Though I have 20-years of experience as a fine furniture maker, I’m still intimidated by the thought of building a stringed instrument such as a guitar or ukulele. My fears were allayed recently when I visited the workshop of Fred Casey, a Manitoba-based luthier who has garnered a world-wide reputation for his instruments, including guitars, ukuleles, mandolins and banjos, as well as a variety of quirky, fun creations made out of cigar boxes, gourds, paddles and barn wood.
After talking to Casey for a couple of hours in his shop near Winnipeg Beach, I left with the feeling that building a stringed instrument is not beyond the ability of a DIYer, although attending a course he offers through Lee Valley Tools in Winnipeg might be a good way to learn the basic luthier’s skills.
During the three-evening course (check Lee Valley website for dates), Casey teaches students how to construct a ukulele out of a cigar box. The course includes critical information for beginning instrument builders, such as to how to shape the neck and where to place the frets and bridge so that the ukulele can be properly tuned and played with ease. For an all inclusive price of $125, students graduate from the course with confidence in their woodworking skills and pride in their own handmade instrument.
Though time constraints prevent Casey from discussing and demonstrating the more advanced skills of guitar-making, his knowledge of the subject goes back many years to when he enrolled in a classical guitar playing course at the Conservatorio Nacional de Musica in Mexico. After graduating with his certificate in 1974, the young musician decided to study the luthier’s art under the supervision of master builder Bozo Podunavac of San Diego.
“I have a picture of the first two guitars I made with the guidance of Podunavac. They look okay, though most of the credit should go to the master. Without his help, they would not have turned out nearly as well,” said Casey.
Casey moved to Manitoba where he taught English at a high school in Leaf Rapids and later in Swan Lake.
“My teaching career put groceries on the table, but my true love was guitar making,” he said.
In Swan Lake, he built stringed instruments after-hours in a small house trailer. His first guitars sold for small sums by today’s standards, but his love of the luthier’s art kept him enthralled with the building process.
While living in Winnipeg, he played with a folk group that entertained people on the Paddle Wheel Queen as it travelled the waters of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
Many of his instrument sales were made at the Winnipeg Folk Festival’s Artisan’s Village at which he had a booth for 30 years.
Aside from making beautiful guitars, dulcimers and other instruments, he also enjoys creating ukuleles, some of which are fashioned from paddles, barn wood and highly-figured woods.
His whimsical Paddlelele, a lovely tenor ukulele, was fashioned from a child’s canoe paddle, perfect for canoodling on a moonlit night.
Casey said the tools required to build a stringed instrument can be as basic as a smoothing plane, a set of chisels and files, a carving knife (he made two gorgeous knives from old files), a fret saw, a hand drill, a small draw knife, wood scrapers, a sound hole cutter, a cobbler’s hammer and a bending iron fashioned from copper pipe heated with a propane torch. Clamps can be made from pieces of scrap hardwood — yellow glue is Casey’s choice for new construction and hide glue for repairs.
Though Casey uses small electric routers fitted with Dremel bits for inlaying and purfling, sharp chisels and knives can accomplish the same job. His workshop located a few miles west of Winnipeg Beach contains a modest number of electric tools that expedite his work. Two of the most useful are a band saw, which is used mainly to re-saw wood to a thickness appropriate for the front, back and sides of instruments, and a power sander to remove material from highly-figured wood such as Koa that tends to tear out when planed by hand or by a power planer. He also has a drill press, a cabinet saw and an electric bender in an oval shape, the heat of which is controlled by a rheostat or dimmer switch.
“I used an
old chunk of
pipe and a torch as a bender for many years,” said Casey. “But I finally shelled out the money for a commercial electric model because the heat is much easier to control and I’m less likely to burn the wood in the process.”
Casey demonstrated how a piece of figured Koa, about two millimetres thick, can be shaped by spraying it with water and then holding it against the oval bender while carefully applying pressure. He made the process of bending the side of a ukulele by eye look easy, but then he has built over 60 of the instruments, as well as 70 guitars and 74 dulcimers.
His ukuleles are owned by performers such as Fred Penner, “Manitoba Hal” Brolund, Deborah Romeyn, Kate Ferris and Judy Cook.
Casey recommends that anyone interested in
the luthier’s art join the Guild of American Luthiers, “a group of like-minded people who are always
willing to share ideas and techniques.” Indeed, he
has published many articles in GAL’s Quarterly Journal.
He suggests beginners should also subscribe to Stewart-MacDonald, which publishes a catalogue that includes, “Everything for building and repairing stringed instruments!”
“Guitar, banjo and ukulele kits are reasonably priced and a good way for the first-time builder to create an instrument without worrying about botching the job,” said Casey.