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 Joel's Blog

Before the CITES List: Endangered Materials Used in Tools


The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, or CITES, was developed as an agreement in 1973 to protect endangered species. Restricted materials on the CITES list are not permitted to be imported or exported. The CITES list continue to affect woodworkers in general and perhaps luthiers most of all. I personally believe we shouldn't be killing elephants and cutting down rare, slow-growing trees just so that I could have a fancy rule. Turning ebony or rosewood into flooring for wealthy clients doesn't seem to me to be the best use of those materials either. If you need to cover an instrument case or saw handle to make it resistant to slipping in your hand, there are now much better alternatives than sharkskin. I also understand why the trade in old banned materials such as ivory is largely banned. If it were legal to easily trade old ivory, no doubt all sorts of new ivory would magically appear on the market labeled as "antique."

By the same token I don't blame previous generations for using materials that at the time were neither endangered nor considered unethical to use. My tool collection actually contains a fair number of tools that use materials that fit this description, and I thought it would be interesting to look at them and understand why these materials were used and in what context.

Boxwood is a very slow growing small tree. There are many varieties with subtle differences. Boxwood is a very hard wood with very dense grain and, when freshly cut, a pale yellow color. Because boxwood is so dense, air drying takes years. When I was younger I used some small pieces for modelmaking and it was a pleasure to work with. It takes great detail and burnishes to a high sheen. While English Boxwood has become much harder to get, back in the 19th century and earlier larger pieces were (and are still) in demand for woodwind instruments. Flawed pieces were used for tool handles.

Boxwood rules were made in the millions up to the age of the tape measure, but most of them were not made of English Boxwood but rather various other boxwoods from around the world that were cut down by the boatload. (In the interests of brevity I am not trying to delve too deep into the various species). Drying boxwood results in lots of twists and checks. Consequently at the factory level, about half the boxwood would get scrapped at some point in production of rulers. The boxwood rule in the photo above is almost certainly not English Boxwood, and isn't straight anymore. The boxwood in the handle of the paring chisel above has a fair number of knots and defects that make it unsuitable for instrument making.

Boxwood tool handles were used on higher-end tools that were not meant to be struck. The wood is also pretty brittle so you cannot really force a tang into a handle without a drilling a decently fitting hole first. According to Ray Iles, boxwood handles were held in place with rosin.

Quick Tip (also from Ray): When you make a boxwood handle, it cuts drying time to drill the tang hole when you get the material so the wood can dry out from the inside and outside at the same time.

Brazilian Rosewood and Ebony are two tropical rain forest woods that were used almost exclusively for decorative higher end tools. Plane makers also used Brazilian Rosewood, Cocobolo and Ebony for plane handles. There were also a few makers who made wooden plane bodies out of these materials too. As far as I know, there is no mechanical reason for using these woods. Beech handles would work just as well; the earliest infill planes I have seen used beech infill. The material was always expensive and the infill of an early panel plane I have by Robert Towell (c. 1840) was made of several pieces of rosewood pieced together. Perhaps the rationale for using these woods on expensive metal planes - and not just English infills; Stanleys were very expensive in their time compared to wooden planes - was that the extra cost of fancy woods, compared to the labor and machining of the metal parts and fitting the wood parts, was nominal, and resulted in a fancier, more elegant looking plane. Most English infill planes used Brazilian Rosewood infill, but Norris and other companies sometimes used Ebony on their shoulder, rebate, and bullnose planes.

Fun Fact: A Roman plane was found in England in 2000 with an iron frame and ivory infill.

An interesting point about these woods is that to the modern eye - or my eye in particular - these woods aren't worth the hype. The Norris shoulder and bullnose planes above, which are essentially untouched since they came from the factory in the 1930's, feature Ebony and Rosewood. The Ebony looks like black plastic. The Rosewood is also very plain. Brazilian Rosewood sometimes has great grain, but most of the Brazilian Rosewood tool handles I have are pretty plain. Ebony, if properly selected, is stable and can make a good straight rule and other drafting instruments. Macasscar Ebony can have wonderful figure but it wasn't typically used for tools.

This brings us to the king of exotic materials: Ivory.

Ivory is the dried and seasoned tusk (from elephants, walruses, warthogs, etc.) Elephant ivory was the most prized because it was the largest, but walrus, mastodon, and a host of other ivories were popular. For tools, African elephant ivory was used the most because it comes in larger pieces and when dried properly it is the whitest. It was used for all sorts of decorative purposes. Just about every kind of tool was made at least once with an ivory handle, typically for presentation. Ivory was almost always used for the sheer luxury and decorative aspect. One exception: rules of various kinds used in drafting took advantage of ivory's particular suitability for precision rules. The picture features a folding ivory rules, but focus instead on the picture's six inch ruler that is part of the portable drafting kit. Ivory has three characteristics that made it a perfect material for precision rules: first, as long as you properly season the ivory, you could make thin, very slightly flexible, rulers that would stay pretty flat. Second, ivory is hard and brittle and you can scratch a distinct fine line on it for measuring. Finally, ivory's white color means fine markings are easy to see. Even the best boxwood rules cannot take as fine a line, or are as readable.

The final material in my list is sharkskin -- or Shagreen, as it is also called. The portable drafting case above, which dates from the late 18th century, is actually made of thick paper and paper compartments covered on the outside with a sharkskin layer. Shagreen was commonly used on high end instruments and cases to give not only a waterproof backing but also a textured surface that gave a nice grip.

I have also seen Japanese saws with sharkskin handles.

The first real draft of this blog entry ended or rather stopped with the line above. I like my blog entries to have an ending. A summary. A big point. A sales pitch. Something, anything to tie it all together so I can bring down the curtain and turn the page.

But I am stumped. And that maybe the best conclusion to this blog entry. The materials listed here were expensive and exotic in their own time. Today they are mostly not commercially available, and in many cases ethically challenged. I think knowing why they were once used has historical interest. However, in most cases the tools in question aren't a grand example of craftsmanship - just a standard design in different fancier material. The tools survived the ravages of time because being expensive and in many cases primarily presentation tools, they were put in a drawer and left there. For the modern maker they are at best an attractive anachronism. In the few cases where stability was important these materials are a ringing endorsement of the invention of plastic. I find them cool to look at but I don't learn anything new about tool design from them.

Join the conversation
02/06/2019 David Gendron
Really well written! I really enjoy your blog posts and I've enjoyed them for a long time now! Bought a bunch of tools from you in the past, recommended your shop many time over, wish one day to stop by and say hi!
Thank you for taking the time to educate us on all sort of subject that are always well documented!!
02/06/2019 Matt R
I think resistance to not using listed materials is more of some folks dislike of regulation. There has always been alternative material to make things but they don't sound as exotic. It is all in how the salesman pitches it as to how many widgets sell aND what sounds better to your ear than Exotic from sports car to dancer.
02/06/2019 Paul Baker
Hi Joel---another great topic, and well-handled. I, too, am no fetish-type when it comes to tools, and will use whatever works. At the same time, I appreciate the *respect for materials* that tool makers (and users) of the 19th C. had, and I truly admire the look they (materials) create. I've bought, w/ no moral qualms, prehistoric mastodon ivory, from Canada...heck, those tusks were found in permafrost, and the poor beast was long dead. Have also recently purchased stingray skin for a project; got to admit--it has a great texture, is almost slip-proof, and long-wearing; it's very nice. Keep up the posts. Yes, "banned materials" is a complicated topic that few will agree on. Thanks for dragging it into the open! --P
02/06/2019 Joon O.
Thanks for sharing, especially the article about the Roman plane. It’s interesting to think of these tools within not only the cultural relativity but also the historical context of the materials used. I enjoy the antique rosewood and boxwood of my tools and it makes them even more precious to me now that CITES makes them even harder to work with.

Joel, although shagreen was made using sharkskin, it was also made with ray skin. Unless I’m mistaken the case is actually covered in ray skin shagreen. The calcium deposits that form the bumps in the skin are very distinctive and sharkskin shagreen looks very different.
02/06/2019 Mike G
Fantastic article. You nailed it--but, I have to tell you the tools in the photos are elegant and attract my interest. If only my great-great-great grandfather had the foresight to have purchased some acreage in Africa and grown some valuable wood so that some day his great-great-great grandson could have responsibly harvested and sold them, commercially!

When I was 24, I hunted on a farm of pine/spruce trees. The owner told me he was growing them for MY children and grandchildren. At the time, I shrugged off the value of what he was doing.

Destruction of rain forests, elephants and some sharks may cost mankind in the end. Wouldn't it be great if national and state parks planted and maintained some of the hardwood trees that are becoming more rare?
02/06/2019 Sean Barry
Luthiers have indeed had to cope with many changes in laws and treaties that cover some of the woods commonly used, but it's actually the players who seem to drive the desire to keep Brazilian rosewood, Honduras mahogany, and the various ebonies. Luthiers certainly prize Brazilian rosewood but what's left of the supply is so enormously expensive that no traditional individual luthier is likely to keep a supply around for use at a whim (an enormous commission is a different matter but few luthiers see many of those). In most cases availability of some of the woods flagged long before laws and treaties interceded--Brazil banned the export of rosewood logs clear back in 1962, and US guitar companies such as Martin, who depended on imported logs that enabled them to control all cutting, seasoning, and processing, knew that Brazilian rosewood would soon cease to be a dependable commodity. Martin responded first by designing new models that used smaller pieces of rosewood and by limiting production of guitars that used the wood at all (but their most popular models all sported rosewood backs and sides, and all of their models that didn't have rosewood bodies did have rosewood fingerboards and bridges), and the company dropped Brazilian rosewood altogether in 1970. Brazilian rosewood was added to CITES Appendix I in 1992, some 30 years after it became unavailable as a primary export commodity from Brazil, and the wood that is still sometimes available in the US has purportedly come from "pre-listing" sources in Brazil such as old stumps and, according to some, railroad ties (which I very much doubt). Some knowledgeable people have expressed doubts about the veracity of the "pre-listing" claim, and all of the major guitar wood suppliers have dropped Brazilian rosewood from their catalogues.

The article above is very insightful, and though the discussion of CITES is perhaps a bit oversimplified, it gets the point across accurately and with fervor. Many thanks for a great contribution.
02/07/2019 Shawn Geraghty
Joel: Another great post. I love learning about tools, and their history. Thanks!
02/09/2019 Debra B
On of the other features of ivory is that when used for a grip (like it used to be for pistols) it doesn't get slippery when your hands are sweaty. Or if your in the rain.

So some uses of Ivory might not be all about show. (It wasn't always expensive - it was used for piano keys before plastic took over.)
02/11/2019 Heike Childs
This thoughtful discussion helps to understand the "why" in the decision of why we don't use this or that material anymore. It is my believe that there will come a time when our children, grand children and future generation on the evolutionary chain will be scratching their heads and wonder about our silliness of using plastic for so many things that are to be thrown away. Plastic, when made well, can be an awesome material. It can handle moisture without distorting, can be resistant to impact, can be made UV stable, can be made of any color you want, can be very enduring and strong. Often it's not the material that makes or breaks a tool, but rather the quality of the workmanship and the suitability of the material specification which are selected for any given item that defines it's quality, affordability, and endurance. Who knows, a hundred years from now one might be declared rich because he/she had plastic handles on his/her bench chisels.
02/25/2019 Tam Dl
The thing I noticed when I started making guitars 20 years ago is that the cost of rosewood could be comparable to mahogany (recently listed) and 1/2, or 1/3rd that of maple. This only if you bought sales, but sales were common with rosewood as it was the most popular wood, and I had no trouble getting backs and sides for 40 bucks, at the time. However, mahogany doomed the guitar to never being sold (premium for it in necks though); maple was like a pool in your yard, only an feature to a few, and a turn-off to most; but any kind of rosewood was a 500 dollar upcharge. You can easily see the economics in that. Rosewood that is sound is easy to work, and yet you automatically make about 450 more for nothing. Even if you payed for fancy rosewood at a realistic 150 for backs and sides, you would make an additional 400 (and that was 20 years ago). And the wood would probably draw in even more money than that as the 500 dollar upcharge was what I spotted at the local music story on run of the mill Taylors.

That upcharge really helped the beginning luthier because by splurging on wood across the board Maybe spending 250-400, his guitars would look like a 4000 dollar model, regardless of his reputation.

Blind playing tests are inconclusive, and almost all performed music, even a lot of classical is through some kind of electronics, so I am doubtful on the effect on tone or various kinds of rosewood, with Brazilian at the top. There is a difference vs maple, or mahogany, or other dissimilar woods, at least acoustically without electronics.
02/25/2019 Tam Dl
I think that the fancy materials had many advantages in their day, or for that mater today. The first time I visited a serious wood shop was probably in the late 70s, Unicorn in Toronto. I bought a piece of Brazilian, it was just there to be bought. It smelled incredible, was beautiful, and suited my purpose of making scales for a Swiss Army Knife. I still have it, but I guess I won't take it with me across borders. These woods were incredibly attractive, when nobody had to think about their philosophical justification for using them.

Of course when plastic did not exist, one can imagine why people made chess sets out of ebony, and ivory, nothing worked the same detail or polish. These are still great materials for some musical instrument parts as they do things synthetics do not.

Modern day materials may turn out to be stable, but earlier plastics often did not. There is the whole catching on fire, poisoning, shrinking, and going powdery thing, but even modern plastics I have experience with do not age beautifully, for the most part. I guess we will have to see if today's plastic substitutes actually last. A modern day material I love is anodized aluminum. I wish home anodizing was more friendly. Another interesting material that seems to hold up well is diamondwood.
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