These Dark Materials: The Problematic Resources Used to Make Stringed Instruments

What many string players don’t realize is that many of the materials instrument and bow makers rely on are vulnerable, and some are officially endangered

By Miranda Wilson | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Have you ever looked at your stringed instrument or bow and wondered how many plant and animal species went into making them? You may be surprised to learn that your playing equipment contains materials from at least six or seven trees and three or more animals. What many string players don’t realize is that many of the materials instrument and bow makers rely on are vulnerable, and some are officially endangered.

While every country has conservation laws and protections for local species, it takes international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to ensure that transporting wild plants and animals across borders does not exploit species to the point that they become endangered or extinct. CITES “appendices” determine how much harvesting and trade of a particular material is allowable, with Appendix I as the most prohibitive. The problem for instrument and bow makers is that some materials deemed best for stringed instruments and bows are now in CITES Appendix I and therefore almost unobtainable.

One well-known example of a now-unavailable substance is ivory. A product of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and African elephants (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis), ivory is the traditional material for the tip plates of bows, and it was sometimes used for frogs too. After centuries of the ivory trade led to the near extinction of elephants, moves were made to protect the animals. In an effort to stamp out ivory trafficking, a near-total ban on elephant ivory came into effect in 2014. 

One detail of the law made transporting goods containing ivory across international borders a crime. Owners of historic bows panicked because simply traveling to another country for a concert could now result in the confiscation of equipment that was not just valuable but essential to their livelihoods. Bow makers were not happy, either, though some sought to circumvent the rules by sourcing ivory from long-dead mammoths. The possibility of confusion over identifying mammoth ivory versus elephant ivory was too likely, however, so the mammoth option became a nonstarter. 

After an outcry from musicians, the US Fish and Wildlife service announced that as long as the owner of a historic bow could prove that it had been legally purchased before February 25, 2014, and held a CITES certificate to that effect, they could take it across borders unimpeded. Guidance on how to acquire such a certificate was not forthcoming.


Pernambuco logging in Brazil
Pernambuco logging in Brazil. Photo: Diogo Verissimo.

It is not only vulnerable animals that need protection. Many plants, too, are experiencing the threat of extinction. Their endangerment is particularly alarming for instrument and bow makers when there is no obvious substitute for an essential material. Take ebony (Diospyrus genus) and rosewood (Dalbergia genus), two woods prized for their high density and ability to withstand pressure when made into fingerboards, pegs, tailpieces, chin rests, purfling, and the frogs of bows. Widespread trade in these woods led to their deforestation and endangerment, and today Madagascar ebony is listed in CITES Appendix II and Brazilian rosewood in Appendix I.

The plight of other endangered woods is well known, and none more so than pernambuco (Paubrasilia echinata). Optimal for bows on account of its weight, flexibility, and ability to withstand cambering, pernambuco is also increasingly endangered due to centuries of overharvesting. For many years, pernambuco was listed in CITES Appendix II, but actions by the Brazilian government to move it to Appendix I will make it increasingly difficult to acquire legally for bow making, though, for the time being, pernambuco remains an Appendix II material. For bow makers who lobbied for many years to harvest pernambuco responsibly, this was a huge setback.

Even when a species isn’t officially endangered, it can still cause moral qualms. One example of this is mother-of-pearl, the iridescent inner layer used for the inlay on the frog that comes from the shell of the pinto abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana). While not listed by CITES, the abalone has suffered so much overfishing that the Center for Biological Diversity attempted to gain protections for it under the Endangered Species Act. Though they did not succeed, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Canadian Species at Risk Act both declared it endangered. 

The list of endangered materials goes on and on: even the gum Arabic used in instrument varnish is contentious. A derivative of acacia sap (Senegalia senegal and Vachellia seyal), its producers are now experiencing difficulties due to desertification, climate change, water overuse, and limited land resources in Sudan, as well as humanitarian crises such as labor disputes and war.


The endangerment and scarcity of so many essential materials may leave musicians feeling despondent about the future of instrument and bow making, but not all the news is bad. Plenty of the necessary materials are still abundant and unthreatened. One of these is cork, which has multiple uses in stringed instruments, including keeping endpins airtight on cellos and double basses. Previous fears about its scarcity turned out to be unfounded; in fact, cork is one of the most environmentally sustainable industries in the Iberian Peninsula. (Cork trees can live up to 300 years, and removing cork from them doesn’t require cutting them down. Reharvesting can happen once every nine years.) 

Other non-endangered trees include the Balkan maple (Acer hyrcanum) and Norway maple (Acer platanoides), whose wood is durable enough to stand up to years of use as the ribs, back plates, necks, and scrolls of stringed instruments yet light enough to carry. The non-endangered European spruce (Picea abies) and the Engelman spruce (Picea engelmannii) are ideal for front plates, being softer and easier to work with. The largest parts of stringed instruments, therefore, can still be produced sustainably.

Rosewood logging in Madagascar
Rosewood logging in Madagascar. Photo: Erik Patel.

As the instrument- and bow-making industries continue to evolve, alternatives to endangered materials are becoming increasingly available. Many owners of historic bows, like me, found replacing the ivory tip plates an easy switch. Multiple substitutes exist, including casein, Tip Armor (a polymer composite), and bone from non-endangered animals. 


However, the problem of pernambuco bow sticks remains, since eventually and inevitably, the wood will become impossible to source. Complicating matters is the fact that there is no straightforward alternative. The most similar wood to pernambuco, ipê (Handroanthus genus), moved into CITES Appendix II in 2022, meaning that it could eventually become just as problematic as pernambuco. Various others, including amourette (Brosimum guianense) and cacique (Brosimum rubiscens) are not endangered but are less flexible and less amenable to heat treatment than pernambuco. 

Moreover, many players are skeptical of bows that fall outside of “normal” weight ranges, as many alternative-wood bows do, and no maker wants to produce a bow that won’t sell. It may be that the professional-grade carbon fiber bows produced by companies like Arcus and CodaBow are the most practical alternative to pernambuco, but not every string player likes such synthetic products.

No natural substitute exists for ebony and rosewood either. And makers are divided when it comes to synthetic substitutes: while polymers may get the job done, the clientele are doubtful. Some makers now opt for treated wood products, including Sonowood, a European beechwood treated with high compression forces and temperatures to make it denser. Others use Rocklite, an engineered wood made from splinters of wood and black resin, or Richlite, a substance made from paper and thermosetting resin. Such products can be made to look like ebony and are relatively easy to work with.

Though the future of instrument and bow making may look uncertain under increasingly strict environmental regulation, it is important to remember that all industries evolve. When whaling became generally illegal, for example, manufacturers of varnishes, fuels, and machine lubricants eventually found acceptable alternatives to whale oil. The same is likely to happen for the materials makers have long relied on in the string world. Luthiers and archetiers may need to take a gamble on alternative materials, while those seeking to buy new instruments may need to keep an open mind and give the alternative materials a chance.