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Piano burning spectacle highlights loss of rare trees

26 June 2013

Wood from rare ebony trees has been found in pianos which are about to be destroyed at musical events.

One piano will be burned in Bangor, north Wales, this Saturday (29 June) and the other buried nearby in Llanrwst. The spectacles will be part of performances by composer Annea Lockwood.

Musician and conservationist Tim Cumine, who works at The Old Goods Yard in Bangor where the burning will be staged, asked Lockwood if he could remove black keys from both pianos to establish their origin.  Initial tests at a plant science laboratory in Bangor suggest both keys are Gaboon Ebony, a lowland rainforest tree found only in West Africa and now facing extinction.

Cumine said: “When I heard about the event I thought ‘I can’t let the pianos go without checking the timber’. We are 90% certain that the keys are Gaboon Ebony, one of the many endangered ebony species about which little is known and requiring greater protection.

“This shows that the manufacture and use of musical instruments has contributed to the depletion of these trees to the extent that they are threatened with extinction.  We can’t blame instrument makers, musicians, timber suppliers or forest managers because no single party has full responsibility and all have a distinct impact on trade.  Instead, we should speak to each other about how to put our respective interests at the service of woodlands.  Generations of foresters, conservationists, trade regulators, governments and campaigners have worked to improve the management of forests worldwide, yet the public is still largely unaware of the plight of ebonies."

Cumine has created a website ( to raise awareness and gather information about the range of common and rare timbers used in the crafting of musical instruments. “Ebonies are amongst the most robust, charismatic and valuable timbers on the planet.  Countless pianos reach the end of their working lives each year.  If the black keys alone could be retained, there are dozens of craft trades, instrument making amongst them, that could make use of wood already harvested, for generations to come and relieve pressure on exhausted living resources".

Few people who hear about the issues facing musical instrument timbers remain unconcerned.  If this Piano Burning shines a light on these ebony keys’ living relatives then the event will help to protect habitats which have been overexploited by humans for centuries. 

Cumine’s initiative is an offshoot of the Global Trees Campaign, which aims to save threatened trees. Campaign successes include the planting of threatened trees in parts of Uganda and Kenya.

BGCI is finding out where endangered African trees are being grown in botanic gardens so that they can be propagated for use in forest restoration. Sara Oldfield, Secretary General of BGCI, which is a partner in the Global Trees Campaign said: “In addition to their economic value, ebonies are keystone species in African forests serving as an important food resource for primate species. Continued forest clearing and unsustainable timber exploitation pose significant threats to many ebonies and the animals that depend on them.”

Notes to editors:

  • The burning performance, called Piano Transplant: Piano Burning, is being staged at The Old Goods Yard, Bangor. The burial is at The Caedroria, Llanrwst. Details at
  • Lab tests on the black keys took place at the Marishal Thompson European Plant Science Laboratory in Bangor Scientists studied the microscopic structures of the wood to reveal its ‘fingerprint’. The findings were checked against a database of more than 8,000 plant species including the ebonies known to be in trade.   
  • Gaboon Ebony (Diospyros crassiflora) is found only in West Africa. Its wood is jet black, is highly durable and polishes well. Its widespread uses include sculpture, pool cues, tools, chess pieces, the fingerboards of the most expensive models of all stringed instruments, violin bow parts, several varieties of bagpipes, aswell as the black keys on pianos. It is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
  • More than 10% of the world’s tree species – almost 9,000 different types of tree –are threatened with extinction. Trees are vitally important, providing food, medicine and shelter to people and wildlife and contribute to the full range of ecosystem services. In some cultures trees play a spiritual role – the kapok tree in South America is believed to link heaven and earth.
  • High value timber trees such as the Gaboon Ebony are disproportionately important. Individual trees are often widely dispersed and usually found in wildlife ‘hotspots’ – areas with a wide range of other species. Whole habitats can be severely degraded by the felling of a few trees.
  • The Global Trees Campaign is jointly run by Botanic Gardens Conservation International and Fauna & Flora International ( .
  • Greenpeace has recently encouraged the responsible sourcing of Alaskan spruce and other threatened timbers for guitar manufacture and is a partner in the documentary Musicwood, which charts the negotiations between US guitar makers and a Native American owned Alaskan logging company (

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