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Archive for August, 2010

The Mystique Around Brazilian Rosewood, is it illegal?

by on Aug.16, 2010, under Handmade Acoustic Guitars

Shiny GuitarYes!  It cannot be sold or even transported, carried, or otherwise brought over any international boarders without violating one country or another’s CITES code.  The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has enacted stiff penalties on anyone involved in contributing in any way, to the extinction of endangered materials, of which there are thousands.  The CITES convention even goes so far as to regulate the movement of instruments made from any of these species.  Over the past 400 years, unregulated international trade in plants and animals has extinguished more than 700 species.  The European bison, English wolf and dwarf elephant have disappeared from the European contentment.  North America has lost its mammoth, giant beaver and American lion.  We’ve similarly decimated our flora.  Varieties of ferns, orchids, grasses and oaks will never again be seen.

In the 1960s, the international community acted and 80 countries met in Washington, D.C. to sign the completed Convention, which became effective in 1975.  Today, 172 of the world’s 194 countries have signed CITES.  Only a few countries in Western Africa and western Asia have not.  The rules enacted by the Convention have affected the way The Martin Guitar Company has been able to do construction or repairs on their guitars.  For these rules alone, Martin has had to change to Indian rosewood, a similar and non-endangered tonewood.

CITES only affects certain plant and animal material that is crossing international boarders, so as long as you don’t intend to travel oversees with a Brazilian rosewood guitar, then go ahead and make one, or own one, no problem.  Where do you get the wood if you want to build one?  That’s hard to say, it’s not illegal to buy, or use Brazilian rosewood within the U.S.  Naturally its rarity ensures its desirability and its price is very high.  Expect to pay $10-20thousand for some perfectly cut raw Brazilian rosewood.

CITES only establishes a ‘floor’ of restrictions.  The member countries can establish any other rules as long as they’re stricter than CITES.  Imagine a touring musician who plans to visit several countries with a guitar constructed of Brazilian rosewood.  It would be impossible to comply with each country’s CITES rules and play the tour, the guitar would be confiscated at a boarder by astute customs agents.

CITES establishes a hierarchy of protection for threatened species of plants and animals.  Appendix I include species “threatened with extinction.”  Of the approximately 5,000 animal species or 28,000 plant species, there are a few from the list that appear on guitars.   Among the listed are Brazilian rosewood, elephant ivory, and tortoiseshell.    Appendix II lists species that are “not necessarily now threatened with extinction” but “may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation.” Honduran mahogany is listed in Appendix II.  This only applies to raw wood, not finished guitars, so you need not worry about getting permission for international travel with your mahogany guitar, unless traces of other materials are discovered.

If your guitar checked out for tortoiseshell, ivory or Brazilian rosewood, you’ll not be able to legally get it in or out of any of the 172 member countries without a permit.

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Is Brazilian Rosewood the Best Wood to use for Building a Guitar?

by on Aug.16, 2010, under Handmade Acoustic Guitars

 Brazilian Rosewood Sides and Back

Brazilian Rosewood Full Set - Call for Pricing

Brazilian Rosewood, almost universally regarded as the best sounding wood for acoustic guitars.  Because of its scarcity and desirability, there are lots of myths and mysteries associated with it.  When talking about Brazilian rosewood and American guitar making, the conversation starts with the Martin Guitar Company.   Because Martin used Brazilian rosewood throughout most of their history, it became the wood that most builders wanted to use on their own finest models.  Martin switched to Indian rosewood, a tonewood that builders have been using for decades.  But, thanks to the sudden scarcity, guitars made of Brazilian became instant collector’s items.

According to Dick Boak, the director of Martin’s artist relations and publicity, “Brazilian rosewood was chosen for its beauty; it was an extremely stable and tonally appropriate choice for back and sides on any musical instrument.”  When Boak was asked by a reporter for the Fretboard Journal, the guitar builder’s choice in magazines, “What determined a good-quality, or Martin-quality, back-and-side set?  What were they looking for back then?”  “They were looking for quarter cutting, which was chosen for its stability.  A flat sawn or cathedral cut is prone to cracking right down the middle of the cathedral grain.  It probably does not have the stability or longevity of stiffness as quarter cut.”

In the world’s greatest Martins, Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce, scalloped bracing – everything came together to produce the finest instruments, the Stradivariuses of the guitar world.  That was the golden age, and what most modern luthiers are trying to copy, either tonally or exactly.  Because of its now rarity, some guilders are getting $20,000 and above for a Brazilian rosewood back-and-side set.

Why, indeed is the Brazilian rosewood the most sought-after wood for quality instruments?  Well, “if you pick up a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard and hit it, it goes ‘Ding’,” says Paul Reed Smith in the Fall 2008 edition of The Fretboard Journal.  It becomes immediately obvious to any guitar builder, when listening for the tonal quality of wood.  Paul Reed Smith demonstrated to a reporter that when a blank guitar neck made of Brazilian rosewood was hit, “in its raw form and it sounds just like a marimba.   It ‘Rings’!”

Working with Brazilian rosewood can be a lot of work because, depending on how stiff the piece of wood is, it can be extremely difficult to bend or it can crack very easily.  Experienced luthiers know to soak it for six or seven hours before attempting to bend it for the guitar sides.  There are enough oils in the wood that the wood is also stable.  Usually the guitar builder will add finish on a piece of wood to keep it stable during different changing temperature and humidity conditions.  With rosewoods you don’t really need to do that.

Is Brazilian rosewood the best wood to use for building a guitar?  Brazilian is what has been valuable thorough the history of reselling guitars. And that’s thanks to the Martin Guitar Company because some of their most coveted guitars are of Brazilian rosewood.

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