Building Instruments: A Business Experiment in Tucson

I’ve always been interested in guitars, and later that interest grew to include basses, and then a variety of stringed instruments. When we lived in Delaware, in the late 90s and into the early 00s, I worked at a music store, Mid-Atlantic Music where my boss, Nick Bucci, did repair work and was also beginning to build his own instruments. Nick was, and still is, both an excellent guitarist and luthier. Even his earlier instruments were formidable. I used to love watching Nick work on instruments, whether he was repairing something or building something from scratch. Watching Nick, led to learning basic repairs, set up techniques and wiring tips from Nick. I had some issues with not rushing things, which led to a fair share of mistakes, but by the time we left Delaware I was more than competent at doing setups and various other small repairs. I also had the bug, and was starting to move toward building.

My first attempt at assembling an instrument was a FrankenStrat I put together in Delaware from a Warmoth body and a reissue Fender Strat neck that I purchased from Tommy Alderson, another of Nick’s employees and currently one of Steve Morse’s guitar techs. Nick painted the body for me and I did all of the assembly. It was a decent strat in the end which went up for sale before we moved to Tucson. From there I bought an A style mandolin kit from Stewart-MacDonald, along with some tools and scrapers. It was an expensive mistake, and ended up being unplayable, but that didn’t stop me from buying an F style mandolin kit when we hit Tucson. It was more difficult than the A style, but it is still playable some fourteen years later and is currently hanging on my studio wall in Oak Park. From there I was determined to start making some functional instruments.

I came into a small inheritance at the time which financed tooling up and purchasing building supplies. My father generously let me use a back room in his art studio in Tucson to set up shop and I started designing and building electric guitars and basses. Honestly I loved the whole process. Working with the wood to carve necks and create bodies was a tactile joy. I loved the feel of the wood giving in to take shape under my hands, and the smell of the sawdust. Quite frankly it was one of the happiest periods in my life, out there in that shop creating something out of nothing. It wasn’t easy, to say the least, but it was very gratifying despite the intense learning curve. My time with Nick had given me a basic understanding of what I needed to do, but I hadn’t done any actual woodworking since middle school shop so many years ago.

I had to learn how to use the router effectively, and I found that it was a difficult tool to master. There was quite a good deal of torque involved which was quite tiring physically for my forearms and hands. The neck shaping was also quite physical because the roughing out was done with rasps and draw knives. I used a radial sander for smoothing and shaping as well, both on the necks and bodies. There were many blisters from the draw knives and a sore spot where I braced the necks against my chest during the process that would ache for days. There were always piles of wood shavings and sawdust everywhere. How it didn’t get into my dad’s painting studio still amazes me. I did keep the door shut between his area and mine, and then while I was running the sanders, band saw or router I always kept the windows and outside door open to push the sawdust outside as much as possible.

I read books about building, watched Stew-mac instructional videos and bought a compendium of wiring diagrams to learn from. While I had watched Nick refret instruments, I had never done it myself so that was a massive learning experience in itself. After close to a year in the shop I started building instruments that actually worked, played well and sounded good. Ironically enough my successes were primarily bass guitars, one of which I still own and play upon occasion, although it is quite heavy. It was at about this time that my daughter was born and I found myself going over to the shop less and less. My mother was more than willing to look after Phoebe while I was in there, but money concerns were building as well so I went into teaching part time at Pima County Community College. Soon thereafter I closed the door on my shop, focusing on playing as much as could, teaching and raising my daughter.

I still have the equipment to build, and finished a bass last August using a neck I’d built in Tucson. Most of the time, though, my shop in Oak Park is gathering dust and cobwebs. One of the things I learned was that building is an expensive process even after you have the required tools. The raw materials, particularly good ones worthy of building with, are inherently expensive, as well as the hardware and electronics. I do miss the feeling of the wood taking shape in my hands and the smell of sawdust from the various woods used. I also will value the experience of pursuing something that was a passion for that year or so, even if it didn’t lead to a profitable business in the end. Who knows, perhaps I will return to it someday in the future.

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