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Guitar maker uses unique materials to lower environmental impact


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: So, what do honeycombs, mushrooms and corn husks have in common? They're all ingredients that a New England guitar maker uses to reduce her impact on the environment.

Michelle San Miguel of Rhode Island PBS Weekly

Michelle San Miguel of Rhode Island PBS has for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Michelle San Miguel: Rachel Rosenkrantz had established herself as a furniture maker and an industrial designer both in her native France and in Rhode Island.

But, about a decade ago, she decided it was time to explore something new.

Rachel Rosenkrantz, Guitar Maker: I missed working with my hands. That was the bottom line. And I started to play music again. So that, really, like propelled everything.

Michelle San Miguel: Over the years, Rosenkrantz says her own creative process faced some inner struggles.

Rachel Rosenkrantz: There you go.

Michelle San Miguel: She felt torn between being a musician and a visual artist, and dreamed of combining her two passions.

Rachel Rosenkrantz: If it wiggles a bit.

Michelle San Miguel: Yes.

Was there a moment when you realized, gosh, I can make a living making guitars?

Rachel Rosenkrantz: Yes. Other people do it, so why not me? And I have been thinking about it for too long to not do it.

And, no, because it was scary. It's like it's a drastic change. It was worth the risk, though.

Michelle San Miguel: Rosenkrantz says the environmental impact of making guitars has been well-known for decades. Much of the timber comes from old rare trees that produce good acoustics, like ebony, mahogany and rosewood. Excessive harvesting of Brazilian rosewood has contributed to its extreme endangerment.

It's one of the reasons why she's selective about where she buys her wood.

Rachel Rosenkrantz: My rosewood is from India. My maple is from the States. My — I have some cedar from Spain, I have some cedar from California.

Michelle San Miguel: Rosenkrantz used her free time during the pandemic to experiment with making instruments from other materials. Take, for instance, the body of her guitars. They're not carved. They're grown.

Rosenkrantz packs her molds with mushroom spores, as well as organic waste like corn husk.

Rachel Rosenkrantz: That whole bag made to the trick.

Actually, growing a body in mushroom is cheaper than cutting a tree across the world. That's just the bottom line. It looks like a granola bar, but there's kind of a brutalist aesthetic to it.


Michelle San Miguel: The growth of the mushrooms fills any remaining spaces and binds it all together in the shape of the mold. Then, once it's dry, Rosenkrantz is left with a solid board.

Her friend Mark Milloff stopped by her studio to try it out.

Mark Milloff, Friend: Pretty close.

Because it's mushroom, I think of really delicious porcini soup or something like that. But, yes, there's definitely a distinctive sound. It is absolutely not a wooden guitar, a wooden resonance. There's something that is — I find very pleasing.

Michelle San Miguel: Rosenkrantz not only proved mushroom spores and organic wastes can be used to make guitars.

Rachel Rosenkrantz: So I gave the bees some board to build from.

Michelle San Miguel: But she also built one from honeycombs.

Rachel Rosenkrantz: The humming of the bees is within the range of the guitar. It's three or nine hertz. That's close to, like, the — a string on a guitar.

So I'm like, OK, so that should diffuse a guitar.

Michelle San Miguel: She knew honeycomb was resonant. She designed a bracing structure and watched as the bees built their comb along it. But then she found herself with a honey-filled guitar that couldn't resonate.

Rachel Rosenkrantz: So I had to leave it a whole winter for them to eat, because it's cruel to, like, take all their food. They worked hard, and now they're going to starve? I can't do that.

So, well, they had food for the winter, and they return in early April. I had a perfectly cleaned-up guitar that was, like, empty of honey, that could resonate.

Michelle San Miguel: Rosenkrantz admits strumming a guitar made from honeycomb isn't practical, but she says it's helped her better understand how biomaterials can diffuse sound.

Rachel Rosenkrantz: I'm learning so much. As I'm working on one, I start to have like five other ideas. There's so much curiosity that the learning curve is exponential.

Michelle San Miguel: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Michelle San Miguel in Cranston, Rhode Island.

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