Tolley Stringed Instruments; Old World craftsmanship meets New World technology

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Not every kid is given a Hurdy Gurdy as a first instrument, but for Mathew Tolley, clavichords and rebec’s were business as usual when your Dad happens to build Medieval instruments. A craftsman who apprenticed in England, his Dad was trained as a joiner, which led to his life as a luthier. A young Tolley would often work alongside him, and built his first guitar at age 5. Many miles and many mentors later, Tolley has his own luthier shop, Tolley Stringed Instruments, in Seattle.

Tolley is a classically trained musician who began playing on the violin and eventually migrated to the mandolin. He wanted to recreate that traditional look and feel and sound in his instruments.

“Playing violin, I spent a lot of time in wood shops getting my instrument fixed,” he says. “After college, I stopped playing music professionally and ended up just traveling around for a bit and then got into mandolin - it’s tuned just like the violin - so it sort of clicked for me. I was able to play all my Bach stuff but then play with my friends and not be like every other guitarist. I was taking some traditional wood carving courses at Evergreen [State College], making cedar boxes and totem poles, that sort of thing. At some point, I decided I wanted to have an F-style mandolin but couldn’t afford one. I met a luthier named Daniel McKinstry who builds folk instruments out of cedar. He was really encouraging, and helped me work through my first F-style mandolin.”

Shortly afterward, Tolley attended the esteemed Roberto-Venn School of Lutherie in Phoenix, and went on to apprentice with Rick Turner at Renaissance Guitar Company. After gaining his trust, Tolley was given free reign to build the infamous Model 1 guitars, as well as the experimental Compass Rose acoustic bodies that utilize graphite rods to form flying buttresses (inspired by a cathedral outside of Paris) which strengthen the bracing, thereby reducing weight. In addition, it was an experimental time for Tolley to test exotic woods, wood voicings and thicknesses, adhesives, UV finishes, alternative bracings, and structural components like graphite and carbon fibers. “Working for Turner was like a ‘lutherie ghetto,’” he says. “I made a lot of good connections there.”

Tolley left Renaissance and shifted his focus onto CNC machines. He programmed these systems and became an instrument designer for Michael Gurian and Dusty Strings, both in Seattle. 

Over a year ago, Tolley broke out on his own and has been making mandolins and archtop guitars with traditional elegance and age-old techniques. “The old instruments worked and people liked them so I’m just sort of seeing what it is about them and how they’re put together and sort of what I end up with when I’m done,” he says.“I like the classic look but I’d like to integrate more modern stuff, especially in the mandolin world. People are using more instruments tuned in fifths for jazz and classical music, its kind of making a comeback, so I’d like to start work designing instruments more geared to that. Something that has a more nuanced sound, as opposed to the more punchy sound of Bluegrass instruments designed to cut through.”

When asked about the types of wood he prefers, Tolley replies, “I try to keep things as local as possible. I don’t use exotic stuff that much. People attach a lot of value to exotic woods, especially in a collector driven market, where the price of an instrument is dictated by the conventional woods of choice. These instruments are being compared to exotic woods when they were plentiful and builders had their pick of choice cuts. A lot of these woods are about market and hype and much of the current supply is inferior in quality to more local and sustainable sources.”

Tolley uses mostly Maple and Spruce, two regional woods in fairly plentiful supply. But he believes that the future of lutherie will be dependent on sourcing alternative types of wood. “To keep lutherie viable we have to come up with good sources of something that’s fairly renewable, yet has the durability and the strength to hold up to a finished instrument’s lifetime,” he says. “They’re not finished on the inside, so it has to be stable enough to be able to absorb moisture and let moisture go. You need to be able to repair it and glue it properly. Some woods, depending on how much oil content they have, do not stand the tests of time. But, for the next generations, especially in the flat top guitar market - flat top builders - they’re going to have to find something. It’s kind of going that way, but a lot will be up to the consumer and what’s acceptable; especially in acoustic guitars, they want what they want.”

Tolley’s favorite combination for his arch top guitars is European Spruce and Big Leaf maple. For a more well-rounded sound, Tolley has also experimented with Engelmann Spruce and Sitka Spruce to great effect. His Bluegrass-style mandolins are made with Eastern Maple and Adirondack Spruce exclusively. He uses two basic bracing patterns: tone bars and x bracing. “There’s a sweet spot in the balance of the height of the arch and the deepness of the recurve, which brings warmth to the archtops, which tend to be drier sounding than flat tops due to their arched design.”

Recently a duplicarver has found it’s home in Tolley’s shop. It now takes him two hours to rough out a top, as opposed to two days, bloody knuckles and pains in his wrist. “Imagine starting with an inch thick piece of [hard] maple and you have to carve it down to less than a quarter of an inch. When I carve a 17-inch archtop I literally have several big black garbage bags just filled with shavings. It’s a lot of work.” The duplicarver does the rough-cut work and Tolley can focus on the hand built aspects which affect sound quality.

Tolley enjoys the small scale of his shop, which enables him to have a more personal connection with his clients where he can focus on their needs, and be open to just about anything - within reason. His own guitar, an oval hole Gibson, was found crushed and almost beyond repair after someone sat on it. “It took a lot of work, but I rebuilt it good as new.” Maybe someday Tolley will be able to afford one of his own instruments.