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In Memoriam: Robert Ruck

In Memoriam: Robert Ruck

August 21, 1945 – August 13, 2018

by R.E. Bruné, Federico Sheppard, and Peter Oberg

Originally published in American Lutherie #135, 2018

Bob’s passing was quite a shock. I had always thought he’d write my obit, given his healthy lifestyle and dedicated yoga mastery.

Bob Ruck at the 2006 GAL Convention flamenco open mike. Photo by Robert Desmond.

We first met in 1972, introduced by our mutual friend, flamenco aficionado and wood dealer, the late Hart Huttig II of Miami. Bob and Hart were studying flamenco with Elena Marbella. For Bob, flamenco was a core part of his being; the key to understanding his approach to the guitar. He also studied classical guitar with Juan Mercadal in Miami. Juan introduced a very young Manuel Barrueco to Bob, as Manuel needed a better guitar than the one he was playing. When I went to visit Bob at his home, he was stringing up a guitar he had just finished, an experiment and exploration of the Ramirez 1a model. Manuel loved it and used that instrument for many years in countless performances and recordings.

His connection with Spain was an important part of his art. He would travel to Spain in the summers to study flamenco in its own ambiance, studying not only guitar but also dancing and singing. Bob’s love of flamenco was reflected in his taste in guitars; he studied every good Spanish guitar he could get his hands on. His knowledge of Spanish makers and their instruments was deep and thorough, and Bob was one of the few whose opinions regarding their details I knew I could rely on. His eye for detail was extraordinary to the point of obsessive. We frequently shared notes and information over the many years of our friendship.

I’ll fondly remember our many expeditions in search of the perfect wood. The fruits of these expeditions still reside in both of our shops. Bob would call, usually late at night, to tell me about some stash of fantastic wood he’d found out about. I’d meet up with him and we would be off on a road trip, hoping to score logs of rosewood, cedar trees, or other great stuff. One of our “finds” was a pile of rosewood logs, which had been imported back in the 1950s, lying in a brickyard. We loaded these 32˝ diameter whole logs into his truck, which blew out both back tires. With a new set of rubber, we drove them back to his house where we discovered they were so heavy we couldn’t get them off the truck. We called a local tow truck who used a chain to drag them off, which, of course, bent and destroyed the tailgate. Once we had them on the ground, our plan was to cross cut them with a chain saw and split them with wedges. With our ear protectors on, Bob fired up the chain saw and put it on the chalk line. He got about 1/2˝ into the wood with nothing but blue smoke coming from the stressed saw chain. “Lean into it, hombre!” I yelled over the noise, and he replied, “I AM!” At that moment we realized that our bargain rosewood was going to be a bit less of a bargain than we had envisioned. Eventually we shipped the logs to a sawmill in California for resawing, but a fire destroyed the mill. Surprisingly, the fire didn’t even singe the logs, so once the sawmill recovered (ten years later), the whole pile was cut into sides and backs. When we added up all the costs and divided by the puny yield of sets, these “bargain” logs ended up costing us about three times as much as the first-class, AAA grade Brazilian stuff Hart was selling.

Wood harvesting adventures with R.E. Bruné in the 1970s. Both photos courtesy of R.E. Bruné.

On another adventure, we traveled to the mountains of British Columbia to get western red cedar. We met up with a fellow with no teeth and no electricity who was eking out a subsistence for his family by harvesting cedar blocks and splitting them into shakes. His most valuable asset was a cow which he milked every day. We worked out a deal for him to act as our guide in finding the trees, but we would do the actual cutting and we’d pay him for the value of the shakes that he could have split and bundled. He probably thought we were the two dumbest flatlanders he had ever met, and since we figured our yield cost at about $.50/top we had similar thoughts about him. In an intense day of logging we quickly used up our water and drank the five gallons of unpasteurized cow’s milk he had brought with him. That night we soaked in a hot spring and unleashed an explosion of fauna in our guts which graphically illustrated the reason governments require milk to be pasteurized in the modern era. The cedar from that trip is still being used in our shop.

We would laugh together about these exploits and how we had acquired some really amazing top-quality woods as well as some really mediocre wood. Lutherie for Bob was not about the money, it was about the experience, and man, did we get experienced.

For both of us, Spanish cypress was a nearly sacred wood, being the local wood of southern Spain, the wood usually used to make guitars for the flamencos, having the aroma and terroir of southern Spain. We had both agreed to make special cypress guitars for each other, as a way to honor and respect our love of this art and its origins, and we traded guitars some years ago. I still play and treasure the guitar Bob made for me, which I consider among the finest of all guitars I have played.

Photo courtesy of R.E. Bruné

As a teenager, Bob studied woodworking with a traditional Irish pattern maker named John Shaw who taught him to handle and sharpen hand tools. I was a self-taught luthier and I was woefully behind in these skills which Bob generously shared with me. We often traded many things: ideas, materials, instruments, and other aspects of the art and profession.

When J.R. Beall conceived of the Guild of American Luthiers and had the very first meeting at his “Farkleberry Farms” in Newark, Ohio, back in 1974, Bob and I were among the attendees. Even in those Dark Ages of the nascent beginnings of the modern lutherie movement, Bob’s work was head and shoulders above the rest of us. He was inundated with questions from fellow budding luthiers, which he very graciously answered. Bob was a mentor and inspiration to countless luthiers around the world, and an extremely prolific maker who made over a thousand outstanding guitars in his lifetime, a remarkable output by any measure.

Most importantly, Bob Ruck was a kind and gentle man who strove for perfection in everything he did. I will miss very much our camaraderie and collaborations. My condolences to his family and many, many friends and colleagues.

R.I.P., primo.

— R.E. Bruné

Bob with José Romanillos at the 1995 GAL Convention. Photo by Robert Desmond.

Don Robertito Rook has left us and joined the ancient ones, leaving behind a grieving family and friends and a body of work unrivalled in our world. At age sixty-nine he walked the five-hundred miles across Spain in summer heat with his daughter Amber and dropped by my shop. It must have been the wine, the walking, the sun, or all three, but the next morning she could not get out of bed for three days. Or was it four? Anyway, in that time Bob and I shared many laughs and stories about guitarists, wood hunting, and guitar makers. He even shared a few secrets. But Bob always wanted to make you work to think your way out of a problem, and gave up his secrets sort of unwillingly, like an organ donor regretfully gives up the needed part. He had a deep spiritual facet to his life and I am quite content that he is off chasing comets, doing yoga on one of the rings of Saturn, or craning his neck to catch a flamenco lick from one of the greats in some seedy Spanish bar up there in heaven someplace with anchovies on his breath and a silly smile on his face.

He will be missed.

— Federico Sheppard

At the 2006 GAL Convention with (seated from left) Jeffrey Elliott, Alfredo Velázquez, and Manuel Velázquez. Photo by Robert Desmond.

In 1996 I was working for Ervin Somogyi in his Oakland, California, shop when the phone rang. It was Bob Ruck calling Ervin to see if he knew of anyone he could hire as an assistant in his shop. When Ervin got off the phone and told me about the conversation, I lit up inside. One if the top classical guitar makers in the world was looking for an assistant, and I was the first to hear about it. I told Ervin I would have to contact Bob, and he very kindly said, “Go for it.”

As I remember it, a few weeks later I flew north and stayed with Bob, Cheri, and Amber at their house in Hansville, Washington, where they put me up in their guest house. Those two days were spent getting to know one another over meals and shop time. But most importantly, Bob hired me on the spot. My wife and I packed up everything we owned and moved to Poulsbo, where I spent almost two years working in Bob’s shop.

Bob never held anything back from me. The only procedures he insisted on doing himself were thicknessing and bracing the top, and carving the neck and head profile. Everything else he trained me to do, and ultimately trusted that I would not ruin a part or worse yet, an instrument. This was a tremendous challenge for me. I had been doing woodworking since the mid ’70s, and (erroneously) thought of myself as reasonably accomplished. Working with Bob was trial by fire; I had to raise my level of workmanship exponentially and do it quickly. Bob was an amazing teacher, and his confidence in me allowed my accelerated growth in skill level. To this day I think back about the things he trusted me with, and not just in the shop. In 1999 he built another guitar for Manuel Barrueco. A few days after it was finished I was playing it in the shop, and Bob suggested I take it home for the evening.

There was nothing exotic about Bob’s system. Some of his fixtures and jigs were ingenious, but others were straightforward. Routing for bindings was for me a hair-raising task, as we did it freehand with the body loose on the bench. However, his machine for shaping the end of the neck to match the curve of the body was very cleverly built and quite efficient. The body sat inside a revolving belt that traveled over the area where the neck attaches, and the neck moved forward on a carriage such that when you pushed the neck against the body, the contour would be sanded accurately on the end of the neck/heel. This machine came about as a result of Richard Brune’s trip to the Asturias workshop in Japan in 1985. (See AL#15, Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Two, p.86). Richard had already been using a machine he had built to perform the same task, but after seeing the Asturias machine, he built another that incorporated some of the design elements of the Japanese one. Richard and Bob collaborated on many jigs and fixtures, in the process making multiple versions and working out the bugs in order to gain efficiency in their building.

Bob had plenty of machinery and used it to speed up the process in places where there was simply no reason to do the task by hand. His wide belt sander got used extensively and he built a number of jigs for it. One held veneers and laid-up herringbone strips, and could sand them accurately to within a few thousandths. There was a jig that held bridge blanks such that pushing them through the sander put the correct arch on the bottom. Another jig put the appropriate taper in thickness from one end of the bridge to the other. I remember that sander pretty much being disassembled and rebuilt by Bob. There was not much he could not do. He was also skilled as a machinist, and a pretty darn good flamenco player. He built many superb flamenco guitars.

Not long after I started working with Bob, he told me something one of his early mentors had told him. I have to paraphrase, but it went something like this: “You have to decide if you are going to be a file/sandpaper/rasp kind of guy, or a sharp-edge-tool kind of guy.” The meaning was quite clear, and the admonition has stuck with me ever since. You can achieve much better, and often faster, results using chisels and planes that are well-tuned and sharp, than you can using files and sandpaper. I knew it didn’t apply to every task, but ultimately made perfect sense.

Above and beyond the creative thinking and execution of the fixtures and jigs was Bob’s ability to do hand work. He would start the day sharpening chisels and plane blades, so as not to be interrupted during the work flow of the day. We routed the rough profile of the head, but the exact line was finished with a Japanese paring chisel. If you’ve ever tried this you know how difficult it is to pare down and stay perpendicular to the face, in addition to paring curved lines. He pared down also to establish the profile of the heel at the back, and did so quickly and with great skill. I remember one day watching (when I could) Bob carve four necks before lunch. That includes the heel and the transition between the neck and the back of the head. His ability to focus on his work was remarkable, and it showed in his output. He was extremely prolific, and his work was absolutely uncompromising.

Bob felt strongly that Indian rosewood was the best material for backs and sides. He eschewed using Brazilian, saying its propensity to crack was just too problematic. Necks were always Spanish cedar, and bridges were always Brazilian. He often used a type of pine for bracing — not your ordinary soft pine, but a very stiff and close-grained one. He built rosettes on a mandrel, and they were not of a simple design, often incorporating various types of herringbone. This was a revelation for me, joining 6˝–7˝-long mosaic-tile logs, and building the whole thing up around the mandrel in several glue ups. I think those logs yielded thirty-five or forty rosettes.

Bob was also quite an innovator. When I started with him he had just begun using the wide-brace system, and with great success. He had another nine-brace system, and a seven-brace with a diagonal bar that he would use occasionally, but he was interested in developing and refining the wide-brace system. During my time with him he drilled the first holes in the upper bout to act as soundports. To my knowledge, it was Bob who took the plunge in this area. I don’t mean historically, but rather among contemporary builders. (See AL#91.) It was a huge departure from the traditional way of building a guitar. His approach to integrating the dynamics between neck angle, bridge design, top doming, and fingerboard shape was a huge revelation to me. It was Bob who taught me how to understand the way the guitar works, and the parameters to stay within.

Sometime in 1999 Bob got this crazy notion to build a guitar with the bouts reversed, that is, putting the wider lower bout on top and the upper bout on the bottom where the bridge is. At the time I thought it was just banter — from time to time we would discuss all manner of things, guitar-related and otherwise. I’ll be damned if he didn’t just decide to go ahead and do it, and he built that guitar in less than a week, inspired and excited by the idea the whole time. It was great to watch him knock that guitar out. When he finished the woodworking he put a basic shellac finish on it, put on the bridge, and strung it up. It was amazing how good that guitar sounded. I remember the character of sound being different than I had ever heard, but the thing worked! He named it “El Bolo,” and sold it pretty quickly. I have no idea where that guitar is today.

He also developed a triple-top system, with three layers of wood. I don’t think he wanted to go down the double-top road, at least not the way it was being done at the time. I do think he built some “traditional” double tops, but wanted to take the approach and go somewhere new with it. He was constantly thinking about how to improve the sound, and was not afraid to try anything that made sense to him.

Bob had some really interesting instruments. I remember one in particular that I really liked. It was a Torres-style guitar built by Neil Ostberg, with a small, shallow body and a very pure sound. It was simple and unornamented, and I think the back and sides were cherry. He also had a koa and European spruce guitar that he had built for his wife. I thought that guitar was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The sound was exquisite.

Bob was a deep thinker. His interest in the Chinese internal arts got me started with Qigong. He would practice his Tai Chi routine daily before work, and I’m sure this helped reinforce his ability to focus and maintain such a high skill level. I remember calling him about eight years ago to ask about what form of Tai Chi he might recommend I study. He told me he no longer did Tai Chi, and was practicing yoga, specifically Bikram yoga. He said he had found a practice that was so complete that he didn’t need any other. I’m certain he did it at the same high level as he did everything else in his life.

Bob was an extremely gracious, kind, and generous person. He was an especially important mentor for me, and I remain grateful and forever indebted to him for the opportunity to learn what he taught me. He was creative, engaging, and had a quick wit with a great sense of humor. Though the world is greatly enriched by his instruments, there is an empty place left behind by his passing. My deepest sympathy goes to his wife, daughter, and family.

— Peter Oberg