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.
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.”
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.