March 1, 2012 in Washington Voices

Father and son create handmade acoustic guitars

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Detailing in a guitar made by Jack Thompson and his son, Alex Thompson, features mother-of- pearl and abalone.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Coming up

VanMarter Project

When: 7 p.m. March 16

Where: Red Room Lounge, 521 W. Sprague Ave.

Cost: $5

Jack Thompson of Newman Lake set out to find an activity he could do with his son. Now, it’s turning into a way to supplement his retirement income when the time comes.

Three years ago, Thompson, 56, and his son, Alex, 26, decided to take a woodworking class to learn how to make acoustic guitars.

“I just started doing this to spend some time with my son,” he said.

Thompson has been working with wood for years, building houses and cabinets. But this was his first venture into guitar making. They never actually took the class, but did their own research and learned how to do it on their own. Thompson said his son didn’t want to make the instruments from a kit.

“He wanted to do it from scratch,” he said.

The two started making their own guitars. Thompson used quilted maple he had bought while on vacation in Oregon 20 years ago. He added piping of abalone shell around the edges and an intricate detail of mother-of-pearl and abalone on the head stop. On one guitar, the design was a duck. On another, it was a hummingbird.

He spends 80 to 100 hours crafting each guitar, mostly for his own satisfaction. He has a woodshop in his garage where he cuts wood for the shell, sands it and bends it using a heated mold.

Thompson finds different hardwoods to make the guitars online and at lumberyards. He’s used cocobolo and bubinga and Sitka spruce.

“I thought it would take several years to perfect,” he said.

So far, he’s made four guitars and has three more in progress in his shop. His wife, Penney Thompson, started to wonder what he was going to do with them all.

He gave one to his brother-in-law. Local musician, AJ Webster of the VanMarter Project bought one and another went to Webster’s bandmate, Chris Chilton.

Thompson met Webster through a friend of a friend – Webster’s neighbor water skis with Thompson in the summer and emailed Webster some photos of the guitars.

“I was completely blown away by what it looked like,” Webster said. Webster met Thompson, played one of his guitars out on the lake one morning and liked the way it sounded.

The band took the guitars with them when they played at the Sundance Film Festival in January and played them in the band’s new single, “Guaranteed Tomorrow,” which started receiving radio play this week.

Webster said it wasn’t just the look of the guitars he liked. He said the shape of the neck makes it very easy to play and the tonal quality of the instrument was definitely a factor in his decision to buy it, and “the fact that he lives across the lake from me.”

The guitars will go on tour with the VanMarter Project at the end of the month.

“He came back and said he won’t give it back to me,” Thompson said.

Thompson hopes to supplement his income after retirement by making guitars, although he’s not quite ready to retire from Inland Paper Co., which is owned by Cowles Co., which also owns the Spokesman-Review.

“It is exciting to have people who are really good players compliment the guitars,” he said. “It is always cool to finish each guitar and actually get the strings on it and give it a few strums. Self-satisfaction is probably the biggest thing.”

He spends his evenings and weekends in the shop with Alex making guitars, which is what he likes about the process.

“I look forward to every day Alex and I spend in the garage working on guitars,” he said.

Each guitar he makes starts around $4,000. Custom guitars cost more. In the coming months, he will put up a website to display his craft and maybe sell a guitar or two.

He’s in it for the fun of it and making guitars seems to be the point of his labors.

“I don’t play very well,” he said.


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