Alternative Fingerboard Timbers, And Why You Should (or Shouldn’t) Care.
In recent months, you may have heard that Gibson Guitars has been under scrutiny for the use of certain woods in the construction of its guitars (rosewood, specifically). As a result, in the interim period, it has started to produce models with alternative woods used for its fingerboards. There has some confusion concerning these alternative materials, perhaps due to the fact that these are less frequently used than the more common, rosewood. To help to clarify the situation, our Manchester store’s assistant manager, and obsessive Gibson oracle, James ‘Hass’ Harrop has kindly produced an outline of the situation, with a brief summary of the new woods, and what this means to you, the consumer. Over to you, Hass…
“In the last three years, Gibson Guitars has been raided twice by the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service. On the first occasion, in 2009, $70,000 worth of Madagascan Ebony, earmarked for the production of fingerboards, was seized. This timber, to this day, has not been returned to Gibson, and yet, not a single criminal charge has been filed against them.
Fast-forward to 28th August of last year, and the latest raid and subsequent seizure by the Fish And Wildlife Service stripped Gibson of $500,000 of Indian Rosewood fingerboard blanks – enough for more than 10,000 guitars.
Both of these confiscations by the Fish And Wildlife Service were made under the Lacey Act of 1900, which was designed to protect Wildlife, Fish & Plants that have been taken, transported or sold illegally, by restricting their trade. Whilst the original Lacey Act was created primarily to protect wild bird species, it was amended in 2008 to include a wide range of plants.
The trickiest part of the Lacey Act, is the wide-range that it governs, as it states that an importer must adhere to the local laws of the country of export. It is for this reason that the U.S. Government is claiming that the latest raid on Gibson was executed; an Indian Law dictating that the timber must be exported in it’s finished form. As you know, after the fingerboard blank is fitted to the neck, the frets then need to be fitted, the binding adhered, then the excess scraped away plus a final oil and clean. All of which is seen as ‘illegal’ under the eye of the Lacey Act. Cue seizures and raids …
Moving on from the history lesson, what does it mean for you, the consumer? Well, in a nutshell, there is less Rosewood available, and so, Gibson has introduced a few alternatives into their lines whilst they locate other sources of Rosewood. Here’s what they’ve come up with…
The rosewood alternatives
Baked Maple – Also known as ‘Torrified Maple’, Gibson have been using this on the occasional model for a while now, even before the seizures of 2011.
Baked Maple basically takes lovely maple fingerboards (a lighter coloured wood as usually seen on the likes of Fenders and such) and then after it’s dried to between 6-10% moisture content in a regular kiln (which Gibson regularly does in-house with the mahogany used for their guitar bodies and necks) it then enters a Torrification Kiln which ‘roasts’ the timber at temperatures between 190 and 240 degrees Celsius. Upon exiting the kiln the water content of the Maple has been dropped down to 0% and also has also taken on a much darker hue. After this it’s then placed in a conditioning chamber to reintroduce moisture back into the wood and bring it up to a 3-6% content to give back the timber it’s flexibility, so that it can be worked with and engineered much easier.
Obeche – a.k.a. ‘Abachi’, a.k.a ‘Wawa’, a.k.a. ‘Samba’ (I didn’t make these up I promise!) is a hardwood found typically in equatorial West Africa. A lot of other great tonewoods come from this area such as Sapele and Ovangkol, which Taylor Guitars use predominantly in their 3 Series & 4 Series models.
Obeche is usually a yellowish or light brown timber, but can be quite dark in a hue not entirely ‘un-rosewood’ like way, making it a great substitute for fingerboard.
Curacao De Negro – Gibson’s top end ‘alternative choice’ of timber. Also known by it’s more popular moniker of ‘Pau Ferro’, it’s been used by luthiers and manufacturers for decades, from the fingerboards of Fender’s Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster, to the back & sides on Farida’s M-26 Parlour Acoustic. Gibson is using Curacao De Negro as the replacement on higher end models such as the Gibson Jeff Tweedy SG, and it is also rumoured to be replacing the missing rosewood fingerboards on Traditional & Standard models arriving soon.
Well, now that you’re informed and up-to-date with the latest news from Gibsonville! Go forth and choose wisely, or ignore all the ‘cork-sniffers’ and just pick up a Gibbo’ and buy the one you like the sound of!!“
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Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.