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Written by Tyler Holt
The music industry has long relied on ebony for its instruments, but because the tropical black wood is classified as an endangered species, musicians and manufacturers have faced significant supply issues. Recognizing this challenge, ThermalWood Canada has introduced an innovative alternative called Obsidian Ebony. This real wood substitute not only addresses the scarcity of ebony but also offers exceptional durability and a glass-like appearance. Through collaboration with local New Brunswick scientists and industry giants like Fender and Martin, Obsidian Ebony has been validated as a viable alternative, ushering in a new era of sustainability in the music industry.
Located in Bathurst, New Brunswick, or what co-owner Bob Lennon calls “God’s Country,” ThermalWood Canada was founded as one of only twelve other North American thermal modification companies in 2008, or what co-owner Bob Lennon calls “the worst time to have started a business.” Through the green process of thermal modification, by which heat and steam are applied to wood in a highly controlled environment, ThermalWood Canada has been able to boost the value and functionality of softer, locally sourced woods for outdoor application as (for example) rot-proof decking or exterior cladding. Another product this process allows them to create are high-quality very staple maple guitar necks, which began Lennon’s introduction to the ebony crisis.
The black ebony tree, scientifically known as Diospyros ebenum, is a highly valued species native to various regions, including southern India, Sri Lanka, New Guinea, Madagascar, and parts of Africa. Flourishing in tropical and subtropical forests with ample humidity and rainfall, this magnificent tree yields a distinctively heavy and nearly black heartwood, renowned for its unparalleled quality.
With its dark hue, fine texture, and exceptional density, the wood of the black ebony tree stands among the hardest and densest woods globally, surpassing oak by threefold and curly maple by twice the hardness. Notably resistant to moisture, decay, and insects, ebony finds extensive application in the production of fine furniture, cabinetwork, inlaying, knife handles, and turned articles. Its desirability and popularity were such that 16th century Parisian cabinetmakers earned the name “ébénistes,” a term still used to refer to cabinetmakers today.
The exceptional properties of black ebony make it an ideal choice for musical instrument construction. Specifically, it excels in the creation of fingerboards and tailpieces for guitars, cellos, violins, and violas. Its density, waxy surface, and texture offer a perfect balance, ensuring both hardness and dimensional stability—a crucial consideration to prevent wood movement due to environmental and seasonal changes. However, the harvest and export of black wood has been mostly banned due to ecological devastation, making the administrative task of properly sourcing the slow-growing ebony and following it with a paper trail throughout its transport and possession prohibitively expensive itself.
DISCOVERY & REDISCOVERY
“We were working with a group of scientists out of Fredericton, New Brunswick and they asked for additional sample pieces to trial some experimental material with on the side,” Lennon said, explaining his first encounter with what would later become Obsidian Ebony, “when they came back, the color had been altered and it was one of those things that we looked at each other went ‘whoa!’ and then there was a beat before we asked ‘can we do this in black?’”
From that point on it was a five-year journey between developing the core business that ThermalWood Canada was founded on and the resources required to bring Obsidian Ebony into production.
Thankfully, ThermalWood Canada was able to rely on major contacts they had made in the music industry such as Fender, Martin, and an expansive global network of world-class luthiers to get the feedback that they needed to verify the quality of the material. The response they got back was overwhelmingly positive, in some cases being told that the Obsidian Ebony was superior and able to produce a better sound as the musicians reported being able to “pull up” much tighter on a note.
When musicians play string instruments, they rely on the fretboard to adjust the pitch by pressing the strings against it. The fretboard often features frets to determine the pitch positions. However, if there is poor contact between the strings and the fretboard, it can impact the tone and pitch, resulting in unwanted noise and wolf sounds. A rigid fretboard provides better resistance to bending and torsional deformation caused by the varying tensions of the strings and the compressive forces exerted by the strings and fingers. Over time, the fretboard’s surface may become abraded, leading to pits or grooves, particularly in the high-pitched areas. Additionally, because the fretboard is glued to the neck, it increases the overall stiffness of the neck. This stiffness can hinder the reduction in the resonance frequency of the soundboard, resulting in a stronger and more uniform sound (this would be why the quality of wood materials is also important to even electric guitars). Consequently, to be an acceptable or preferable alternative, the Obsidian Ebony for fretboards must possess excellent wear resistance, high hardness, and stiffness while maintaining flexibility.
However, testing the product incidentally also mass-marketed the product. Everyone that was anyone in the guitar-making business had seen Obsidian Ebony and now they wanted it.
“We weren’t equipped to manufacture the number of units they wanted. We had a little test lab that might make a hundred a day, not thousands or hundreds of thousands. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the equipment. The equipment to do this didn’t exist,” explained Lennon, “so just like with the Fredericton scientists, we went to the New Brunswick Community with the challenge.”
Leveraging their partnership with the community college, CCNB, and its Innovation group, the CCNB INNOV team designed and built the required equipment, ensuring a localized manufacturing process within New Brunswick. Then, as ThermalWood Canada finally had the proprietary technology to match their highly specialized production method to bring Obsidian Ebony to the marketplace, Covid-19 snapped the global supply chain like a guitar string.
Supply chain disruptions necessitated process adaptations, alternative ingredient sourcing, and production design reconfigurations. Yet, through unwavering determination and collaborative efforts, ThermalWood Canada overcame these obstacles, successfully developing a ready-to-market product. Their resilience during challenging times underscored their dedication to providing a sustainable solution to the music industry.
“We’re manufactures, we’re not set up for research and development, but we had lost access to some critical components after already setting an expectation for the product with the industry, so we went back to the drawing board and back again, and tried and tested until we got it right,” said Lennon.
Now that they have it right, ThermalWood Canada is poised to boost the value of New Brunswick wood, as the thermal modification process for Obsidian Ebony increases the market value of the maple that is used by well over 1000%. The added value could actually be much higher to both the economy and the environment as Lennon plans to harvest and utilize wood pieces that would normally be discarded to make high quality Obsidian Ebony products.
ThermalWood Canada’s commitment to integrity and fostering long-term relationships has been a guiding principle since their inception. By investing in their community and surrounding themselves with the best New Brunswick has to offer, they opened themselves up to opportunities and advancements that would otherwise be impossible to achieve alone. Rather than compromising product quality to navigate economic challenges, they have remained steadfast in their commitment to customers and the environment. By prioritizing trust and consistently exceeding expectations, ThermalWood Canada has positioned itself as a dependable and responsible industry leader with potentially massive ecological and humanitarian impact.