Ebony is common on musical instruments and bows, it has become traditional, and expected. Makers choose their materials carefully with an eye for straight grain that is easy to work, an absence of knots and splits, and a good surface finish. Speaking as a maker myself, I am always on the lookout for top quality materials, including ebony, which is the particular subject of this little ramble.
Due to its weight and instability, demand for ebony is relatively small, and a significant proportion of the world’s supply is used for the musical instrument industry. There is, then, some pressure on the ebony industry to provide ebony of sufficiently good quality for instrument makers - but what happens to the rest?
Ebony is found mainly in developing countries and at tropical latitudes, where practices to source ebony reflect the demand. So, if makers want only the blackest ebony, then only the blackest is harvested. But the loggers can only see the colour of the ebony heartwood once the tree has been felled, and if it is found to be streaky or marbled, then the tree is generally left to rot in the forest, since the loggers will not be able to sell it for anything like the price of pure black ebony.
This means that a vast amount of perfectly good wood is felled and abandoned, and forests are cleared at a greater rate in order to find the ‘best’ wood, not because black ebony is better but just because it is valued for its looks.
In 2011, Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars entered into a partnership with Madinter, a Spanish supplier of tonewood (https://www.madinter.com/en), to buy an ebony sawmill in Cameroon. In practice, they did far more than just buy the sawmill. They rebuilt buildings, designed and imported new machines, upgraded working conditions and doubled the wages for the workers. The sawmill continues to be run by Cameroonians, but working and trading practices meet both African and American legal requirements.
The Ebony Project aims to promote the use of West African ebony (Diospyros crassifloria Hiern) of all shades for musical instrument makers, and here at The Bow Business, we have made enquiries about purchasing some variegated and marbled ebony for trials in frog making for our bows. If successful, ebony will be bought at a similar price to all-black ebony, to maintain fair wages and will come from a guaranteed sustainable source.
While Cameroon has a healthy inventory of ebony, and demand is relatively low, it seems that it will not be too late to ensure a sustainable supply of ebony for the future. This is being done by cultivating ebony seedlings and replanting them in the forest as an essential part of company practice.
The Bow Business is proud to sign up to the Ebony Project, and you can find out much more via the Taylor Guitars website, at https://www.taylorguitars.com/ebonyproject/
All pictures are taken from the Ebony Project website.