Music to My Ears From Instruments Made From Wood!

DNA forensics are now being used to track the origins of previous timbers used in musical instruments.

Fri 31 May 24


The sound of wood hitting wood was one of the first musical sounds to emerge, according to Forestry Focus.  

When I was enjoying an excellent concert in Mediacorp Theatre, Singapore recently, I got to thinking about how wood “plays’’ such a major role in the making of instruments and the sounds they make.

“Piaf! The Show” was part of the French “Voilah!” Festival and featured the brilliant French singer Nathalie Lermotte. (Australia also featured in what was billed as “A Tribute World Tour”,  with performances in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Gold Coast, Brisbane and Perth between 16 May and 6 June).

Starring by the internationally acclaimed Nathalie Lermitte, conceived and directed by Gil Marsalla, Piaf! The Show is unanimously considered by Edith Piaf’s family & friends as : “…The Most Beautiful Tribute Ever Produced On Edith Piaf’s Career…” Footage courtesy of @theprestigepresents8654.

She was accompanied by a quartet of musicians on piano, bass, drums and accordion, and I noted that each of the instruments incorporated wood somewhere – for the right sound effect obviously!

Not only that, but many musical instruments have also become works of art and feature as furniture or furnishings in a home. 

The very grand piano – in very solid and sleek white polished wood – is in pride of place in the Brisbane home of our pianist friend Carol Partridge.

I’m thinking of the very grand piano – in very solid and sleek white polished wood – in pride of place in the Brisbane home of our pianist friend Carol Partridge.

In addition, I checked in with my Singapore wood-craftsmen friends at Roger & Sons and discovered they have recently made musical instruments, as well as beautifully-made furniture and wall decorations for home and office.

The latest is the Kalimba, made from local wood (Raintree, Khaya, Angsana).

For the uninitiated – like me – I’m told the Kalimba is an easy-to-play instrument that originates from Africa. Of course, it’s made from wood, but the instrument also has long metal rods that are capable of playing high-pitched notes when plucked.

As Roger & Sons doesn’t believe in keeping wood-craftsmanship to themselves, Morgan Yeo told me the company also organises corporate workshops, including classes on making the Kalimba from locally-discarded wood.

I’ve written before that this Singapore company is committed to The Local Tree Project, an initiative that salvages wood from trees that have been felled (and approved by the National Parks Board). It rehabilitates these abandoned logs by turning them into durable, future-proof objects and furniture.

Morgan also told me that the company has also been commissioned to make the classical harp. On this occasion, they were unable to make use of local wood, using imported birch plywood instead.

The harp – like the grand piano – is a musical instrument that can hold its own as an impressive item of furniture in any home, studio or art museum.

Wood Central has also featured before the work of Dave Hickson – artist, sculptor and art teacher, based in northern New South Wales, Australia – as he too maximises the use of discarded timber to turn these pieces of waste wood into works of art.

He features birds mostly in his wood sculptures, with less than subtle references to environmental concerns.

The nearest thing he’s done to incorporate musical instruments in his work is to place his first amazing Plover bird sculpture – made from reclaimed and recycled local timbers including a discarded bed base – on a disused piano stool!

The sculpture’s inspiration was the devastating floods ravaging northern NSW two years ago.

Dave tells me: “Following the unprecedented floods, a pair of Plovers nestled beside our local canal, squawked and flapped around in the night as the rising flood waters engulfed their eggs.

“It is a microcosm of the disaster that unfolded in our region…and we need to do all we can to prevent the worst extremes of our climate.”

As most of Dave’s art materials are sourced from salvaged timber or recycled furniture, he’s a big fan of wood, as it has lots of applications.

“Whether for carving or construction, it’s fun and inspiring to use, and when it comes to creative expression, it has intensive qualities unmatched by any other material. It’s just like having a 3D canvas to work on.”

Music to my ears in more ways than one.

Dave Hickson’s Plover’s Predicament on disused piano stool. (Photo Credit: Dave Hickson)

And to conclude Dave’s story on the Plover project, the original bird sculpture and its younger sister –  standing on her two own legs  – can now be seen in a garden in southern NSW. Sculptured garden furnishing, no doubt.  

Besides the work of Dave Hickson and Roger & Sons, where they turn wood waste into works of art, musical instruments and/or furniture, we do hope that the wood used – past and present – is always responsibly sourced or comes from sustainable forests.

Even though I doubt very much whether all purchasers of musical instruments or furniture think about the origin of the species of wood.

Which reminds of the story about what became known as “the case of the meth maple guitar”.

Distortions in maple wood grain can create patterns known as “figuring,” prized by woodworkers and used particularly in the musical instrument trade to make unique guitars.

When milled, a single log of figured maple can be worth tens of thousands of dollars – making it a tempting target for thieves.

Cases of bigleaf maple theft in the US State of Washington have also been linked with methamphetamine use, giving the illegally procured wood the nickname “meth maple”.

The US Forest Service estimates that at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of US dollars’ worth of bigleaf maple wood was being stolen every year from both public and private lands in the State of Washington.

Timber theft and illegal trade affects a large proportion of the world’s trade in forest products. In the case of bigleaf maple, limitations on being able to definitively match seized timber back to suspected theft sites have made previous prosecutions difficult.

Long regarded as a nuisance tree by loggers, Big Leaf Maples are now being poached from public lands. Only a small fraction of these mossy giants’ wood is figured or beautifully patterned in ways coveted by guitar makers and musicians. Footage courtesy of @simpson_center.

Back in 2013, the United States Forest Service (USFS) believed they had evidence of illegal logging activity and they enlisted the help of Double Helix Tracking Technologies (DoubleHelix) to build a DNA profiling reference database that would enable experts to match seized logs to the stumps of illegally harvested bigleaf maple trees in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Professor Andrew Lowe of the University of Adelaide and Chief Scientific Advisor to the Singapore-based DoubleHelix, told me about this case some time ago, as he could see that while DNA forensics was originally developed to identify humans and link people to crime scenes, it holds tremendous promise to help control illegal logging and can identify species, geographic origin, as well as individual trees.

Using these techniques for the first time, Prof Lowe said a map of genetic variation was generated for bigleaf maple around the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State, the main crime scene, and extending up to Canada and down to northern California.

The analysis included recently felled stumps in national parks and pieces of timber seized from a local timber yard that was suspected to have been trading in illegally sourced timber.

In 2012, Professor Andrew Lowe gave a TEDX talk talking about the power of DNA barcoding for biodiversity. Footage courtesy of @Tedx.

DoubleHelix and the University of Adelaide, with help from World Resources Institute (WRI) teamed up to develop the first genetic reference database for bigleaf maple, which maps out genetic variations across a subset of this species’ natural range in the Pacific Northwest.

In the end, says Prof Lowe, a total of 394 individuals were DNA fingerprinted using 128 single nucleotide polymorphisms, or independent DNA fingerprinting gene regions.

DNA fingerprinting matched several of the pieces of wood seized from the sawmill back to one of the felled stumps in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. This evidence led to four defendants in the case pleading guilty and being sentenced to fines and/or jail terms.

The prosecutions were made under the Lacey Act, a law specifically designed to stop the illegal trade of wildlife and timber.

This was the first time that the Lacey Act had been applied to a case of domestic illegal logging, and the first case in the world where DNA forensics was used to trace the origin of illegally logged timber.

And this pioneering crime detection work was done because Double Helix had mastered the art of DNA fingerprinting when they first set up in Singapore and Australia all those years ago.

While Double Helix continues to work with industry and the authorities the world over to help cut forest crime, Interpol tells us that illegal logging and the international trade in illicitly harvested timber still has serious economic, social and environmental impacts:

  • It is estimated that such international crimes account for 15-30 per cent of all timber traded globally.
  • The trade of illegally logged timber has an estimated value of between USD 51-152 billion annually, representing a major loss in tax revenues.
  • Illegal logging is responsible for deforestation, habitat loss, species extinction, and contributes to global warming. 
  • Illicit proceeds from forestry crime may be used to fund conflicts.

So hopefully the highly-quality polished maple guitars – and all other wooden musical instruments which give us so much listening pleasure – have been lawfully sourced and produced.

Long may musicians on stages and recording studios the world over continue to make music and make the best use of wood at the same time.


  • Ken Hickson

    Ken Hickson is a journalist/editor/author with 60 years' experience in Media in Asia Pacific, with a strong focus on sustainable forestry, mass engineered timber, and drawing attention to deforestation, illegal logging, and out of control forest fires. He is also a Wood Central Southeast Asia contributor.


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