In our efforts to make available as much music business information as possible for Alabama music artists, Alabama Music Office.com has asked music business professionals from all over the world to share their knowledge and experiences.
Gibson guitars are known for their clear, powerful sound and exotic wood grain designs. The guitars have graced the stage with the legends of country and rock music and produced a one of a kind sound that will excite and ignite an audience.
While Gibson guitars thrill audiences and musicians around the world, I wanted to find out where the wood comes from that Gibson uses to make the guitars.
The short answer is Joe.
Joe Frantz, 40, and the Frantz family run Whale Bay Woods, an exotic tonewood mill and repository on a quiet farm outside the town of Quilcene on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.
The wood that gives Gibson guitars their unique sound and look comes from rare Bigleaf Maple that only grows on the west coast from Canada to Oregon. Unfortunately, finding the wood for one of the world’s greatest guitar manufacturers is not as simple as just walking through the woods and finding a Bigleaf Maple.
What makes the wood so valuable are the rare patterns in the wood that, when dried and polished, give the striations a wavy 3-D effect that is unique only to a small number of maples. These markings can come in a style called Quilting that looks like a quilted blanket, billowy and soft, or in a linear style called fiddle-back. Each piece is unique and, according to Joe, only one in a thousand maples has these markings.
Another challenge for Whale Bay Woods is that, once a tree with these rare markings is found, it is impossible to know how many boards can be harvested that will fit the unique dimensions of a guitar. If the board has a defect, even a small black spot the size of a pin head, the board is useless. An eighty foot tree can produce dozens of boards… or just a single one. Natural rot, woodpeckers, insects, and Mother Nature combine to make the perfect wood hard to find.
While finding the perfect wood is difficult and time consuming, what makes this search for maple gold worthwhile is that a single two and a half foot by seven inch board can go for over $150.00. Whale Bay has a contract to provide 1500 high quality exotic maple boards to the craftsman at Gibson each month, making the venture lucrative for the family. As a result, Joe and his assistant/girlfriend Tanya M. Orton keep busy from sun-up to sun-down searching the woods of the Olympic Peninsula.
Whale Bay Wood has been in business for 18 years and was started almost by accident. One day, Joe and his brothers cut and delivered a load of fire wood to their uncle, a local fiddle maker. When the uncle started pulling pieces out of the pile, the brothers knew they were onto something. Eighteen years later, Whale Bay Woods provides high quality exotic wood to Gibson, Fender, and custom guitar and violin makers all over the world. The mill has provided wood to artists as far away as Kuwait and Indonesia.
Now the company employs Joe, his mother, two brothers, sister, brother-in-law, and several cousins in a process called selective logging. This type of conservation logging selectively harvests trees to allow for renewable forest growth.
Once the wood comes into the mill it is cut into boards and a guitar stencil is placed over the wood to determine the best cut and quality rating of the piece. The boards are rated on a scale of 1 – 5 with the boards rated a five fetching the most money. Next the board is dipped in a solution to reduce staining, and then is dried for 6-8 weeks in heat ranging from 90 to 120 degrees.
According to Joe, the secret is having the right amount of humidity during the drying process so the board is not ruined. After the drying is done the board is expertly planed to bring out the unique qualities and patterns of the wood. Months after leaving the forest floor the wood is ready for shipment to the guitar craftsman to form into a singular work of art that might next be seen on a stage in front of thousands of screaming fans.