CONCRETE, Wash. – While some companies look ahead only as far as the next quarterly financial statement, Pacific Rim Tonewoods has embarked on a business plan involving figured maple wood that won’t bring in returns for decades. But having a long view is part of the theme music for this company that specializes in high quality sustainable wood for musical instruments.
Pacific Rim’s latest project involves planting specially cloned big leaf maple trees that the company hopes will turn into highly figured tonewood for guitars and other musical instruments. The company already supplies wood to major manufacturers such as Martin, Taylor, Gibson, and Fender, as well as a host of smaller luthiers.
Tonewood is not like regular lumber, because it is harvested and milled to emphasize not only structural and visual properties but also the way the wood transmits sound in a musical instrument.
Named “Utopia” after a failed utopian community that previously occupied the land, the big leaf maple project hopes to grow as many as 30,000 highly figured big leaf maple trees on a 53-acre plot of land. It’s a long-term project that will take at least three to 12 years to see if it is even viable. But the time frame is no problem for Steve McMinn, who founded PRT more than 30 years ago.
Son of a forester, McMinn became interested in tonewoods when he first tried to build a guitar in 1981. He has been a logger, worked on trail crews for the Park Service and taught woodshop for Western Washington University. Today, he devotes much of his energy to shepherding the company’s long-term research projects, including the big leaf maple cloning effort.
Besides creating a future source of wood for his company, he sees the maple-growing project as a potential boon for the community. "We would love for this to be the area where, in 30 to 40 years, people from all over come to get figured maple for instruments," McMinn told television station KING News. The TV station characterized the project as a huge contrast to the town’s history as a concrete producer, hence the town’s name.
But the maple planting isn’t the only long-term project PRT is working on. There is also a joint effort with Taylor Guitars to find new ways to plant, grow, and develop Hawaiian koa wood in a sustainable manner for use in musical instruments.
In addition, the company supports cutting-edge research involving thermal modification of tonewood (TMT). The process uses a specialized kiln to heat wood in an oxygen-free atmosphere in an effort to improve the acoustic properties of the wood. Besides improved resonance and tone, TMT guitars are reportedly more stable, shrinking and swelling less in response to changes in humidity. The company is researching four methods for TMT and has engaged the help of Dr. Alexander Pfriem, a professor at Eberswalde University, Germany.
PRT currently supplies wood used in 300,000 to 400,000 guitars each year. Assuming the company’s long-term projects bear fruit, that means a lot more instruments using Pacific Rim Tonewoods in the decades to come.