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Washington Voices

Wood and strings in harmony

Thu., March 12, 2009

Luthiers gather monthly to share, show

They talk about necks and bodies, sanding and buffing, using sharp tools, and bending and cutting, and their conversations are peppered with names like black locust, koa, quilted maple and bubinga. They are luthiers, people devoted to building, maintaining and repairing stringed instruments.

Luthiers are artists as they pay close attention to shape, color, texture and aesthetics. They are also scientists with an ear for proper acoustics.

The Inland Northwest Luthiers Association is a group of about 35 who come from all corners of Spokane and the area including Idaho. They meet at the Woodcraft store, 212 N. Sullivan Road, on the first Wednesday of every month to compare notes, share tips and show off their creations. “It’s all about enthusiasm and working with your hands,” said Michael Elwell, “The meetings are about fellowship. Luthiers tend to be loners.”

It takes hundreds of hours, depending on size and intricacy, to complete a piece and luthiers don’t seem to mind because to many, it is a calling. “It’s almost like channeling or following a muse,” Elwell said. “I’m building something inspiring, a tool for the universal language of music. It’s not about the speed in which you build or the cost but love, craftsmanship and worthiness.”

Elwell, an Idaho resident, specializes in classical guitars. He found his love for handcrafted works in the ’70s when he began building Appalachian folk instruments called dulcimers. He worked in carpentry which helped him master tools and woods. He attended a guitar-building school in Massachusetts and decided to continue. Since then, he has sold many to serious musicians. “There’s magic in high-end guitars.”

Many luthiers agree that hand-built instruments may be expensive (in the thousands of dollars) but are well worth it. “If you purchase a one- or two-hundred-dollar guitar, it won’t play or sound very good,” Marcus Daniels said. “That’s often why many beginning players give up.”

Daniels, 26, is fairly young for a luthier but it is his chosen full-time profession. He began playing the guitar at 17 and at 21 he attended a luthier school in Phoenix. He now works freelance and runs a shop out of his Cheney home. He, along with the Denny Carson, son of the owners of the Woodcraft store, began the Luthiers Association about three years ago. “My goal is to open a large co-op shop where people can build and teach others,” Daniels said.

Other luthiers in the association include CAI Kabrell, a Scandinavian who has a history of working with his hands by excelling in pottery, knife making and now unique classical, steel stringed and electric guitars; Pat Foster, who specializes in steel string acoustics and gives each customer a CD documenting the steps he took; Mike Conklin, from Oakesdale, who creates for quality and to leave behind a legacy; Mike Ryan, a retired physician whose goal is excellence; Able Su’a, a professional restorer of violins and fiddles, a musician and a ukulele builder; and Shaun and Debbie Hawley, who decided to find something fun and challenging that they can do together. “Many of the members are professionals but there are also amateurs like Shaun and I,” Debbie Hawley said.

“What we, as a group, really want others to know is that this is accessible,” Elwell said. Foster concurred, “We want to expose others to the value of building things with their hands.”


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