Local luthiers blend passion and tradition

Two local instrument makers tell us why they love what they do.

By Lance Henderson

When you knock two pieces of instrument-quality spruce together, the vibrations carry through the soft wood like a speaker cover.

To an ordinary person, they just look like regular pieces of wood, but to the master luthier, a craftsman of stringed instruments, they are so much more. They are a mandolin just waiting to be carved, adorned and stained or perhaps an elegant classical guitar eager to spring forth.

Luthiers have been around for centuries crafting the instruments of jubilation, celebration and dance. Most of the time, attention follows the musicians that wield these stringed instruments, while the craftsmen who slaved over them are content simply knowing that others are enjoying the music.

Here in Bellingham, among the professors and professionals, a few master luthiers are sanding, carving, gluing and staining their way toward beautiful music.

Opportunity knocks

KNOCK! KNOCK!

Stan Miller, owner of Stan Miller Mandolins, bumps two pieces of spruce together to show the tonal quality of the wood most associated with the top face of a stringed instrument.

Miller runs his hands over the lightly colored wood.

“Sometimes you can take a piece of wood and just touch it and it starts making noise,” Miller said. “It’s responsive. The sound rings within the soft wood and I can tell that is going to make a nice instrument.”

Miller, who hand carves the convex spruce tops, said while woodworking knowledge is important, understanding how to evaluate the wood and its tones is what makes a master luthier.

“That’s where the magic and mystique of the art of luthery comes into play, because it’s not just a scientific project or a woodworking project, there is much more to it,” Miller said.

Miller grew up in Iowa and was first introduced to the guitar by the folk music of the ‘60s. He soon left the Midwest for the West Coast and ended up in northern California where he was exposed to Bluegrass music in the early ‘70s.

“I really wanted to put together a bluegrass band, but there weren’t any mandolin players around. So I said, ‘If I can’t find a mandolin player, I better just learn how to play it,’” Miller said.

So Miller bought a cheap beginner mandolin and quickly learned the limitations of the instrument. Since he didn’t have any money to buy something better, he decided to try his hand at building one.

Miller said he had woodworking experience from building cabinets and furniture with his father and had also worked in a music shop repairing instruments. Soon, building mandolins was all Miller could think about.

“I would go to bed every night thinking about what I was going to do the next day. I couldn’t wait to get up and get back at it,” Miller said. “It was a very challenging experience. A mandolin is just about as difficult an instrument as you could find to build.”

From amateur to pro

Soon after, Miller placed one of his mandolins in a music shop in San Francisco and all of a sudden received several orders.

“Suddenly people were all over me wanting to buy them and I was just doing it as a hobby. So I started making money with it and I had a list of people who wanted to buy them,” he said.

While Miller has been making mandolins for nearly 40 years, the number of mandolins he made has gone up and down as life intervened. Miller moved from northern California to Bellingham to attend Western Washington University where he received his accounting degree.

He then moved to Seattle to work for Moss Adams as a certified public accountant and then moved back to Bellingham to be the chief financial officer for Verdant Wood Technologies.

About three years ago, Miller cut back his schedule to only work three day a week and then started to get an old familiar obsession.

“I always figured I would start building again when I retired, but suddenly I just started thinking about mandolin building all the time. And I thought, ‘Okay, this is telling me something, so I better act on it,’” Miller said.

These days, Miller produces about six to eight instruments a year in his workshop in the back of his house in the Sehome neighborhood.

He said when he first started making mandolins, there wasn’t anyone else on the West Coast doing it, but now there are more than a dozen. Many of these builders use high-tech machines to make the instruments nearly flawless, but that is not for Miller.

“I think it takes some of the character out of it. It’s nice to be able to look at an instrument and see the builder’s hands,” Miller said.

Classical guitar maker Steve Ganz works on a guitar in his Bellingham shop.
Classical guitar maker Steve Ganz works on a guitar in his Bellingham shop.

Fine shades of sound

If you ask Steve Ganz, owner of Ganz Guitars, a guitar’s effect on its sound is comparable to a recipe’s effect on the taste of the food.

“It’s not like one ingredient is the best ingredient; it’s how you mix them up and process them together. It’s the whole package,” Ganz said.

In Ganz’s guitar workshop, woods of all colors, sizes and thickness are stacked and sticking out of random corners of the space and Ganz is gluing together the body of a spec guitar he will try to sell when it is done.

“It has slowed down in the past six months,” Ganz said. “I haven’t even worried about [building guitars] just because of what is happening to people’s disposable incomes. So I haven’t delivered a guitar for a couple months.”

Ganz, who also teaches computer skills in Western Washington University’s business department two days a week, said his schedule has been great for building guitars.

“When it goes well and you get into a groove — it’s really, really nice,” he said.

When a friend first introduced Ganz to the guitar, it was love at first note.

“I sort of knew, when I first heard it, that I needed to play that instrument,” he said.

While at school at Arizona State University, Ganz met a friend who brought wood for making guitars out of Central America. So, Ganz set about building his first guitar just to see if he could and his first attempt was only somewhat successful.

“It barely looked like a guitar,” Ganz said. “It had six strings and it had a weird shape. It’s sort of hilarious.”

Ganz continued building guitars and perfecting his approach, but as he learned more, he realized that understanding how the woods come together to make sounds was as important as the construction.

“It’s more than construction. It’s about being able to hear very fine distinctions in how things sound,” Ganz said.

When Ganz works with a customer, he will have them send a disk of guitar music they like and he will listen and build a guitar to match the desired tones.

“You have to be willing to listen to a bunch of things, hear the differences between two guitars and come up with an idea about what makes that difference,” Ganz said. “If you figure out that difference, then you have a better idea about how you can get what you want.”

Aside from building guitars, Ganz has been programming computers since the late ‘70s and said there are some similarities in the two jobs. For instance, small problems near the end of the project can seem like disasters. For example, a speck of dust landing on the guitar during staining or if a program works great, but won’t save correctly.

“The closer you get to being done, the more obvious the imperfections are. If it is really almost perfect then the smallest imperfections really pop out,” he said.

Ganz said the most obvious difference in his jobs is that he can write brilliant software, but it will eventually fade away and most people won’t know he built it. However, his guitars will forever be Ganz guitars.

“The software I have written probably won’t be around after I am gone, but hopefully there will be some guitars still,” he said.

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