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Exotic Hardwoods for the Instrument Trade


Guitar aficionados glare at the vintage Gibson Explorers, Les Pauls and Flying V’s adorning the walls of Norm’s Rare Guitars in San Fernando, California. They envision the iconic legends who wielded them and help shape the Gibson brand – Jimi Hendrix, Slash, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman.

When Commercial Forest Products sees vintage instruments, their attention is focused on the wood.

Commercial Forest Products was formed in 2009 in response to growing demand for tonewoods from instrument manufacturers.  “We receive a lot of requests for vintage wood or new wood that looks vintage,” according to General Manager Stephen Ondich.  “There is an intense desire among players to have a connection with the golden era of electric guitar production, the 1950-1960’s. Even if the instrument is new, it often evokes the past either through materials, design or relicing, Vintage has become a market into itself.”

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Swamp Ash is one of the most popular electric guitar body wood options at Commercial Forest Products. “Our motto is light, bright, and white – it’s the trifecta  of most builders’ requests, especially for Fender-style builds.” Swamp Ash derives its name from where it is purportedly grown, swamps in the southern United States. The name gives it a mystique even though a small percentage is actually harvested from swampland.

Another frequently requested guitar body wood specie is Black Limba or White Limba (Korina). Vintage Gibson instruments often feature Korina. “All three are names for the same specie. The black/white designation only refers to the coloration. Korina is a proprietary name that Gibson established for White Limba in the 1950s,” says Ondich.  “Korina can be difficult to source because there are very few markets for it outside of luthiery. As a result, it is not brought into the United States in large quantities. When what shows up is not good enough for tonewood, it can be a big problem.”

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Genuine Mahogany is another wood associated with classic Gibson builds. The specie was added to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which restricts the import and export of Genuine Mahogany products outside of the United States. Over the last few decades, more Mahogany has been grown under controlled conditions on plantations in areas like Mexico and Fiji. Differences in the soil composition result in newer mahogany having a different character than what came out of South American in the 1950s. This can make matching old grain patterns and colors difficult. “The trade-off is worth it, though. Our primary concern is that our mahogany is harvested sustainable and responsibly.”

Commercial Forest Products takes a long-term view of their role in the tonewood supply chain. “In a nutshell, we do not do anything bad, wrong, illegal or immoral and we won’t work with anyone who does. We want our partners to be as vested in maintaining their reputation in the industry as we are. Additionally, our manufacturing programs are designed to maximize the utilization of the wood resource. Our goal is to leave only sawdust and Instagram memories behind.