The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rosewood + Ebony + FSC certification = Trouble for Gibson Guitar

Readers of Go Wood may remember the student project posted back in the spring that involved the production of guitars by the students that included one made from rosewood. One commenter asked about the status of the rosewood and mahogany used in the project, to which Brandon Treece, one of the students on the project, replied...
"These materials were purchased by C.F. Martin guitar company in Nazareth,PA. As their website states "committed to corporate responsibility and environmental stewardship, and to support this commitment, Martin maintains FSC chain of custody certification.""

At the time, I assumed that was assurance enough that the guitars were legal. Now I'm not so sure.

Last week, facilities of the Gibson Guitar Company were closed down by government officials for alleged violations of the Lacey Act. Since the action involves legalities and actions I'm not familiar with, I won't comment on this story other than to say that global regulatory processes seem to be getting more teeth in them, and that companies can find themselves in hot water even while trying to comply with them. Many are concerned that regulations and actions such as these will be targeting an even broader restriction of wood use in the near future. Let's hope that isn't the intent.

The following local news video was posted on YouTube from, of all sources, the news program "Russia Today". Perhaps the Russians can't believe the extent to which large government can intrude into industrial operations.

From The Wall Street Journal...

Federal agents swooped in on Gibson Guitar Wednesday, raiding factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. The Feds are keeping mum, but in a statement yesterday Gibson's chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, defended his company's manufacturing policies, accusing the Justice Department of bullying the company. "The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier," he said, suggesting the Feds are using the aggressive enforcement of overly broad laws to make the company cry uncle.

It isn't the first time that agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service have come knocking at the storied maker of such iconic instruments as the Les Paul electric guitar, the J-160E acoustic-electric John Lennon played, and essential jazz-boxes such as Charlie Christian's ES-150. In 2009 the Feds seized several guitars and pallets of wood from a Gibson factory, and both sides have been wrangling over the goods in a case with the delightful name "United States of America v. Ebony Wood in Various Forms."

The question in the first raid seemed to be whether Gibson had been buying illegally harvested hardwoods from protected forests, such as the Madagascar ebony that makes for such lovely fretboards. And if Gibson did knowingly import illegally harvested ebony from Madagascar, that wouldn't be a negligible offense. Peter Lowry, ebony and rosewood expert at the Missouri Botanical Garden, calls the Madagascar wood trade the "equivalent of Africa's blood diamonds." But with the new raid, the government seems to be questioning whether some wood sourced from India met every regulatory jot and tittle.


John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a blues and ragtime guitarist, says "there's a lot of anxiety, and it's well justified." Once upon a time, he would have taken one of his vintage guitars on his travels. Now, "I don't go out of the country with a wooden guitar."

The tangled intersection of international laws is enforced through a thicket of paperwork. Recent revisions to 1900's Lacey Act require that anyone crossing the U.S. border declare every bit of flora or fauna being brought into the country. One is under "strict liability" to fill out the paperwork—and without any mistakes.

It's not enough to know that the body of your old guitar is made of spruce and maple: What's the bridge made of? If it's ebony, do you have the paperwork to show when and where that wood was harvested and when and where it was made into a bridge? Is the nut holding the strings at the guitar's headstock bone, or could it be ivory? "Even if you have no knowledge—despite Herculean efforts to obtain it—that some piece of your guitar, no matter how small, was obtained illegally, you lose your guitar forever," Prof. Thomas has written. "Oh, and you'll be fined $250 for that false (or missing) information in your Lacey Act Import Declaration."
-The Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2011

Finally, here is a video recording from a cable news show last week that gives the company's side of the story, straight from the mouth of the company's CEO. It is especially interesting to watch for its background video footage of the Gibson manufacturing process.

Here's hoping that the whole thing gets worked out, that we come to some kind of reasonable solution to protecting endangered woods, and that companies will be provided with clear guidelines that allow them to purchase and produce quality wood products within the intent of the law.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Circle of Life

Well, it's an early fall once again here in central Pennsylvania. I just came in from walking the dog, it's in the mid-60's, the sky is clear and cool...and the high school band is practicing the old stand-bys. I  live next to State College High School, and this time of year I always love to hear the new State High band practicing in the cool of the evenings. Tonight as I walked the dog, it was pleasant to hear the refrains of America the Beautiful, followed by the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Mine eyes have seen the glory...!

It occurred to me that although we face what seems to be an insurmountable mountain of problems as a nation, the youth of our country are as vibrant and as full of hope and intelligence as we ever were, perhaps more so. A few days ago, we received a visit from a young man, a family friend, who spent the summer in Silicon Valley amongst the tech-heads who seem to be shaping the future of our country...and he seemed oblivious to the problems we discuss daily on the national news. He was full of spirit, energy, and optimism, as he explained to us the deals that he was working on. I like to think of myself as pretty competent in analyzing business opportunities, but David lost me in the details of his "angel" investors and the latest software his new start-up was developing. I don't understand how they make money off the internet, and probably never will. But they do, and they do, and that's what is important.

It is a national disgrace what we have burdened our future generations with, but this I believe...they will rise above the adversity. Somehow, someway, they will adjust to the global economic conditions, and come out on top of them, just as American generations have always done. Once again, sometime in the future, they will be building houses in bright new subdivisions; they will be furnishing their homes with the finest wood products, and they will be living lives full of hope and confidence. 2011 may be a repeat of 1991, or 1972, or 1943, or 1938, or 1930, or 1921...but in their futures, 2011 will be just a speed bump that they barely remember, if at all.

With that thought, we might be well advised to think forward to better times, and to plan for them accordingly. If we need to sacrifice now, let us do so, with the idea that whatever small things we can do now, will be worth doing. Let us strive to instill in them the knowledge of the better things in life...the pride in a song well played, the satisfaction of a piece of wood well-turned, the value of a commitment fulfilled. For a generation that made "sustainability" a common term, lets move our young folks toward an appreciation of a truly sustainable that lives within its means, works hard for its rewards, and treasures the peace that comes with higher values.

Once upon a time, nearly every young person could easily tell a piece of oak from a piece of maple. Now, perhaps one in ten or twenty can do so. Wood isn't exactly the key to life, but its a good place to start.

Here's to a fresh beginning in the circle of life. Tomorrow will be better...may it be filled with smooth, shiny, beautiful wood products,...and the joy they bring to our children's hearts!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Great Designs in Wood (15)

Here's a guest house design in the Florida Keys that combines so many great elements of wood design and use that they're hard to describe in a short blog post. The description of the house at Fancy Cribs gives you for a feel of the design objectives:
"TOTeMS Aechitecture designed the amazing Casey Key Guest House that is located in Casey Key, Florida, USA. On a barrier island, along Sarasota Bay was the chosen location, the structure of the house was influenced by the owner wish “…respect the land, and the rest will follow” and of course by the oak trees. So the house has a beautiful, organic shape dictated by nature.

The house has an open structure to the east and west and solid to the north in order to provide privacy between a neighboring property. The large windows on the open facades offer beautiful views of the oak hammock, and Intercoastal Waterway. To enfold the structure there were used glulam beams, putted in a curved shape they made the distinction between wall and roof hard to seen. To clad the walls it was used Ship lap cypress siding.

Supported on a specialized steel piling foundation system, Casey Key Guest House needed also elevated floor levels. This design was necessary because this is a FEMA flood zone and it was a good solution in order to minimize the degree of influence on the oaks. With all these precautions all the trees are preserved."

 I love the way the glulam beams are used both as the skeleton of the structure and as a focal point in the interior design. This bedroom nook is a wood engineer's dream can lay in bed and count "lams" in bed each night as you doze off.

For the nautically-minded, I think it also gives one a sense of nestling up for the night in an old wooden-bowed ship, although without the rocking and the creaking.

I especially like the way this feel was utilized in the living area, with book shelves build right into the beams. Could there be a stronger statement of "solid wood" than room components built right into the structure of the building?

As with so many of these modern wooden structures, the design flexibility offered by engineered wood components enables the designers to work with light, both to give the inhabitant the feeling of being outdoors, as well as being able to bring out the inherent beauty of the wood itself.

I could see myself relaxing out on this deck each night, contemplating the wisdom of Jimmy Buffet as each margarita goes about you?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Making Charcoal the Old-Fashioned Way

If you didn't get out to Penn State's Ag Progress Days this year, you missed a nice living history presentation of 19th-century charcoal-making. Luckily for you, you can catch it here at Go Wood!

You might recall we discussed real hardwood charcoal around Memorial Day, just in time for summer grilling. Well, the history of this life-sustaining, industrial revolution wood product is shared here by Sandy Smith of Penn State Extension, with his fellow colliers Bill Metzel, a historical re-enactor from State College, and Paul Fagley of the Pennsylvania DCNR, historical interpreter for the Greenwood Furnace State Park. Video is about 20 minutes long, and well worth the look at a side of history you've probably never heard or read about.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Public, or Private, Ownership of "Excess" Housing?

Wednesday, I introduced a straightforward proposal to turn the housing market around in a hurry.  John Krier, the author of The Simple Solution, is a semi-retired west-coast lumber industry executive who, as an owner of 14 rental units, stands to profit from the current rise in rents due to the shortage of rentals as "empty" housing numbers mount. He and I discussed this yesterday after I called him to let him know that I had received quite positive feedback from the office of a prominent national politician...they had reviewed the article and the full proposal and had forwarded it to their legislative staff in Washington.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Simple Solution to the Housing Crisis

We ended the last post...

"Or, we can re-engage private investment in the game."

Fortunately, we're hearing rumbles out of Washington that the experts are thinking along the same lines.
"The Obama administration is seeking ideas from investors on how to convert thousands of foreclosed properties owned by government-backed entities into rental homes, administration officials said.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, will be joined by the Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in soliciting proposals, said the officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly in advance of an announcement planned for later today. ...
Encouraging investors to buy foreclosed homes in bulk would help shrink the U.S. housing surplus, stabilize property prices and provide affordable rentals, Morgan Stanley housing analysts said in a report Aug. 8.
The collapse of the U.S. residential real estate market triggered the recession in 2007 and has stifled an economic recovery, according to the Morgan Stanley study. Incentives such as tax breaks and eased lending terms are needed to encourage more investors to purchase repossessed homes, repair them, and rent the properties at affordable rates to people who can’t afford to buy a house, analysts led by Oliver Chang wrote.
“What’s important to do is help clear the backlog as quickly as possible with as little detriment to home prices as possible,” Chang, head of housing strategy in Morgan Stanley’s research division, said in a telephone interview Aug. 8. “The goal here isn’t to help investors. The goal is to provide quality affordable housing.” - The Washington Post, 8-10-11
Well, since they are looking for ideas, here's one: It's called by its author The Simple Solution.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"When Fall the Banks of England..."

All I know about banking economics I learned years ago from the movie "Mary Poppins". In the story, an irascible but lovable London banker, George Banks, is living the good but stressful life of maintaining a household at 17 Cherry Tree Lane in 1910 London; a wife named Winifred who is fully engaged in the suffragette movement; two self-identified "adorable" children, Jane and Michael; a cook, a maid, and a nanny, who turns out to be Mary Poppins.

Near the beginning of the movie, Mr. Banks is walking home from a long day at the bank, and he is accosted by his neighbor, the retired Admiral Boom of His Majesty's Navy, from the admiral's rooftop, which looks like the deck of a ship in some weird way. Admiral Boom fires off:

"Good-day, Banks! How's the world of finance these days?"

Mr Banks: "Excellent, Admiral. Credit rates are moving up, up, up, and the British pound is the envy of the world."

Later in the movie, in a scene at the bank, Mr. Banks has introduced Jane and Michael to the chairman of the bank, the elder Mr. Dawes, who represents the stodgy old British banking system of the time. Mr. Dawes, in explaining to the children the value of depositing their "tuppence", proclaims:

"While stand the banks of England, England stands; when fall the banks of England, England falls!" At which point he shakily falls backward into the arms of the other old stodgy directors.