Every human activity has an environmental impact. This unquestionable reality does not automatically mean, however, that it is necessary to stop working alltogether or, on the contrary, that one should not care at all. I believe we reached the point where the environmental problem is so undeniable that, without hysteria or hypocrisy, everyone has to consider the weight its behaviour has on the environment and try, as far as possible, to become more environmental-friendly. In many cases it’s not even too difficult. I am not a saint nor do I want to give a sermon; all I do is to try implementing sustainable behaviours both at work and in my free time.
Back to our question: how do harpsichords get along with environment?
Of course, since the instruments are goods with an indefinite life, this question is certainly not as crucial as for consumables or even disposable objects. Yet this analysis sheds some light on a way of producing, that is rather antithetical to the dominant one and is almost forgotten.
Let’s start with the obvious consideration that wood itself is a renewable material; What makes the difference is whether it comes from sustainably managed forests or not, because “renewable” doesn’t mean “endless”.
Unfortunately, however, it is not always possible to trace the exact area of origin of every piece of wood I work with. It would certainly be an interesting information by itself, as often trees grown in a certain area might have different characteristics from specimens grown elsewhere. I am not only talking about large distance like between Swedish and Alpine Spruce, which makes them very different materials: even trees grown in a particular valley or even just on a specific side of it can have peculiar characteristics. This is the case of the Spruce from the Fiemme valley, that I use for soundboards.
Sometimes only a few miles separate an excellent wood from an average one, because in addition to genetics, also type of terrain, altitude, frequency of precipitation and exposure to sun or wind are very important factors for quality.
If this survey of micro-provenance is not always easy is mainly because wholesalers don’t help. Nowadays you have to be happy to be allowed to choose planks yourself; and even this is something you have to earn, as if it were a favor. This is because, unfortunately, most lumberyards and sawmills have today little sense for quality. I mean here real quality, the one you discover by carefully inspecting the planks one by one, not simply reading what is written on labels.
If it is not easy to trace the valley of origin of each individual plank, it is, however, not difficult to discover the country of origin: I make sure that all the timber I use is of European origin, with very few exceptions (keyboards).
Today, the vast majority of forests in the European Community (98%) is managed according to sustainable long term plans. The first forest conservation laws in Europe date back to the 16th century and, although the intense use, their area is gradually increasing; Moreover, the territory is controlled and illegal logging is severely punished. In this way, without undertaking the unfeasible work of controlling the entire chain of origin of each individual plank, I have the reasonable certainty that I am dealing with timber cut according to sustainable forest practices.
For timber of European origin, transport distances are also smaller than for tropical essences.
For certain softwoods, like Spruce, it’s all much easier: because of good quality and abundance locally, there would be no point in importing such lumber from great distances. As the wood I use the most is in fact Spruce, I could say that most of the material for my instrument is cut within 250km of my workshop; my statistics tells me that it comes mostly from the forests of South-Tyrol, Trentino or Veneto.
If you think these scruples are excessive, you should probably know that, being a profitable resource, in certain tropical regions timber cutting is run by armed gangs. These criminals have certainly no scruples in destroying ecosystems for their own gain. And despite import bans, it has been shown that thanks to corrupt officers, some of this wood finds its way to Europe anyway.
Unfortunately, some of the much-used woods in instrument building, are also of problematic origin. This is the case of ebony, the main wood of the inverted keyboards, which is also an endangered species. As the situation is not encouraging, my normal practice is to resort to alternatives and use it only upon express request of customers.
Since I work at home I don’t have to commute. All I need to do is to go in town a couple of times a month to buy materials and tools.
Since harpsichords were built well before power tools, in principle it would be possible to start from the tree and end with the finished instrument doing all just by hand. This is, however, a more theoretical than practical possibility, for obvious reasons. Even not considering the important processes of cutting, transporting and drying, for which special facilities and equipment are needed, in the past there were specialized workers who resawed wood in thicknesses basically ready for use; today those who buy lumber have to deal with standard sizes, designed for everything but to build instruments. Hence the absolute need for machines that can reduce those planks in formats suitable for final use.
My main equipment is therefore a medium-size bandsaw, along with a few other power tools. The biggest part of instrument-making work is done manually anyway and I don’t think this would benefit from more machinery. In the end, considering bills, the electricity consumption of my business is comparable to a normal household.
Despite every good craftsman tries to use materials efficiently, each activity produces waste; what varies substantially are quantity and quality. Fact is that the construction of instruments in practice does not produce almost any garbage. How? Let’s see together… Materials used to build an instrument only are essentially three: wood, metal and glue.
-Wood excesses often find use already in the workshop for a lot of small practical tasks (plugs, treenails, pushers, various supports). When they are no longer useful, I simply burn them to heat the workshop in winter.
-Metal is sparely used in an instrument; the few scraps of iron or brass, usually in the form of metal wire or nails, are simply taken to the recycling center.
-I only use animal glue, which is itself a waste product of meat industry. It is almost pure collagen and therefore completely biodegradable (and if you don’t pay attention, it can also rot in the workshop).
Finally the only thing that really remains, bothering me is packaging or shipping envelopes, when I order something, so I have to empty the bin every 2-3 month.
It’s really grotesque to see that just by buying what I need to eat, wash and dressed myself, I involuntarily generate much more garbage and pollution than in my work. And yet it is so.
I think we live in a very strange world!