A walk in the wood
Madinter, 'knock on soul'
By Alberto D. Prieto
guitarist will tell you that wood is alive. That even the best examples go out of tune with a change in weather,
even by just lying in its case, that a body gets hotter with the passing of
time. Its grain more tactile, its curves easier on the hands. Anyone knows that
wood is alive, but how much life it has to give is something that nobody knows
until they have discovered Madinter.
Hidden in the outskirts of Cerceda,
a quaint little village in the mountains outside Madrid (Spain), the workshop where Vidal de Teresa and Jorge
Simons are to be found, is the epicentre of a global earthquake in the
industry that shakes hips around the world. Inside these four walls, we find half
a dozen workers and countless boxes from the Carpathian Mountains or even farther away still – India, Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa and Canada. Tons of ebony from Cameroon, European Maplewood or Indian rosewood…
It all began before it all began, back in 1985, with the company's other partner, Miguel Ángel Sánchez, whose family had a business related to wood, but for furniture. After a few years, he decided to give his interests a new direction, and with a pile of Brazilian rosewood in his arms (whose sale is now illegal) discovered a niche market in building guitars. Hey, Vidal, old friend, look what I've got… Vidal de Teresa, today 48 years old, was looking for a new riff back in 2000. He sold his veterinary clinic and went into the wood business. Today he is the managing director of Madinter. "I taught myself, with a lot of effort and a lot of passion", he remembers. "We already had the workshops and contacts in the sector… So we bought the machinery and started to do our research."
At first, Madinter dealt with three woods and just the one country… Today, they work with over 50 types of wood and deliver their finished products to a never-ending list of luthiers all over the world and all the major global guitar brands: CF Martin, Taylor Guitars, Fender, Gibson, Takamine, PRS, Yamaha… plus an agreement with Taylor, the company with which they set off on their business adventure back when it all started. Together, Madinter and this American producer of acoustic and electric semi-hollow body guitars supply ebony wood from Cameroon, with certified forest preservation policies. "For us, 'fair commerce' is very important."
Last summer, the US State Department awarded them with the Corporate Excellence award for social responsibility. John Kerry himself received them in Washington together with their business partners from Taylor to congratulate them on their initiative. Soon, they will be starting out on another project in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, promoting "fair and responsible" trade with the indigenous communities of Guatemala and Honduras. "There are countries where it is more difficult, where they soon let you know that if you want to be rid of all the paperwork, it'll cost you a backhander… but we never get involved with things like that. Right now, we have a delivery stuck at the docks due to this kind of carry-on. In the end, they know whose palms they can and can´t oil. It's an investment. Expensive, but profitable. Everyone knows: we are to be trusted."
All this has happened during the impressive growth that Madinter has been experiencing since its early days. Today, they are the global leaders of their sector ("I don't know if there'll be one or two other companies like us in the world", muses De Teresa). But before this, when the company was only just taking off, Jorge Simons came on board - a true lover and admirer of fine woods from around the world. At 37, Madinter's production and procurement director spends his days travelling, inspecting production sites and categorising them, looking for new business opportunities and closing deals… "But above all", he says (and you can see that this is true), "touching the woods, stroking them, getting to know them, everything about them that they can tell me."
Simons' eyes light up when we ask him how it is that a guy working in a bar in Mallorca ended up embracing such a natural, laid-back culture – was it the rock, the distortion, the amps turned up to the max, his feet tapping away at the pedals and his fingers going crazy on the six strings? "No way…. With the guitar I don't, Me?… nothing. No. This world is just so enthralling, a luthier who talks to you about this or that type of wood has you entranced and you learn to appreciate their different characteristics. And then", this is when Jorge gets up, takes a finished Stratocaster body and runs his hand over it gently, "then there's this. Can you see it? Look at the pattern, each one is special, one of a kind, and depending on how you go about it, you can work real wonders.
We go down the stairs from the offices to the factory floor. The smell of recently cut wood is intoxicating, taking us back to our childhood, a mix of cold Christmases in the village and a summer camp in Soria. "The pine trees there are marvellous, testaments to life", Vidal declares. "They know what they have in their hands. Understanding that, taking care of it, wood gives you life. They know how to nurture it, they love it." As they do down here - a perfect puzzle of hallways, saw-machines, design and inspection tables, and vacuum cleaners (all the energy that Madinter uses to heat the building is generated from the burning of the floating sawdust, which is sucked in and processed into blocks). We walk in a labyrinth of walls lined with blocks and strips of wood from all around the globe.
Necks still to be shaped, bodies still needing to be varnished, rock in its embryonic state, wood waiting to scream out Hendrix's anthems, empty vessels waiting to be infused with blues and soul.
"Good wood is like fine wine – it never spoils, but improves over the years", explains De Teresa when he sees us looking up, surprised at the amount of material stored up in the roof. "We receive 30 containers a year from Cameroon alone. Imagine how much if we add what we get from France, India, Italy, Croatia, Gabon, Madagascar, Rumania, The Congo… But we sell a lot, above all to make Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters. We also supply material to Gibson, essentially Les Pauls, Yamaha, Martin, PRS, Takamine and of course we work a lot with Taylor." Madinter manufactures bodies, fingerboards, tops… for these brands and for others. They work with quality luthiers that value quality materials and finishings. The company also does a lot of trade with small businesses and on the Internet. Presently, 20% of their sales come from this route, and is growing. "It's the beautiful thing about doing it yourself, making a guitar for yourself that is unique."
This incredible visit finishes with a visit to the shop that Madinter has at its factory. Surrounded by an assortment of spares, replacements and supplies - all of them made of wood, Jorge's eyes shine for us once again. "We waste nothing. We have developed cutting technology that only loses 1,1 millimetres of material – which, as you have seen, we collect and use to keep us warm. But apart from that, every in-house computer programme is designed with absolute efficiency in mind. All that is left is converted into what you see before you here." And he picks up a handful of the items on offer – there are products for luthiers, for enthusiasts, replacement parts, decorations, pens, an eclectic wonderland of wood. "For me, this is a passion", concludes Jorge. "Look, I have dedicated my life to wood", he laughs, "and it makes no difference; one of the great things about this job is that every now and again I travel the world. And I always find a new wood to make even better guitars with."
Below its logo, on their business cards, Madinter has inscribed, 'Wood for music', and you really can feel the music that moves them. We left Cerceda floating on a sea of fine wood grain, infused with the passion and love that these pioneers felt towards their work, convinced that the title of this article just has to be 'Knock on soul'… Music has soul, and these guys know how to play it. We drove back to the city from a place where life itself is created.