Crossing US Border with Instruments

Rumours have been swirling lately about border guards and customs agents getting stricter with musical instruments entering the U.S.

Restrictions on exotic materials in instruments exist for good reason: to protect endangered species and prevent poaching.

However, musicians are understandably worried about what is, and isn’t at risk of confiscation when crossing the border in either direction.

Grit Laskin
, internationally renowned luthier, has kindly provided Roots Music Canada with this superb and detailed guide to crossing the border with your instrument.


1. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, lists flora and fauna into three categories of Appendices:
Appendix I lists species that are considered the most endangered; Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened but may become so unless trade is closely controlled; Appendix III is a list of species included at an outside request (ie. a single country) that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation.

2. US. Fish & Wildlife Service is the enforcement arm of the CITES restrictions in The US.

3. “Listed” species in CITES Appendices, of relevance to musical instruments:

-Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra) has indeed been an Appendix I item since June of 1992.
-Mahogany from Central America (the best quality of the world’s numerous mahoganies) is an Appendix II item.
-Abalone Shell was recently added to Appendix III
-Pernambuco, the Brazilian wood used in violin bows is NOT on a CITES Appendix, however Brazil itself banned the export late last year.
-Elephant ivory has been an Appendix I item for more years than I can recall.


Brazilian Rosewood

There are 7 different rosewoods that come from Brazil alone (there are over 200 species in the world’s rosewood family), but only Dalbergia Nigra from Brazil is endangered. It would be entirely impossible for a customs agent to do the swab test Brodsky described and be able to distinguish one Brazilain rosewood species from another. If the wood was described as Walnut or Mahogany then yes, the difference would be marked. But I can assure everyone that a customs agent would never be able to tell Dalbergia Nigra from Dalbergia Retusa (another rosewood known as Cocobolo, also from Brazil). One of the reasons I can say this with confidence is because I once sent a sample of what I thought was Brazialin Rosewood to what I’d been informed was the best wood identification lab in all the US. The results came back confirming 100% Dalbergia Nigra. Then, when I began to resaw the lumber billets into guitar backs, the very first bandsaw cut reveled that the wood was Cocobolo, and my resulting hives (I knew I was allergic to Cocobolo) only double-confirmed it. If the finest US lab cannot assess with certainty you know a customs agent couldn’t do so either, except by blind luck. More about customs people later.

If, as I do, one uses Dalbergia Nigra–or has a guitar made with it–with wood that was cut prior to the ban, official CITES paperwork is required. My supplier in Brazil obtains the CITES permission to export and includes the official documents with the shipment, so I can import without problem and can supply copies of the paperwork to my clients along with their finished guitars.
Importing with the wood is also doable, so my US customers (if they choose this route) can apply for the permit themselves, to F&W, with the paperwork I supply. I have never had any customer do this (yet) and I understand it can take 6 months.


Madagascar Rosewood has become popular in recent years as an alternate to Brazilian Rosewood. It has some similar grain characteristics, although it is a bit denser. This wood is not a controlled species. However, you may have heard about a recent shipment to Gibson being seized. That has more to do with illegal harvesting. Non-permit clear cutting and uncontrolled forestry practices are a global problem, across hundreds of species. This was the issue in this instance. We have to assume F&W had tracked the illegal timber once it hit a US port, and seized the wood under the US Lacey Act (originating nearly 100 years ago, designed to control illegal timber cutting, and amended in 2008). That said, there are legal timber cutters in Madagascar who also ship the wood, and it is easily available in the US, so it is not a problem to have a guitar made from this species.

Abalone Shell

Because this species is now on a CITES Appendix, Fish & Wildlife are making a more concerted effort to monitor and control traffic in its use. It is still legal to use and export however, so if you wish to do it by the books, F&W require the supplier (where I buy shell) and the producer (me) to apply for a permit ($100.for me / $150. to my supplier). It is basically extortion money and creates needless delays.

NOTE: there are NO restrictions on Mother-Of Pearl, Blacklip Pearl, Paua, Awabi or any of the other species of mollusk shell used in instrument inlay.


The mahogany used in most guitar necks is the species on Appendix II. It’s still legal to be used, but getting harder to obtain–at least the high-quality lumber. That’s as much indication of its status as the fact that the commercial timber industry is beginning to harvest less of it. Solo luthiers like me as well as bigger producers like Larrivee or Taylor all keep our eyes and ears open for the availability of boards. In short, I buy Mahogany whenever and wherever I can find it. At any moment it could move up to Appendix I, and be either unavailable or, like Brazilian Rosewood, outrageously expensive.


Elephant Ivory stopped being used for Nuts , saddles, piano keys, etc. many decades ago. It is rare for it to be used, as the ban is so ubiquitous.
Walrus ivory, from Nunavut is legal, fully so in Canada (as the inuit hunt the animal for sustenance), and legal but sometimes “examined” by F&W in the US if it looks like elephant ivory to them. I buy from hunters in the north, and keep my receipts to prove it.

FISH & WILDLIFE and/or CUSTOMS Personnel:

If a customs official decides to be suspicious, or makes a snap decision, however faulty, they have you over a barrel. They could be 100% in the wrong, but if they want to confiscate an instrument, they can and will. Then, it’s left to you to do all the paperwork, submit all the forms, make all the phone calls to get the information, to retrieve your instrument from their clutches, weeks or months later.
The safe bet is to have as much documentation as you can assemble so that if you happen to be asked you can show that:

1. the body is made with Indian Rosewood, (or Koa, or mahogany, or maple, etc.) not Brazilian.
2. that’s mother-of-pearl, not abalone.
3. that’s plastic imitation abalone.
4. that’s plastic or bone in the nut in saddle, not elephant ivory.
5. yes, it is brazilian rosewood, but here is the CITES paperwork and/or but here’s the receipt to show the guitar was purchased before June/92.
etc. etc.


Having said the above I should also balance that with the fact that in 39 years of building guitars and shipping them all over the planet, I have never once had an instrument stopped for suspicion of controlled materials. When flying to the US with instruments, I’ve also never had their materials questioned.

There may be more to report on these issues in the coming months, which I will do. But for now, I hope this information is useful.

Here is a link with a good explanation of the developing situation with the woods and shell materials in musical instruments, and how they are being affected by the recent amendment to–and even more recent decision to begin enforcement of–the Lacey Act in the US. This is an excellent and sobering article and A MUST READ for anyone traveling into the US with instruments.
-Grit Laskin

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