Friday, February 21, 2014

Sapele, Bruce Roper and Guitars

Bruce Roper inspects huge piece of Sapele
wood at  Owl Hardwood Lumber Co.
in Des Plaines

No. 2. Sapele, Bruce Roper and Guitars

Well, we could have picked a calmer day for this, but Chicago winters being what they are, we decided not to wait. This is Bruce Roper and he is at Owl Hardwood Lumber Co. in Des Plaines looking at the guitar he is going to build for me. (It's inside that piece of wood he has his hand on.) Bruce is enough of a regular at the place that they know him when they see him. It's a good thing to have people at such an amazing lumber yard know you. Discussions ensue about rosewood stumps, old wood from marimba factories, what's new on the market, what's running out. On a visit here last week, Bruce spotted this big piece of sapele, an African hardwood that looks a lot like mahogany, but isn't actually mahogany despite the fact that people insist on calling it African mahogany, which it is not.

We went to Owl after a lunch of okay burgers in Des Plaines and a gab that carried us so far out of the way we might as well have gone to Galena. But we did not. We turned around and went back to find Owl. Guitars were what we talked about, that and being picky about things and the line between that and obsession, which some luthiers erase. Bruce is not like that. Not a man to let the perfect be the enemy of the great, he doesn't have much time for talk about exclusive, expensive tone woods and how one is superior to another. People are experimenting with wood all the time and they always have. You can make a guitar out of slats from a shipping flat if you want to, or from old pieces of wood you have laying around.

Bruce is the guitar repair guy for Old Town School of Folk Music and suspects he puts his hands on about 300 guitars a year, everything from setting up new guitars to adjusting old ones to fixing cracks to making sure it's all sticking together right. Over his 20 years or so of doing this kind of job, he guesses he has handled about 10,000 guitars. He knows. "It's about how it sounds," he says. Sometimes you just pick one up and give it a strum and you know, "This is amazing." A lot of attention is paid to brand names, histories, reputations. But what Bruce cares about is sound. He has played them all, and now when he plays with Sons of the Never Wrong, he plays his own guitar. The one he made.

Now he is making one for me, mainly so you will know what the process involves and how you pull an instrument from a big block of wood. And the sapele he bought on Friday is one big block of wood. Just over 10 feet long and maybe 30 inches wide at the fat part, with its bark in place. It is one lovely animal. There are all kinds of technical descriptions for what Bruce is looking for from this wood. "Markings" is how I think of them, little flaws that reveal the history of the wood, where the limbs were, what kind of weather it faced. Some are very subtle and some look like waves on the surface of a pond. You can't really see a lot of them until you wet the wood to bring out the grains.

How our sapele looked in the sunlight
So we strapped this big sheet of wood, just about an inch thick, to the top of Bruce's Jetta and headed back to his workshop to have a better look at it. Bruce wasn't buying on a whim. He knew what he had. All I knew is that there was a guitar waiting for me in there someplace and that he had the skill to bring it out. He paid over $500 for the wood. I was flattered until I realized his plan was to cut many guitar parts from this excellent wood and sell them to make his money back.

It was a slow ride in high winds with one stop just to put straps on to make sure our wood did not end up in someone's fireplace. Could happen on a day like that one. We finally crawled down Belmont and mad the turn into Bruce's place. His shop is in the garage. It's small but comfortable with everthing in its place. Immediately, the sapele seemed way big for the space.
Right away, Bruce grabbed a water bottle and sprayed the surface of the sapele. The wet part down there, that's where my guitar will come from. You can see it's quite lovely and unusual. The big guitar makers, Martin, Taylor, Gibson, work hard to make certain all their catalog guitars look just the same, which means wood that displays this kind of drama isn't going to work for them. But it sure works for me, and it certainly works for Bruce. He will cut the board, slice it in two and then slice it in two again so we will have two book-matched sides on my guitar. I want the whole body of the guitar made from sapele, and I can show you why.

On the right is one of Bruce's mahogany guitars, not completed but close enough to show you its beauty. I love it. Mine will be bigger and have a deeper body, but that look of red all around will work fine for me, I am sure.

We talked a lot Friday about details. Bruce wants to use the same shape Gibson used on its Nick Lucas Blues guitars
in the 1930s, which is distinctive, deep and easy to hold. He showed me one he has not yet finished and I was quite taken by it. So I said yes.

We're also doing some plotting. It might be nice, he noted, if he built two identical guitars (but one personalized for me with some juicy inlay stuff) and offered one for sale at Old Town School's music store.

But that's enough for now. Other than to note that this blog is for guitar lovers, but not necessarily for guitar lovers who love to pick the bejabbers out of everything everyone does (Don't be cruel, like Elvis said) off we go! Next time we visit, stuff will be cut to pieces!

No comments:

Post a Comment