Woodworker Ken Savage just wanted to make one guitar. Just one, for his own personal use and enjoyment. One with a better tonal quality than he could find in mass produced guitars. One, perfect guitar. Yeah, right. A woodworker making one guitar is like a chocolatier making one truffle.
The learning curve was steep as Savage learned what types of wood to use and the lengthy process of gluing, shaping, bracing, sanding, carving, laquering and “seasoning” each guitar. A solid background in building houses, boats and furniture helped.
That first effort was good enough to attract the ear of fellow musicians and he quickly had orders for six guitars. Ten years after his inaugural instrument, Savage is still at it, creating custom guitars that are in demand by professional musicians who appreciate the quality of craftsmanship that can only be had by making guitars one at a time. He calls it “the unintentional business.”
“I thought it would be fun to play my own guitar,” Savage said of that first project. He still plays that guitar, although dozens more — close to 70 — now bear the Savage logo. Although he has a Web site, most of his business comes from those who hear his guitars being played.
“A friend told me in the beginning not to advertise, but to just put them in stores where people could try them out. They speak for themselves,” he said.
Savage builds the guitars in his shop, located on property in the middle of Bainbridge Island which he has owned for 25 years. He cleared the land, built the house and several outbuildings. And made furniture.
Building custom furniture for clients who could afford to pay for “furniture done right” was his mainstay, but now it has become a sideline to the guitar-making business. A large antique table sits in a corner covered in dust, awaiting a new top, while guitars in various stages of construction fill every surface in Savage’s large, light-filled shop.
“I went from being a furniture maker who made guitars to a guitar maker who makes furniture,” Savage said. “Still, it’s a tough way to make a living.”
Even with a price tag of $3,000 and up, the creation of each guitar is such a long and labor intensive process that it will never be a lucrative career. He currently makes about six guitars a year, and is spending more of his time passing on the luthier’s craft to others. (“Luthier” is the technical name for instrument maker.)
Teaching, Savage said, is “more fun than making guitars.” The lessons are done on a one-on-one basis, with each student progressing at his own pace. The classes are based on 80 hours, which is enough time to complete a guitar to the unfinished surface stage. Savage usually does the final finish coats on the instruments, as he has a special spraying room.
In the first stages of instrument building the backs and tops are glued together from two pieces of wood each, using a variety of wood Savage has on hand. Spruce, walnut, Indian rosewood and big leaf maple are popular. Savage points out a guitar with a particularly beautiful wood, blonde with golden swirls across its smooth surface. He explains it’s called “quilted maple,” and comes from the grain being compressed on the underside of a leaning tree. The wood has literally folded in on itself.
From there the guitars go into another building, which is climate controlled. The temperature is a comfortable 70 degrees with 45 percent relative humidity. It’s a nice place to be on a cold winter day.
Here the flat panels are pressed into slightly concave molds, which result in bowed surfaces, adding to the tonal quality. Then bracing is added so they keep that shape. The bracing has to be carefully carved down until the panels “sing” when tapped gently.
Tonal response is the name of the game, the difference between a great guitar and an OK one. Fortunately for Savage, he is able to almost instinctively hear when a tone is perfect.
“When amateur guitar players try one of my guitars they usually say, ‘Yeah, that’s nice,’ then put it away,” he said. “Professional musicians say, ‘Wow!’ What sets my guitars apart is the tone and playability.”
Peter Spencer, Bainbridge Island finger-picking guitarist, agreed.
“His guitars sound like his guitars. He’s especially good at small to mid-sized instruments, with a lot more warmth and richness than a lot of smaller-bodied guitars can have,” he said. “The craftsmanship is superb, his design sense is impeccable and he’s super knowledgeable about the instrument.”
Back in the shop, after the bracing is perfect the sides are glued to the top and back, using a frame-type wooden mold. After the glue is dry the basic construction of the instrument is almost done.
Almost. There’s still finish coats, neck, frets, inlaid designs, bridging and tuners to add.
In the final phase, Savage hangs the guitars in a room and turns on music. It’s not to teach the instruments what they’re supposed to sound like, it’s to relax the wood and improve the tone.
“The vibrations loosen them up,” Savage said. “It’s for relieving stress.”
For all his expertise as a luthier, Savage, who just turned 60, is looking for new challenges. He is developing property he owns in the San Juans to start an intensive summer guitar-building workshop and he is planning on designing his own instruments.
“I want to do unusual and interesting instruments that are unique to themselves,” he said. “I’m never going to retire, because I love what I do.”