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Craftsmanship creates sweet sound

Instrument builders dedicate skills and time to high-quality instruments

 VIDEO  In basements and backyard shops throughout the Powell River region a surprising number of people are devoting either their free or working time to the time-consuming and intricate task of building musical instruments.

Among them is Dan Minard, who sells homemade guitars through his company Rainforest Guitars. Minard grew up in a musical family, with parents he describes as “pre-beatnik,” and has been playing guitar since he was 14 years old. In his first foray into instrument building, at the age of 20, Minard tried to build a dulcimer. He didn’t have any of the proper tools and the project didn’t go well, said Minard, who can laugh about it now. At one point he said he tried to use a belt sander to finish the sides and ruined it.

In 1981 Minard met a guitar maker named Scott McKee who taught him the craft and walked him through the creation of his first guitar. Minard built three guitars and a dulcimer at the time, sold the guitars, gave the dulcimer to his wife and then didn’t make another instrument for 25 years. He busied himself with repair work over the years then in 1999 built a woodworking shop to start producing tonewoods, the wood used for an instrument’s resonating chamber, to sell to other guitar makers. About five years in he decided to start making his own guitars again.

There have been setbacks along the way. The first guitar he made at his shop in Powell River was purchased by a man who moved to McBride, BC. Minard didn’t have a humidity-controlled room for building at that point so the guitar went from high humidity on the coast to near zero humidity inland and ended up literally falling apart. Merely the first incident in a long, never-ending learning curve, Minard has, in a short five years as a full-time luthier (a stringed-instrument maker), gathered a lot of essential knowledge through trial and error.

Minard is currently working on guitar number 31. He has sold every guitar except two: one that he kept for himself after his wife accidentally damaged it (much to Minard’s delight as he built it with himself in mind anyway) and another he built for his wife. He’s to the point now that he is building some guitars specifically for clients, designing the instruments to their body types and preferences. He sells them at anywhere from $2,800 to $5,500 per guitar and each takes him about 100 hours, although he is trying to cut that down.

Dan Vincent learned how to make guitars from Minard. A guitar player since a young age and hobbyist woodworker, Vincent had long been interested in learning how to make his beloved instrument. For 30 years he carried around materials that a friend gave him for making a guitar before finally getting the opportunity to use them three years ago. He credits Minard with taking him through the process from start to finish. He has since built five guitars, a ukulele and a mandolin. He said building his own guitars keeps him well practiced as a player as each new instrument inspires him to play more.

“It’s kind of like living the dream now,” said Vincent. “It’s a very gratifying experience to be able to, after 100-plus hours working on something, string it up and start playing it.”

Instrument building is a challenge. There are so many variables and so many little differences, that affect the way the final product sounds, it is virtually impossible to make the same guitar twice. Everything, from the particulars of the grain of the wood used to the exactness of the curves in the backs and necks of the instruments, requires great skill to master. Add to that traditional elements and aesthetic considerations, such as intricate time-consuming inlay, and it is easy to see why a finely-crafted instrument is so treasured.

The luthiers agreed that learning to make guitars is far easier now than it would have been even 10 years ago thanks to the Internet. There are websites, forums, YouTube videos and everything else imaginable devoted to guitar building, all of which makes figuring out the particulars of the craft a whole lot easier. Having a local community of guitar makers also helps and the “two Dans” collaborate and swap tips with other hobbyist luthiers like Bob Valine and Gordon Masterman.

Bob Valine, a retired wood shop teacher who moved to Powell River about seven years ago, builds instruments as a hobby. Like his peers Vincent and Minard, who he confers with and learns from, Valine has long been interested in building instruments, with the main difference being that until very recently he never played. He has been working on instruments for years but only started playing about three years ago, learning on his homemade banjola, which is a cross between a mandolin and a banjo. He can tune a guitar and play a few chords but said he generally has to take a new guitar to either Vincent or Minard to find out its particulars. 

Valine learned his craft in the Azores in Portugal, after hours at a woodworking shop that had no electricity. A coworker and he would stay late to build guitars and mandolins by hand. He has now built about 10 instruments including four dulcimers, a banjola and a Portuguese guitar. He builds about two instruments a year and each takes him anywhere from 120 to 150 hours, although he’s trying to cut that down.

“I just like making things and making musical instruments is kind of a joy in that it’s something that will hopefully be around later, will be of some value to somebody,” said Valain.

Gordon Masterman learned how to build guitars from Bob Valine. Like Valine, Masterman approaches guitar building as a hobby and doesn’t play an instrument. Valine walked him through his first and Masterman is now working on his second guitar on his own. He enjoys the craftsmanship and challenge of guitar building but like Valine has to ask someone else if his products play well. Masterman is a retired painter and used to working with his hands, but said he is having to train his hands in a whole new way to switch to luthier work.

Laura Wallace is the odd man out both in gender and instrument of choice. Wallace has played violin since she was a child and teaches it at Powell River Academy of Music. Her father is a chair maker in Roberts Creek, so she, like most of the others, grew up around both music and woodworking. She often considered trying to make a violin but it wasn’t until a violin maker in Victoria named R. Kim Tipper took her on as an apprentice that she learned the craft.

It is traditional to do repairs before moving toward building new instruments and after five years Wallace figures she’s done every sort of repair possible multiple times. She is finally working on her first full instrument. She says she’s on the 20-year plan to hone her craft and eventually produce marketable violins. With such a storied history it’s hard to break into the world of violin making and establish a name, so Wallace is hoping to be successful by the time she’s in her 40s or 50s.

The instruments are all handmade, with no power tools, and must adhere to certain standards and practices. All of this takes time and a violin maker typically takes around 200 hours to build one instrument to the point where it is ready for varnishing. Full-time violin makers make eight or nine a year. Cello makers, another instrument Wallace has the materials for and plans to build someday, typically produce one instrument a year.

“It’s not about speed, it’s about quality and careful hand craftsmanship,” said Wallace.

Each of the instrument makers said the same two things when asked what the greatest source of satisfaction they get from their craft is. Top of the list is watching other people play their instruments, or at least knowing that whoever ends up with their instruments will play them and make music. The other is knowing that the instruments could be around as long as 100 years, adding a sense of legacy to their work that seemed to please each luthier.

A shortened version of this story ran in the Peak, Wednesday, February 2, 2011.