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Cleaning Shop, Part 1

Cleaning Shop, Part 1

by John Calkin


Anyone who has entered the field of lutherie in the last 25 years will have a difficult time envisioning the lutherie scene when we Old Farts came up in the 1960s through about 1985. There were very few books available, and useful magazine articles were scarce. Tools and jigs had to be made in the shop. Previously owned instruments were used; there were no vintage instruments until George Gruhn began telling us there were. A few small outfits sold tonewood. There were no mega-suppliers like today.

When I slotted my first fretboards I saved the sawdust in 35MM film canisters to use as wood filler. I saved every scrap of precious hardwood I encountered. My life as a luthier packrat had begun.

I had my own shop from 1980 until 1997. I started with dulcimers and added hammered dulcimers, electric guitars, flattop mandolins, bouzoukis, resonator guitars, bowed psalteries, banjos, ukuleles, and acoustic guitars. Each instrument required separate molds, benders, wood, workboards, jigs, and often tools. I was able to move quite a bit of stuff when I changed states, maintaining my status as a packrat, but my bad habit exploded when I hired on with Huss & Dalton. I worked there for 19 years, and many scraps from the more than 4000 guitars and banjos we made came home with me. As the years went by I spent less and less time in my shop, yet the collection of stuff continued to swell. Seriously, the concrete floor began to fracture.

I knew other packrats well enough to notice the signs of the disease. As their collections increased, the old stuff was buried under the new. Yet in their minds they not only thought they could remember it all but how and when it would all be used. They were pathetic. When I finally realized I was avoiding my shop because of the clutter, I had to face the fact that I was one of "them". I began tossing bits and pieces but the shop looked the same. I backed my truck up to the shop door and threw in all the obvious dross, but the next day I couldn't tell the difference. The second load contained enough rosewood and ebony to tilt my truck slightly sideways, not to mention sections of old-growth redwood 6x6s a friend had given me that I was eventually going to jig up to resaw into quartersawn soprano ukulele tops. Parts of my shop saw daylight for the first time in 20 years. I'm still not done, but I think I've lost my rank as a first-class packrat. I'm down to third-class, maybe.

So what was all that stuff? You'll have to wait for Part 2.

Both photos by John Calkin.