Is your ax a little dull these days? Let luthier (that means instrument builder/repair) Dave Farmer of Turtle Lake Stringed Instruments tell you how to keep that baby playing well and surviving the impending change in season.
How long have you been a luthier?17 years.
What’s challenging about it?Super tight tolerances on the dimensions of the parts. There’s a whole bunch of skinny little parts all assembled together to make an instrument. Most woodwork, the pieces are stiff and straight and relatively easy to put together. With an instrument, everything is bent and floppy. It’s like assembling spaghetti into something that’s ultimately going to be rigid. The trick is holding it in the right position while you glue the spaghetti together. It’s not the sort of work you can do sleepy and holding a beer in your hand.
And the repair side of things?Repair is where the instruments come up against the human being – where the rubber meets the road. To say nothing of Colorado’s climate, which [to an instrument] is brutal. There are things that will wear out anywhere, like frets, and then there are things that are unique to Colorado with our dryness and temperature swings.
What’s more brutal: The climate or the player?Working with players is something that I’ve come to like. There isn’t just a fixed set of numbers that I can set an instrument to. I’m always stunned that two players who are both phenomenal musicians would never be able to play each other’s instruments because they’re set up so differently – and they insist on it being just that way. That’s fun to work with people so that their instrument does what they want it to do. It’s that sort of “tool as an extension of your body” thing that I really like.
Can you give us an example?I recently had a guy in who I went round and round with trying to figure out what he didn’t like about how I’d set up his guitar. He kept saying, “I like an instrument that fights back!” and I thought, “Fights back? What the hell does that mean?” Turns out, that was his way of expressing a super high action. He wanted the strings to be a mile above the fingerboard. It took a long time before I realized what he was asking me to do. Luthiers have this language of numbers and measurements which I then have to translate for my customers. Trying to interpret what it means when a player tells me, “Oh, it feels hard,” or “Oh, it feels cold,” and to turn that into the mechanics of thousandths of an inch at a certain location on the fretboard is hard, but also a lot of fun. A good challenge.
What’s the most frequent repair?In terms of acoustic instruments, I’m pretty much a professional crack repairer. When wood dries out, it shrinks. When it shrinks, the outside border of an instruments maintains the outer dimension, and the top and the back try to get smaller and they end up pulling apart. We have a low humidity, period. Manufacturers build instruments at 50 percent relative humidity because they’re sending these guitars to Hawaii where wood expands because of humidity, as well as dry places like Arizona and Colorado, so they split the difference. Colorado is rarely at even 50 percent, and it’s a constant struggle to keep wood from getting so dry that it forms a crack.
Are we talking just guitars? Mandolins? Fiddles?It’s happening with all wood, but it’s mostly based on the total width of the instrument. Guitar tops are thinner and more prone to cracking. They’re just inherently weaker because they’re so thin. Mandolins are strong, the tops are thicker and they’re smaller.
What can be done to alleviate cracks?It’s a battle. The ideal thing to do is to keep your instrument in its case and keep it humidified. There are sponge humidifiers that are made that fit inside the soundhole or that you can throw in your case. You keep the sponge slightly damp all the time and that helps a lot. Keeping an instrument cool is the same as keeping it moist. If you can store it under your bed, down low, out of the sun – anything that keeps it cooler helps. If you have to leave it in the car, get it down low and cover it up, but know that you’re really rolling the dice.
What do you wish more players knew?The hardest thing is getting people to realize that there are options. I wish that more people had the experience of playing an instrument that had been set up well so that they understood what could be achieved. That, and an appreciation for the difficulty of setting an instrument up. It’s not like repairing a car where you take the alternator out and bolt a new one in. The price to repair an instrument can quickly outstrip the cost of a new instrument, which most people find shocking. I don’t think people realize that I go through a lot of measurements before I get a feel for what needs to be done. It’s very time-consuming to do well. Everything affects everything else. It’s like a tent. Every guy line you pull on tugs on the others which makes them taller or slacker. An instrument is opposing forces. Every time you change one thing, it, in turn, changes another. So it takes time to set everything right and in harmony with everything else. The world is not nearly as rigid as people think it is. [laughs]
Cyle Talley once knew a guy who named his guitar “Mr. Tumnus”. Go figure. If there’s something you’d like to Get Smart about, email him at: email@example.com