when it was enacted in 1900, was amended in 2008 to make it illegal to import or possess protected plant and timber species outlined in CITES, including Brazilian rosewood, certain kinds of mahogany, Madagascar ebony, and others.
To date, the most high-profile enforcement of these regulations were the raids of the Gibson Guitar factory executed in 2009 and 2011 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Gibson was fined substantially for illegally importing Madagascar ebony and mislabeled woods from India. However, there are also many stories of individual musicians who have been stopped at borders (Canada and abroad) and had their instruments checked for now-protected woods or inlays of endangered abalone, or even ivory. Some instruments have been confiscated, and the paperwork involved with substantiating an instrument’s materials and provenance can be very cumbersome.
INTO THE WOODS
Musical instruments make up a tiny fraction of the wood market, and ukuleles are the smallest of them all. So, what’s the fuss? Well, consider it an entry point to conscious consumption. Most instruments, even the least expensive, are crafted from several species of wood, often as many as five. You can deepen your relationship with your ukulele by thinking about each wood, and what makes it the right choice for the job it’s doing.
For the soundboard (the top), wood is chosen for its tone, and the best woods can ring like a bell. The neck demands absolute stability, to withstand atmospheric changes that might cause warping. The fretboard, traditionally dark in color, must be both stable and smooth, able to keep frets in place. The bridge, which transmits the string energy to the top, demands strength and stablility. And the back and sides of an instrument contribute to both its beauty and tone, and must be flexible and strong enough to hold the instrument’s graceful curves.
Over the 150-year history of the ukulele, there have definitely been certain favored woods that have withstood the test of time, though in our current era, there are more varieties of woods being used on ukes than ever before. One of Ukulele’s resident historians, Sandor Nagyszalanczy, notes that “koa was used on the first instruments one could call ukes that were built in Hawaii. I’m sure the early Portuguese builders would have used traditional Madeiran woods (cedar, pine, spruce, etc.) if they would have been available. The earliest Martins offered by the company in the late 1910s were made from mahogany, and Chicago makers, like Lyon & Healy, also used mahogany for their better-quality ukes. But as the 1920s uke craze gained steam, makers came out with many cheaper models that were mostly made from birch or poplar. These were typically stained or painted and decorated with decals or stencils. As for exotic tonewoods, the first ‘exotic wood’ ukes I ever saw were made by small-shop luthiers both in Hawaii and the mainland. Use of such woods certainly did ramp up with the ‘third wave’ uke craze, especially with Asian-made instruments.”
Let’s look at some of the most-used materials and how they’re faring conservation-wise:
Ebony and Ivory
Ivory is a case where public sentiment has fully embraced conservation. In the past it was used for the nut and bridge for most fine stringed instruments. But we all know where ivory comes from, and today the very thought of harvesting ivory is appalling to most. Ivory was added to the CITES act in 1989. Now, more than 30 years later, no one would think of making a nut or saddle from real ivory. Hard plastic products parts made from Tusq or NuBone by GraphTech are now standard on most instruments.
Ebony, the traditional wood for fretboards, is prized for its dark color, stability, and density. Only a small percentage of ebony is black, however, and it is impossible to know what color wood is inside a tree until it is felled. Even though “streaked” ebony has the same properties as pure black, 90 percent of ebony trees felled were left on the forest floor because of their color, leading to near extinction in Madagascar and the Congo Basin. There has been a movement to change consumer perception and taste by introducing streaked ebony on fretboards, or using other woods, such as ovangkol, which can fulfil the same purpose with a cleaner footprint.
Alternatively, as with ivory, innovative materials can be used to replace wood altogether. Richlite, a paper and resin composite, has become increasingly popular, as it replicates and surpasses the unusual properties of ebony with a far smaller environmental impact.
Woods not on the endangered list can still be at the center of the deforestation debate, as is the case with Sitka spruce. Old growth Sitka is a choice tonewood—light and stiff with a straight grain, its resonant planks make stellar soundboards. The Tongass National Forest in Alaska makes up one-third of the world’s temperate rainforest and is the principal origin for commercially available Sitka. Most National Forests have strict logging protections, however the Tongass is the only one to allow clearcutting. Old-growth and young trees are treated equally in CITES, and, as Sitka spruce is not listed as endangered, it is harvested indiscriminately, with most of it shipped to East Asian markets for use as cheap construction timber. At the current rate of harvest, old-growth trees may be eliminated within our lifetime.
Koa and Maple
Quick-growing bigleaf maple is being hailed as one of the next big tonewoods. Forests are being planted for just that purpose by suppliers, like Pacific Rim Tonewood, who seek to establish a market of sustainable and beautifully figured wood as harmonious to the eyes and ears as it is to the planet. Ensuring all maple is legal is another issue. In the Pacific Northwest black market, so-called “meth maple” (trees illegally logged from protected forests by drug addicts), has become a concern.
Endemic to Hawaii, koa is light, flexible, and hard, making it a rare tonewood that can be used for the entire body of an instrument: back, sides, and top. It is one of the first woods that comes to mind when we think of Hawaiian-made ukuleles, and many mainland instrument builders look to Hawaii as a source for home-grown exotic tropical woods. Faster growing than most hardwoods, and hailed as sustainable, investments are being made in tonewood plantations on the Islands.
However, koa’s success is not without challenges and unintended consequences. Ninety percent of the koa forests that Captain Cook saw are gone, many of them cleared for development and agriculture. Invasive non-native species thrive and crowd out native plants, making reforestation a challenge. Also worrisome is a marked increase in both timber theft and illegal logging, particularly on Kauai and the Big Island.
Koa has allies in the instrument world, and some of those closest to it have thrown themselves into conservation and responsible forestry. For instance, the Souza family of Kanile’a Ukulele have dedicated themselves to reforestation. What started as a family project has become the nonprofit organization Saving Hawaii’s Forests, which aims to plant nearly two million trees and to work with corporations to offset carbon emissions. (See this article from the Winter 2017 issue of Ukulele for much more on koa conservation.)
Recovered and Reclaimed Woods
An alternative to cutting trees is to use reclaimed wood. Particularly popular with luthiers is “sinker” wood, which comes from logs lost in river transport, sometimes submerged over a century ago. This old-growth wood, which has been featured in Ohana’s Limited Edition Series ukes (among other places), is especially prized for a sonic richness—the result of some sort of structural transformation that has taken place underwater.
Recycled timbers, such as those from old homes, have also been used to make beautiful instruments. Aaron Keim says of the cedar neck on Jenny Haase’s baritone uke mentioned at the top of this article, “I got that board at the Re-build It Center in Hood River, Oregon. It was from a stack of boards salvaged from the loft of a barn at an estate sale clean-out.”
“Our company was founded on only providing wood we personally recover,” says Kevin Connor, of Woods from the West, a supplier that makes tracing the provenance of the wood it sources a point of pride. “We work with local farmers in the San Joaquin Valley [in California] to recover both walnut and pistachio. Growers with older orchards will mark trees that are unproductive and have reached the end-of-life cycle. These trees are removed and new seedlings are planted.
“We also recover myrtle, maple, and Port Orford cedar from the southern Oregon Coast. Most of the maple comes from older trees that have fallen due to their age or heavy winds. This is why most of our maple is not a bright white and shows the colors of its age and environment. Most of our Port Orford cedar is from old logging sites where trees had fallen in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Oftentimes loggers would bury trees to support landings or make bridges. It’s these trees and the trunks left in the ground that we recover. Our myrtle is sometimes recovered from blow-downs, and sometimes we are able to rescue a tree that shows the attributes needed for instrument wood from a trip to the chip mill.”
BUILDERS TO THE RESCUE
The community of instrument builders is in a unique position to influence how players look at wood consumption. Musical instruments have their own culture of traditions, extending to the materials they are made from. The parameters of ukulele building are narrow, but the products are highly visible. With conscientious star players and a passionate consumer base behind them, committed builders can provide an example of what is possible for other industries.
Smaller boutique or artisan instrument makers have greater flexibility in their scale of operations and are way ahead of the curve. When each instrument is made by hand, individually, every piece of wood is accounted for. But even some of the largest instrument companies have embraced their responsibilities and are launching new lines of more sustainable instruments, working towards business practices and models that are more sustainable, in part through creative wood choices, but also in some cases innovative new materials. Here are just a few:
“This will make me the radical in the conversation, but when will the world be ready to hear that there’s no such thing as sustainable wood?”
Blackbird Guitars founder Joe Luttwak shrugs off the blowback. “It’s like cigarettes—or the ivory parallel. Consciousness has just not caught up yet. In hindsight, no one wants deforestation to be coupled with their instruments.”
Luttwak’s passion is boundless, especially when he gets going about Ekoa and Lingrove. Lingrove is the new home company for Ekoa, a material he developed for building guitars which has begun to have a life of its own as an aerospace-grade building material. Ekoa is a natural composite, made from CO2-negative linen fibers (including waste material from farming) and plant-based resin.
Earlier Blackbird instruments made from carbon fiber had what he calls a “qualified” good sound: While the material replaced exotic hardwoods and improved upon their durability, it lacked the warmth of wood. Also, the process of making carbon fiber instruments was not as clean as he liked. Ekoa solved these problems for him. Reverse-engineered to simulate the properties of old-growth trees—“the materials that used to be,” he says—the product is stable and robust, with both the lightness and stiffness necessary to produce a superior tonewood. It is greener all the way around, from raw materials through production, all the way to its end. “We’re focused on de-carbonization and thus heirloom, multi-generational products,” he says.
Luttwak made his first ukulele, the Clara, to experiment with materials, as the small size made for a perfect prototype. The unibody design—headstock, hollow neck, and body are one piece—is unique to a material that can be mold-formed and still fulfill its structural intent. A thin Ekoa soundboard is added to the body, and the results are responsive and lively. “We do reinforce a couple of bits with carbon fiber, like the bracing, neck, and bridge patch, but it’s as little as possible,” he says. The resulting instruments are fun to play, and take the worry out of travel—no warping or drying from atmospheric changes, fewer concerns about damage, and no exotic-wood incidents at international customs.
Because of pandemic supply chain issues, we’ll have to wait a little bit longer to know about the new sustainable line of instruments anticipated from Córdoba. While they don’t want to get into specifics yet, a tantalizing hint comes from their website description of their new line of gig bags, made with colorful, durable, recycled ocean plastics: “In 2022, we will introduce ukuleles made with recycled ocean plastics. From there, we will work to integrate the use of recycled plastics across our entire product offering in an effort to minimize our company-wide reliance on virgin plastics.”
The excitement in the voice of Breedlove Guitar Company marketing director RA Beattie’s voice is palpable. When I speak to him by phone at Two Old Hippies, Breedlove’s Bend, Oregon, home base, he is accompanied by the songs of birds. This company is all about their love for the outdoors, and they are serious about environmental policies. Employees, known as “co-hippies,” run a tidy shop, seeking ways to recycle or repurpose every element of the process. They are composting their coffee grounds, building raised vegetable beds from scrap pallets, and diverting cardboard from the recycling bin and upcycling it into the packing material.
The pandemic shutdown may have muted the megaphone, but they are bursting with pride at what they call a “totally new landscape.” In June 2020 the company released a new line of 100-percent sustainable ukuleles. The “ECO Collection” features many of their popular older models, but each one is certified clear-cut free and sustainable. The ukes, which are designed in Bend and crafted in China, land in a sought-after price range, starting under $250. Their secret weapon is the laminate technology used on the backs and sides called “ECO Tonewood,” which uses a sustainable African mahogany core clad with myrtlewood.
Tom Bedell, who bought the company in 2010, says, “The most frustrating part of the process was finding factories in China [where most affordable instruments are made] who were accountable. The effort to fulfill our commitment to never using trees from clear-cut forests was, candidly, unverifiable, so this became an obsession with me. We finally partnered with two factories where the tonewoods can be traced back to the source.” In the future they hope to offer a QR code with every instrument, giving documentation, chain of custody, and the story of the woods used in the instrument. “At that point we will have achieved our goal of seed to song.”
Cary Kelly may have relocated the Mya-Moe shop to the Chicago suburb of Glenview, Illinois, but its roots (literally) lie in the Pacific Northwest. The company aims to continue the lineage of building beautiful custom instruments with a focus on domestic sustainable woods like myrtle and spruce. Kelly says, “My challenge is that I ultimately have to trust the claims of the suppliers, as there’s no practical way for me to audit or police their logging operations. All of my spruce—tonewood and braces—comes from the same supplier, Alaska Specialty Woods. The Sitka does come from Tongass, however the supplier claims it is 100% salvaged, typically from trees fallen in storms. Using salvaged logs versus harvesting live trees is pretty important; also the same way I get my myrtlewood, from a miller in Oregon.”
Mya-Moe has recently been exploring dark hardwoods on fretboards and bridges as an alternative to ebony. “We’ve reduced the number of ‘exotic’ woods available for custom instruments by removing black and white ebony as an option. Additionally, we are trying to move away from Chinese-sourced cases and will soon be offering a North American-manufactured hardshell case as an option.”
Their Cascade Series, introduced in 2012, replaces the mahogany neck and ebony fretboard with Port Orford cedar and maple, both abundant and sustainable North American woods. “Any uke built with all-North American tonewoods will qualify for a special ‘leaf’ inlay, and a donation is made in the name of the new owner to Friends of Trees to plant a tree,” Kelly adds.
C.F. Martin & Co.
One of the oldest mainland makers of ukuleles, Martin began to steer their company towards sustainability in 1990. They have partnered with Rainforest Alliance, which engages with timber companies around the world at the field level on their sustainability practices in farms and forests, and helps companies source certified lumber, tracking each part and piece of an instrument certification. As Chris Martin says, he doesn’t want his daughter to wear a T-shirt to a future NAMM show that reads, “My daddy cut down the last tree.”
Tim Teel, the director of instrument design, says Martin recently decided to “get back to their ukulele roots,” making a big investment in tooling and resources, crediting the steady increase in sales to inspiring players like Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill. As Martin ramps up its ukulele offerings, their ongoing focus on sustainability means there a lot of eco-conscious options.
The Martin factory in Navojoa, Mexico, produces the instruments on the lower end of the price spectrum, including the new OXK (reviewed in the Summer 2021 issue). This model’s body and sides are made from a composite material of wood fiber and resin with a koa graphic imprint, and is constructed with the same bracing as traditional wood ukes. Coming to market soon is the T1FSC tenor, made from sinker mahogany scraps left over from guitar sets. Finally, the FSC concert, made at the company’s Nazareth, PA, headquarters, is solid mahogany that has earned the Forest Stewardship Council seal of approval.
Aaron Keim’s shop is a marvel to visit. He is a lover of beautiful and useful old things. He thrills to unearth a rusted box of hammers, a pile of chisels, or a stack of wood infested with carpenter ants. Part of his art is making gold from the straw he finds, and his humble scale of production allows him to honor his principles and uphold his high standards.
“Because I live in the northwest part of the United States, our local wood products are very high-quality and abundant. Using local wood has a smaller ecological footprint than if I buy rare tropical woods from Asia, South America, or Africa. Some of the wood I use is salvaged or recycled from another product, like old floorboards, wall panels, shelves, or broken furniture. A lot of woods I use are scraps from sawmills or furniture makers. I also buy wood from retired builders, estate sales, and yard sales. This isn’t technically recycled wood, but wood that someone else bought a long time ago that’s not going into the landfill or getting burned. When I do buy ‘new’ wood, it is mostly from local suppliers harvesting in a responsible, sustainable way.
“I use my own scraps to make items like cutting boards and spoons. I send boxes of scraps to a box maker and a jewelry maker. I use shavings for mulch/compost and give away a lot to other people. I also heat my house with scraps in the wood stove. All of this makes use of every precious piece. I pay to have trees planted in my area, one for every instrument I build. I recycle as much waste as possible, try to buy local, and limit trips into town to save gas. We use as little packaging and packing materials as possible when shipping, and we reuse boxes when possible.”
BUT WHAT CAN I DO?
From large manufacturers to solitary craftspeople, uke makers are making greener choices and embracing the shift towards responsible practices. As consumers, we have the real power in our hands. We tell the industry what we want with every dollar we spend. Your wallet is your voice.
Perhaps the first and most important step towards sustainability is to become conscious. Look at the world around you, see the things you are in contact with every day, and start to think about where they came from. From the floor beneath your feet to the roof over your head, you are surrounded by products, many of them made of wood, which may have come from the farthest corners of the earth. Learn about what you use and what you buy. Consider where things come from, what they leave behind, and the consequences.
Then, pick up your ukulele, whatever it is made from, and make some music to honor the forests that begat it, and sing a song of sustainability.
This article was updated in January 2023.
The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.