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ThermalWood Canada sees obsidian as sustainable alternative to ebony

Company's products also used in home building industry as flooring, countertops, siding

A guitar with a neck made from ThermalWood Canada's Obsidian Ebony. (Courtesy ThermalWood Canada)
A guitar with a neck made from ThermalWood Canada's Obsidian Ebony. (Courtesy ThermalWood Canada)

ThermalWood Canada has developed an alternative wood product it hopes will help save the world's remaining ebony forests from destruction.

Marketed under the brand name Obsidian Ebony, the company claims the heat-treated wood provides the music industry with a viable alternative to the exotic hardwood ebony used in violins, guitars and other string instruments.

Obsidian is produced by taking abundant Canadian hardwoods, mainly maple and birch, and subjecting them to a process of torrefaction and resin infusion to replicate the colour, weight, density and tonal characteristics of ebony.

As a result, ThermalWood Canada hopes to revolutionize the musical instrument manufacturing sector by producing a high-quality, sustainable product that can replace ebony and prevent it from being harvested to extinction. 

"With ebony on the endangered species list, we are very proud of developing a wood product that is both sustainable and replicates all the characteristics of natural ebony," Bob Lennon, president and CEO of ThermalWood Canada said in statements accompanying the official launch of Obsidian in January.

"Our thermally modified wood (manufacturing) process is 100 per cent green, using only heat and steam to transform the wood (into Obsidian), a product that is durable, very dense, glasslike, and has also been validated by companies like Fender, Martin Guitars and a number of different luthiers around the world," 

Not just for musical instruments

Based in Bathurst, N.B., the company for years has been a niche supplier of its thermally treated wood products to both the music and home building industries. These chemical-free products are made out of a variety of Canadian hardwoods including maple, birch, ash and oak, as well as other tree varieties such as Douglas fir and western hemlock.

By using a specially designed kiln to cook the lumber at temperatures between 200 C and 250 C, ThermalWood transforms wood and endows it with added stability, durability and resistance to moisture, decay and insect infestation.

Since Lennon and his brother-in-law Pierre Friolet founded ThermalWood in 2008, the company has been selling its wood products to the residential housing industry for indoor applications such as flooring, countertops and accent walls as well as outdoor use as siding, panelling and decking. Operating out of a 46,000-square-foot plant, the company maintains a full-time workforce of 14 people. 

A symphony of musical parts

In parallel fashion, the enhanced durability and strength of the treated wood makes it ideal for use as guitar necks and blanks, and for various component pieces of other string instruments such as violins, violas, cellos and bases. 

"We've long been a major supplier of blanks for all guitar components, as well as those for drums and wooden flutes," Lennon told Sustainable Biz Canada.

"Before we came along, luthiers were accustomed to using wood that had spent up to 35 years drying in their ateliers until it was ready to be made into acoustic guitars and other instruments. But our thermal process not only removes any lingering residues inside the wood but also makes it totally resistant to moisture and humidity," Lennon said.

"In 2010, when no one really knew who we were, we started out treating and selling maybe 30 guitar necks a month. It took several years, but once word started to get around, demand really started to pick up. Today we're producing over 15,000 neck blanks a month."

A near-deal with a major guitar manufacturer

Bob Lennon, president and CEO of ThermalWood Canada. (Courtesy ThermalWood Canada)
Bob Lennon, president and CEO of ThermalWood Canada. (Courtesy ThermalWood Canada)

At one point in 2015, Lennon was negotiating a deal with a major U.S. guitar manufacturer that could have seen the company handed a contract to produce up to two million guitar necks per year. It seemed to be too good to be true, and in the end, it was.

"At the beginning, the company was talking about 400,000 necks per year, a number that already scared me because we would have had to build a new factory to scale up to that size," Lennon recalled.

"But when I went to California to hammer out the specifics of the deal, the company lowballed me on the price. They were offering less than half of what it would have cost us to build our facility and so I walked away from the deal," he continued.

That decision proved fortuitous because ThermalWood had partnered with a local lab affiliated with the Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick to build out the technology and design needed to scale up production of the guitar necks beyond the company's more relaxed artisanal rate of several hundred per year.

"We hired a couple of of scientists to do a test for us on the different type of glues that we could use to laminate our thermally modified pieces wood together. We gave them a whole bunch of sample pieces and they came back a few months later with wood that was dyed purple from the resins they had applied to the pieces.

"They laid the wood pieces out on a table and that led me to ask them whether they would consider trying to make the colour even darker and come up with something black. Because if we could get to black, then maybe we could provide a substitute for ebony that was in very high demand in the music industry, very costly, and also on the endangered species list . . . I knew that the major guitar makers would be desperate for an alternate to the ebony they were using for fretboards . . . Once we got to black, that was the birth of Obsidian."

From lockdown to shutdown to launch

A Fender guitar featuring a neck made from Obsidian Ebony. (Courtesy ThermalWood Canada)
A Fender guitar featuring a neck made from Obsidian Ebony. (Courtesy ThermalWood Canada)

Backed with loan financing provided by the Community Business Development Corporation, ThermalWood and the team at the university lab completed work on the industrial scale machine for the production of Obsidian in March, 2020.

Unfortunately, Lennon's best laid plans to bring Obsidian to market coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and forced his company to suspend operations.

"We weren't able to get the scientists from the college to come over to our plant, hook up the equipment and begin production. Then we had to close down because we weren't considered essential service providers," according to Lennon, who spent 32 years working in various positions in the mining industry, which he believes helped him acquire the managerial skills needed to run a successful company.

That kind of experience helped Lennon and ThermalWood ride out the pandemic and the additional supply shock that came when China halted shipments of the critical monomers and dyes ThermalWood had been relying on to create the dense black colour of Obsidian.

"Our supply chain suddenly wasn't there anymore and so we started hunting to try to find new dyes, resins, and other products to do the same thing that we sourced from different countries. In the end, we came up with right mix which was like discovering grandma's recipe for apple pie," Lennon said, smiling.

That paved the way for ThermalWood to begin a soft launch of Obsidian in 2023 that saw it hand out samples of the new ebony replacement product to major musical instrument makers and luthiers as a way of creating word-of-mouth buzz. 

The strategy has proven successful. In January, ThermalWood CEO Lennon attended the annual NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Anaheim, Calif. where he was handing out Obsidian samples and pressing the flesh.

"As soon as I would show them a sample of Obsidian, people would start telling me, 'Oh my God, this is exactly what we've been looking for,'" Lennon recalled.

Fretboards, fingerboards, and piano keys

"At NAMM I also managed to work my way to talk to piano companies and they were telling me that they're using a lot of phenolic resins now for the keys and so that's kind of been the the evolution for them is to go to these resins.

"The other thing I'm trying to chase down in the piano world is the sound boards themselves that are made out of pine. And since we've been able to improve the tonality of wood for an acoustic guitar by 35 years, we believe we can do the same for piano construction as well."

The future appears very bright indeed for ThermalWood as it looks to establish itself as a major player in the musical instrument market. The company is effectively pioneering the process of modifying abundant North American hardwoods to the point where the look and deliver the same distinctive properties as the exotic woods. 

"We're not only doing that for residential housing but we're also expanding our capabilities in the music sector in a way that we never imagined possible. Not only are we boosting sales of fret fingerboards for guitars and other stringed instruments, but we've just started talking to people in the fretless (fingerboard) world, which is violins, violas, cellos and double bass.

"Everybody seems very interested and I'm happy to be part of a process where people are more conscious about global warming, our carbon footprint and sustainability."

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