Thanks to the output of Creston Lea and Adam Buchwald, Burlington, Vermont is quickly becoming a guitar mecca of sorts (famed acoustic guitarist Paul Asbell calls Burlington home, as well). Buchwald works under the Circle Strings moniker and builds a variety of fretted instruments including mandolins, tenor guitars and, of course, flattop six-string guitars.
As an alum of both Froggy Bottom and Retrofret, Buchwald has done work to hundreds of great guitars from the past and present. These days, his work is largely in the Martin tradition, but he also stretches out to include Bacon & Day-inspired creations and one-off, customer-driven designs. When we caught up with the luthier in the Fall of 2014, he was busy finishing guitars to display at the FreshGrass Festival.
Fretboard Journal: What’s on the work bench?
Adam Buchwald: I’m working on finishing up two guitars that we built on spec for the FreshGrass Festival in Massachusetts. The first is a 14-fret, Cocobolo and German spruce 00 with a 25″ scale. The other is a dreadnaught with Red spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides. Both are lovely guitars and I’m looking forward to hearing them. They are being sanded and buffed this week. There is also a parlor guitar made out of Brazilian rosewood and Red spruce. I used reconstituted stone for the backstripe, rosette and inlay. Tracy Cox is cutting roses out of the red stone for the fretboard. I can’t wait to see them.
There is also a spec guitar being made with Bastogne walnut and red spruce. It’s a new design: a 25.1″ scale mini OM with 12 frets. The back should be on tomorrow.
The repair work is keeping us very busy as well. I have six Martins in for neck sets, one Gibson and one Yamaha. It keeps the lights on and provides us with work that is challenging and fun. There is nothing like fixing an old guitar for someone who has never had it set up right.
Another huge thing that is going on at the shop is the introduction of a ShopBot CNC machine. Coming from a tool/die background it is fun and interesting to start thinking like that again. I am having a lot of fun learning with Will Mosheim [Seeders Instruments] and have also asked an architect friend to help with the 3D drawings. We just installed Rhino [CNC software] today, so the fun is about to begin. I have an order for a F-5 mandolin and hope to utilize the machine for that.
FJ: Tell us a bit about the tone woods you’re currently using and some of your construction techniques.
AB: Like I said, the two under construction right now have Cocobolo and Indian rosewood, both have spruce tops. I am also starting two parlor guitars. One of them has Koa back and sides with a Red spruce top; the other is Cocobolo with a Sinker redwood top. I have only used that wood once for a tenor guitar and I was blown away. I think it will do nice for a small guitar. It pairs well visually and tonally with Cocobolo.
I build guitars very traditionally, but after doing repair work for Retrofret I have strayed away from the dovetail joint. Too many neck sets… and they all need it someday! Building with Froggy Bottom showed me that the modern bolt-on mortise and tenon joint is very useful in construction and is a lot easier to fix.
FJ: Talk a bit about the Sinker redwood. Would you compare it to any other woods?
AB: The Sinker redwood that I’ve been using was purchased from Darren Hippner, another guitar maker and wood dealer. He has been selling some beautiful wood. They aren’t big sets, which works well for my parlor and tenor guitars. I just love the look of it. The grain is amazing and the colors are incredible when finish is applied. It is very hard and has a beautiful tap tone, the two things I look for in top woods. It has a look like no other top that I’ve encountered – streaks of color ranging from light to dark tones from the minerals in the water, which to my eye is striking. It is nice to see color in the wood. The sound of the redwood is warm and rich. It sounds played in. It compares to cedar but is not as soft and a lot brighter. Taylor guitars describes it as “cedar on steroids.” Cedar tops have to stay a little thicker and I can get the redwood as thin as some spruce.
FJ: Tell us about your workspace.
AB: We just moved into a great new shop in Burlington, Vermont. Creston Lea, of Creston Electric Guitars owns the building and rents us half of it. It’s an amazing space and we are having a blast being under the same roof.
We have radiant heat floors for the cold Vermont winters, brand new windows and we’re getting insulation blown in this week. We just installed a split unit A/C and dehumidifier to keep the space the perfect temp and humidity. Another great thing is that he installed a heat exchanger on the roof so the spray areas will suck in fresh/warm air in the winter. This will help with the finishes and keep the dust in the shop and not in the booth.
Being next to someone doing great work is very inspiring. I hope we can collaborate in the future on some projects. I have been training Lars Whitman to help me with the guitars and Will Mosheim on the repairs. Lars will be starting to make custom skis in this building under the name Silo Skis any day now.
FJ: Hand-crafting skis?
AB: Over the last year or two, I have been working with, and training, Lars. We had many friends in common and I heard he bought out a retiring Craig Anderson, another Vermont guitar maker. Lars is a great craftsman and an excellent skier. Last winter he apprenticed in northern Idaho and learned the art of handcrafting skis to each skier’s desire. Being in Vermont, skiing is a huge industry and he thought it would be a good side business during the winter months. A lot of musicians here in Vermont ski, and vice-versa, so it gets more people in the shop to see our work.
Making the skis parallels with the guitars because of the client-based customization to build something exactly how they want it for a specific purpose. The ski cores are zero void plywood based for extra torsional stiffness. The skier gets to customize the specs they want in a ski. The client can also choose custom graphics as well as participate in a workshop to build their own pair of skis.
FJ: Let’s go back a bit: How did you become a guitarmaker?
AB: My family’s business was metal stamping and tool and die manufacturing. After studying music in college, I moved back to New York to help my father run the business, thinking I would eventually take it over. After many years of working there, I decided it was not for me and I had to find something that connected me with music but which also used the skills I had from working at the factory. Luckily, I was in a band with Bob Jones, one of Brooklyn’s top repair guys, who took me under his wing and taught me a ton.
I used the skills I was learning from Bob to build my first few instruments in the corner of the plant. I had all these amazing machines at my fingertips and an Italian toolmaker who could make anything you asked him to. I don’t think I would have been able to get where I am today if I didn’t work in that factory. It taught me precision work, production techniques (jigs/fixtures/machining) and business skills. One day the phone rang at Bob’s shop while I was working there and it was Retrofret asking if he knew of a repair guy… the rest was history.
FJ: Besides the guitars on the bench right now, what other instruments do you build?
AB: Mandolins, tenor guitars and octave mandolins. I wish I could do more mandolins because that is what I play and love, but people keep ordering guitars.
FJ: What’s your go-to mandolin?
AB: I am very fortunate to own and play some amazing mandolins. They provide me with tools to play great music with and also inspire me to build. I have used them as examples in the mandolins I continue to make. I was lucky to get on the Gilchrist waiting list in 2000 and sent in my savings at the time. I was single, no family and had a good job so I decided it was a good idea. I knew I had three more years to save the rest of the money. Well, the three years was coming up and I then heard it was going to be a lot longer. During that time I was living in New York City and played a friend’s Monteleone Grand Artist. I was blown away. I searched around to find one, and I found one that I could trade four other instruments for. Luckily, one of them was a PRS that I got from my grandparents at my Bar Mitzvah, which was quite rare.
Having those two mandolins is pushing me to make more mandolins because I need to know how to get that sound. There are a few old Gibson oval holes in the collection as well.
FJ: Any specific instruments from your past you want to mention?
AB: One of the highlights of my life was when Marc Ribot bought the fifth guitar I had ever made. I put it in his hands, he played it for a bit and I was in shock when I got the call the next day saying he wanted to buy it!
I also built an amazing octave mandolin for a customer in Seattle that had Brazilian rosewood back and sides and Bearclaw German spruce top that was amazing. It was one of those instruments you don’t want to ship. And Neko Case bought one of my tenor guitars a few years back. I am a big fan of hers so that was really exciting.
Photos: Shem Roose