In 2011 Gibson Guitars were raided because of concerns over the possible use of illegally harvested timber.
Their reaction was to switch from using Indian Rosewood on some of their cheaper models to what they described as “toasted maple“, in short a maple that had been baked brown.
Now this was all well and good, and on the almost new Gibson Les Paul Studio 60s tribute I tried, it proved a good quality alternative to rosewood. It had a hard surface, a light brown red colour, and a snappy, punchy tone.
Fast forward six years and I have the same guitar on the work bench again. So how has the fingerboard fared? In short the answer is not well. The wood has dried out in a way I’ve not seen rosewood do. The surface has become severely roughened, and the fibres of the wood have visibly shrunk leaving almost a corrugated feel. It almost looks and feels like water damage, which it most certainly isn’t. Clearly there is a problem.
The first step I took was to liberally soak the fingerboard in lemon oil. And I mean liberally. The timber almost immediately changed colour from the light mahogany brown red it had when new to an almost black brown. This is suggestive of some extreme moisture loss. The fingerboard surface needed some extreme polishing to remove the raised fibres, so I went through the micromesh grades to level it up.
The end result? The neck has turned black, and almost looks like ebony. The fingerboard is now smoother than ever.
Firstly, I’m concerned about the potential instability of what is an untested product. Gibson needed a replacement timber fast and found one, but without researching the timber’s long term behaviour.
Secondly, I think that Gibson owners need to keep toasted maple fingerboards regularly oiled and keep a closer eye on them than they may be used to with traditional rosewood or ebony.
I’m going to go back and oil this one again before it goes out into the world.
Thirdly, we’re going to see a lot more experimental timber use in the future, as the new CITES timber regulations are enforced. It’s really going to be worth keeping a close eye on your new guitars to make sure they’re not suffering or misbehaving.