CANNABIS CULTURE – And they aren’t the only ones unlocking the miracles and mysteries of industrial hemp.
“It’s the music that makes me happy. The songs. The source,” said John Grado, creator of the world’s first hemp wood headphones. “I like to work. I like what I do.”
John, the owner of Brooklyn-based Grado Labs was a child of the 60’s, and says he was intrigued by the story of hemp, and genuinely curious about how it would sound. “We’d feel bad if we never tried it but then we did, and my God it turned out really good.”
Wood has always played a part in the creation of instrumental sound, ranging from Steinway Pianos to Martin Guitars. The first pair of Grado wooden headphones were made from mahogany, but since then they have used anything from whiskey barrels to fallen trees in Brooklyn.
About two years ago, John and his sons thought about giving hemp wood a try and were pleasantly surprised by the outcome. They sourced it from Kentucky-based HempWood, the world’s first producer of hemp wood.
“We kind of look at each headphone as a recipe,” says John. Like all expert chefs, John knows experimentation is crucial to growth. Even the glue they use to bond together the headphones has been experimented with to create the best sound.
For three generations Grado Labs has been hand-building headphones and phono cartridges. The company was started in 1953, by John’s uncle, Joseph, after hand-built cartridge production exceeded the available space on his kitchen table.
At the age of 12, John became Joseph’s apprentice and was trained in electrical engineering and the world of sound, “I don’t know if I have golden ears, but my uncle taught me how to listen.”
Inside Grado Labs – Photo courtesy Grado
Joseph retired in the early 90’s, and that was when John took over the business and began building headphones. At that time, most headphones were made from plastic and metal. In 1994, John woke up in the middle of the night and thought he should try experimenting with wood.
John explains that everything has a resonant frequency, the natural vibration of an object. Sound is the harmony of all these natural vibrations interacting. “I call ourselves experts at controlling, and damping, and getting different resonant frequencies to work together instead of working against each other.”
The Grado family are always looking for ways to improve the “Grado Sound,” and will take time to make even the smallest tweaks for quality. A height rod is used to adjust how the headphones fit on a person’s head, and a few years ago, John and his sons shortened it by just a quarter of an inch, because they thought it made a difference in the sound. “It wasn’t night and day, but we thought it was significant enough to shorten it for the overall recipe.”
To test his products, John listens to three 15-second cuts, by Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, and Eric Clapton. “I like this inner detail where you listen, and you can almost walk around the musicians. It’s really something, but you know, you have to listen.”
“They sound fantastic,” says HempWood owner Greg Wilson, when referring to Grado’s hemp headphones. “There’s something about the acoustics of hemp wood.”
John says it has to do with the density of hemp wood that provides stability to the headphones.
Wilson says that the high density makes hemp wood versatile for other artisanal crafts like game calls for hunting duck, elk, or turkey.
Wilson experimented with hemp wood a little in some of the nanotech labs he used to work in, “It was kind of just the natural new building material that fit into the algorithm we used for bamboo, and for eucalyptus, and for recycled woods.”
Artisanal hemp wood is a new industry and has only been on the market for as long as Wilson’s company started three years ago, “It was something that the big corporations weren’t allowed to do because it was only legal at the state level and not a federal level. And so, it gave us time to get in there, and get some intellectual property.”
Wilson believes that hemp wood will be a billion dollar a year industry, “We did it with bamboo, we did it with recycled wood, and now we’ll do it with hemp.” Wilson plans to have establishments over the next ten years in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Saskatchewan, Montana, Italy, Poland, and Tasmania.
“I think the world of hemp building materials is kind of just getting started,” says Tommy Gibbons, founder of Hempitecture. “I mean this country has relied on timber materials, but now there are serious concerns about the cost of these materials and the deforestation associated with them, whereas with hemp you can take the same plot of land and each year grow your building materials.”
Gibbons has brought hemp into the building insulation market with HempWool, a 92% hemp fiber product. HempWool is installed almost identically to other insulation like fiberglass or mineral wool, “It’s just a more sustainable and healthier option.”
Gibbons says there weren’t too many sustainable insulation packages on the market besides sheep’s wool and HempWool. Besides health concerns associated with spray foams, a lot of people are interested in having as low of a carbon footprint as possible.
“I think the world of hemp building materials is kind of just getting started,” says Tommy Gibbons
Facilities in the United States are just getting under way and there are a lot of conflicting opinions on what type of hemp needs to be grown for industrial purposes. “My knowledge was that it needed to be the long-fiber variety, densely grown row-style crops that are shooting towards the sun because they have long stalks, barely any flowering and lots of fiber that can be harvested per acre.”
Gibbons says he isn’t interested in getting into farming hemp or processing and would rather focus on the building materials component. “I think it’s gonna kind of be on the farmers and the processors to get connected to make sure that they’re using every part of the crop that they can to maximize the revenue streams from their harvest.”
Brandon Curtin, Cultivation Manager at New York-based Hudson Hemp says there is still some work to be done to cross this threshold. “My hope is that, genetically speaking, things move along here, and we can have highly productive CBD plants that are also for fiber.”
Hudson Hemp focuses on creating sun-grown boutique hemp used to make their CBD distillate. “We’re just trying to be strategic for the long run due to the market’s decrease in value and total kind of flattening out in the last year and a half,” says Curtin. According to Curtin, the price of CBD went from $40/pound at %10 CBD to $1/pound at %10 CBD.
Curtin says they compost their hemp stalks after the flowers are harvested but are intrigued by processes that use leftover biomass from CBD hemp to be used as a fiber. “I like the idea of partnering with people because we can’t do it all.”
John says he is not going to push people to spend their money. “People call and they say ‘well should I get this headphone or should I move up to this headphone,’ and the first question I ask is, ‘are you happy?’ ‘Oh yeah, I’m happy.’ I say ‘be happy!’”