Wood is not wood. It’s restricted.
By Dave Bloxham
I’m in California, but I sell all over the world. As a small business owner I know it’s an important to pay attention to what’s happening in the musical instruments business locally and from all corners- manufacturers, distributors, customers, even the shipping companies. And I’ve always kept a small but conspicuous presence on E-bay and Reverb so there are several things to pay attention to. Lately things have been changing and it’s forced me to make some people very unhappy, including myself!
It’s practically every day now- I get a request from someone overseas for a quote on shipping to them for an instrument. I specialize in American Folk, Bluegrass and Blues guitars, banjos, mandolins and resonator guitars (Dobros) that are often not easy to find outside of the United States, and in better times I had a small- but welcome piece of the international market. Recently I’ve refused requests from the UK, Australia, Venezuela, Italy, Germany and Japan for guitars and banjos, and just today another request for a Blueridge guitar to be shipped to Hong Kong. Typically this is my horrible response:
“I’m sorry but due to the international restrictions on wood, mother of pearl and other natural materials I am not able to ship overseas. The duty agents are known to confiscate instruments from cargo shipments, Fedex, Mail, and even from passenger plane checked baggage. The only exception seems to be carry-on baggage. I hear that they are holding them indefinitely, and if they ever release the instrument they may levy fees and penalty fines on both the sender and the receiver. E-bay won’t allow me to post a guitar in their international shipping program, If you fly with an instrument check with the authorities first. Unfortunately I cannot ship it to you, but thank you for asking”.
So That’s it. I don’t like it one bit, it’s cutting out the rest of planet earth from my business! I have tried to find a work-around, every bit of information I get only re-confirms the restriction. Recently a person had asked me about sending a banjo to the UK. I got on the phone to Kentucky, and Eric Sullivan offered to make a banjo for us using only synthetic inlays, doing away with mother of pearl, as they are getting prettier and higher in quality and don’t affect tone. Deering banjos has begun making a very small number of special banjos from oak, and they are really good. To me these seem like possible ways to open the world to our products again, but I talked to the US fish and wildlife service and international shipping brokers. They all tell me I’d still need an export license (costly) and pay a fee with every shipment (costly again), plus shoulder the remaining risk if I’ve made a mistake- it can still come back to bite.. All in all, it’s just not practical to even try no matter what wood it is. If the border agent doesn’t recognize oak or any kind of wood, they can hold it. The extra fees alone are deal killers. So it’s all off the table, for now. I can only presume it will get worse, not better. On the flip side, wood imported into the United States has also been under tighter and tighter scrutiny by border and trade agents. You may be familiar with the wood confiscation at the Gibson factory a few years ago. Domestic builders may find the most commonly used woods which are of course imported such as Mahogany, Rosewood and Ebony becoming scarce, unavailable, or even illegal. So far, the supply on these has not be shut off completely but they are watching.
The Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) met last year to establish a new restriction on all wood of the Rosewood species groups, requiring wood shipments to have the proper documentation defining their origin. This has also been extended to some Bubinga wood species and Kosso. You might not be familiar with these names but they represent variations and alternatives to traditional rosewood varieties that have been heavily exploited in the past. These include the already banned species of Rosewood of the genus Dalbergia nigra known as Rio, Bahia, or Brazilian Rosewood. This wood has been nearly completely banned from importation with rare exception. I do understand, and it is true- there has been over-cutting of these woods in the past, and it is imperative that they be protected before they are gone. It’s frustrating however when you know that mismanagement and the complete lack of oversight in the past has led to this situation today, and instead of restrictions and regulation, we are faced with a total stoppage.
It’s not all bad news, Back sides and neck wood affect tone, but the most important component is the guitar’s top. Adirondack spruce, a superior tonewood used extensively for guitar tops prior to WWII is available again, after about 70 or more years without it. It really helps a guitar attain that vintage prewar guitar tone more than any other factor I can think of. Plus, some other light woods that are not rare do very well for the tops, such as cedar.
Composite guitars, primarily carbon fiber are not wood, so are exempt. Unfortunately the best ones are very expensive and they sound okay, but not quite like a wooden guitar. To my ear they don’t have the depth and the fine overtones wood gives us. Likely, they will be improved but not many people I know are excited yet about having a carbon fiber guitar. It’s probably something we’ll look into because it’s a new technology. It may be the only guitar I’d be able to export! There is still the neck to consider. I’ve held a composite neck; they weight about 4 times as much as mahogany which surprised me, knowing it’s supposed to be lightweight, but I think it contains a large amount of resin. Most of the composite guitars retain a wooden neck. One thing the composite guitars are, is durable! If you want a wooden guitar, Even in the United States, you might want to put it on your “better sooner than later” list.
At the online store: I thought I’d mention our free shipping feature on the shopping cart had a glitch- and it was failing to cut the shipping charges for a $200.00 (or more) invoice. That is fixed. Now it oddly gives the customer the choice to pay for shipping, or choose free shipping. Please choose free shipping, of course! I don’t know why it does this. Life is strange. We just added a slew of new instruction books and more will be arriving soon. Books ship at a reduced rate. Also a new order of Deering banjo straps is in and are of very high quality, US made, and quite popular. I’ll be posting a banjo strap installation page on the site soon for added convenience.
I want to welcome my new subscribers! we haven’t been doing this long but we are happy that a huge number of new subscribers from all over the world signed up in the last 5 weeks, by the order of 50 to 90 new subscribers every day! Most seem to be in the US but it surprises me how many of you are from Germany and the UK. I know today’s article was not what you wanted to hear. I’ve got a new newsletter in the works and I’ll be sending that out to all subscribers soon. If you’d like me to write about something don’t hesitate to let me know. Subjects I’m working on:
what’s new on the workbench-
My new experience as the banjo teacher turned student-
and I’m hammering out some special offers. I’m just as excited as you, to find out what that will be.