The Ebony Project: Taylor Guitars Plants Trees in Cameroon to Preserve This Vulnerable Tonewood
Taylor Guitars has long been a leader in responsible guitar making, working with domestic and international suppliers to ensure that its instruments are made of sustainable tonewoods. In 2011, Taylor took its biggest step to date when it teamed up with the Spanish luthier supply company Madinter to purchase an ebony sawmill in the central African country of Cameroon, in the process becoming the world’s largest legal producer of legal ebony.
Ebony of a uniformly dark black color is, of course, the traditional choice for the fretboards and bridges of acoustic guitars, as well as for non-musical applications. But as Taylor learned, the bulk of harvested ebony—nine of every ten trees—is in fact streaky brown in coloring and has historically been discarded. “Maybe that was fine once, but it’s no longer acceptable to eat the heart and throw away the rind—just like plastic bottled water was fine when it first came out, but now that it’s known to have such negative impact on the environment, there’s just something very wrong with it,” Bob Taylor told AG in the June 2014 issue. (See Makers & Shakers.)In response, Taylor has broken with tradition to use ebony of variegated coloring—a purely aesthetic decision—in its guitars at all price points. Meanwhile, since the company acquired the mill, terrible deforestation has continued in the Congo Basin rainforest. To help counteract this trend, Taylor partnered with the Congo Basin Institute, which researches ways of building greater sustainability in the region, in a collaboration dubbed the Ebony Project. Bob Taylor says, “Before we launched the Ebony Project with CBI in 2016, very little was known in the scientific world about even the basic ecology of West African ebony. Over the past few years, however, the basic research we’re funding has begun to demystify many secrets.
“For example, we visually documented for the first time the insects that pollinate the ebony flower, as well as several of the mammals that distribute ebony seeds across the forest,” he continues. “In short, we’re learning how the trees naturally reproduce. We have also greatly improved our knowledge of manually producing new plants from both seed and by vegetative propagation, in which a new plant is grown from the rooted cutting or fragment of a parent plant.”
As part of the Ebony Project, Taylor has overseen the planting of ebony trees in Cameroon, including a recent batch of 1,500 and an equal number of fruit seedlings, at strategic spots in the dense rainforest. An additional 13,500 ebony trees are planned to be planted by the end of 2020. “The first trees were planted two years ago, and more were planted last year, Taylor says. “This year was incredibly rewarding, as we saw that the survival rate of the previously planted ebony was high, and that the plants had grown considerably. And this year’s plants are even stronger and heartier. Our confidence is high. The involved communities are happy. Honestly, it feels good.”