From the St. Louis Post Dispatch:
In his heavy boots, Levi's, long-sleeved work shirt and wide suspenders, Bill Hibdon looks every inch the third-generation woodsman he is.
By age 10, he was shoveling sawdust at his grandfather's mill in Iron County. As a teenager, he trimmed logs and learned to operate his father's mills around Chillicothe and Boonville, in north-central Missouri.
"By the time I was 18, I could do everything in the woods," said Hibdon, 61.
And when he was in his mid-30s, he founded Hibdon Hardwood Inc. to import and distribute exotic woods, such as Honduras mahogany, Honduras rosewood, African blackwood, cocobolo and Ziricote.
"We offer solid woods in 30 different species," Hibdon said.
Hibdon is well-known to customers, mainly stringed instrument makers on both coasts, but virtually unknown in the St. Louis area.
In a three-story brick building a few blocks north of the Edward Jones Dome, he and a staff of seven employees cut, dry, package and handle the paperwork for woods that will be shipped to customers throughout North America. The plant, at 1410 North Broadway, covers 45,000 square feet. It's an oasis in the former industrial area of mostly neglected brick buildings.
Inside, the contrasts with the surrounding neighborhood are even sharper. The office and boardroom at the top of a steep stairway are finished in elegant Honduras mahogany. The wood comes from Quintana Roo, a state in southern Mexico. A bookcase holds polished bowls and other items turned out of some of the imported woods.
The day after Thanksgiving, he's starting a new venture next door: a retail store to sell select boards, blocks and burls to woodworkers. For several years, wood turners and other craftsmen have been knocking on Hibdon's door, wanting to look over his woods and buy what they could for turning, furniture or paneling. It's not an insignificant part of his business. This year, sales from the walk-in customers have hit $20,000.
The International Wood Products Association of Alexandria, Va., a trade group, has 180 members. Hibdon said he's the only dealer of exotic hardwood in the St. Louis area.
Through mid-November, total sales to Hibdon's several hundred customers are $1.7 million, nearly the total for all of last year.
That compares with a Department of Agriculture estimate of $40 million worth of hardwood logs imported in 2002, out of the $15.9 billion for all imported wood products last year.
Such demand for exotic wood could be an excuse to cut corners, but Hibdon is emphatic that he won't buy wood from endangered trees or without the proper papers.
And, he said, "We don't pay bribes" to officials in other countries. "If we start, we'll always have to do it. It's a slippery slope once you start paying bribes" to ease exports through customs.
Hibdon walked by his inventory of stripped and cut logs from Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, and ticked off their common and Latin names.
He stopped at an array of 10-foot mahogany logs sitting side-by-side behind his building.
"There are 30 logs here," he said. "I looked at 1,000 to get these."
He travels several times a year to select the wood he buys.
Hibdon pointed out imperfections in almost every mahogany log. Some had twists in the grain. Others had worm holes or a separation in the growth rings, called a shake. Each log had been the trunk of a tree that was 60 to 80 years old.
Hibdon estimated that a log with a fiddleback grain, one of the most desirable, was worth $2,500 before his employees cut it into pieces and shipped them to buyers.
Hibdon's main market is craftsmen and companies throughout the United States that turn the woods in his storage rooms and two drying kilns into acoustic stringed instruments, mainly guitars.
Workmen saw logs into blocks that become the necks of guitars. Other pieces will become backs and sides.
Hibdon said his big-name customers include C.F. Martin & Co., Gibson and Taylor - all established acoustic-guitar makers.
"We have 2,000 sets (of matched-grain boards) for guitar backs at any one time," he said.
The small pieces of wood, arranged in neat stacks on the second floor, wait to be transformed into polished instruments. A second-quality piece that could go into a guitar back will sell for $25 and up.
The jump in value is great for the finished products. For example, according to Martin's Web site, its guitars run from about $1,500 to $45,000 - more for custom-made models.
Todd Taggart of Allied Lutherie Ltd., a company in Healdsburg, Calif., that buys from Hibdon and also supplies guitar makers, said some of the wood Hibdon imports ends up in guitars played by stars.
Hibdon is quick to note that he never deals directly with famous musicians.
Still, Taggart said, "We sell to the makers that sell to the stars, so Bill's wood is going to be in there."
Taggart said there's a natural tension between many wood importers and suppliers and the companies that turn the raw wood into exquisite musical instruments.
"There are not many people in the timber industry that want to supply instrument makers," Taggart said. "They think we're prima donnas."
That's because guitar makers always want the center of the log, the best cut, from which to fashion the neck, he said.
"They want the heart of the melon," he said. "Not everyone can have that."
Hibdon "knows how to do everything" when it comes to handling and shipping exotic hardwoods, said Taggart, who has visited the plant in St. Louis.
Documenting the wood
Hibdon likes to say he has made three boats: a canoe, a rowboat and a 23-foot sloop.
He sailed the latter through the Caribbean in 1986 and discovered the first country that would supply him with hardwood.
He was sailing alone - "at best, it's boring; at worst it's dangerous" - and got blown off course from his destination, Costa Rica, and wound up in Belize.
As it turns out, Costa Rica was tightening up on hardwood exports at the time.
On the other hand, Belize, formerly British Honduras, was receptive to Hibdon's efforts to establish contacts and begin selecting, buying and shipping hardwoods.
Then, he expanded his range to Guatemala and Mexico.
Hibdon is well-aware that he's on sensitive territory regarding hardwoods and rain forests. Yet he scoffs at the tactics of environmental groups to drum up members and money. "If Green Peace is in Guatemala, (getting) your money depends on scaring people," he said.
Every shipment of logs or cut lumber comes with five documents to establish that it complies with local laws and international treaties, Hibdon said.
Nonetheless, U.S. Customs agents sometimes drill holes in his logs, looking for drugs.
"There's nothing we can do," he said. "If it's a veneer log, it's ruined."
Hibdon said he works with long-time contacts in Mexico and the two Central American countries.
To help the local economy and the environment, he established two sawmills in Guatemala.
"I felt I operated ethically," he said. "On the other hand, we were responsible for several hundred jobs. They had been slash-and-burn farmers."
Hibdon Hardwood Inc.
Address: 1410 North Broadway, St. Louis President: W.T. "Bill" Hibdon Business: Importing as well as wholesale and retail sales of exotic hardwoods from Africa, Central America and Mexico. Primary customers: Makers of guitars and other musical instruments, furniture, pool cues and cabinets. Sales: $1.8 million in 2002 Employees: 8
Reporter Repps Hudson: E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 314-340-8208