We are living in a time of crisis: the climate is warming to dangerous levels and, not unrelatedly, ecosystems all over the world are collapsing. Many countries have declared a state of climate emergency. This may seem hopeless at first, but acting collectively there are things we can do. It could be said that the actions of an individual make no difference to the big picture or that guitar makers use far less wood than, say, the furniture industry but it is also true to say that many of the world’s problems stem from the combined effects of billions of individual acts and therefore we all have to accept responsibility for our part which can be negative but also positive, and the guitar world has a high profile so there is often a disproportionate focus on what we are doing: both makers and players.
Out of this way of thinking arose the Reclaimed Wood Challenge. Exhibitors at The Holy Grail Guitar Show had been invited to build one or more guitars using entirely reclaimed wood.
Because of the aforementioned crisis it has become imperative to reduce our impact on the resources of the world as much as we can. Part of this means minimising waste and re-using materials and recycling objects. In the case of furniture and other wooden artefacts it is usually the case that when such an object reaches the end of its useful life, the material it is made from – wood – is still in good usable condition and can have decades, if not centuries, of useful life left in it. If used wood is treated as having value we are far more likely to reuse and repair it. It is really about treating wood as having great value rather than as a disposable commodity.
In fact there are many advantages to using old wood: firstly there is a seasoning process during which the moisture in the wood reaches a stable equilibrium with its environment so that it becomes stable and much less likely to warp or crack; secondly, over a number of years there are chemical changes in the structure of the wood; and thirdly a number of woods are becoming increasingly scarce and so what is currently available from timber suppliers is often of an inferior quality to that which was commonplace a few decades ago. With careful selection it is possible to find superb pieces of old wood that can be used in guitar making.
There is currently a lot of interest in using thermo-treated or ‘torrefied’ wood. This is wood that is baked in a controlled way to achieve a greater stability. Volatile compounds evaporate and resins harden. Thermo-treating more or less simulates the natural ageing processes that happen in wood over several decades and therefore these characteristics can often be found in reclaimed wood.
When choosing reclaimed wood for a guitar building project one can be frustrated by finding a wonderful piece of wood that is seemingly too small for the project at hand. Sometimes this can be overcome by using construction techniques that will allow the use of narrower pieces. In acoustic guitar construction this could mean multi-piece tops and backs, and in electric construction multi-piece bodies. In both cases laminated necks can make good use of narrow and flat-sawn pieces of wood which can be orientated the other way to get vertical grain.
Another advantage to using reclaimed wood is that such wood can often be acquired in the luthier’s own locality. This addresses another of our big problems – transportation. Transporting woods halfway around the world means the creation of more greenhouse gasses and if we don’t need to do this then we shouldn’t. This is an issue we have previously addressed with our Local Wood Challenge.
Many guitar buyers get very excited about vintage instruments and the ‘mojo’ attached to them.There is a kind of vibe attached to the provenance of these instruments and even how they were made. We can see this trend being catered for in the current fashion for ‘relicked’ guitars. Building guitars from reclaimed wood taps into a similar vein: when a luthier finds a suitable piece of reclaimed wood for a guitar there is often an interesting story concerning its history. It could, for example, be from a church and be used to create a blues guitar on which ‘the devil’s music’ is played or it could be from a friend or relative. I once built an acoustic guitar using mahogany from the lid of an old grand piano. The reincarnation of one musical instrument into another and the continuity of musical resonance really appealed to me and to others who played the guitar. The story enables both maker and player to feel a meaningful connection with the instrument.
Unfortunately, since The Holy Grail Guitar Show 2020 in Berlin had to be cancelled due to the restrictions under COVID-19, we are not able to bring the marvelous instruments to you to touch, feel, and play in person. But you can follow participating builders online using the hashtag #reclaimedwoodchallenge and also visit the EGB website for more information and ongoing activities with our ongoing project, the Local Wood Challenge.