I receive a fair number of enquiries every month about the use of Agathis wood in making guitars. In the hope of answering some of the more frequent questions, the following information may help you.
Agathis is the name for a genus of giant tropical conifer trees found in rain forests in the tropical far east and the southwest Pacific. The genus is a member of the Araucariaceae, the plant family which includes the monkey-puzzles and Cook-pines as well as the recently discovered Wollemi Pine, a botanical “living fossil” from New South Wales in Australia. The Araucariaceae belongs to a group of plants known as the conifers, which also includes the pine family (pines, spruces, larches, firs, cedars), the podocarp family (podocarps, kahikatea, totara, etc.) and the cypress family (swamp-cypresses, giant sequoias, junipers & cypresses). The timber is immensely useful (see below) and is increasingly used, or so it would seem, for making guitars.
Agathis grows in rain forests right across southeast Asia and the western Pacific, from Malaysia in the west through Indonesia, Brunei, the Phillippines, and Papua New Guinea to Australia (Queensland), New Zealand (northern North Island), the Santa Cruz group of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji in the east. A little map is available below: the shaded areas indicate parts of the world within which stands of the tree may be found, rather than vast forests of the trees. Where most of the wood being used in guitar-making comes from I do not know, but it seems unlikely to be New Zealand (where most of the forests are protected) or or New Caledonia (where many Agathis stands have been logged out). Click on the map for a larger version.
Conifer wood is often called ‘softwood’, although conifers vary greatly with respect to the structural properties of their wood, and the lumping together of all conifer woods as ’softwoods’ is not always helpful.
The following information on Agathis wood is taken from page 39, section 8.1 (Timber) of T. C. Whitmore’s 1977 publication “A first look at Agathis” (published by the Commonwealth Forestry Institute, Oxford).
“The timber is straight-grained, with a fine, even, silky texture and a lustrous surface. It is pale straw to yellow-brown in colour, uniform, light, strong, knot-free and easily worked. Density at 15 percent moisture content was 0.47 gm/ml (29.4 lb/cu ft) [i.e. 470 kg m-3].”
“The comment in New Zealand that ‘there is no more generally useful softwood’ can be applied to all Agathis. Uses are legion, including for panelling, cabinet-making, joinery, turnery, mouldings, pattern-making, battery separators, piano parts and artificial limbs. The wood has no odour and is therefore good for tea-chests and butter-boxes. It is highly sought after for boat-building and for masts.”
“The timber is not durable but takes preservatives easily.”
I should first of all say that I know nothing about musical instrument making beyond what one can discover from reading several independent webpages on the subject. The consensus appears to be that Agathis is no better or worse than many other commonly-used timbers, but is not the best wood for the purpose.
I suggest a look at the following websites, among others:
Musical Instrument Makers’ Forum: http://www.mimf.com/
GIM Custom Guitars: Malaysian Exotic Woods: http://www.gimguitars.com/wood2.html (see Damar minyak - Agathis borneensis)
Slaman Guitars FAQ: http://www.slamanguitars.com/faq.html
Sometimes! Unfortunately, the best guitars are usually reckoned to be made, regardless of the type of wood, from trees of more than 200 years old. Although it is, of course, perfectly possible that national and private forest operations could provide renewable, plantation-grown or managed-forest timber grown on this sort of long-term cycle, in reality the main source for this sort of timber is likely to be primary forest - that is, old-growth forests being logged for the first time.
There are Agathis plantations in many parts of the world and much of the Agathis timber on the world market is probably plantation-grown, but as with all tropical timbers, if you wish to be environmentally responsible then you should ALWAYS err on the side of caution and buy only wood that the supplier can prove is certified as coming from a sustainable timber source.
The following websites may be of use and interest:
PEFC (an international body): http://www.pefc.org/internet/html/
Forests Forever: http://www.forestsforever.org.uk/
Malaysian Timber Certification Council: http://www.mtcc.com.my
Forest Certification Resource Center: http://www.certifiedwood.org/
Forest Stewardship Council: http://www.fscoax.org/