It’s a controversial subject among guitar snobs everywhere. Is Richlite an acceptable, quality replacement for traditional wood fretboards?
Many guitarists will undoubtedly say no. Others will say that Richlite fingerboards are fantastic and that they just got a bad rap.
Well, get off your high horses and meet me in the next section because, today, we’re going to settle this once and for all. And half of you aren’t going to like what I have to say!
What Is Richlite?
Richlite is a composite material that, among other things, is often used in place of traditional tonewoods for guitar fretboards and bridges. Made from recycled paper and pulp harvested from sustainably farmed trees, Richlite produces a hardened, durable material that they claim to be superior to other materials, especially ebony.
Other applications for Richlite include marine, sports, architecture, automotive and even aerospace industries.
Because it’s made from 65% recycled paper, they’re also considered a very environmentally friendly alternative. When you add on the endangered statuses of certain tree species like Ebony and Rosewood, Richlite can seem like an even better option for guitar manufacturers.
Ebony Vs Richlite Fretboards – Can You Tell The Difference?
With the widely popular Black Diamond Richlite fingerboards, it’s really easy to tell the difference by just looking at the guitar neck. There are no wood grains and they are solid black.
Many of Richlite’s other fretboards, however, are designed with a wood grain appearance to imitate real wood. Even then, upon close inspection, you can see that the Richlite isn’t porous like natural wood. The material is very smooth.
Do Richlite Fretboards Sound Different?
Richlite fretboards sound nearly identical to ebony and in some cases even better. You can expect a bright top end with very tight and defined low-end frequencies, just as you would with traditional ebony.
Martin Guitars actually did isolation comparison testing which concluded that the same guitars with Richlite fingerboards were even superior to those using ebony.
Richlite Fingerboards: Playability
As someone who has tested many guitars using Richlite fretboards, I can tell you that there is no downside related to the feel and playability.
One thing I hear people say is that it feels like plastic. That’s just simply not the case. While it’s a very smooth fretboard, it doesn’t feel cheap or glossy like plastic. You probably wouldn’t know you were playing on Richlite unless you were looking for it though.
Richlite Fretboard Care
There isn’t really any maintenance involved, other than wiping it down with a soft cloth sometimes. Richlite doesn’t corrode or absorb oils and dirt.
You’ll never need to worry about oiling your fretboard as you do with naturals tonewoods. Richlite is extremely stable and never shrinks, so it will never need to have a second fret dressing.
Ebony fingerboards often crack up a little at the seam where the fretboard meets the neck due to expansion and contraction over time*. While this doesn’t affect the playability, it can affect resale value. Richlite doesn’t have that issue.
You will hear occasionally hear that it’s harder to replace the frets on a Richlite fingerboard because it’s brittle and chips easily. This is a myth. It’s actually stronger and better to work with, actually chipping less than ebony.
*Editor’s Tip – When purchasing a guitar, have a look at any cracks between the fingerboard and the neck. While imperfections this minor won’t affect your playing or sound, this can be a good bargaining position when buying a used or vintage guitar.
Problems With Richlite Fingerboards
While there aren’t any glaring issues with Richlite, there are cons to everything. First of all, everyone likes natural, high-quality woods used in their musical instruments. I, personally, love ebony. Especially on vintage guitars and high-end furniture.
So, there’s a nostalgia to it. We guitar enthusiasts can be real snobs, and I happen to like it that way! Especially people who fancy themselves as collectors – with good reason, though.
Resale value tends to be better with ebony and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Certain popular tonewoods are starting to be hard to find, and trade oversite is also playing a big part in this.
With a little research, you’ll also find that some of these woods are extremely over farmed and will soon be impossible to find at this rate any way. We’re all going to have to play a small role in conservation.
Myth – Guitar companies like Gibson and Martin are using Richlite because it’s cheaper.Richlite costs about the same for guitar manufacturers as ebony. It’s actually even a little more expensive sometimes.
Environmental Concerns – The Real Reason For Richlite
The main reasons guitar manufacturers began transitioning over to Richlite were supply restrictions and the environmental impacts of over-farming. This is especially true for ebony and rosewood.
Rosewood was placed on the list of protected species by CITES (Convention Of International Trade in Endangered Species) in 1992. Meanwhile, ebony has been decimated in most of the world.
Manufacturers have been going into countries to harvest ebony for hundreds of years. They use up what’s available until it’s all gone and then move onto the next country.
For perspective, it isn’t uncommon for an ebony tree to take 200 years to reach maturity. Approximately 1 out of 10 trees is of the quality which is highly sought after.
There’s really no way for them to tell which trees are worth their time and labor hauling them back through the forest without cutting the entire tree down. So, that’s what they do. They cut 10 trees down to use 1. This isn’t including the surrounding forest which is being cleared to access the ebony.
As time went on, Madagascar became the one country that had a good supply of quality ebony trees. This became the mecca of beautiful, quality, jet-black ebony. Soon enough, the forests there were over-logged and it became illegal to cut.
Now, a significant amount of ebony is still being illegally poached out of Madagascar’s national forests. These particular species are a rare endemic variety that can take up to 300 years to reach maturity. There is no way for the demand to be met sustainably.
Then came Cameroon, Africa. This is truly the one place left in the world where good ebony can legally be harvested at scale. If you’re buying a new guitar or piece of furniture with real ebony, it’s was likely either illegally harvested or came from Cameroon.
Fortunately, Taylor Guitars has stepped up to the plate in a lot of respects when it comes to legally harvesting ebony. You’ll notice some marbling in most of their fretboards because they’ve begun using a lot of the imperfect woods which were previously discarded.
Richlite is made from mostly organic material – recycled paper, behaves like wood, has all of the same characteristics of ebony and plays better, same density, more consistent. sound is arguably indistinguishable. While natural woods are beautiful in both appearance and their tonal characteristics, you can now have all of that in a sustainable product.
There is a limited supply of ebony and you’ll soon enough, it won’t be an option at all. While companies like Taylor are trying to help change the industry, companies like Martin and Gibson are doing what really needs to be done.
In short, Richlite is just a better option all around.
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