This Article Was Originally Published On: December 15, 2015 #Issue 17.

Luthiers have a lot to worry about, including the laws which govern how they obtain their tone woods. In this installation of Bass Gear Magazine’s Luthiers’ Round Table, we take a look at the USA Lacey Act and how it has impacted what basses are made from, around the world. The Round Table Luthiers include (in alphabetical order) Sheldon Dingwall, Harry Fleishman, Vinny Fodera, Randall Wyn Fullmer, George Furlanetto, Mike Kinal, Kenneth Lawrence, Gerald Marleaux, Carey Nordstrand, Michael Pedulla, Roger Sadowsky, Pete Skjold, Michael Tobias, and Joe Zon, although not every luthier has the time and opportunity to respond to every question in each issue.

Here are the questions for the luthiers:

TB – What impact has the USA Lacey Act (banning commerce in certain illegally sourced timber and other plants) had upon your business and the way you source wood for your basses?

Sheldon Dingwall – The largest impact has been on the paper trail. Making sure you know the genus, country of origin and volume of every piece of wood and having access to documents to prove its provenance all the way back to the tree, or face the potential penalty of $250,000. We avoid woods that are on CITES lists or which come from questionable sources. We’re fortunate enough to not be too dependent on specific woods for our basses to be accepted.

We’ve had more trouble with Fish & Wildlife and pearl. Basses were getting held up at the border and we couldn’t figure out why Fish & Wildlife were involved. After all, it’s a bass guitar, not a bass fish. Once we got clarification of what was required to import pearl into the USA (that was originally sourced from the USA), we switched to pearl substitutes, and haven’t looked back.

Roger Sadowsky – I no longer purchase wood from outside the USA. I only purchase from USA suppliers, as the onus is on them to comply. For my imports of Sadowsky instruments manufactured in Japan, we have spreadsheets listing all the Lacey information that we supply to our freight forwarder.

Randall Fullmer – Being a small-quantity builder (thirty basses a year) and shipping no more than 20% of them a year to other countries, the law hasn’t affected me a great deal, but I definitely pay attention. After following Gibson’s challenges, I have read the law as it pertains to my business and have done the following:

  1. I have never, and don’t intend to ever, import my own woods from abroad. I purchase only from legitimate USA sellers, and I keep excellent records of all of my purchases.
  2. I pay attention to which woods are on any sort of endangered list and do my best not to use them.
  3. I’ve never used ivory, and I’m eliminating any sort of shell inlay – especially for a bass that will go overseas. If a customer wants it, I discuss that if they ever travel overseas, it could be problematic.
  4. If a player takes one of my basses on any sort of international tour, I’m willing to write a letter stating the exact material content of their bass and explaining that all materials were sourced legally and I give my business contact information in the event there’s a question.

Pete Skjold – First, the Lacey Act was passed on May 25th, 1900, so it is nothing new. The way it has been amended, and now enforced, is the real question. It hasn’t affected me much in the day-to-day, but I am fully aware of what it is about and how it could affect me and the rest of us down the road. Like most everyone here, I have stopped sending shell out of the country, and I do not export any woods on the CITES list. I buy only from USA sources and do not import my own wood. One big concern, though, is how more and more woods have been slowly making their way to the CITES list. Woods like cocobolo have just been listed recently (6/12/13) and the RED list has just about everything else we use on it. These are woods that face potential extinction and endangerment, like the woods listed on the CITES list. This is a major concern of mine, because what is safe and fine to use and export today may not be in five years. Woods like ziricote, wenge, bubinga, are all facing similar evaluation as cocobolo.

These woods are not endangered because we use them for instruments. Much of it has to do with the expansion of the human population in key regions where they grow, along with forestry mismanagement. The fact that the woods are very desirable for fine furniture, musical instruments and high grade architecture is one reason they have been preserved as a commodity. Otherwise, it actually is more cost effective in some countries and regions to just turn these woods into cooking charcoal. They are building dams in the basins of the rainforest for hydro-electric power, which is devastating the ecosystems in those regions. Many of these fine tonewoods are being lost, not to being cut for use, but simply being cut to clear space or submerged under a flooded river for a dam. Further reading if anyone is interested,

Jason DeSalvo (Fodera) – Generally, it has not changed the way we do things with regards to wood, as the vast majority of our woods have been sourced from large, reputable suppliers here in the United States. The exceptions to this have been for some direct importation of Indian rosewood (from India) and Brazilian rosewood (from Brazil) for fingerboards. In these cases, there are a rather complex set of requirements to ensure the chain of custody from the time the wood was harvested until we receive it. Everything must be properly documented and declared to ensure that the wood was harvested and purchased legally. With Brazilian rosewood, there is an additional level of complexity due to its listing under CITES. Obviously, with Brazilian rosewood, we also need certification from the supplier in Brazil and the Brazilian Minister of Environment that all of the material was either harvested pre-CITES or is from documented, reclaimed material.

Although the amount of paperwork is challenging for us as a very small business, we completely support what the laws are designed to do. Although you didn’t specifically ask, since we use certain shell products for inlays on our instruments (mother-of-pearl and abalone) and these are also regulated under the Lacey Act, we must maintain a current Import/Export License and obtain clearance for each shipment of our instruments that we send outside of the USA.

Gerald Marleaux – The USA Lacey Act does not impact my business too much. We have been building basses mostly from wood which comes from our area for the past twenty years. I buy trees directly from local forests and dry it by myself for many years. All of the woods we use are certificated, and we don´t have to worry about getting into any trouble. But it’s true, it does cost too much time for documentation.

Michael Tobias – I have been more careful about buying wood, but generally, it has not been an issue for me. I usually make sure the people we buy from are in compliance, so it is not a worry.

Harry Fleishman – I’ve been lucky! I’ve had international sales of instruments that may have had some materials that I’ve had for decades. Most of my wood is either reclaimed from old furniture or stash purchased from old-timers (like I am now), and not legitimately provable as old. I have cut up two dining room tables of Brazilian rosewood, and there is no way I can show receipts or provenance for wood originally used in furniture made in 1904! It has meant that I don’t use pearl and abalone, Brazilian, other woods on the CITES schedule. I think it is going to be difficult until the government figures out (with our help) that we are small users. I agree 100% with other luthiers who are saying we are concerned about endangered materials, we don’t use them knowingly, we don’t encourage them, and we are probably the most conscientious about protecting resources as they are endangered; even NAMM has had no sway with politicians, as I last heard.

It is important to remember that to the government, it is a very slippery slope between 30 basses a year (which I think is amazing!), to 300 guitars a day (yes, many factories in the USA are building than many!). Most of us in this group are small potatoes, at least in our numbers. But most of us have also designed for companies that are very big potatoes, using huge amounts of resources. One very big company tried to turn this into a little-guy-vs-big-government. The rumor level was amazing. As much difficulty as it causes us, I believe that the government’s proper role is to protect the environment and resources. They just need a bit broader vision and a lot lighter touch.

Kenneth Lawrence – Like my colleges have stated, none of us would or should be willing to utilize any endangered or illegally sourced woods, regardless of the fact that there are legal repercussions. The impact of the current legislation is the same for all of us in that it has increased our paperwork and homework load. I have always sourced wood from established, reputable sellers, so that, for me, hasn’t changed. I do take issue with the fact that the emphasis has shifted from chasing down and stopping the illegal logging, poaching, illegal import/export at its source and putting the emphasis of responsibility on the end users – be that us builders or the musicians who play our instruments. I understand the “supply and demand” effect, but it reeks of a rather lazy, “path-of-least-resistance” approach.

George Furlanetto – This topic, wood scarcity and decimation of our natural resources has been on my mind for quite a long time. I am very impressed with Taylor’s response to this subject by setting up his own sustainable ebony plantation in Africa, running it responsibly and getting fair wages to workers – which is usually the crux of responsible harvesting.

Four years ago, the Lacey Act/Fish & Wildlife stepped up enforcement and inspection related to shell and wood materials in musical instruments. They blocked all my shipments for inspection, and charged an inspection fee $120 each, AND the requirement of an entity in the USA to have an import license ($100 per year per importer). Then the importer would have to re-ship to dealers, unless I paid for every dealer to have an import license. The costs would pile up, and I thought it would end my importation into the USA, my major market. Stressful times, to say the least.

Mike Kinal – The USA Lacey Act has had no impact on the way I build instruments. All the materials I use are sourced out of Canada and are not found on the endangered species list. The woods we use are commonly grown in Canada and the USA.

TB – Has the more stringent enforcement of the Lacey Act encouraged you to work with new/different woods, or even non-wood alternatives?

Sheldon Dingwall – No, we were already oriented in that direction, already.

Roger Sadowsky – No, I have always worked in many different woods.

Randall Fullmer – I don’t think there’s a luthier on the planet that wants to use materials that are being driven to extinction, so one pays attention to any listed woods and shell products and you do your best to stay away from them. The dilemma is that I, like many luthiers, have wood going back fifty years. When I started making guitars at age 12, guess what? I ordered Brazilian wood blanks for fretboards. That was the recommended material at the time and it was affordable. Horrifying now, but I still have a little bit of that wood that I’ve saved. I have some ebony that I believe to be illegal, now, that I purchased thirty years ago; not going to be using that wood. Except for my dwindling stock of shell inlays, I have switched to wood, Luminlay, and hard plastic inlays. The only scary thing to me is retroactive documentation. Seems like philosophically, everyone, is on the same page trying to do what’s right. But I would guess that if I were hit with an inspection, somewhere in my shop would be a small amount of material that would be questionable from the past, and I wouldn’t be able to adequately document. My hope would be that if it ever comes up, my good intentions would be clear, I’m a small operation and we could figure it out.

Pete Skjold – I have always looked to use the most sustainable, reasonably priced woods I can for the bulk of what I do. Before Lacey became a hot button, I wasn’t so concerned with using some of the more rare tonewoods as a special offering, but now I am very aware of it. I have thought of other more sustainable wood alternatives, and you might remember, Tom, I talked to you about trying laminated bamboo as a neck material. I might have to revisit that. I don’t see it as that big a deal for me, as I don’t build enough to worry about availability for the future, but I definitely see an industry trend toward more and more non-wood solutions. Martin Guitars has actually made acoustic guitars out of countertop laminate (formica). It scares me to think what guitars will be in 50-100 years. What all of us are making is actually a big part of musical instrument history. We are seeing it change before our eyes, as things that were common place fifty years ago and up to just recently are now not even being used or offered, such as real shell, Brazilian rosewood, ebony, ivory etc.

Jason DeSalvo – It has definitely caused us to start looking into alternatives for many of the woods that we have been building with for many years. By way of example, prior to twenty years ago, we were regularly purchasing Honduran mahogany for body wood. Today, much of the mahogany that we use is grown on plantations. We continue to explore various other plentiful materials and are regularly building prototypes with different combinations of possible materials. At this timem we have no plans to shift over to non-wood alternatives.

Gerald Marleaux – We always try new woods and look for better ways to build basses. At the moment, we are working on a project together with the University Göttingen to find a way to get more stiffness on “home-grown woods.”  The goal is to find a way to use modified local woods (such as maple, oak, birch), instead of rosewood or ebony.

Michael Tobias – I am always looking for new woods. So far, I am not interested in non-wood alternatives.

Harry Fleishman – I’ve always used alternatives, and non-wood materials. However, the synthetics are mostly pretty hostile to work with. I had to lie to the Hondo company who wanted to use phenolic-based fretboards, because I found out that the factory didn’t have adequate (adequate! read any) precautions for their workers. I told them the material was no good and they had to use wood. We have a lot of choices, and virtually any wood can be designed into a good instrument. The sum is always more a product of design that of any one element, even one as important as wood choice. It is our own personal fetishes, and those of our clientele, that would keep us using an endangered material. We need to move away from that mentality and keep educating our clients about the environmental costs of their choices, from glossy finishes to exotic woods.

Kenneth Lawrence – I have already been referring back to more “traditional” woods for tonal reasons – alder, ash, maple, some mahogany – and the availability is still good, so that tells me that the management of those trees is reasonably good. That misnomer of boycotting certain woods actually makes things worse where those trees grow. If you create a managed crop of any species of tree, then it has an on-going value and everyone wins. That, however, requires some long-term thinking, and that can be sorely lacking, especially when governments get involved (ok, I know, ranting done!). As to non-wood alternatives, perhaps in the future, but not presently.

George Furlanetto – I am always looking for more sustainable woods that have the same tonal characteristics as endangered species. We also try as much as possible to use the wood efficiently and try to discard as little as possible. I keep small exotic scraps to sell on to craftsmen. My thought is, in the future, wood may be restructured/modified/injected after logging to suit requirements. I may pursue this with local agricultural university labs. Non-wood alternatives are not yet to the level I would like.

Mike Kinal – The Lacey Act has kept me from experimenting with different species because of importing and exporting. I wouldn’t want to put a customer in a hot box with customs because of the materials the instrument is made from.

TB – What issues should players be aware of if they travel internationally with their instruments? 

Sheldon Dingwall – Make sure you know what woods your bass is made from. If it contains any endangered woods, like Brazilian rosewood, leave it at home.

Roger Sadowsky – Make sure there is no Brazilian rosewood or ivory on their instruments.

Randall Fullmer – I first became aware of this issue when I read an article about someone’s vintage guitar being confiscated at a border crossing for shell inlays. They simply kept the guitar!!! What vintage guitar doesn’t have Brazilian rosewood or an ebony fingerboard or pearl or abalone inlays of some sort? So I warn my customers and provide documentation. Seems to me that it’s possible to be complying with the spirit of the law, and still run into technicalities or misidentification of perfectly legal materials. I have some players that tour internationally who would love to take my bass, but leave it at home and simply use basses from the country that they’re playing in on the tour. It’s too bad that has to happen, but the issue becomes a bit of a wild card to predict the knowledge and reasonableness of every border crossing guard. One definitely must be prepared when taking instruments to other countries.

Pete Skjold – It is a crap shoot, because you don’t know what is going to have to be proven and what might get confiscated in order to prove it is not Brazilian rosewood or real shell. Right now is a very scary time for all of us, as there is not a good standardized method of handling this situation. These people who are looking at these instruments may not know anything about a particular type of wood. They might be referencing a picture of Brazilian rosewood and not be able to tell that they are looking at a non-endangered species which is used as a substitute. I like what Randall had to say about having info with the bass and a contact number to the builder. I think I am going to use that one, too, Randall! The players need to know upfront if they are going to have a bass with potential issues. I have several players who tour internationally, and so far, none of them have had an issue. But all it takes is an overzealous customs person, and things can get scary. 

Jason DeSalvo – Unfortunately, each country has their own laws, and each instrument has its own potential “issues.” Our advice would be to know what your specific instrument was built from and also the laws of the country that you may be visiting. We wish there was a simpler answer, but there is not.

Gerald Marleaux – If you are not sure which wood or material is contained in your instrument, it’s better to leave it at home (for the moment). I really hope it will change in the future and come back to normal. It doesn’t make sense to me to catch old instrument by customs.

Michael Tobias – So far as I know, the main issues are Brazilian rosewood and ivory. However, there will be more coming. Honduran mahogany and wenge are on the list now, but not restricted like Brazilian rosewood. I send a letter with each bass telling the owner what it is made of, so there should be no confusion about the components of their bass.

Harry Fleishman – Every musician who travels internationally, including to our northern suburb, Canada, needs to understand the laws and make every effort to not only comply, but take proactive steps to ensure that they are within the law and carrying whatever papers are necessary to prove it. What a drag, eh? Traveling wasn’t stressful enough, right? They need to understand that those little pearl dots on the fretboard might just get their instruments confiscated. How does anyone really protect themselves from that? I’m trying to get retroactive documents for all my old wood, so musicians won’t be in trouble for something they have no control over. It is possible to get documents for old wood, but it takes effort, time, money, hassle, and did I say HASSLE?

Musicians need to be aware that even old instruments from before the treaties and laws may be subject to them. While we are trying to get more old stuff grandfathered in, they are still vulnerable.

I would suggest having a very plain, non-questionable backup bass for travel. Let’s acknowledge, there are a lot of great basses for touring that won’t get confiscated. Also, carry as much paperwork as possible; overwhelm them with paperwork, just as they have done to us!

Kenneth Lawrence – As Sheldon stated, if it has Brazilian rosewood (or ivory), “leave it at home.” Given that a lot of customs policy is left to the discretion of individual customs agents, (wherever they may be), it’s just too much of a gamble to risk losing your instrument with no recourse to recover it. I did hear one idea of establishing a passport for a particular instrument, but I can’t imagine that happening anytime soon. And again, you might encounter agents in another country that might not accept it, and you’re back to the risk of losing your instrument.

Aside from Tom’s questions, there is a related issue I’d like to bring up. I talked with a dozen international customs brokers and none of them knew anything about these new restrictions/requirements that affect us builders. Does NAMM (or someone else) have anyone that we can turn to for assistance or answers with this? Like dealing with most government bureaucracy, there’s a lot of opportunity for confusion, and having someone to turn to for help would be a very good thing.

Roger Sadowsky (in response to Kenneth) – The important thing here is import vs. export. For import, you need to conform to Lacey, CITES and Fish & Wildlife for shell. Lacey does not apply to exports, but CITES and shell restrictions do apply. I export from Japan using Expeditors, and they comply with Lacey and Fish & Wildlife. These are for larger commercial shipments. For export, I use FedEx or DHL for individual instruments and have never had any issues. However, I have stopped exporting Brazilian rosewood and shell (I have gone to alternative pearl). I cannot even use up my stash of mammoth ivory and fossil walrus ivory, as NYS has made that illegal.

George Furlanetto – Musicians should be aware of travel/border restrictions on the different instruments they own, and try to get as much information/documentation from the builder or manufacturers.

In response to Kenneth’s question, above, NAMM does offer assistance with both Lacey and Fish & Wildlife issues. Thanks to their on-going discussions with these entities, the rules have somewhat relaxed for both builders and musicians. NAMM also holds seminars at The NAMM Show with representatives of both Lacey and Fish & Wildlife Departments present.

Mike Kinal – Players should get all the information up front from the border and country they are traveling to. Get a spec sheet of the materials used on your guitar before leaving the house.