Mark’s Corner by Mark Waldrop
September 2014 Newsletter
A Visit To Martin Guitars
The trip had been arranged for me to visit the folks at Martin Guitars, select some woods and meet with Emily Meitzel and the Custom Shop staff. I had been to Martin a few times before, the last time having a similar purpose. This trip I felt better prepared and more familiar with the process of designing guitars with the Custom Shop. I also had some specific ideas on what I wanted them to produce.
The Martin Guitar Company’s main building is an inviting structure in red brick. Built in 1964 the Sycamore Street location the building doesn’t look so much like a factory as a school built from that period. One enters the lobby where visitors are greeted by the receptionist where you will sign in and get s sticker/tag that allows you to enter the manufacturing area. I was taken through the factory by Martin’s event coordinator Brendon who has been with Martin in various positions for over 20 years.
This being my third trip I note how many of the same faces that i saw on previous visits. Brendon stops and introduces me to one of the repair people who has also worked for Martin for over 20 years, and his father worked there for 47 years. There’s a lot of that at Martin. One of the many impressive things at Martin is to simply observe the workers at their jobs, noting the casual efficiency. Talking to the people there, I get the impression that they are happy with their jobs and proud to work for C.F. Martin. Today Martin employs a fair number of women, which seems to be inconsistent with their past, judging by the old pictures from Martin where women are rarely seen.
There is quite a bit of automation, but I’m always most impressed with the amount of hand work that goes into each guitar, very much in contrast with another large West coast American guitar builder whose guitars are as machine made as is possible. At Martin they are proud of their history of hand made guitars and strive keep the tradition alive. Going to one station there are two women hand scalloping braces on guitar tops and it is a thing of beauty as they make rapid chisel passes with wood flying. Each chisel stroke renders perfect results where the braces will need extremely little sanding to produce a flawlessly shaped spruce brace. The factory has a smell just like you smell if you sniff inside the sound hole not a Martin guitar. It’s that combination of wood, glue, lacquer, and more wood.
And wood was one the main purposes of this trip, so after the factory tour I’m taken to the wood storage area and meet with Jason, their wood master. First he takes me to the mill area where wood begins the process of becoming a guitar. There are 10 foot long boards of Hawaiian koa, not to mention copious quantities of mahogany, cedar, spruce, and most every tone wood. Jason explains to me that every bit of wood is used, including the offal and sawdust which gets repurposed. In this hinge room large pallets of raw wood is moved about on forklifts. Some of the processing is begun in this section where the milling is also done. There is an acclimation room where the woods can be kept at a moisture and temperature controlled environment, allowing the curing to be completed.
For lunch we head to the Italian joint across the street where we are joined by the International sales chief and Leslie who heads the repair department. Here I have the opportunity to discuss market trends in acoustic guitars. Leslie is, as always helpful in explaining new build designs and the specifics of Martin’s newer simplified dovetail, which is incorporated on many models. This is a logical evolution that combines their mortis/tenon neck joint with the traditional dovetail and makes for a very good and tight neck fit. Standard Series and above will have the traditional labor intensive dovetail, but the 15, 16, and 17 series will have the simplified dovetail. It makes for a very tight wood-to-wood connection that appears to be at least as stable and effective as a traditional dovetail, which is still used on Standard Series and above.
Next we go into the room where the woods that have been processed into backs, tops, and sides for the guitars. Wood is shelved floor to 20 foot ceiling, ready to be selected for the guitars they will become. Here we stop and begin to pick the rosewood and black walnut backs and sides for the custom guitars I have planned. Jason climbs the ladder and brings down multiple sets of each for me to choose. Here I discuss with him what I’m looking for in terms of color, grain, and eye appeal. I explain that I’m not looking for figured or dramatic looking woods, but rather that I want straight grain with dark color that will produce exceptional guitars. Highly figured woods don’t necessarily produce the best sounding guitars and in fact some figured woods have properties that can make them less than ideal for producing the richest tone. Figured woods are beautiful, but for many reasons may not be as resonant as the plainer stuff.
Guitarists, being unwilling to experience woods that aren’t familiar or at least familiar looking, tend to not go for wood that doesn’t look like the wood they are used to seeing.With that in mind, I selected some dark walnut with good straight grain for a couple of instruments. This will have dark colored pore filler and will have a look rather like rosewood. From these we will get a 00 and a 0000 (M) sized guitar. I have also selected some lovely Indian rosewood that will become a pair of 000 28s, one of which will have a torrefied Adirondack spruce top and built with hide glue. The other will be fairly standard. Martin doesn’t offer a 000 28 except as an Eric Clapton model. Many people want them but don’t want the Clapton signature, so that’s what we’re shooting for here.
From the wood shop we head up to The Custom Shop to meet with Emily Meitzel and the rest of the staff. Here we discuss details and options ; trim, bracing pattern, neck shaping, etc.There are more specifics than you might expect, unless you’ve visited the “Build Your Martin Guitar” page on the Martin website and seen all of the details. We talk about my ideas and how they will best be realized. Lots of good advice and thoughts that are extremely helpful, not to mention there are always several delicious Emily pulls down a 42 style dreadnought of all mahogany with a delicate sunburst that sets off the pearl and abalone to the point that it looks like it has been lit up. Not only does she know guitars, but she’s also a good player with regular gigs.Emily, Mark, Danny, and Scott teamed up with me to discuss and plan the guitars we will have made.
After a few hours discussing the details they get into the computer and i get a quote and proposal. With the spec sheet in front of me I can consider and make changes if I choose. Our work completed I say my goodbyes to Emily and the Custom Shop gang, but not before the present me with a memento of my trip, which is a folio of pictures of beautiful Custom Shop guitars with pictures of the folks who make and personally autographed by them. I will enjoy these pictures that will stir the prurient interest of most guitarists.
Our last stop at the factory is a museum tour. Many have seen the museum or pictures of the incredible instruments on display illustrating the history Martin Guitars and America. Brendon stuns me by offering to open up any display case and allow me to handle and play some of these instruments, making me feel privileged indeed. The ultimate, though, was playing the 1934 OM 45 Deluxe that Martin recently purchase for near half a million dollars. Wanting to handle them all, I held back and only asked to play a few, including some mandolins and arch tops.
As we leave the museum and go back through the lobby there is a customer taking delivery of his new guitar through their “factory delivery” program where you order your guitar, they build it, and you pick it up there at Martin. Pretty cool watching the man and his wife as their eyes lit up.
After a quick stop in the 1833 Shop to pick up a few goodies Brendon takes me to the original North Street location to see that historic facility. Brendon says that it’s not haunted but I swear you can feel the spirit of the souls who once worked here. The building is of course quite old and will require some refurbishing to be completely utilitarian, but for not some time and now the guitar kits are processed through here.
My day at Martin is over, but after three visits I feel as if I have some extra insight into Martin Guitars and I like what I see.
Most visitors won’t get the special extras that I received, but I can assure you that if you love guitars you will surely enjoy a visit to the Martin Guitar Company. Better yet, why not order a guitar from Guitar Tex, we’ll have them build it for you and you can pick it up at the factory when it’s ready. There you will receive your guitar and take the tour.Other goodies are included in this program including a performance in their performance space in the lobby if you desire.