This is an age of material innovations, and Finland has been at the forefront of innovations such as bioplastics and various cellulose-based products. With the increasing burden we are placing on our planet, ‘original’ and ‘natural’ can no longer be regarded as exclusively positive epithets, especially since through science we can now create sustainable alternatives.
The limited availability of natural resources has been very tangibly apparent in instrument building for quite some time, because many of the tree species whose wood is traditionally used in instruments have become endangered. Having become aware of the situation, instrument builders are engaged in a search for alternative materials, for instance by using and processing wood from trees that are not as endangered or exploring completely new solutions. It is still early days, and there are as yet no established practices for this field of innovation. However, a potential approach is emerging in Finnish Lapland, more specifically in the municipality of Salla, where an enterprise named Partones is busily developing materials made from natural fibres for use in stringed instruments.
“The field of instrument building has a common problem, and the more there are people out there looking for solutions, the better the end result will be. There is an opening for a benchmark solution to be established, and we are hoping that we just might come up with that benchmark,” says Kristiina Aatsinki, who is in charge of sales and administration at Partones.
The core of the enterprise is the workshop occupied by Armin Seebass. He is a bow builder by trade, but he also qualified as a forest scientist once upon a time. Although he still continues to build bows, some seven years ago he began to think about leveraging his expertise in developing an alternative wood material – something that would feel like wood and behave like wood when it is shaped and when an instrument made of it is played, but would be man-made. The notion grew into a project, and the project translated into an enterprise as Seebass and Aatsinki established Partones in early 2018. I talked to them about their business in a videoconference: Seebass was at his workshop and Aatsinki was at home in Tampere.
A feel for wood
“Many [musicians] may not even want to try out alternative materials, because they are so invested in original materials. However, many more understand that it is better that we have an alternative material that works well and sounds good rather than a poor-quality natural material,” says Armin Seebass. “In the future, we may not have a choice. The best grades of ebony are no longer available at all.”
Alternative ebony is the first product that Partones have perfected.
“I’ve worked as a bow builder in Finland for 17 years, and before that in Europe. Endangered materials have been a problem since the beginning of my career. They are difficult to get hold of, and their quality is declining. And there’s the whole sustainability thing, too: it’s not nice to think that a large percentage of the material I use is questionable,” says Seebass.
He began to think about sustainable growing of rare materials such as ebony, but that approach would come with problems of its own. “It would be much more interesting to create a product that could be made out of wood that is not endangered.”
Seebass is familiar with the quality requirements imposed on instrument wood. He also studied to be a violin builder in his youth. “I make decisions all the time about which piece of wood is good and which is not,” he says with amusement. “My aim is to produce a material that could be used and shaped just like the real thing.”
Ebony is traditionally used for the fingerboards of stringed instruments, for instance, and it is already difficult to find wood of good enough quality for the fingerboards of double basses and cellos. The most important property of instrument wood is of course how it sounds.
Kristiina Aatsinki points out that the wood in an instrument creates a comprehensive sensory experience for a musician. She studied musicology and worked in arts management, among other things, before a career in international trade. “How it feels, how it looks and how comfortable it is to play are parameters that we need to keep in mind all the time in the design process,” says Aatsinki. “Many musicians have a very intimate relationship with their instruments, feeling themselves part of the instrument’s story. It is important that any material used to build an instrument fits into that context.”
Armin Seebass wants to ensure that the craft of instrument building would remain a career option even if traditional materials were no longer available at all. He notes that young instrument builders entering the field are already struggling to find material. Major operators generally have large stocks of material in store.
Photo: Antti Vuori
So how is it possible to produce an alternative wood material that can satisfy the high quality requirements of instrument wood? Armin Seebass has been spending more time in the laboratory than at his workshop, collaborating with a variety of experts.
“The starting point is to replicate the anatomy of the wood, the 3D structure and fibres, because that way you get the right appearance and the acoustic properties automatically,” he begins. Partones are currently producing alternatives for ebony and ivory, and they are testing further ideas. Their aim is to emulate other endangered types of wood such as rosewood. Each material requires its own specific recipe.
This is important because specific types of wood are used for specific structures in instrument building. Consequently, alternative materials will not wholly resolve the issues in instrument building, according to Seebass. “There’s a reason why a specific type of wood is used for specific things: it’s because nothing better has been found that could replace it. Any replacement usually causes a loss of quality and changes the instrument.”
Partones use plant-based fibres for their materials, processed as required. For now, the matrix is derived from mineral oil, but the search for an applicable plant-based alternative is ongoing. Product development is an ever-changing process.
“The materials may be quite different five years from now. Sustainable production is evolving all the time,” says Seebass.
Partones is in the process of converting its output to machine production. The production plant is of course located in Salla, and the production line was locally manufactured. There was no ready-made solution available, so Seebass was obliged to design the machinery himself. The aim is for the enterprise to create jobs in the area as it grows, and Aatsinki says that they already have a working relationship with the local authority in Salla.
The main market is in central Europe. Partones reached the top 10 shortlist for the international Classical:NEXT Innovation Award this spring, and the winner will be announced on 20 May. Kristiina Aatsinki hopes that the initial buzz generated by Partones will not wane due to the coronavirus pandemic slowing down the bringing of products to market.
“We aim to ship more materials soon and thereby gain feedback, keeping users close to our product development process.”
Who knows – perhaps the materials used by instrument building workshops in central Europe will come from northern Finland in the future?
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Partones: Armin Seebass at work
Partones is one of the three winners of the international Classical:Next Innovation Award 2020.