Bob Taylor, hands-on at his ebony mill in Cameroon, Africa, working to ensure
a sustainable supply of ebony long into the future.
Bob Taylor’s global quest to develop a sustainable
source of quality tonewoods
Bob Taylor describes his work at a small ebony mill in Cameroon, Africa as “among the most meaningful things I’ve done in my 42-year career.” It’s a surprising admission from someone who, with partner Kurt Listug, built one of the world’s largest guitar companies from scratch. Yet it reflects the evolving ambitions in an illustrious career. Having mastered the guitar maker’s craft, Bob has turned his energies towards developing a sustainable supply of wood for the entire guitar industry, while simultaneously alleviating the crushing poverty of the Cameroonians who work to source and saw ebony. Reforesting the globe and ending poverty sound like the goals of a utopian, completely detached from reality. But, as evidenced by his Cameroon operation, Bob tackles these big challenges on a smaller scale, with the same systematic approach he used to build Taylor Guitars. And after five years of milling ebony in Cameroon, the results are impressive.
Ebony’s dense, tight grain structure makes it arguably the best suited wood for guitar fingerboards. That’s why it’s standard on most fine acoustic guitars. Several years back, however, Bob came to the realization that ebony might no longer be obtainable. Madagascar, once a major source of supply, was effectively off limits due to a combination of political turmoil and reckless cutting of its forests. The supply was further tightened as other African nations and Sri Lanka began restricting ebony exports in an effort to curtail clear-cutting. Simultaneously in the U.S., the amended Lacey Act made it increasingly difficult to certify ebony for legal importation.
This impending shortage was the impetus for Bob to invest in Cameroon, a former French colony in West Africa, with an equatorial forest ideally suited for ebony. In 2011, he teamed up with Madinter Trade, a Spanish-based wood broker, to acquire Crelicam, an ebony mill on the outskirts of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. Crelicam’s physical plant and equipment were primitive, but the company possessed a precious asset: hard to obtain licenses for harvesting and processing ebony.
Five years later, Bob points with pride to a completely rebuilt and outfitted lumber mill that processes about 1,000 tons of ebony logs into rough cut blanks for guitar fingerboards and bridges, as well as violin fingerboards, pegs, and components. He says of the operation, “It’s not just beautiful for Africa; it rivals anything we have in the U.S. It brings an entirely new standard to the country, creating a working environment that’s safe, pleasant, and something few here ever thought they’d be a part of.”
This transformation has been a long and arduous process that Bob describes as “maybe the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced.” He travels at least five times a year to Cameroon, where he is hands-on at the mill, fends off officials seeking bribes, and “gets dirty” on the job. “He elaborates, “People say that Kurt and I started Taylor from ‘nothing.’ When you come over here, you have a whole new idea of what ‘nothing’ is. Things that we take for granted like electricity, water, a roof, and a UPS truck that makes pick-ups and deliveries, are tough to come by in Cameroon. The lack of infrastructure also makes all basic supplies incredibly expensive.” Overcoming these obstacles has required substantial investments—and Bob’s tenacious commitment.
Bob’s first objective with the Cameroon mill was simply securing “legal” ebony: wood that was cut in compliance with all local laws and could meet stringent Lacey Act import requirements. Once that legal threshold was passed, he set his sights on creating what he calls “ethical” ebony. In the past, when ebony trees were cut, only the pure black wood—about 25% of the tree—was actually used. The multi-colored parts were left on the forest floor to rot. Under his “ethical” approach, the Cameroon mill now processes the entire ebony tree, and Taylor Guitars has successfully popularized multi-colored ebony fingerboards. This more efficient usage policy has effectively tripled the available supply of ebony.
“Ethical” timbering also led Bob to join forces with the Congo Basin Institute, a UCLA-run lab in Cameroon, to encourage local villages to plant ebony trees. Thousands of ebony trees will be planted over the next few years, not out of an altruistic spirit, but because the locals are coming to view the trees as a valuable cash crop. Bob explains, “There are two ways you can regenerate a forest: through philanthropy, or by making forestry pay. It’s better if you can make it pay, because it’s more reliable that waiting for charitable donations. The easy thing would be to ban the use of ebony. But that would leave thousands of people without a livelihood, consigned to a pretty grim life. Our approach is harder, but I think it’s a better one.”
In Hawaii, Bob is using similar “make forestry pay” tactics to replenish depleted supplies of coveted koa wood. Cattle ranching is no longer viable on the islands, and unused pasture land is at risk of being taken over by gorse, a fast-growing invasive shrub with no economic value. A 20-acre tract with 30-year old koa trees holds enough wood to build 40,000 guitars. “That’s real money,” he says, and it’s an argument that’s persuading ranchers on Maui to begin planting koa seedlings. “Thirty-five years from now, the guys who are planting these trees are going to look very smart,” he adds.
As Bob sees it, the guitar industry is at an inflection point. Over the past few decades, builders have had access to some of the best woods in history. There were still enough virgin timberlands to tap, and modern transportation networks made it possible for guitar builders to get wood from every corner of the globe. Now, due to continued encroachments on forest lands, he says, the industry is facing an era of scarcity. “Everyone sees the need,” he says. “But few people are motivated to do anything about it because it’s hard. A finance department isn’t going to authorize planting trees because the payoff will be sometime after you’re dead. The production department won’t do it either because they have more immediate things to worry about. I’m hoping that my example might inspire others to regenerate forests, especially people who are better at it than us, people whose primary business is forestry.”
Some paint a grim picture of future guitar makers struggling to survive in a world without tonewoods. However, Bob remains optimistic. He is particularly inspired by the example of Fiji. Eighty-five years ago, British colonial officials planted the island with mahogany trees. Today, the forests are an important economic resource, providing revenue, jobs, and wood used for, among other things, Taylor guitars. Properly managed, the Fiji forests can also be a source of mahogany indefinitely. “It’s a big project,” he says, “but the guys who planted trees in Fiji show that it can be done.”
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