Home and Shop Companion 0091
Home and Shop Companion 0091

letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

Last week I received the quarterly newsletter from a violin making organisation I belong to, containing an article about the environmental impact of violin making. It was a summary of a PhD thesis based on literature searches and conversations with instrument makers and suppliers. Over a year ago I was one of those people contacted and was happy to answer questions on the phone, a mistake in retrospect, but to give the author credit, when the article was written she did ask permission to include a snippet of what I said. On reading her proof, I asked her to withhold my name because the one sentence she chose, when used on its own, sounded simplistic, narrow and dismissive, whereas in fact, there are genuine issues about instrument making, especially the use of ebony for fingerboards. Otherwise, the woods used are European, in the case of spruce at least, from forests managed over hundreds of years, and compared with any other use, violin makers use very little because we spend a long time making each instrument and they last one heck of a long time – there are still many instruments being played that were made 300 years ago, and if I add up the wood I am ever likely to use, I will probably have used the equivalent of less than two trees in my career.

But I am not complacent, the situation of the ebony tree, for example, is critical, the species having been exploited to extinction in many African countries by generations of colonialists and free traders. The problem stems from its value and its colour, ‘as black as ebony’ being a common phrase, but in fact only one tree in ten is black, the others are brown or streaked with white and brown. The trouble is you can’t tell the colour until you cut the tree down, so 90% of ebony trees were left in the forest to rot, even though they are structurally just as good; it’s all about fashion and expectations. As a way to avoid using ebony, one company is compressing European woods under heat and pressure to make a more hard-wearing timber for fingerboards, and the article offered this as an alternative without mentioning the energy used in compressing the wood, or my suspicion that a resin is used to bind the thing together, just as carbon fibre, which is now used for violin bows, is stuck together with resins.

I have no argument with needing to rethink things, to use materials in different ways, but just because something is new doesn’t mean it is better. Take the fibres of carbon fibre – they are sometimes made from coal tar or petroleum pitch, and the plastic resins that bind them together are remarkable because once in their final form, they cannot be broken down. Not surprisingly, these plastics are also often made from petroleum, but can be made from soy or corn, yet another form of competition to using tillable land for growing food. But unlike the waste from a bio digester or an ethanol plant, those old carbon fibre violin bows or lightweight car parts are not going to break down in your compost heap or be useful for anything else.

The article then went on to mention the natural and reversible glue violin makers use, made from cattle bones or rabbit skin, commenting on how animal farming is the cause of large amounts of climate changing emissions, though how a few violin makers using the by-products from a tiny fraction of one per cent of the animals killed for food is going to make any difference, I fail to see.

I guess you all will have heard similar arguments about farming, how damaging it is, how unsustainable and perhaps how veganism will ‘save the world.’ But why is there never any mention that the methane belched by ruminants breaks down in the atmosphere after ten years, so unless you increase the number of cattle and sheep, the atmospheric methane levels do not increase. However, given its potency as a greenhouse gas, a decrease in methane would help, especially in the short term. Nonetheless it doesn’t seem to be moving in that direction, because although cattle numbers in Europe and North America may be fairly constant, they are increasing in the Amazon, compounding the degradation and emissions from removing the trees. Meanwhile, some experiments with cattle feeding are being carried out to reduce their methane production, with some success, by adding seaweed to cattle feed for example. Another group of researchers, less successful by their own parameters, showed that the most ‘efficient’ cows did not, as hoped, produce lower methane emissions than less efficient animals, though the programme did not state how they defined that efficiency. Meanwhile in India, another study showed their smaller native cattle produced less methane than the imported or improved animals. Whether that was just an issue of size, I don’t know, though I have also read that 2 small sheep weighing the same as one of a bigger breed still produced less methane between them than the one larger animal.

The problem with these snippets of information is that I do not know the detail, I cannot pass on the detail, so this writing, at least in regard to its raw information, is nearly as bad as some of the three-minute TV reports or the superficial articles in the populist press. It all contributes to making these discussions a mess, compounded, I am sure, by vested interests who will be happy to blame it all on the cows because it draws attention away from their own commercial pursuits. Along the way, what is lost in the mix is the serious investigative work of hard-core scientists and the experiences of people who know the work, who have a deep knowledge in their field.

So, if anyone were to ask me again about providing information for their PhD thesis, I will be more circumspect; I will either avoid the conversation or put my responses in writing, backed up by evidence. But what I probably should have done a year ago is to have offered a month-long internship, where the postgraduate student-cum-apprentice would first learn how to saw a thin sliver off a block of wood and plane it evenly down to 1.1mm thick for a violin rib. After the first one which would be sawn way too thick and require hours of unaccustomed planing to get it thin enough, the second one would probably be sawn too thin and be useless. But by the time they had done that a few times, they would have learnt by sweat and hopefully not too much blood, the importance of precision, skill and knowledge, the value of the wood and why caring about the use of resources is intrinsic to craftsmanship. Only then should they go back up the chain to see how the suppliers conformed to those standards.

This week I read another article covering similar ground, in a magazine written for woodworkers who mostly use hand tools. It was obviously written by someone with hands-on woodworking experience, and one sentence just leapt off the page: “our bodies, with all their functions [thinking, walking, tying shoes, putting that bagel in the toaster] use approximately 100 watts over the course of a day – the same amount of energy that the light bulb you left on in the basement is consuming.”

That is pretty damned impressive; If ever I feel like I am not working very effectively, I am going to try to remember that sentence, because, wow, look at me, how efficient am I? The writer continued with the fact that a table saw uses 4500 watts to start up, and 1800 watts when up to speed, whereas when sawing a board by hand we generate between 30 and 60 watts in our arms – what a difference. Of course, there is no time factor included in that comparison, but when you allow for time, the circular saw is still using five times as much energy.

Most of you will immediately see a parallel with the biological efficiency of work horses compared with the enormous power output and energy use of tractors, and equally, will understand how skilled work is the biologically-efficient way to do any job, which with a bit of luck, will leave you the odd watt or two in reserve after you have finished your day’s work. With our energy-hungry heating systems, cars and macho machinery, it is easy to forget or dismiss how effective and energy efficient we can be as biological motors, when we use our natural abilities, and by extension, how efficient nature is, in converting sunshine to growth, and for recycling everything, so much so that what is waste for one organism, or the remains of that organism, is food for the next. It is a simple principle, one that manufacturers, farmers, and – especially as we head to COP26 – politicians should recognise: the more we can use natural processes, local resources, stuff that rots down, the more efficient we are, the less work we need to do.

A couple of days ago I dug up about twenty tiny oak trees, self-seeded in the field, which I didn’t want where the horses graze. I was tempted to throw them on the compost heap to get them out of the way, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I transplanted them into a nursery bed in the garden, and surely someone will want to give them a home, perhaps in a couple of years when they have grown; given the global situation, they certainly should do.

They say that the best time to plant a tree is thirty years ago, and the second-best time is now, but you can only plant a tree when you have a tree to plant, so those acorns first need to grow and develop. But perhaps they should have been left to grow where they fell, for environmental reasons our land might be more useful growing trees; I imagine many people would think so. Considering how little work my horses do, they would have a point, but perhaps my horses are like those tiny oaks, waiting for the time when they or their like are spread out into the landscape to make a real difference. In the meantime, I have had thirty odd years of involvement with working horses, time for me to grow into it, to have some experience and knowledge which I hope is worth sharing, and hopefully sometime, sometime soon, there will be more people who will see the value of it. Given the global situation, they certainly should do.

Take care,


William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.

Home and Shop Companion 0091

Home and Shop Companion 0091