Instrument makers follow their bliss

Posted 8/26/14

Music lovers and woodworkers abound in Port Townsend, so it’s no surprise there are so many people here who make instruments.

Incredible craftsmanship goes into a stringed instrument. In this …

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Instrument makers follow their bliss


Music lovers and woodworkers abound in Port Townsend, so it’s no surprise there are so many people here who make instruments.

Incredible craftsmanship goes into a stringed instrument. In this small town are several people who repair and refurbish instruments, as well as builders who create one-of-a-kind pieces. This is the first in a series of profiles of instrument makers, focusing on two who build guitars and other stringed instruments. In this edition, learn about James Curtis and Jay Gordon. Next week, expect to read about Dave Llewellin and Mark Miller.

Port Townsend is also home to a disproportionate number of the world’s bow makers; stay tuned for articles on that subject later this year.

James Curtis: Following his bliss

At one end of a long, low building on a farm in Port Townsend is James Curtis’ clean, comfortable shop. A greenhouse filled with prolific tomato vines, a vast garden and several workspaces belonging to other craftspeople lend an Edenic feel to the place. Curtis’ workshop consists of two rooms: one for being loud and messy, where sawdust can gather; and another, better-insulated one that’s made to be clean and comfortable, kept at 50 percent humidity. Curtis is also a photographer; there are large pictures of Sol Duc and Yosemite. A long, windowed wall lights yards of carpeted workbenches at three different heights, with neat rows of tools on the sill and smooth, shallow drawers underneath holding more tools, including a tiny plane the size of a cherry pit.

A moderate stash of wood is stored on the other wall, near a small collection of as-yet unsold instruments, including a bouzouki, an oud, a flamenco guitar and a parlor guitar.

“I’m sort of known because I make weird stuff,” he said. “Usually I just make what I want to make because it’s more fun.” High on a shelf is a square-bodied baritone “Bo Diddley” ukulele made from a redwood fruit box (found at a thrift store) that has a built-in music box with a tiny crank. (It plays “If I Only Had a Brain.”) “That’s my theme song,” Curtis said. “I like to make joke instruments because funny stuff is fun,” he said; another of those instruments is a “museum guitar” with a 190-degree Judas door viewer inside, which you can look into and see a whole museum, like a diorama.

Originally from Arlington, Washington, Curtis studied linguistics, Spanish and photography at Western Washington University. He’s played the guitar since he was 12 years old. In 1990 at the Strawberry Music Festival in California, “Someone put a mandolin in my hand,” he said. “That looked really fun. It’s small and it’s light. I think it’s easier than guitar; it’s percussive and has a strong melody aspect to it.”

Curtis has made approximately 170 instruments. Sometimes he works with friends and teaches the craft privately.

Sitting on a stand is a guitar that was begun by local bow maker and friend Paul Siefried several decades ago. “He made about a quarter of it, and it sat in pieces for years,” Curtis said. Siefried taught Curtis how to make a bow, and Curtis finished the guitar for him.

Curtis’ stash of wood includes a chunk of old Honduran rosewood that’s the last of a huge, thick slab that had been a table in his dad’s house in Panama in the 1950s. It’s “primo to carve,” Curtis said, “a wonderful tone wood, nice to finish, bends nicely, planes nicely.”

Curtis has traveled all over the world, talking to other luthiers in Australia, Spain, Germany, Canada and all over the U.S., including Hawaii. “We’re hiding everywhere,” he said with a gentle laugh. “You’ll never know we’re there until you need us.” One of his inspirations is Steven Owsley Smith, a luthier who lives in a cave in Hawaii and has a shop he made from a school bus, cutting the top off and raising it 4 feet. Curtis saw Smith’s instruments online and wrote him a letter years ago, and since then, the two have become good friends. Another inspiration of his is Steve Grimes, who also lives in Hawaii now, but used to live here in Port Townsend years ago.

There was a major luthiers convention in Tacoma in July, which Curtis has attended in the past but missed this year, due to a “strong motivation to go camping instead.”

Curtis likes to spend time outside in the summer and work longer hours in winter. “I follow my motivation always,” he said. “There is wisdom with listening to the seasons.” And with that, off he went into the sunshine with a mandolin slung over his shoulder. For more information, visit his website at

Jay Gordon: 'Sometimes it just really kicks'

Jay Gordon, of Gordon Guitar Works, started with a banjo.

“I always wanted to have a banjo, a longneck banjo just like Pete Seeger,” he said. “Vega made them – an old Boston instrument company from the turn of the century.”

At the time, Gordon was attending the University of California at Santa Barbara, surfing all the time, working at a surfboard shop for Rick Herzog of Sex Wax fame. He found an ad from Stuart McDonald of Athens, Ohio, in the Whole Earth Catalog that sold all the necessary banjo hardware for $100. He got some maple from a local boatyard. His power tools were an electric drill and a belt sander. “Nearly cut my thumb off cutting the maple” with a friend’s saw, he recalled. “Beautiful bird’s-eye maple.”

It was 1970. “I built it in my apartment.… Totally destroyed the apartment.”

While he was “busy flunking out of UCSB,” his family moved to Australia, and when his brother told him to put on a suit and go to a job interview Down Under at IBM, he did, and was offered a job on the spot. Before relocating to Australia, he had begun building his second guitar, his “fanciest” guitar, he said.

“Nobody told me I couldn’t.”

It’s a steel-string dreadnought with an Indian rosewood body and mother-of-pearl inlay on the fingerboard. “I did the inlays three times,” he said.

Before moving to Australia, where he lived for 30 years, he had found a book on classical guitar instruction. There were few books on the subject. “You had to be an apprentice” to receive instruction.

He built two guitars in Australia; after IBM transferred him to Connecticut, he visited the C.F. Martin Guitar Co. in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. “That got all my juices flowing.” He found some hardwood in Michigan and “made about 12 guitars during the four years in Connecticut” and a few more after moving to Bellevue, Washington.

“In 2007, when IBM said, ‘Thank you very much,’ we moved here,” he said of Port Townsend. He bought a house and turned the garage into a guitar-building shop. He’s “now on guitar number 62 or 63,” building a few on spec, selling a few on eBay and a few on referrals or to people he knows. He has sold guitars to people in Germany and Spain and given one to every member of his family.

“There are some good-quality instruments that are people’s first or second” they’ve ever built, he said, but acknowledges the role of experience, too.

“How thick do I make this brace? How thin do I carve this top? … When you’ve built 1,000, you really know how to influence the sound.”

He says he knows the basics.

“If I concentrate on the craftsmanship, a reasonable-sounding instrument will come out.” But because “every piece of wood is different … you can’t predict for sure it’ll be really good.” Some instruments just turn out extra-special; a guitar that “rings ’til there’s no tomorrow.”

He compares it to a cook who uses good ingredients; sometimes a meal is just unusually outstanding, but that extra quality can’t be guaranteed. “Sometimes it just really kicks.”

Last year, Gordon helped Cody Cottier, a Chimacum High School senior, build a guitar for his senior project – an intensive six-month job.

Cottier lucked out; Gordon is a good teacher. He displayed several molds, with curving sides clamped in; explained how the kerf – strips of thin, bendable wood, traditionally mahogany or basswood, with a row of small notches – is glued inside at the seam, to allow a router to cut around the edge to lay in the binding, the narrow strip on the outside of the guitar’s body at the edge between the top and sides, and the back and sides. He points out an example of perfling, an extra decorative inlay alongside one guitar’s binding. “That’s a small thing you don’t do on your first instrument,” he said. “Just that detail differentiates this from a more crudely built guitar.”

He leans toward minimalism. “You can get carried away with lots of inlay,” he said. “It cheapens the look of the instrument.”

He shows a traditional ukulele with a “rope”-style binding of light and dark wood. “I rarely use plastic,” he said. “Better guitars have a binding made of wood.”

“Most people buy guitars on looks,” he said, turning the Brazilian lacewood body of one instrument so that the grain danced in the light. He gets some of his wood at The Wood Well, a company in Quilcene.

Gordon explained how a curved back disperses the sound reflections, the effect of the pattern and thickness of the bracing, and what kind of wood resonates best. “A lighter guitar resonates more,” he said. “It’s like building a racing yacht; lighter is better.” His sides are seventy-thousandths of an inch thick; tops are between one-hundred- and one-hundred-fifteen-thousandths.

“A western red cedar top will be thicker,” he said. “If you use spruce, you can go thinner.”

Mahogany was the main kind of wood used in guitars in the 20th century, he said. “It’s extremely stiff; it resonates well.” He called Brazilian rosewood, which is protected – it is illegal to cut any more trees down – is “the holy grail of guitar woods.”

Koa is a popular wood among local luthiers. Gordon has made two Hawaiian lap steel guitars of koa. Known as Weissenborn guitars because of the Los Angeles instrument maker who popularized them in the 1920s, they are unusual, with hollow necks. In fact, the first examples were made in Port Townsend in 1898 by Christopher Knutson, Gordon said. He is still working on his second; the first is on consignment at Crossroads Music here in PT.

A lot of country music guitars are made of maple, he said. “They’re more thumpy when you play them,” like percussion. “You don’t want them ringing out and sustaining the note. Maple doesn’t typically sustain.”

He holds up a western bigleaf maple guitar; the grain on its smooth back looks almost three-dimensional. “It has the quilted quality,” he said. “That’s the sort of wood that gets cut up and sent off to Gibson.”

Mahogany, he said, is “acceptable to the market,” but other woods make nice guitars, too. He holds up a myrtle wood guitar with an Alaskan yellow cedar top and ebony binding.

“If you want to do fingerstyle, melodic stuff, you’ll play rosewood, mahogany or walnut.” He has one guitar body made of Clara walnut, wood recovered from a walnut orchard in northern California.

He explains that 20th-century guitar makers sought balance between strength and flexibility, using steel rods or carbon-fiber rods to join the neck to the body. (The strings place about 120-150 pounds of tension on an instrument.)

“You want a guitar to be really well put together and not move” over time, he said. “You also want it to be reversible. Guitars from time to time need to be taken apart.”

(Stay tuned: Read about Mark Miller, a shipwright who also builds and restores instruments, and Dave Llewellin, a local musician who builds guitars, ukuleles and mandolins, in our next edition.)