The Story of Urban Wood Guitars
One of the foundations of the Urban Wood Network is the idea of collaboration and partnership. We’ve learned time and time again that remarkable things happen when we collaborate and work towards a shared mission and vision.
The players in this story date back to the early 70’s, when some entirely unrelated companies began to come into existence. First, there was West Coast Arborists (WCA) that started in 1972, then Taylor Guitars in 1974, and Wood-Mizer in 1982. Looking at these three names 20 years ago, the collaboration didn’t seem likely. But over the last few decades, the urban wood movement has progressed and several networks for urban wood have cropped up, finally merging into one group, the Urban Wood Network, (UWN). Now their collaboration seems an obvious next step in the urban wood movement.
The Power of Networking: Meet the Players
One strength of the Urban Wood Network is the inclusion of every aspect of the supply chain. Typically businesses network within their own direct niches, but that can limit the scope of collaboration, something the Urban Wood Network aims to overcome.
One stunning example of this shows in the collaboration between three Urban Wood Network members West Coast Arborists, Wood-Mizer, and Tree San Diego, and how these three directly and indirectly connected with end-user guitar manufacturer Taylor Guitars. Ultimately even though these companies represent different aspects of the supply chain, there is a shared goal in caring for our urban trees, increasing our tree canopy, and making urban wood available in the volume, consistency, and quality needed for small, medium, and large manufacturers.
West Coast Arborists
WCA is a family-owned tree maintenance and management company that provides services to over 330 municipalities and public agencies. While they do tree care and tree removals as expected, they also focus on tree planting and the upcycling and salvaging of urban wood that they sell through their program, Street Tree Revival.
Currently, this team is upcycling over 36 different species, and salvages over one thousand urban logs annually for lumber. They also supply wood and logs to makers, sawyers, and others further in the supply chain. One of these species happens to be ash wood from Southern California, signature to the urban ash guitar from Taylor Guitars!
The first time I ever met John Mahoney from WCA more than a decade ago, he was carving wood for an urban wood networking event before a formal network was even in place. He said he fell in love with urban wood when he started chainsaw carving and realized how much beautiful wood goes into the waste-stream each year. He saw that to make a big impact and reduce even more wood going into the waste-stream, he needed to look into turning the wood into usable lumber, because as he puts it “You can only carve so many bears to make an impact.”
Christine McCarthy, an integral part of West Coast Arborists urban wood program also shares this vision and gives some details on WCA’s replanting-with-purpose efforts. She told me recently, “last week 1700 trees left the WCA nursery for planting and we are focusing on planting species that will have high end of life use potential”.
With their lumber yard, and two Street Tree Revival showrooms, they show that urban wood can produce a high-end product if you have some foresight and take care of the raw materials.
Two years after WCA came to be, Taylor guitars was founded. Taylor has had a reputation for its innovation, quality, and consistency for decades. Taylor is the best-selling acoustic brand in the world, finishing close to 900 guitars per day. Part of their innovation has always included the consideration of sustainability. Guitar makers typically source tropical wood from all over the world. They seek species such as mahogany, spruce, maple, ebony, and rosewood, and those have been used by luthiers for hundreds of years. Although Taylor always had a focus on sustainability, refusing to waste what traditionally had been wasted in their industry, founder Bob Taylor was constantly seeking even more sustainable materials and processes for his company.
A beautiful note about the history of Taylor and WCA is that both founders’ paths were very similar in the beginnings and growth of their businesses. In that way it shouldn’t be surprising that they share the same values regarding urban trees.
Taylor is an advocate of planting with intention, so that in the future when trees do need to come down for whatever reason, they can have a high purpose use as beautiful high quality lumber, that also minimizes the strain on our landfills, stores carbon, and reduces the amount of woods being harvested and imported from overseas. Some species are more versatile and useful than others, this kind of resource efficiency is in line with WCA’s mission as well.
So now, we have the supplier (WCA) and the maker and retailer (Taylor Guitars), but the bridge between these two links is the equipment manufacturer. Thank goodness that in 1982 another outside the box innovator, Wood-Mizer stepped onto the scene. Wood-Mizer is an instrumental piece of this story because it illustrates how even the best ideas need the right tools and equipment to come together seamlessly. WCA’s Street Tree Revival program shows this in action with their Woodmizer driven custom sawmilling capability and lumber sales.
WCA uses a Wood-Mizer LT40 super hydraulic, a WM1000, and a Super 70, and they have another Super 70 on the way. Using low energy thin kerf bandsaws allows WCA to process wood efficiently with a low carbon footprint, rescuing even more urban wood. One of the beautiful things about Wood-Mizer is that they too have been engaged in replanting efforts. They frequently have sent out new trees for replanting with the purchase of their mills.
Pictures of beautiful slabs alongside the Woodmizer in action show the process that leads to their incredible finished products.
The Urban Salvaged Ash Guitar: The Network in Action
I first met Taylor Guitars sustainability manager, Scott Paul in 2018 at UWN member The Arbor Day Foundation Partners In
Community Forestry Conference. He was sent on a mission to see if urban wood could meet the needs of his company. When he attended, he stated that they didn’t quite have proof of concept for urban wood, but the team at Taylor felt they were on to something big. I recall that he had a guitar there made out of reclaimed pallets.
Scott Paul offered some insight into the decision to source urban wood for guitar making which is currently an uncommon practice. Bob Taylor had actually been interested in the idea of non-traditional wood options for his guitars for almost 20 years, but the hurdle had always been the question of volume, consistency, and quality.
I visited the Taylor manufacturing facility the next day and Bob Taylor gave a tour and explained what got him really looking at urban wood as an option. It was as happenstance as reading an article about urban wood utilization in a local publication that piqued his interest in the urban wood movement, but in some ways, it was 20 years in the making as their company consistently looked for more sustainable materials. Guitar building has been done the same way for 100 to 200 years, the industry is a slave to tradition, and change is hard for musical instrument manufacturing. Their heart was sold, but from a business perspective, before they fully committed to an urban wood product they needed to do more research and have proof of concept.
Fortunately, Taylor guitars have a social license to innovate in a way other companies aren’t always able to. When they were a young company in the ’80s and 90’s Bob Taylor’s mantra was “innovate” and it paid off for this incredible company. It should come as no surprise to know they have been an early adopter of tonal urban wood.
When I saw Scott at the Baltimore Urban Wood Academy in Sept. 2019, the connection had been forged between WCA and Taylor guitars.
Bob Taylor and Andy Powers, (master designer for Taylor Guitars) had previously visited WCA’s yard looking for wood for Taylor Guitars, they were able to find 7 different species that were of interest, but their prize find was finding the shamel ash, an urban wood double for 30+-year-old mahogany featured in the urban wood guitar series.
Scott notes that he suspects these other species will bleed into their existing lines over time as long as suppliers are able to guarantee that same quality, volume, and consistency that were so crucial to the ash decision. Those three points coupled with the presence of tonewood in the WCA yard meant that Urban Wood Network member West Coast Arborists was definitely able to meet the needs of Taylor. The next step was to cut the logs on the Wood-Mizer, dry the lumber, and make the prototype to ensure proof of concept.
Scott Paul explains that an acoustic guitar is typically made up of five to six different species of wood, each selected as a specific part and chosen for different physical properties that are required for each part.
Once they decided on the ash, it quickly earned the nickname “the golden retriever of tonewoods” because of how eager it was to please. Being compared to 30-year-old mahogany, is the best compliment a guitar builder can give to a species of wood.
By the next ADF Partners In Community Forestry Conference where Scott and I both spoke on a panel about urban wood, he had an urban wood guitar prototype in hand. A few short months later, Taylor Guitars was releasing it at NAMM.
With the release of their urban salvaged ash series, Taylor Guitars stated:
“Our use of urban ash, also known as shamel or evergreen ash, reflects Taylor’s commitment to finding more sustainable, responsible ways to source tonewoods from within our local region.”
Taylor has proven the concept that companies can take urban wood and make one of the most high-end products on the market as a medium-sized manufacturer. Scott stated that, “ if more urban wood hubs could be established, urban wood could meet the needs of larger manufacturers as well.” We at the Urban Wood Network agree, and UWN member Cambium Carbon is working on developing these hubs around the nation. And UWN members Urban Ashes® and Urban Wood Economy are working to ensure that full circle urban wood economies are developed by consulting and helping to develop systems that assist urban wood professionals to provide the quality, volume, and consistency required by medium to large scale manufacturing companies.
Urban Wood Network and USRW Certified Urban Wood
Although Taylor Guitars wasn’t even a member of the Urban Wood Network and although USRW Certified Urban Wood was just beginning to be developed when Taylor first selected wood from WCA, the principles of process, quality, and standardization already existed. And the principles of collaboration and networking for the urban wood movement did as well. WCA was a key player in bringing the Standards for certification and chain-of-custody to fruition, and they along with many other leaders in the Urban Wood Network were following these same principles all along.
A primary goal of UWN is to act as a trade association and connect different aspects of the supply chain encouraging mutually beneficial collaborations that help continue to show the incredible quality and numerous uses for urban lumber.
Along with a strong network with shared values comes a need for a strong certification program for the wood products. USRW Certified Urban Woods, a certification program available to Urban Wood Network members brings standardized processes, grades, chain of custody certifications and language that is fundamental to seeing this industry reach its highest potential and encourage more collaborations like the rescued urban ash wood products in this story.
The Future of the Urban Wood Industry
Resource efficiency is another focus of Taylor Guitars and the offcuts of their guitar wood goes into other products including watches and cooking ware. Original Grain has a Taylor Guitars watch collection and the proceeds of that go to Tree San Diego (another UWN member) which contributes directly to replanting efforts.
Every link in the chain agrees that trees have their highest value while they are living, but when they need to come down, being able to store that carbon in a guitar, watch, or other wood product is an incredible thing. As is the UWN motto: Trees first, Wood Next™.
There’s a luxury in getting to be an industry leader and well-established company in that Taylor was able to take these steps early and experiment with urban wood, but they have now proven the model works. Scott hopes that other manufacturers will use Taylor as a resource to answer questions from a business perspective.
While Taylor is a high-profile company, they don’t use enough volume alone to move the needle on urban wood use. In an ideal world, more wood product manufacturers would look to try and forge relationships with local mills and wood sources and when nationally branded companies can get behind this concept, we stand to be able to create a circular economy.
The surface is just being scratched on this industry and there is so much more potential. For urban wood producers, this movement is just becoming somewhat mainstream and the idea of a tree on the street or in a yard needing to be removed for disease or other reasons and then being used for lumber is still a foreign concept. But who knows, with the rising prices of lumber that we have seen over the last year, perhaps more companies interested in sustainability will take a serious look at urban wood.
Through working with groups like the UWN and collaborating there is the potential to provide even large manufacturers with the consistency, volume, and quality they need, but it’s going to require a group effort. One key component that will help is the introduction of the new USRW Certified Urban Wood Standards that will provide consistency and standardization for wood produced by Urban Wood Network members to ensure it meets the needs of the users. Creating an industry around trees that need to be removed can boost local economies, provide more opportunities for small business and produce high-end products, all while improving our environment and reducing strain on our landfills.
Some questions I leave you with;
As a wood user – how could urban wood meet the needs of your next project?
As a consumer – What products can you see yourself purchasing made from urban wood? Furniture, flooring, wall cladding, decking, household items, other?
As a community member – do you know what happens to the trees your city removes? Are they being used for their highest and best use?
As an arborist – have you considered up-cycling removed urban trees?
As an architect, builder, or designer – would you consider specifying the most sustainable material on the market ‘urban wood’ for your next project?