The Brazilian Rosewood Dilemma
I've found that one of the most beautiful features of the early Stanley planes has to be the wood used for the tote and knob, the beautifully grained and colored Brazilian rosewood. From the Atlantic coastal jungles of Brazil, (the only known habitat) to the tool factories of New Britian, this amazing species, Dalbergia nigra, graced Stanley's and most other manufacturers tools for 80 plus years. If you've ever worked with it you know the distinct fragrance, exquisite color variations and grain patterns to say nothing of the ease in which it finishes. It's an oily wood, considered hard but doesn't it seem to break easily along the grain? (Have you ever seen a tote broken against the grain?) My favorite part of plane restoration is the repair and refinishing of the wood. Though I have most of what I sell in my possession for just a short time, it gives me the opportunity to put my little piece into its history mosaic.
We've all heard about the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest for commercial, economic and agricultural uses. The folks that live in the region are generally poor and powerless, the governments corrupt and in cahoots with the people that decimate their resources. Farmland, not forests is what keeps people eating and trees command high profits. The decisions by those in control and made perhaps in greedy ignorance, affected how we can now no longer get or move any of it across international borders without it being certified as legally obtained. (a whole different story.) It was, and still is, a prized wood by luthiers, because of its amazing resonance properties, furniture makers because of its beautiful color and grain, even milled into floor planks for those rich enough or so narcissistic in their desire to have something others can't and without conscience, choose to plunder this amazing gift from heaven. Others who carefully and thoughtfully make beautiful things out of the species are the losers in this equation . Sadly, our love of the wood resulted in excess of harvest and is what has essentially created the shortage which subsequently brought on the endangered species classification. In short we loved it into near extinction. So why not just grow new wood? Like with most slow growing species, this is something we should have thought of 75 years ago. If we start today plantation wood will take at least that long to be economically harvestable. Another consideration is whether or not plantation wood has the same characteristics as the old growth. So while it could potentially be possible, the quality may not be the same.
What does this mean for those of us who do have some limited access? If you have ever read my articles on plane restoration or any of my eBay listings you know that I repair and reuse any broken wood that I come across. Repairing a broken tote or knob not only helps preserve what little of this resource remains but maintains the integrity and character of the restored tool. While I have no access to large enough pieces to replace a tote horn, I can substitute other non protected rosewood species to make a fairly close match. Generally too, with a bit of care, smaller pieces of waste can even be glued to create a single larger piece useable as a filler or even a fair section of tote horn. Rosewood sanding dust, mixed into a paste with clear drying woodworking glue makes a wonderful, sand able filler that takes on the characteristics of the wood itself and accepts a finish nearly as well. Great for significant divots or near catastrophic holes in places for which they weren't designed. Though never exact, the repairs will always be noticeable to a degree but that only adds to the planes rich history and character.
The other single most significant impact to those of use who sell old Stanley planes is that not one gram of rosewood can be sent to most of the world without documentation of origin, a lengthy and expensive process involving everyone's most despised class of workers, the BUREAUCRACY. In this case the United States Bureau of Fish and Wildlife. (Yours may differ depending on which country you live in) Wood species or antique tool experts they are not and the adage, "If I think it's a duck, it is" applies and the trip ends there. Sadly, without some international intervention and modification of the import/export regulations, international trade in these tools will come to a screeching halt. In fact, as I write this it is no longer possible to send a common Stanley Bailey type 11 plane to any member state in the European Union or any other country that has signed the CITES (Convention of International Trade in Exotic Species) agreement. A friend recently had two Bailey planes confiscated by British and French customs officials after eBay sales to legitimate buyers and through the Global Shipping Program and without recourse or appeal. Though buyer and seller both were compensated by eBay, the antique planes were sent to customs hell, never to be heard from, seen or used again. A loss, in my book, as great as the demise of the tree that produced the wood which was harvested at a time when it was not endangered nor protected. Now, the seller could have produced documentation that the wood was produced before the ban, on a plane that was manufactured 100 years ago and literally by the millions. (Yea, right) In addition, according to the US Bureau of Fish and Wildlife, the cost of processing runs about $75 per application (per unit sold) and takes and indeterminate length of time. In other words IMPOSSIBLE. A true lesson in bureaucratic nonsense.
If I've learned anything from this research it's that we should conserve that which we crave. My wife is a much more committed recycler than I but when it comes to precious commodities, like Brazilian rosewood, recycling needs to be the rule and not the exception and everyone trading in any form of it needs to participate. You restorers out there, learn to fix rather than replace the broken tote horn on your grandfather's old No 5 Bailey. You'd rather have it that way anyway because as a fellow told me the other day, "His DNA is in the wood" and that just might be the best thing about why you should.