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Growing an Ethical and Sustainable Guitar Forest

Learn about the link between deforestation and guitars — and one man’s quest to address it.

November 8, 2016

Steve McMinn ducks into the hollow of an old maple tree and tears a chunk of wood from its insides. It’s not easy to find the perfect tree.

“Sometimes your fingers can tell you more than your eyes,” he said. “It has to be a straight tree, fairly large, a tree that didn’t grow too quickly nor too slowly.”

It also has to be flexible enough to vibrate, pleasing to the eyes and ears, and strong enough to hold a musical instrument together.

For decades, McMinn has supplied the guitar industry with wood grown from the Columbia River to Alaska. He runs Pacific Rim Tonewoods, a small sawmill in Washington’s North Cascades. It has become one of the biggest wood suppliers in the country for musical instruments. Each year, McMinn ships to America’s biggest guitar makers hundreds of thousands of soundboards (the top of the guitar body) made from Sitka spruce.

Now, those customers are looking to McMinn to help find a better source of wood — wood that’s more environmentally friendly. Many guitars are made from rare trees like rosewood, mahogany and ebony. They’re popular for their good looks and good vibrations, but their high value also makes them attractive to poachers in parts of the world often devastated by deforestation.

Tree theft to supply guitar makers isn’t limited to the Tropics. In a recent case, a tonewood supplier in Winlock, Washington, was indicted by the Department of Justice for buying wood illegally harvested from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state. This kind of poaching has been happening for years. And years.

“It’s increasingly difficult to source wood from the tropics and be clean about it,” McMinn said.

Under federal law, guitar makers can be held liable for manufacturing their products using poached wood. In 2011, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents raided Gibson Guitar Corporation in Tennessee for importing ebony illegally from Madagascar.

Guitar makers like Tom Bedell take their wood sourcing seriously.

“I personally get involved in the entire supply chain,” said Bedell, who runs two guitar companies in Central Oregon. To ensure the legitimacy of his wood suppliers, Bedell travels around the world and visits their operations in person.

He recently launched a “homegrown” guitar series, generating one-third of his sales on guitars that use Oregon-grown timber like myrtlewood and oak.

Another solution may be growing in McMinn’s backyard: the bigleaf maple tree. The hardwood grows prolifically in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest, but very few develop the beautiful wavy grain that guitar makers want, known as “figure.”

“You find it very rarely in nature, and we don’t know what the cause is of this figure,” said Jim Mattsson, tree geneticist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Mattsson had a hunch. In Finland, scientists found that a similar defect in birch trees was genetic and could be cloned.

So last year, Mattsson and McMinn teamed up to study the genetics of figured maple trees. Mattson’s lab began taking cuttings and using them to grow new trees in baby food jars. 

Next year, when the trees grow large enough, Mattsson and McMinn will transfer them to 50 acres of farmland in Western Washington’s Skagit Valley, where they hope to create a figured maple plantation.

“I hope in 20 years, people around the world will come to the Pacific Northwest to buy figured maple,” McMinn said.

It could take at least 10 years before the trees reveal whether they’ve developed the wavy grain. But figured grain in maple trees may be triggered by environmental factors like bacteria or fungus, Mattsson said.

“I’m willing to wait,” McMinn said. “Left to my own, I’d rather just have trees.”

If McMinn’s trees don’t develop figure, at least McMinn’s land will have trees.


Steve McMinn (center) talks to one of his employees at Pacific Rim Tonewood. The company supplies wood to guitar makers.

Ken Christensen/KCTS9

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Last spring I read an article by an Oregon harvester who specializes in figured Big Leaf Maple. He observed that most figured maple in his experience came from tall straight growing trees that were protected from wind to a large extent because of their locaation. I thought, "aha". I have a tree like that. On our 10 acre mini-farm a tree filled gully drops off sharply to the north behind our house. When we moved here 51 years ago I noted that there was a tall straight maple near the bottom of the gully that was about 20 inches in diameter. I thought it would be neat to make a kitchen table out of the tree someday. Someday never came. I made my table out of a Bitter cherry instead. I contacted a local buyer of figured maple logs. He checked the tree and determined it was indeed a figured maple. One of my sons, a surveyor, found the tree to be 116 feet tall. If it fell toward our house the top 10 feet would strike the house. If it fell to the east toward the power lines it would be 10 feet short of striking them. I hired an expert who did a great job of felling the tree correctly. The log buyer paid me $2400 for the first two 9 foot logs from the tree which were shipped off to Korea. None of the upper parts of the tree were figured and I am busy making firewood out of it. The tree's stump measured over 4 feet in diameter. It is already sending up new shoots (coppicing) and sometime in my grandsons' lives there may be another figured maple to harvest; not because of this tree's genetics but because of its location. Are Steve McMinn and Jim Mattsson barking up the wrong trees?

Reply to Richard Guthries comment. Your tree was figured and it was also tall and straight. The place it grew in was not the cause of the figuring. The figuring comes from s genetic variation which is what they are doing to breeding to reliably reproduce. However a tall straight tree can produce more useable lumber. But you can plant trees in groupings that create that out in a level field. It is the spacing of the trees and their ability to work as a group to shelter themselves from the winds that will keep them straight. It does not have to be done in a gully. They understand tree farm cultivation.  So they are definetely not barking up the wrong tree.  I have been to their facility, it is an interesting place to visit. You should go there someday.