In The Luthier’s Shop

by Amber Magnolia Hill on April 18, 2011

As I have briefly mentioned before, Mycelia and I have been taking fiddle lessons for a while now. My fine fiddlin’ friend Artemas Rex (who you may remember from here and here) recently took me to a hidden little luthier’s shop aways outside of town called Wolf Note Studio. Owned and operated by local musician Luke Wilson, it is located in a small building right next to the house he shares with his wife and long time band mate Maggie McKaig.

I was completely mesmerized by the beautiful instruments, fine craftsmanship, and rusty history the place evoked. Last week Luke and his partner Jon allowed me to come back, take photographs, and ask them some questions.

One question you may have is “what is a luthier?” Unless you play a stringed instrument you may have never heard the word. I first came across the term in a fiddle book (okay, I admit it, it was The Total Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Fiddle) only days before Artemas mentioned the shop to me. Upon reading about what a luthier does, I was aching to meet one in person and see what wonders such a shop would hold. So I was thrilled when Artemas told me Luke was a good friend of his and that he had set up a time for us to go out there.

A luthier is, quite simply, someone who makes and/or repairs stringed instruments. As you might guess, this is a whole subculture within itself, steeped in intricate handiwork, fascinating folklore, and a deep love of music.

I ended up renting a late 19th century German fiddle from Luke that first day, which replaced the slightly-less-awesome fiddle that my wonderful teacher (and Luke’s old time pal) Rick Toles (aka Alkali- Last of the 49ers) had lent me for free. Luke’s beautifully restored fiddle had come to him by way of the dump- a long time employee there used to salvage old instruments and pass them on to Luke. I am proud to be in possession of such a piece :-)

Luke’s grandfather had apprenticed as a woodworker at 14 years of age in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. It was through this work that he eventually became a luthier in the late 1800s. He made this woodworking tool. A creek going by outside his window turned the lathe that created the power necessary to create such an implement out of Birdseye Maple. Luke uses it in his shop over a hundred years later.

His grandfather also made this:

Luke’s father (born to the luthier grandfather) was a classical piano player turned industrial chemist, and his mother also played piano. She never received classical training and just played by ear. This is the way Luke has always learned music as well. He says “If you hear twelve notes a few times and can’t play it back, what kind of a musician are you?”

Here’s the man himself, holding a Hawaiian guitar from the 1920s.

And here’s Luke in his younger days, on an album he and a friend recorded in Europe in the 70s. Luke spent this time in his life between there and Canada, working with violin and guitar makers, spending time at Folklore Centers, and learning from banjo historian Pete Stanley. And playing music and honing his craft and falling in love and starting a family all the while.

One of the first things Luke showed me on my visit was the beautifully carved abalone inlay he put into this guitar. “I think you’ll like this” he said as he brought it out.

I’m quite certain there was no esoteric intuition involved and that he knew nothing of my love for the whale folk (and just thought that I’d find it beautiful, because it is) but it sure did make my little heart sing to behold such a special, painstakingly crafted instrument bearing the image of my most beloved ocean dwellers.

Can you guess what this is?

Horse hair, for fiddle bows.

The shop is full of this kind of thing- crazy looking instruments that you’ve never seen anything like before but can tell have a long history behind them and have travelled far and wide. Here we have (from left to right)- a coconut shell ukulele made by a World War II Marine, a Moroccan three string land tortoise shell instrument, and a Chilean one string top cello made from an armadillo.

This is Jon Wondergem, who started out as Luke’s apprentice many years ago and now works beside him as a junior partner, at work in his corner of the shop. Jon grew up in the area and now lives with his wife on a piece of land much farther out of town where they tend goats and fruit trees and other crops, calling their operation by a moniker just as charming as his last name- Peaches & Cream Farm. Here is Jon’s beloved Epiphone Broadway guitar:

He told me that he loves doing this kind of work because of the infinite variety of options available to him when crafting an instrument. He feels as though he enters a different kind of time and space when he is working on a piece. Which, it seems to me, is proof that he is engaged in his heart’s true work.

Jon and I talked about the palpable history, subtle and almost ghostly, that lingers around the instruments and pulses through the shop. He told me a story about a man, both cellist and exorcist (totally amazing career combo), who came into the shop once. Luke told him about a strange, uneasy feeling he’d been having lately while working, which made it difficult to concentrate properly on the task at hand, and the man offered a suggestion. He had Luke pick up the piece of material on his workbench upon which he lays the instrument he is currently working on, take it outside, and throw it into the air. When he did this, Luke saw a flash of light come out of the material. Things improved after that and, it seems, whatever ill spirit was lingering around the place disappeared. It makes me wonder what other energies and reminiscences are housed in these relics.

A better look at Jon’s workspace, as he shows me a piece of abalone inlay in a beautiful wave pattern that he put into the neck of this instrument.

Speaking of, here is Luke’s workbench. Quite a lovely, rolling-green-hillside-and-oaks, view. Which is sometimes also filled with their horse Belle, any number of the deer who graze their land, and maybe a dog or cat or two.

This is a guitar from 1901 that was built by an Italian immigrant living in New York City. He was a part of a whole community of Italian craftspeople working there at the turn of the century.

This beautiful East Indian single stringed instrument, with a goat-like animal head, is made of solid rosewood, and was probably used to accompany chanting.

This guitar was made by Mario Maccaferri, who is better known as the man who created Django Reinhardt‘s famous and innovative guitar.

Do you notice how the bridge on these guitars is shaped like an airplane? Well, it’s actually a very specific airplane. In the late 1920s, after Charles Lindbergh successfully made the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in his small single engine plane, luthiers all over the country scrambled to incorporate images of his famous aircraft The Spirit of St. Louis onto their instruments.

This simple one string cello was popular with country folk and was used to accompany singers at church and other gatherings.

This is a late 19th century harp guitar of the sort that was peddled door to door at farms across America. I would like to meet one of those peddlers.

Luke calls this a “guilute”.

A late 19th century mandolin with gorgeous abalone inlay.

I can’t tell you how happy it made me to be there that day, a feeling that lingers as I go over these photos and stories now. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I have suddenly gone from being someone who had never picked up an instrument to someone who can (kinda) play a song or two on the fiddle! One of my favorite parts in one of my favorite books, Cold Mountain, is when a 15 year old girl asks Stobrod “What kind of a fiddler are you?” He answers “Bum and shoddy”. That’s me, for now. But being around Luke and John and Rick and going to see shows like the one I did last weekend just serve to further embed into my heart the desire to keep at it. To steep myself in the folklore and craftsmanship and love that emanates from all the beautiful stringed instruments in the world. To continue to stomp my feet and twirl my skirt and smile to the music, and to maybe someday be the orchestrator of that experience for someone else through my own playing.

You can check out Luke and Maggie’s band Beaucoup Chapeaux here. And for all you locals- they play at the Nevada City Classic Cafe every Friday night at 6pm (acoustic set! children welcome!) and will be having a CD release party at The Miner’s Foundry on May 6th, details here.

Artemas Rex April 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Great pictures and article. I didn’t know there was so much magic contained in Luke’s shop. Too bad you couldn’t get a picture of the 1870s fretless banjo he sold me. :)

Adie April 18, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Amber! What an absolutely magical shop. I can’t believe all the instruments, historical, salvaged, what not. I love that the violin you shall be playing was rescued! I can’t wait to one day hear you play. And those abalone whales, the airplane bridges, the carvings and what sweet caring perfection that has gone into the love of music and the making and restoration of all these instruments.

Milla April 18, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Amber, dear, what a beauteous post, what a wondrous post to come to. I have been so in awe of your fiddling anyway and this beautiful hoard of information is just blowing my mind.

It’s so inspiring to me, as someone else who’s never really picked up an instrument that you just went ahead and did it and that’s what I’m going to do too, damn it! You are as wondrous to me as these here old, mystical instruments, awe-inspiring and full of tales.

The idea of energy, benign or malicious, remnants of life trapped in old things, the residue of all the life force that remains is as beautiful as it is disturbing, perhaps that’s the reason we have surrounded ourselves with all things old and storied, why they call us so. Makes sense to me intuitively.

Thank you for this post, it has left a very deep, glowing feeling in me.

sally April 18, 2011 at 5:15 pm

wow! loved seeing the oldest guitars especially. i like instruments with lots of history behind them and over the years i have definitely sought out info about the specific instruments my favorite musicians play. david rawlings plays a particularly beautiful and old guitar from 1935 that i am fascinated with. i agree with milla about the idea of energy trapped in things calling to us! so glad you picked up the fiddle! i think playing music is one of the best and most satisfying things one can do in life! :) i should get back to it myself one of these days…

brigit April 18, 2011 at 6:01 pm

wonderful!!!my dad and sister play guitar so i grew up around the stringed instruments. i took violin lessons when i was 4, but never took to the discipline required. i’m lazy. i absolutely love the fiddle. and i think it’s so freaking cool that you and mycelia are taking lessons. what a fun thing to do together.

Alison April 18, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Wonderful! Did you know that Jon was the first boy I ever loved in my whole life? YOU CAN SEE WHY.

heather April 18, 2011 at 8:28 pm

amber, this was so incredible and moving. i came home after a busy day at work, and the sky is gray and misty, and the tulip tree is blooming outside my window and i am eating a leftover cantaloupe smoothie i made last night…and i read this. i just felt like i was in heaven slowly reading and gazing at these images. thank you for this beautiful journey. music makes the world alive. i am so glad you can play the fiddle and like ade, i CANNOT WAIT to see you play sometime. maybe i will learn stand-up bass ;) and we’ll have our all-girls folk band after all!

i love the entire community that revolves around this like some inter-dimensional psychic whirlwind of music and craft and love and lore. what a beautiful life luke and his wife and partner and apprentice have made out there, and how lucky you are to become a tiny part of it! the collection blows my mind. every single detail so rich and fascinating and pure. the way the sea, and immigration, and family and culture (lindberg’s plane!) and the land and religion and love all come together in pure inspiration in these beauties.

oh and yes, alison, i can definitely see why ! ;)

Sara April 19, 2011 at 2:24 am

Oh, goodness, this post makes me so so so happy. What an amazing way to start the morning.

Gah, so many instruments it just kills me! And I saw tons of mandolins in the background, AND some templates for f-style ones (maybe?). You are so very lucky to have been able to talk with real luthiers. The craft is one I’ve been interested in for a very long time (I even fancy I was one in a previous life ;) ). There’s just so magical about being able to craft something aesthetically beautiful, practical, and capable of melodic sound. A perfect trifecta. And to think about all the positive vibes and love that go into making instruments. The woods must just soak that up. Gosh, imagine playing a mandolin or violin or cello or any other instrument that was made by a luthier. And WOAH, what about one that was custom made for YOU. Must be heaven. That guilute may have made my heart stop beating for a second. My fingers are itching to try it out!

I also have to tell you that it’s admirable for you to pick up a new instrument! I hope you love it :) And I bet you and Mycie will be playing duets in no time.

OH! Also, there’s this book called, Trader, by Charles de Lint. One of the main characters is a luthier, and the whole thing is this urban fantasy, instrumental, musical, magic amazingness. I seriously recommend you check it out. You’d probably love it :)

Thank you again for such a lovely post!

Missa April 19, 2011 at 2:41 am

Oh my goodness Amber, this post is magic, pure magic…

I am vicariously giddy just imagining how inspiring this must have been for you. I did a little gasp when I saw the whale inlay, not because of how beautiful it is (and it is so beautiful!) but because I knew how you must have felt when you saw it, as if this enchanted workshop were giving you an affirmation of sorts that this new path you’ve chosen to journey down is worthy of your efforts :)

You really did an amazing job of telling the story of this beautiful place and the people who give life to these amazing musical works of art. Not to mention, the images are GORGEOUS, what light in this place!

miss claire April 19, 2011 at 6:38 am

I cannot thank you enough for this post… I love peeking into shops far, far away and this one is particularly interesting as I am a violinist too! I’ve been playing for many years, but have only recently become interested in folk musics of the world…Thank you for the stories, photos and descriptions. What a magical shop!


Tony April 20, 2011 at 10:53 am

Very cool. Yes it is fun to spend time in the shop.

hank alrich April 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Nice post, Amber. Luke is “my” luthier, and has been for years now. I drive six hours round trip so that my instruments can receive his blessings. It is always well worth the trip.

Margot April 22, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Wow! I’ve been in the shop many times for Luke to attend to my violin, viola, and a number of bows, but reading this article makes being in the shop a brand new experience. You seemed to have asked all the right questions for Luke to provide such wonderful information and stories! And also, the photographs were beautiful! Just a really terrific piece! Thank you so much for it!

Sands April 24, 2011 at 8:18 am

What a beautiful essay, in both photos and words, Amber! I too have been in Luke’s shop dozens of times (love it when he says, “I think you’ll like this…” and brings out some AMAZING thing he’s found, purchased, repaired). What a lovely and long-overdue testament to his love for and abilities with stringed instruments of every size and shape and variety. Thank you so much for your own art in bringing this to us!

Sasha April 24, 2011 at 10:23 pm

WOW. i can’t really say anything that the ladies (and gents) before me have not already said, but WOW…… what a tour. those are some AMAZING instruments. i can smell the wood! thanks for taking the time to write this detailed post! (-:

Alison from Rags and Feathers Vintage April 29, 2011 at 8:03 pm

What a beautiful post! Gorgeous pictures of beautiful instruments, many of which are familiar to me and some of which are not. I actually have a ukelin (the “late 19th century harp guitar”) myself that I couldn’t resist buying when I saw it at a thrift store!

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