A sustainable guitar from Jedidiah's Planet Saving Guitars.

Photo by Sarah Wallensteen \ Jedidiah's Planet Saving Guitars

Long before going green became a trend, luthiers were passionate seekers of prized pieces of reclaimed wood. A fallen tree in the forest was viewed as a creative opportunity and specific species of wood were sought out with the belief that they held magical tonal qualities within their very DNA.

American guitar companies such as R. Taylor, Breedlove and others have been constructing instruments with Sinker Redwood tops for many years and Queen’s Brian May made his legendary handmade guitar, “the Fireplace,” using reclaimed wood salvaged from a 100-year old fireplace mantle, a chunk of a table, a spring from a motorcycle and a piece from his mother’s knitting needle. It's the stuff of rock and roll legends.

In recent times guitar production has undergone a massive transformation due to new technologies, global trade practices and the pressing need for more cost-effective production methods and production demand for cheaper guitars on the market. Manufacturing specs can now be uploaded, fabrication can be completed by robotic equipment and hand processes like wiring pickups or placing frets can be done by factory workers overseas.

Jedidiah Weibe of Jedidiah Planet Saving Guitars in Salmon Arm, British Columbia combats this trend by making guitars and other stringed instruments using classic techniques and timeless handcrafting methods guided by an unwavering environmental ethos. Jed chooses only sustainable, local materials with a focus on reclaimed woods from his native British Columbia for his instruments.

He makes all his instruments by himself in Salmon Arm and the materials Jed uses all have storied pasts and timeless qualities. Jed believes that the wood he uses in his instruments must be reclaimed from previously long and useful lives. Wood has to be on its “second life” according to Jed, which means wood was previously a table, a bridge, a piano or a building.

For soundboards Jed uses a very specific wood from Terrace, BC called Lutz's spruce. Lutz's spruce is a hybrid of two species of spruce “that only exists where the mountains meet the sea in northern latitudes” as Jed explained. He believes it's the best spruce for instrument soundboards by far and is unique to BC.  

Jed works with another British Columbian who researches where old wooden bridges are being demolished or replaced on remote logging roads and then scopes them out looking for Lutz’s spruce. If the bridge yields Lutz’s spruce then it is sliced up, tested and sorted for the best quality pieces, which will later show up in Jed’s workshop.

Other guitars are made out of old piano soundboards. Guitars made from piano soundboards have been well-received by musicians for their incredibly rich sound. Jed also acquires pieces of old furniture that are too damaged to restore as furniture, but when stripped of varnish often reveal high-grade old growth mahogany.

Another source of wood is a company called Terramai, which salvages exotic wood from heritage buildings around the world slated for demolition. The wood from these heritage buildings naturally sound better as a result of “volatile oils and resins” that have hardened and thus “crisped the tone,” according to Jed. This heritage wood also has already passed the test of time, been de-stressed, aged, dried and abused, and can be counted on to have perfect structural integrity as a result of its long, hard life. “The vibrations (these woods) have hummed to in their past life seem to work the wood into a stiffness more yielding to the vibrations of the guitar's strings to produce the purest cleanest tone,” says Jed.

As for the rest of his materials, Jed uses hide glue as an adhesive in his process, which is actually a by-product of the very wasteful beef industry. He has also come up with a solution for the normally toxic process of finishing instruments using a product by an Australian company called UBeaut for finishes. UBeaut uses a formula to make a lacquer based on shellac, which is a non-timber forest product. According to Jed, this product produces a finish “as hard as the hardest of the toxic guitar finishes that are commonly used, and is based on a material (shellac) which is certified by the USFDA to be safe enough to eat.” 

Jed explained that of that small number of people who find their way to his shop, he is “constantly blown away by the percentage of people who decide to order one of my guitars within minutes of holding one in their hands for the first time… once you play a truly high quality guitar it only takes a moment to hear the difference.”

The next time you walk across an old wooden bridge stop and listen carefully for the hum and feel the vibrations. 

Eric Nay is an architect, designer, artist and a professor at OCAD University. His blog, Made in Canada, profiles examples of Canadian design innovation, including sustainable buildings and design, craft practices and innovative businesses across the country.

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