The Legend of the Music Tree

While browsing a Maine craft fair, I came across a guitar unlike any other. The guitar was hidden behind a display that included wooden bowls and cutting boards in the booth owned by woodworker David Smith. Smith, noticing my eager gaze, gently removed the instrument from its perch. He encouraged me to try it. I cradled the instrument under my elbow and plucked a few chords. The sound was rich and true. The most striking part of it was its appearance: Its sides and back rippled like the full moon reflecting on a still sea. Mesmerizing.

Smith smiled and said, “What you are looking at is The Tree.” It’s the most rare and coveted wood on the planet.

Smith’s studio was my first choice to visit. He and his wife, Nancy, live in a hand-built home on ten acres of wooded land in Clinton, Maine. Smith began woodworking at the age of 15, lying about his years to get an apprenticeship. He returned to it when he retired from a corporate job. He bought a Martin kit in 2009 and taught himself how to build guitars. While browsing an online catalog in 2019, he came across a picture of “sets” of guitars made from wood from The Tree. A set is the sides and back of a guitar. He said, “It looked amazing.” He bought one set, built a custom guitar, and sold it almost instantly. He purchased three sets with the money from this sale and sold three guitars. Smith told me that “one look at this wood” and “just about every guitar maker wants it.”

So do guitar players. Saul “Slash,” best known as the lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, owns over 230 guitars, including vintage models that are priceless. He was blown away by the sound of his first guitar from The Tree. It was unlike anything else he had heard. Slash said to a reporter in 2016 that he was “completely humbled” when he picked up the guitar. This was confirmed by an email sent recently. It was an amazing experience. “It changed everything I thought about acoustic guitarists.”

Andy McKee, the finger-style virtuoso whose videos on YouTube have garnered more than 59,000,000 views, and David Knopfler, who co-founded Dire Straits with his brother Mark, both own Tree guitars. Slash, McKee, and Knopfler all own The Tree guitars. But they are the exceptions. David Smith said it plainly: “Not too many musicians can afford these guitars.” They range in price but start at around $30,000.

Most luthiers that make guitars for The Tree do so as a custom order. Tom Ribbecke is one of the most renowned luthiers in America. He has made guitars for stars like Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel (better known as Seal), but his most frequent clients aren’t famous rockers. Paul Szmanda is a Wisconsin dentist with a passion for guitars. He owns many of them. Szmanda drove 2,178 miles in his Chevy pickup truck with an 8-foot-4-inch by 3-foot-6-inch board of The Tree. Ribbecke stated, “I saw flames when I looked at it.” At that moment, I knew this was the material for me. “I have to save this material for the world and use it in its best possible way.” That was my first thought.

Michael Watts, a British guitarist, told me that musicians and luthiers alike had been known to go into debt to obtain a piece of The Tree. He said, “I sold 14 guitars in order to buy one guitar made from The Tree. I would do it again.” “It’s basically been part of me for ten years. This guitar is made from a tree that had to struggle for all those years in order to survive. It had to push through 100 feet of forest canopy. This pretty much sums it up.

Not quite. The story of The Tree is a mixture of bravado, nostalgia, and sarcasm. Few people are familiar with the story, and those that do have their own unique interpretations. The story began in 1965 in the Chiquibul Jungle, a remote broadleaf forest in what is now Belize. A group of loggers on a scouting mission for timber came across an ancient mahogany.

Poachers, smugglers, and other criminals were attracted to Mahogany because it was a major export for that country. This mahogany tree was huge–12 feet at its base and 100 feet high. It was a strong contender to be the largest Tree in the forest, if not the biggest.

The rhythmic spiraling of the bark was even more captivating, as it hinted at the three-dimensional patterns lurking beneath the craggy surface. It was a special piece of wood, almost certainly quite valuable.

The loggers stood and admired their discovery, assessing the task ahead. At the time, chainsaws were rare and seldom used because they would get stuck in the hard, cold heart of Mahogany. Instead, loggers used handsaws and an axe to do the job.

No one seems to remember exactly how long it took to bring down the behemoth. The plan did not work out. The twisted Tree did not fall in the expected direction. Instead, it fell backward and crashed into a ravine, tearing through the foliage as it went down. The loggers stared in horror at the huge stump that poked through the sawdust like a rotting bicuspid. Their supervisors then climbed down to the gorge and assessed the damage.

The Tree was unharmed by the fall. The Tree refused to budge. As night fell, the howler monkeys began to scream like a group of tortured souls. The loggers left the next morning after packing up their camp. The memories of the fallen trees faded over time.

Robert Novak, an importer of exotic hardwoods based in Miami, heard about the story a few years later. Novak, a Miami-based importer of exotic woods, heard about the story a few years later. He was an adventurous man who raced sailboats in the Bahamas and dug for sapphires and diamonds in Madagascar. He was in Belize to purchase rosewood, but after hearing about the Mahogany, he decided to check it out for himself. Novak, a Belizean citizen who has been ill for years, cannot recall his experiences. John Roberson was a retired owner of Belize Timber Ltd. and one of many close colleagues to share memories. Roberson said that most people thought The Tree to be a myth. “But Robert. “He was never afraid of dreaming big.”

Novak also had a lot of patience. He waited for weeks, or even months, to let the ground dry out before he set off on his journey. The Chiquibul is renowned for its fauna, including jaguars, scarlet macaws, and keel-billed motmots. It also has a wide variety of plants, many of which are unique to the world. The area had few roads, trails, or paths to follow. There was also little potable water. However, there were plenty of tarantulas and pit vipers. Tony Rath is a Belizean photographer who spends a lot of time in Chiquibul. He said that it took him and his team three weeks to cut a path five miles long, just wide enough for the tractor. He said that the jungle was difficult to navigate. Novak’s attempt to locate a tree was almost impossible.

Novak was justified in turning back when he saw this. There were no eyewitnesses to this Tree of a lifetime, nor had he seen any photos. Maybe it was just a tall tale.

Then, it appeared: a log the size of Paul Bunyan, wedged in a deep gully covered with undergrowth. Novak realized in an instant that this Tree was something special. He had no idea what to do.

He went back to the United States in order to consider his options. It was prudent to leave sleeping trees alone, as there were so many possible things that could go awry in an operation this large. He was never one to be cautious, so the Mahogany fell and became his holy grail. Roberson stated that he “could not let go” of the fallen Mahogany.

Novak made contact with the landowner after a few years to stake out his claim. He was too late. Two other timber dealers had already set their sights on the prize, and one of them had more cash than him. He was outbid.

Novak couldn’t get the Mahogany off his mind. Months or even a year passed. Then, the unimaginable happened: the winning bidder backed out of the deal because he felt that the Tree was too old to be useful for his needs. Novak made a second offer, and finally, the mahogany tree was his.

Novak was not alone in the challenge of removing the log from where it had been buried for nearly 18 years. Tim Mahoney was his new partner. Mahoney was fluent in Spanish, had studied international relations, and spent many years in Cuba. All of this helped, naturally. Mahoney was a wood expert. He spent his weekends working as a carpenter after graduate school and building a 41-foot cutter rig he had sailed all over Central America. This trip opened his eyes to the potential of exotic wood and its scarcity in the U.S.

Mahoney and Novak met on a Belize buying trip and devised a plan together: Mahoney was to help dig up the giant log, and he would receive half of the spoils.

Mahoney was confident that his team would succeed in a task where others had failed. He and his team decided to chainsaw the log into quarters and then cut the quarters into 15-foot lengths. They also split the logs along the length. The pieces were then dragged out of the ravine by a tractor and transported 120 miles to the Belize River. They floated to an old steam-powered mill owned by the Belize Estate and Produce Company, the only mill in the area that could handle such a large tree.

The logs were carefully placed in the band saw’s 40-inch track to achieve the cleanest cut possible. The milling process took 12 days and produced nearly 12,000 board feet of prime lumber. Each board foot measures 12 inches wide and 1 inch thick.

A young Novak smiles in photos while posing next to freshly milled wood planks with dark crenulations called “quilt.” This Tree’s quilt was unusual and unique because it had three distinct patterns: a blistered line parallel to the grain, which looked like a map, a spiraled figure with trailing tendrils called “sausage,” and a rare, repeating “tortoise shell” pattern. Theorists have suggested that the figures are the result of a genetic mutation. This is possible. However, Les Kaufman, a biologist at Boston University and an expert in tropical ecology, believes that the most likely cause for these patterns is a combination of environmental stress and age. It makes sense since the Chiquibul region is frequently battered by bad weather, such as hurricanes. This Tree has seen plenty of that; experts estimate its age to be 500 years.

Mahoney and Novak divided up the milled wood and shipped their respective shares to storage rooms in Sausalito (California) and Miami (Florida). As word spread, furniture makers and woodworkers began to call. Mahoney’s’ widow, Susan, recalls how her husband sold the wood at an outrageous cost to select buyers around the world.

Peter Lay, a British entrepreneur, was one of these buyers. Lay’s interior designer informed him of The Tree in 1984 when he was building a magnificent estate in California. He visited Mahoney’s’ studio in Sausalito to inspect the wood. Lay said, “They had piles of it, and it was beautiful.” It was outrageously expensive – $29 per board foot, at a period when solid oak sold for less than $3 per board foot. Lay bought 1,100 board feet. We built the front door, as well as a bar, cabinets, and even an English library. I may be the largest user of The Tree anywhere in the world. (Yes, it is possible, but I cannot confirm this with the Star Wars director.)

Seekers of The Tree on the East Coast also swamped Novak. Not all were wealthy. Richard Heisey was a master furniture maker in Winchester, Virginia. Heisey, Novak’s opposite in temperament and carefulness, once spent 900 hours building a Hepplewhite-style breakfront to his design. The piece was embellished with ivory piano key bellflowers. Heisey, like Novak, was an expert in wood and could see the beautiful pieces of furniture he would create from a particular tree.

Heisey flew to Florida after reading about the legendary Tree in Belize. He wanted to know what the fuss was all about. Novak’s showroom was a magnet for Heisey, who wasn’t impulsive. He borrowed money to buy more wood than he had intended. He carefully examined each plank, selecting only the best. He loaded his treasure in a trailer rental and hauled it to rural Virginia. Nancy, his widow, still has a receipt for $7,200. It’s a fraction of the cost of the haul today but was regarded as a huge investment at the time. She told me that it cost her more than half of what she earned as a teacher in the same year. Nancy was not upset by the purchase or even surprised. She said that Richard had a keen eye for wood and wanted only the best.

Heisey was surprised by how difficult it was to work with the quilted Mahogany. The quilted Mahogany was difficult to work with because the figuring made it hard to cut straight. It also caused the planer to dull in minutes. The wood was used to make mirror frames for his sister and night tables as gifts for his wife. He saved the rest of the boards with the intention of using them in future works that would not be dictated by the needs of others but rather by his sense and sensibility. Nancy said, “He was a wood artist who expresses himself.” “He was saving the wood to build something unique, something that was entirely his.”

Heisey became ill and was not able to complete his wish. Jared, his son, discovered the Mahogany in the corner of the barn after his father died in 2018. Jared, upon learning of its value, decided to pay tribute to his father and transform a small portion of the mahogany motherlode that was then known as The Tree. What kind of tribute should it be?

Jared plays guitar and his father bass, and both enjoy fine musical instruments. Jared thought that a guitar made from the wood his dad had lovingly preserved all these years would be a fitting tribute. Reuben Forsland was the Canadian luthier responsible for Slash’s guitar.

On a morning in October last year, I met Forsland by Skype at his house, located in the East Sooke Hills on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The mist from the Sooke Basin was making the air saline, and birds were chirping loudly. Some deer peeked out from behind some trees. They looked curious, not alarmed. I joined Forsland on a virtual walk through cedar and Douglas-fir groves, up a hill to his one-room, tin-roofed studio that he had built a few years ago. He said it was immaculate and filled with the scent of rosewood and spruce. Forsland sat waiting for Forsland to direct them. A variety of machines with a mysterious purpose were arranged neatly under floor-to-ceiling windows, framing an amazing view. He told me that all this was the culmination of a dream he hadn’t yet woken up from.

Forsland purchased his first guitar in a garage at the age of nine, using money earned from returning bottles that he had collected along the way. After working as a woodworker for 15 years and dating a cellist, he decided to channel his passion for making instruments into building them. He said that a luthier from Alberta started him off, and he continued to read, ask questions, and work on it. He now builds eight guitars per year and has his signature style.

His uncanny knack for incorporating stories into his instruments is one of his signatures. Forsland was granted permission to create a collection of guitars using wood from Jimi Hendrix’s childhood home a few years back. Forsland, however, saw this as more than a publicity stunt. It was a way to let ordinary mortals channel their inner rocker by using a material that the geniuses of the genre had touched.

Jared’s plank of wood, which was eight feet long, two feet wide, and an inch thick when it arrived in Forsland, had been disguised. According to the 2003 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, it was illegal to transport raw bigleaf Mahogany across national boundaries without a permit. Jared sent Forsland instead a table, whose legs were made from ordinary wood, while its top was created using the Tree slab. The package was marked as a “table” to avoid breaking the law. Some tables made from The Tree were disassembled to be used as tonewood in musical instruments. Jared agreed to send Forsland enough wood to build a second guitar.

Forsland meticulously sawed the plank, scraped it, sanded it, and then finished a part of it to make a guitar for Jared. Forsland explained that the way you cut wood can create different types of figuring. This looks like the ocean bottom, yes? After I finished it off with polyethylene, the face appeared. “Do you see it? A man’s face?”

I saw it. But the face was more like a wood sprite, with a thicker neck, a beak-like nose, and floppy ears, like those of Yoda. I asked Forsland if that face had any meaning. He then smiled cryptically and showed me a tiny glass vial containing a pinch of Richard’s ashes. He would then spend hours inlaying the ashes around the sound hole of the guitar. Richard’s favorite woodworking tool and a small radio antenna were also incorporated.

Forsland stated that Richard would likely want the chisel or radio antenna to be represented in a piece of woodworking in his memory. He knew that the chisel in his hand was carving and shaping his pieces and that the antenna connected him to both the music and the outside world he loved. It is a great honor to introduce all of these aspects of Richard’s life in woodworking to one another.

The Tree’s story inspired Forsland, and he hopes to continue working with this material throughout his life. Others I spoke to had the same feelings. Pennsylvania luthier Stuart Day described the experience of working with Mahogany as “magical and one of the greatest honors of my life.”

This enthusiasm brings up an important question: Does the Tree have any special acoustical qualities? Slash, McKee, and Watts, among other virtuosos, believe it does. But even their expert opinions are subjective. The master luthiers who built their guitars are all different, but is the wood or its treatment that matters?

Tonewood is a living wood, so judging it can be subjective. There is a lot of variation in any species and very few rigid rules. The top of the guitar, or the face, is what determines the sound. Most luthiers only use Tree wood for the sides and backs. Forsland, however, has experimented with using Mahogany to make the guitar’s face.

Mahogany tops are known to produce a warm, earthy tone that is popular with some musicians, particularly those who play the blues. Most prefer top woods such as spruce, which has a clear, full tone, or cedar, which is warmer and less sharp. Hawaiian koa, which starts bright but becomes richer with time, is also favored for guitar tops.

It’s all about trade-offs. No guitar can do everything. Even so, I was curious to see if guitars made from The Tree could do more. Is it the beautiful wood grain that attracts so many musicians, collectors, and players?

Chris Plack has a great deal to say about this. Plack, a professor of auditory neurology at Lancaster University in England and an avid guitar player himself, is an expert in the intricacies that surround human hearing. He has guitars with Brazilian rosewood on the backs and sides, among other materials. He told me that they were beautiful guitars but also ridiculously expensive. It was unknown whether his instruments were better acoustically than those made from more common woods. Plack decided to investigate.

The only difference between the six guitars he and his colleague built was the wood they used for the side panels and the backs. The top faces were the same. The backs and sides of one piece were Brazilian rosewood, another was Indian rosewood, and the other pieces were Mahogany and maple.

The 52 testers wore welders’ goggles and sat down in a dimly lit room to test the guitars. Plack wasn’t surprised by the results. He said, “Our conclusion is that the differences between the guitars are insignificant.” The guitars had very similar ratings, and in many cases, the experts could not tell one from another.

Plack was asked to explain, in light of these findings, why Slash and top musicians like Slash are convinced that exotic hardwoods such as that found in The Tree produce a unique sound. Plack explained that hearing depends on much more than just what goes into the ear canal. He invoked “predictive code,” which states that motor control, memory, and other brain functions are all dependent on comparisons of actual experiences with the brain’s model expectations of reality.

Other types of instruments also produced similar results. Antonio Stradivari (17th-century master violin maker) handpicked spruce from the Fiemme Valley in the Italian Alps. Instrument makers so prize this forest that it’s still called Il Bosco Che Suona or The Musical Woods. Stradivarius instruments are highly sought after and sell for millions of dollars today. Ten renowned musicians who tested Stradivarius against newly built models in 2014 claimed that the newer violins were superior.

This means that for guitars, the appearance and price of guitars made with The Tree or other exotic and rare hardwoods can influence how musicians and luthiers experience them. Plack stated that humans are not the best instruments for analysis. “Perception is a multidimensional process. “What we hear is influenced greatly by our expectations and other senses. Especially sight.”

Steve McMinn is the owner of Pacific Rim Tonewoods. The company, which is based in Concrete, Washington, is the largest wood supplier to musical instrument makers in the country. McMinn, the son of a former logger and forester, agrees that exotic hardwoods do not produce better sounds than more modest varieties. He told me that when you have a tree with exceptional figures, the sound is less important. It’s not the sound that matters to us but rather its appearance.

Demand for woods such as old-growth Mahogany is high, but supply is limited. Jay Howlett is an amateur guitar player and self-proclaimed “chief evangelist” who spends his waking hours searching for hidden stashes. He finds them in garages, woodworking shops, and barns. But he also uses wood from cabinets and tables. He is the proud owner of two The Tree guitars and has supplied them to guitar builders and buyers all over the world.

He told me, “I have found it for clients in China, South Korea and Japan, Singapore, Greece, Australia, France, England, and Italy. “I found Reuben’s wood that he used to make the guitar for Slash. There are only 600 board feet, or 400 board feet, of this wood left in the world, which is enough to make 600 guitars. When that’s gone… well, it’s over.”

The Tree was so abundant in Belize that it is depicted on the flag of the country, which also features two shirtless loggers holding their tools. The symbol shows how valuable Mahogany was once to Belizeans and how it came to be threatened. Mahogany trees in Belize and old-growth trees around the world, including rosewood, Sitka spruce, and ebony, are all severely depleted. In most countries, these species are illegal to export, let alone harvest.

Plantations are a good way to grow timber quickly and cheaply for furniture and construction. Guitar wood is quartersawn, which means it is sliced perpendicularly to the tree growth rings in order to maximize sound waves. These slices, which must be large enough to cover the front, the back, or the sides of the guitar, must be made from logs with a large diameter, usually from old-growth trees. These are the trees that are used to make the most expensive guitars. The guitar is also the most popular instrument in the world.

Many luthiers understand this and are conscious of the origin of their raw materials. Taylor Guitars became co-owners in 2011 of a sustainable Cameroon ebony firm. Taylor’s website promises that “all fretboards, bridges, and other ebony components used on a guitarist have been obtained legally and ethically with a commitment for long-term sustainability.” Other companies are also working to develop wood from trees, which are easier to cultivate and harvest sustainably. These include sapele, bamboo, and Canadian red wild cherry. Forsland, ever the innovator, has gone one step further and used hemp wood reinforced with Kevlar and carbon fiber to build his bespoke guitars.

Steve McMinn is a proponent of sustainable wood. He found a bigleaf tree that he called “extraordinary” with a figure as intricate as the finest Honduras Mahogany. He tried to grow the sprouts using tissue culture by cutting sprouts off of the stump. “Maple is a weed,” McMinn stated, that it has a strong desire to grow. This maple, however, did not. The experiment was a failure.McMinn’ss team then went out to find the best fiddle back maples, cut them up, and sprouted them in baby food jars. McMinn then transplanted the saplings onto a plot of 100 acres, where he hopes to one day create the world’s very first tonewood forest. He said that if you need wood to build guitars, for example, then you have to grow it.

As far as anyone is aware, there is only one Tree, and those who are lucky enough to be able to use its wood take this privilege very seriously. Forsland, who lives and works within the forest, does not see himself as a destroyer, as others did this long ago, but as a steward to the legendary Mahogany. sTree’s legacy will be preserved through the beautiful instruments that he created and the music created from them. Forsland whispered, “The Tree has been on earth for many years, and it has accumulated a lot of wisdom” as we looked at Jared’s new guitar.Our job is to keep that wisdom alive.”

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