3D Printing, Trees, and The Music Industry

Deforestation and Guitars

When you think of guitars, you probably think of music. Good music, bad music, eh music; If you know a little more on the subject, you may think of electric or acoutsic; of 4 strings, 6 strings, or 12 strings; more advanced, and you might even think of the type of wood its made from, cedar, spruce, rosewood, koa, maple, walnut, mahogany, the list goes on and on.

But have you ever stretched your imagination to wonder where those woods come from? It certainly wasn’t your back yard. The most coveted woods, in keeping with most coveted things, come from the farthest rainforests: Koa comes from Hawaii, Grenadilla comes from Africa, and Rosewood comes from Brazil and some parts of Africa. It goes without saying that products that travel great distances have no small ecological impact, and given that one guitar may use different types of woods for different pieces, the environmental consequences of owning a single guitar, from its carbon footprint to its unsustainable practices, are disasterously high. And would it surprise you to know that many of these highly sought-after woods also happen to be endangered? The availablility of these woods isn’t only a problem for the rainforests either (although that alone should be more than sufficient); The Chief Executive of the company that makes Les Pauls, Henry Juszkiewicz, released a statement in regard to the environmental impact of wood harvesting for guitar production: “Deforestation and over-harvesting has led to a chronic shortage of rosewood, maple, ebony, mahogany and spruce. And it could mean the end of the guitar as we know it.”

The same story, of course, applies to all wooden instruments, and is a matter about which all musicians should be concerned. The argument for wooden instruments now is the same type of weak, nostalgic appeal to traditionalism that arose in opposition to electric guitars: “quality of sound”. It is an absurd superstition which asserts that only wood can produce a desirable sound, one which can only be dispelled if alternatives are proven to be of equal or superior quality.

That is where 3D printers come in.

Conveniently and infinitely reproduceable, made from biodegradable corn plastic, able to be created, with no degree of skill or training required, in your very home (or a UPS near you), 3D printed instruments present a solution to the unsustainable wooden guitar problem. Not only can you produce a flawless body (strings, bridge pins, and smaller pieces are still better bought than printed) within hours, you can also customize it: its size, its color, its shape; you could even give it yours eyes. The possibilities are legitimately endless.

There are certainly problems with using 3D printing as the modus instrumentus. Firstly, 3D printing is still in its infancy, and therefore quality control in imperfect (not that traditional methods are perfect either: printing at least ensure there are no scratches on your brand new guitar). There is another important aspect to consider, which is the potential end to skilled labor in the field of instrument making. But perhaps it is more of a transformation of skilled labor from the physical to the digital: after all, someone will have to teach all the new 3D enthusiasts how to use 3D design software and make their designs compatible with their printers.

To cut or to print: the decision is up to you.

As for me, my 3D printed corn plastic ukulele is begging for experimentation. I’ll see for myself if the sound quality is at all lessened by a good conscience.

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