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Rare Woods and Musical Instruments

November 24th, 2009

I play the fiddle, and love the feel of a pernambuco bow on the strings. But in researching pernambuco, I became aware of an issue that needs talking about here. Pernambuco is an endangered species of wood. According to an article about Pernambuco in the April 2004 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, “Pau-brasil [pernambuco] is today becoming scarce, so scarce that wood dealers must trek deep into the forest, just as these men had done, to find the remaining mature specimens. So scarce that international organizations have been debating measures to restrict the wood’s use worldwide. And so scarce that bow makers from around the world have mobilized, starting an organization called the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI), with the mission of rescuing the species. In the process, they hope also to rescue their profession.”

There are other exotic woods. that are used as tonewoods in guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments, that have also ended up on the CITES list of woods that need to be protected to ensure future supplies.

What does this mean to those of us who play wood musical instruments? It means we need to do a little homework to make sure that the makers of our instruments are not using illegally harvested woods.

This is fairly easy if you have a good budget and are buying a new instrument, since many of the top makers, such as Martin, are responsible corporate citizens. They need to be, if they want to keep making instruments. It becomes a bit more difficult if you’re on a budget, since many of the new instruments on discount music supply sites and on Ebay are from the gray market, where no one knows where the wood has come from.

There is a way to be sure of not rewarding the makers buying wood on the black market. If you’re on a fairly slim budget and want to buy an instrument, you can buy a used vintage instrument for less money than the comparable new instrument. Though these instruments show wear, they often sound as good or better, since aged wood can often mellow the sound. Another way is to check with the reputable shops in your area that have rentals they periodically refurbish and sell at a discount.

When I shop for a pernambuco bow, you can be sure I’ll be looking for a bow, that is guaranteed not made from illegal black market pernambuco sources. How about you?


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2 Responses to “Rare Woods and Musical Instruments”

  1. Scott Antes says:

    Thanks for posting this important message. I’m a luthier and an anthropologist who has been talking to my students and customers about this for thirty years. S.A.

  2. bj says:

    You’re welcome, Scott!

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