10 Most Sustainable Tonewoods: A Life-Cycle Analysis

10 Most Sustainable Tonewoods: A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:21 Minutes

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Wood is generally a sustainable material thanks to carbon sequestration. However, the environmental impacts of using wood vary based on the tree species, the biodiversity of their native forests, the management of those forests, traveling distances, and the method of transportation. So we have to ask: Which woods are the most sustainable for musical instruments?

The most sustainable tonewoods are Sitka spruce, western red cedar, redwood, tulipwood, black cherry, basswood, red alder, maple, ash, and black walnut. They have an environmentally favorable carbon balance (more carbon sequestered than emitted), are sustainably replenished, and naturally durable.

In this article, we will walk you through the life-cycle of the ten most sustainable woods used in musical instruments. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. We will also investigate a few tropical hardwoods that could be sustainable options for musical instruments, providing responsible harvesting. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable timber.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of All Types of Tonewoods

In general, wood is a sustainable material because of timber trees’ carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of the wood product’s life-cycle. 

“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

However, some tonewoods are better than others for making a musical instrument. One way of assessing the sustainability of wooden instruments is to go through their life-cycles and examine each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s look at the LCA of some of the most sustainable tonewoods!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of woods used for musical instruments. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

These five stages of the life-cycle of musical instruments made with wood are as follows:

  1. Growing of the wood
  2. Manufacturing of the wooden musical instruments 
  3. Transportation of the wooden musical instruments
  4. Usage of the wooden musical instruments
  5. End-of-life of the wooden musical instruments

The life-cycle assessment typically covers some or all of the following environmental impacts:

  • Global warming potential 
  • Primary energy demand from resources 
  • Acidification potential
  • Freshwater eutrophication potential 
  • Marine eutrophication potential 
  • Photochemical ozone creation potential 
  • Resource depletion

The global warming potential impact reflects the risk of accelerating climate change through the emissions of greenhouse gases. It focuses on CO2 and other greenhouse gasses (CH4, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons) released throughout a product’s life-cycle. This impact is measured in kg of CO2 equivalent emitted per unit of a product – the carbon footprint

“Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Deciding factors for a high or low carbon footprint in wooden musical instruments are: 

  • Drying requirements of timber
  • Distribution of timber trees 

Because of the tree’s carbon sequestration potential, the carbon emitted during various stages of a wooden musical instrument’s life-cycle can be compensated by the carbon captured and stored. The deciding factors for high or low carbon storage are: 

  • Tree sizes 
  • Tree growth rate 
  • Natural durability 

In this article, we’ll cover ten woods that are the most sustainable material for musical instruments regarding their global warming potential. We will also look into how to make a more sustainable choice when using tropical hardwoods to build your guitar or other string instruments. Specifically, we’ll zoom into species’ growth rate, tree size, distribution, woodworking properties, and natural durability, as these are the deciding reasons behind the carbon balance of woods. 

These Are the 10 Most Sustainable Types of Tonewoods

These tonewoods have, to some extent, natural resistance to rot and decay and high strength properties, making them durable materials for musical instruments. Most of them also have low carbon emissions on a life-cycle assessment basis. 

Type of woodOverall sustainability
Sitka spruce woodWhat makes it so sustainable: Sitka spruce is highly durable, with an excellent strength-to-weight ratio, and instruments made with this tonewood can last many years. Also, spruce timber is highly available thanks to the large population, the quick growth and the enormous tree size.

Additionally: Sitka spruce dries quickly, resulting in a relatively low manufacturing carbon footprint. 
Western red cedar wood What makes it so sustainable: Western red cedar is lightweight and locally available thanks to its wide distribution. Thus, transporting western red cedar has a relatively low carbon footprint. 

Additionally: This enormous tree species grows in abundance in the US forests, providing a sustained timber stock. 
RedwoodWhat makes it so sustainable: Redwood lumber has a negative carbon footprint ( -659.03 kg CO2-eq per 1m3) thanks to its high carbon sequestration during the forestry stage and the favorable property toward air-drying. 

Additionally: Parts of musical instruments made with redwood can last for a long time thanks to redwood’s extremely high natural resistance to rot, weather, insects, and fungi.
TulipwoodWhat makes it so sustainable: Tulip poplar or American tulipwood has a carbon footprint of (1 m3 of kiln-dried, 1-inch thick log) of 270 kg CO2-eq – the lowest in all US hardwoods available on a commercial scale. Tulipwood’s low weight and fast-drying property help to reduce fuel and energy consumption during harvesting, manufacturing, and transporting. 

Additionally: Tulip trees grow rapidly to a large size, replenishing any timber cut for furniture at a fast rate.
Black cherry wood What makes it so sustainable: Back cherry wood (or American cherry) has a carbon footprint of 301 kg CO2-eq, cradle-to-gate. That is lower than all US-native hardwoods of similar density and strength.

Additionally: Black cherry wood is a very sustainable hardwood because of the durability of the timber and the fast rate at which the cut wood is replaced in the wild. 
Basswood What makes it so sustainable: Kiln-dried basswood has a carbon footprint of 330 kg CO2-eq (per cubic meter). The relatively low carbon emission is due to its lightweight and easy-to-dry nature.

Additionally: Basswood is light and requires less transporting fuel (per unit).
Red alder wood What makes it so sustainable: One cubic meter of red alder lumber has a carbon uptake of 651 kg CO2-eq, resulting in a negative carbon footprint of red alder wood used in musical instruments. This tree species has a very large population and a fast growth rate, resulting in rapid replacement after timber harvesting.

Additionally: Red alder’s abundance makes it possible to source this timber with a short transporting distance to lower the carbon footprint. 
Soft maple wood What makes it so sustainable: Soft maple has a carbon footprint of 390 kg CO2-eq, which is higher than many other softer and lighter hardwoods. Yet, it is still one of the most sustainable hardwood species, thanks to the fast-drying nature and the durability of the timber.

Additionally: Soft maple trees grow in abundance throughout the US forests, making it possible to sustainably harvest timber without harming the forests. 
Ash wood What makes it so sustainable: Ash is a durable tonewood that can be sourced locally from the US forests. 


Additionally: Ash wood has a carbon footprint of 407 kg CO2-eq (per cubic meter of kiln-dried, 4/4 lumber), which is in the high end of US hardwoods. 
Black walnut wood What makes it so sustainable: One cubic meter of black walnut wood (1-inch) has a carbon footprint of 427 CO2 eq, higher than most commonly traded US hardwoods (except for hickory and oak). However, it is still a sustainable tonewood because black walnut trees sequester a lot of carbon, and black walnut timber stores it for a long time. 

Additionally: The durability of black walnut instruments sets them apart as being sustainable. 

Overall, these woods are sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of wooden outdoor furniture depends on many factors, especially the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each wood and the stages of its life-cycle and find out how it can be more sustainable.

1

Sitka Spruce Wood: A Locally Available Tonewood From a Fast-Growing Conifer Species

Spruce (a softwood) is the most common tonewood native to North America, largely because of the high quality this wood produces and the excellent strength-to-weight ratio. Several species of spruce (Sitka, Engelmann, Lutz, and Adirondack) are sought after for musical instrument parts like guitar soundboards. Thanks to its high availability, Sitka spruce is the most sustainable spruce species. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of Sitka spruce wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of Sitka spruce wood: Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is one of the fastest-growing tree species in North America. In ideal conditions, young trees’ height may increase by 5 feet yearly. They also grow large and tall: a Sitka tree can weigh more than 300 tons and have an impressive height of 300 feet. Their size signifies a high carbon sequestration potential as carbon accounts for nearly 50% of the dry weight of a tree. 
  • Manufacturing of Sitka spruce wood: Sitka spruce dries fairly quickly: air-drying green 1-inch lumber of Sitka spruce to a 20% moisture content takes 40 to 150 days. Fast-drying wood tends to have a lower manufacturing carbon footprint because kiln-drying is the most carbon-intensive step in lumber production.
  • Transportation of Sitka spruce wood: Thanks to the abundance of Sitka spruce in the US, the transport footprint of this softwood is lower than imported woods like cocobolo or sapele. 
  • Usage of Sitka spruce wood: Sitka Spruce has an outstanding stiffness-to-weight ratio. Thus, it makes long-lasting soundboards. 
  • End-of-life of Sitka spruce wood: The end-of-life stage is sustainable when tonewoods are upcycled for other musical projects or burned for bioenergy. 

Spruce is a highly available tonewood, thanks to the large population, the quick growth, and the enormous tree size. The excellent strength-to-weight ratio of Sitka spruce is behind its durability. Instruments made with this tonewood can last many years, keeping their carbon storage role. Also, Sitka spruce dries quickly, resulting in a relatively low manufacturing carbon footprint. 

2

Western Red Cedar Wood: A Light Material With a Low Transporting Carbon Footprint 

Cedar species (a softwood), especially western red cedar, are top tonewoods for volume. Common cedar usage is soundboards for small-stringed instruments like mandolin, ukulele, violin, or guitar. Western red cedar comes from the tall and big conifers – the giant arborvitae.

Here are the life-cycle stages of western red cedar wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of western red cedar wood: Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) trees have a high carbon sequestration potential thanks to their large sizes (200 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter) and their long lifespan (over 1,000 years). In North America, western red cedar trees are abundant and sustainably managed. Thus, timber harvesting doesn’t harm the forests.
  • Manufacturing of western red cedar wood: Western red cedar is dimensionally stable; thus, less energy is wasted on shrinkage, checking, and warping during kiln-drying. 
  • Transportation of western red cedar wood: Western red cedar trees are abundant in the Northwest US. In states such as Washington, Oregon, or Idaho, it’s possible to source western red cedar locally, lowering the transportation footprint. Also, transporting this lightweight timber is more fuel-efficient than hauling heavy hardwoods. Consequently, transporting carbon footprint per unit is smaller.
  • Usage of western red cedar wood: Western red cedar is highly resistant to insect attacks and wood rot (thanks to its tight grain). Soundboards made with western red cedar can last a long time if they are handled carefully to avoid dents (as this light, porous timber is prone to cracking and scratching). The longer a piece of musical instrument lasts, the more sustainable it is in using the instrument as carbon storage. 
  • End-of-life of western red cedar wood: The end-of-life stage for western red cedar wood in musical instruments can be sustainable if the wooden parts are upcycled for another project or used to make bioenergy. 

Western red cedar is highly available, thanks to the well-managed population of this softwood tree species. Besides, western red cedar is lightweight and, thus, has a relatively low transporting carbon footprint. 

3

Redwood: Durable Tonewood from Fast-Growing Giant Conifers 

Redwood (a softwood) produces bold sounds and rich, warm overtones. Its warmth is comparable to cedar when used for the tops of musical instruments. Redwood comes from coastal redwood trees – the tallest living trees on earth.

Here are the life-cycle stages of redwood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of redwood: Coastal redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) grow very fast (3 feet per year) and exceptionally tall. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan of over 2,000 years, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. The species’ ability to regrow from sprouts is significant in reforesting ancient woodlands while replenishing the timber source. 
  • Manufacturing of redwood: Redwood is exceptionally stable. Thus, if the local weather is favorable, redwood lumber can be air-dried completely or partially (before kiln-drying). As kiln-drying is usually the most energy-intensive process for wood products, air-drying helps lower the carbon emission during manufacturing. 
  • Transportation of redwood: Redwood trees grow extensively along the West Coast of the US. Thus, the transporting carbon footprint to states such as California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, or Arizona is relatively low. Less energy is expended in shipping redwood around these regions compared to importing tropical hardwoods, such as khaya or korina. 
  • Usage of redwood: This timber is extremely resistant to rot, weather, insects, and fungi as it is high in tannin and does not produce resin or pitch. The lifespan of redwood tops are comparable, or perhaps longer, than those made with cedar. 
  • End-of-life of redwood: Redwood can either be upcycled to lengthen the carbon storage role or burned biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas to generate electricity. Both scenarios are sustainable. 

One cubic meter of redwood has a carbon footprint of only 37.97 kg CO2-eq (cradle-to-gate). The same volume of redwood lumber stores 697 kg CO2-eq. The significant amount of carbon sequestered makes redwood a sustainable timber. Besides, manufacturing redwood musical parts has relatively low carbon emissions thanks to little need for using a kiln to dry this dimensionally stable timber. 

4

Tulipwood: Highly Sustainable Timber from One of US Tallest Hardwood Trees

American tulipwood or yellow poplar (a hardwood) is loved for its good acoustic qualities and warmth comparable to cedar. Thanks to a good range across trebles and basses, yellow poplar is often used for traditional harps and dulcimer soundboards. The tulip trees, where yellow poplar wood comes from, are the tallest hardwood trees in North America. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of American tulipwood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of American tulipwood: Tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) grow to a large size in a short time, sequestering carbon and helping to mitigate the climate crisis. Because of the abundance of these very tall hardwood trees in the US forests, it only takes 1.82 seconds to grow 1m3 of American tulipwood
  • Manufacturing of American tulipwood: The carbon footprint of drying tulipwood (one cubic meter, 1-inch thickness) is 25.6 kg CO2-eq, lower than all commonly-traded US hardwoods. This is due to this timber’s rapid drying speed
  • Transportation of American tulipwood: Tulipwood is lightweight and thus, less fuel-consuming during transportation. It has the lowest transporting carbon footprint of commercial US hardwoods
  • Usage of American tulipwood: Tulipwood is moderately durable. It is dimensionally stable once adequately dried, and can last up to a decade.
  • End-of-life of American tulipwood: Tulipwood can be up-cycle to lengthen the carbon storage role or burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity. 

The carbon footprint of tulip poplar or American tulipwood (1 m3 of kiln-dried, 1-inch thick log) is 270 kg CO2-eq – the lowest in all US hardwoods available on a commercial scale. Tulipwood’s low weight and fast-drying property help to reduce fuel and energy consumption during harvesting, manufacturing, and transporting. Also, tulip trees grow rapidly to a large size, replenishing any timber cut for furniture at a fast rate.

5

Black Cherry Wood: Durable Tonewood From Fast-Growing Trees 

Black cherry tonewood (a hardwood) is considered the US alternative to mahogany. The density and reflectivity of black cherry make it a good tonewood for acoustic instruments. Back cherry tree is a fast-growing species with a relatively short rotation (taking less time to mature than other hardwoods). 

Here are the life-cycle stages of black cherry wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of black cherry wood: Black cherry (Prunus Serotina) trees grow at fast rates of 2 to 4 feet per year. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. 
  • Manufacturing of black cherry wood: Kiln drying 1-inch-thick black cherry lumber takes up to 120 hours and has a relatively low carbon footprint of 42.7 kg CO2-eq. Manufacturing carbon emission of black cherry is similar to willow wood and smaller than many other dense hardwoods like hard maple, hickory, red oak, and white oak
  • Transportation of black cherry wood: Black cherry grows abundantly in the wild throughout the US, resulting in a lower transporting carbon footprint. Thus, it is a sustainable alternative to imported tropical woods like Honduras mahogany
  • Usage of black cherry wood: Black cherry wood is long-lasting carbon storage because the wood is resistant to decay and weather changes. Regarding usage, it is a very sustainable option, more so than hardwoods like maple.
  • End-of-life of black cherry wood: The end-of-life stage for black cherry wood is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

Back cherry wood has a carbon footprint of 301 kg CO2-eq, cradle-to-gate. That is lower than all US-native hardwoods of similar density and strength. Deciding factors for black cherry being a sustainable tonewood are the strength of the timber and the fast rate at which the cut wood is replaced in the wild. 

6

Basswood: Light and Easy to Dry Timber From Sustainably Managed Forests 

Basswood (a hardwood) is a tonewood with a full balance, preferred in making electric guitar bodies and piano parts. The harvest of basswood timber is equal to or lower than growth, which is a telltale sign of this wood’s sustainability. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of basswood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of basswood: Basswood (Tilia americana) trees grow at medium to rapid rates, averaging 2 feet per year. They have high carbon sequestration potential as they grow large and tall (120 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter). 
  • Manufacturing of basswood: Basswood is a fast-drying hardwood. This property contributes to a low drying carbon footprint (38.5 kg CO2-eq for one cubic meter). It is also a soft hardwood, softer than softwood species like southern yellow pine. Thus, it is easy to work with, requiring less energy for machinery. 
  • Transportation of basswood: Basswood is lightweight and thus, has a transporting carbon footprint amongst the lowest of all American hardwoods
  • Usage of basswood: Because basswood is relatively soft, it might dent easily. Still, it can last for many years as carbon storage, providing proper care. 
  • End-of-life of basswood: The end-of-life stage for basswood is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Kiln-dried basswood has a carbon footprint of 330 kg CO2-eq (per cubic meter). The relatively low carbon emission is due to its lightweight and easy-to-dry nature. Most importantly, basswood is highly sustainable because of these trees’ carbon sequestration potential.

7

Red Alder Wood: A Highly Available Timber 

Red alder tonewood (a hardwood) has a resonant, balanced tone. It is often used on its own as the body of guitars. A telltale sign of this timber’s sustainability is its relatively short rotation (taking less time to harvest than most other hardwoods). 

Here are the life-cycle stages of red alder wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of red alder wood: Red alder (Alnus rubra) is the most abundant hardwood in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It takes 0 seconds to grow 1mÂł of American alder because of the very large volume of this timber species in the US forests. These fast-growing hardwood trees can reach 130 feet in height and 3 feet in diameter. Their size signifies a high carbon sequestration potential as carbon accounts for nearly 50% of the dry weight of a tree. 
  • Manufacturing of red alder wood: Red alder is one of the easiest North American hardwoods to dry: it can be air-dried from green to a 20% moisture content. The drying time varies significantly depending on the season and location (20 to 180 hours). Kiln drying requires a special schedule to avoid discoloration. Thus, the carbon footprint of kiln drying red alder is relatively high: 75.3 kg CO2-eq for one cubic meter.
  • Transportation of red alder wood: Because of red alder’s abundance in the Pacific Northwest region, it is easy to source this timber locally in western states, lowering the transportation footprint. 
  • Usage of red alder wood: Red alder wood could last for 10 years in, for example, a guitar body. The longer a wooden product lasts, the more sustainable it is, thanks to its carbon storage role. 
  • End-of-life of red alder wood: Red alder wood can be upcycled to lengthen the carbon storage role or burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity. 

One cubic meter of red alder lumber has a carbon uptake of 651 kg CO2-eq, resulting in a negative carbon footprint of red alder wood used in musical instruments. This tree species has a very large population and a fast growth rate, resulting in rapid replacement after timber harvesting. Its abundance makes it possible to source red alder with a short transporting distance to lower the carbon footprint. 

8

Maple Wood: Durable Tonewood From Highly Sustainably Managed Stock 

As a tonewood, maple (a hardwood) provides a bright tone: the harder the maple, the brighter the tone. Some commonly used maple species in musical instruments are silver, bigleaf, red (soft maple species), and sugar maple (hard maple species). Generally, soft maple species are more sustainable thanks to faster growth rates. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of soft maple wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of soft maple wood: Because of the large population of soft maple trees in the US, it takes merely 1.73 seconds to grow 1mÂł of American soft maple. Though soft maples aren’t rapid-growing trees, such a growing stock – 11.1% of total US hardwood growing stock – allows harvesting timber without harming the forests. 
  • Manufacturing of soft maple wood: Soft maple has a very low drying carbon footprint for hardwood of such hardness and density. Kiln-drying one cubic meter of 1-inch soft maple logs emits 29.9 kg CO2-eq
  • Transportation of soft maple wood: Because soft maples are widely distributed in the eastern part of the US, it is possible to source this timber at relatively short transporting distances. These species have a lower transportation footprint than imported hardwoods of similar density and strength. 
  • Usage of soft maple wood: Maple is one of the most durable hardwood species in the US. It is, thus, an environmentally friendly material because the longer a piece of musical instrument lasts, the more sustainable it is in using the wood as carbon storage. 
  • End-of-life of soft maple wood: The end-of-life stage for maple tonewood is sustainable when the wood can be reused for another woodworking project or burned as bioenergy. 

Soft maple has a carbon footprint of 390 kg CO2-eq – higher than many other softer and lighter hardwoods. Yet, it is still one of the most prolific and sustainable hardwood species. The large growing stock, the fast-drying nature, and the durability of the timber are telltale signs of its sustainability. 

9

Ash Wood: A Local Tonewood With Excellent Strength 

Ash tonewood (a hardwood) produces a mellow tone and projects trebles and basses well. It is favorable for acoustic instruments with steel strings. Wood from ash species (Fraxinus genus) is strong and durable – telltale signs of its sustainability. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of ash wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of ash wood: Ash trees’ growth rates e from medium to fast: 13 inches per year (white ash) to more than 24 inches per year (green ash). As they grow, they sequester carbon and help to mitigate the climate crisis. During their long lifespan – 300 years for some ash species – they act as a carbon sink. 
  • Manufacturing of ash wood: Ash wood dries fairly fast and has a relatively low drying carbon footprint of 38.5 kg CO2-eq (1 m3,4/4 ash logs). That is less than half of white oak – a comparable tonewood. 
  • Transportation of ash wood: Thanks to ash species’ widespread distribution in latitude, climate, and soil conditions, it is easy to source this timber locally in western states, lowering the transportation footprint. Besides, ash is lightweight. One truck can carry more ash than, for example, mahogany. 
  • Usage of ash wood: Musical instruments made with ash wood are long-lasting thanks to this timber’s excellent strength and shock resistance. The longer a wooden product lasts, the more sustainable it is because the product works as carbon storage.
  • End-of-life of ash wood: At the end of their life, ash wood can be upcycled (making new items) or recycled for bioenergy. 

Ash wood has a carbon footprint of 407 kg CO2-eq (per cubic meter of kiln-dried, 4/4 lumber), which is in the high end of US hardwoods. However, musical instruments made with ash wood can last for a long time, thanks to the wood’s excellent shock resistance and strength. Its durability makes it a sustainable option. 

10

Black Walnut Wood: A Durable and Beautiful Tonewood from a Naturally Regenerating and Planted Species 

Black walnut (a hardwood) combines many of the tonal attributes of rosewood and mahogany but comes locally from the US forests. It is an excellent tonewood for string instruments. This wood comes from one of the few hardwood native species that not only grow and regenerate naturally but also is planted on farms and fields. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of black walnut wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of black walnut wood: Black walnut (Juglans nigra) trees grow at a medium rate, reaching 120 feet in height and 3 feet in diameter at maturity. They act as a carbon sink, sequestering carbon and mitigating the climate crisis
  • Manufacturing of black walnut wood: Kiln drying one cubic meter of 1-inch black walnut logs has a carbon footprint of 59.7 kg CO2-eq. As this timber species dries slowly, they tend to have a high manufacturing footprint because kiln-drying is the most carbon-intensive step in lumber production.
  • Transportation of black walnut wood: Black walnut trees grow very widely across the eastern US in mixed hardwood forests and on farms. Thus, the transporting carbon footprint is lower than imported hardwoods like ebony or khaya. 
  • Usage of black walnut wood: Black Walnut is rated as very durable in terms of decay resistance. It also has good dimensional stability, shock resistance, and strength properties. Thus, musical instruments made with black walnut can last many years, keeping their role as carbon storage. 
  • End-of-life of black walnut wood: At the end of their life, black walnut wood can be upcycled (making new musical instruments) or recycled for bioenergy. 

One cubic meter of walnut wood (1-inch) has a carbon footprint of 427 CO2 eq, higher than most commonly traded US hardwoods (except for hickory and oak). However, it is still a sustainable tonewood because black walnut trees sequester a lot of carbon, and black walnut timber stores it for a long time. The durability of black walnut instruments sets them apart as being sustainable. 

Tropical Hardwoods for Musical Instruments: A Few Words on Their Sustainability

Some tropical hardwoods make long-lasting (and stunning-looking) musical instruments thanks to tonal attributes, strength properties, and their natural resistance to rot and decay. Over-exploited tonewood species like mahogany, rosewood, and ebony come with high ecological costs and thus, should be avoided in most cases. However, there are some alternative tropical tonewoods: 

  • Koa 
  • Cocobolo
  • Sapele
  • Korina 
  • Khaya 

Though the durability of these hardwoods is a big contribution to their overall sustainability, there are two other deciding factors: 

  • Eco costs of logging 
  • Transportation distances 

Firstly, it is possible to source tropical hardwoods that are sustainably harvested. There are certificates such as FSC and PECC, which guarantee sustainable forestry management. In that case, the eco costs of such hardwoods can be lower than woods that might require treatment to last equally long. 

Providing that you can find FSC-certified tropical hardwoods, the distances and the mode of transport still affect the total carbon emissions. 

The transporting footprint of these hardwoods is undoubtedly higher than woods sourced locally in the US. 

However, the transporting emissions are not the same for all woods from the tropic. For example, koa from Hawaii would have traveled shorter distances than korina from Central Africa. 

In brief, tropical hardwoods are not as environmentally friendly as untreated softwoods and hardwoods available locally within the US. 

However, suppose you want musical instruments made with naturally durable, beautiful tropical hardwoods, you should search for the most sustainable options in this group:

  1. You should watch out that they have a sustainable certificate, such as FSC or PECC. You need to avoid timber associated with deforestation in tropical rainforests – the world’s most biodiverse places.
  2. Traveling distance matters. You should weigh all your options and go for the woods that travel the least.
  3. It would also be an environmentally friendly option if you can find salvaged or recycled tropical hardwoods. 

How Can You Buy More Sustainable Wood

The key to sustainably buying any wood is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. Reliable certifications for sustainable woods are: 

An FSC certification ensures that the ash wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners. 

Why Is It Important to Buy More Sustainable Wood

Improperly managed logging (including illegal activities) can cause many problems for forest equality and diversity. One example is when loggers only cut down the biggest and tallest trees. That pattern would cause a reduction in the genetic diversity and quality of the trees within the stand, leading to gradual degradation of tree quality. 

In total, logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss, which is a combination of deforestation and forest degradation. However, the loss in bio-diverse forests in tropical climates is more significant (and sometimes less properly recorded) than in temperate, well-managed logging forests. 

Illustration of long-term forest loss
Our World in Data: Decadal losses in global forest over the last three centuries

Buying sustainable wood also means helping to prevent illegal or unsustainable logging, which harms the forests’ biosystems and accelerates climate change. 

Logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss. Cutting down trees for wood has a lesser impact on carbon storage than digging up the whole forest floor and turning it into farms or mines. However, if logging is not sustainably managed, it can badly damage wildlife.

When logging happens in tropical forests – the bio hotspots of our planet – the biodiversity loss can be much more damaging. Subtropical and tropical forests are packed with unique wildlife – endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians. The displacement of such wildlife during poorly managed logging would be a major contributor to global biodiversity loss. 

Sustainable management of forests also means that trees are cut down for timber only when they are mature. These trees will then be able to regrow and eventually replace the loss of canopy, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the effect of climate change.

Illustration of drivers of tropical forest degradation
Our World in Data: Drivers of tropical forest degradation

Final Thoughts

You can build sustainable musical instruments made with wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. These ten tonewoods – Sitka spruce, western red cedar, redwood, American tulipwood, black cherry, basswood, red alder, maple, ash, and black walnut – are among the most sustainable options. The reasons are the relatively low carbon emissions during harvesting, manufacturing, and transporting and the years and decades that carbon is stored inside these woods. You can make it even more sustainable by using musical instruments made with these woods for as long as possible. Then, look into upcycling the material to extend its usage and/or arrange for it to be recycled fully.

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