1937 Wilkanowski Archtop
Willi Wilkanowski was born in Poland in 1886 and made his first violin when he was nine years old. By the time he was 17 he was regarded as a master maker and after working for a few years in his native country he emigrated to America around 1920. He first set up shop in Boston, where he worked with the Oliver Ditson company, who ran a large music wholesale business. In the early 1930s he turned up in Brooklyn, New York in his own shop where he made bowed instruments that were sold through the Gretsch catalog. Some time around 1937 he decided to try his hand at building guitars and over the next few years he made around 30, of which no two were exactly alike.
Today’s Catch is from the earlier part of Wilkanowski’s guitar building period. Although this particular guitar doesn’t have a label it does have a violin scroll-style headstock, which he only used on the first few guitars he built. Oddly, the scroll is cast from aluminum and painted to look like figured maple, rather than carved from wood. Almost all of Wilkanowski’s guitars have this unusual cello-inspired body, with the extra points in the waist. They also have a violin-style dark amber finish rather than the blonde of sunburst finishes other archtop builders were using at the time. In another departure from the norm, Wilkanowski eschewed plastic binding in favor of figured maple binding, which must have been very tricky to bend around those tight curves. And being a violin maker, he had access to some very nice maple. I’ve only played one Wilkanowski over the years but I found to be a very nice guitar. It had a very sweet, balanced tone with quite a bit of projection. The model I tried was about 16″ across the lower bout like this one, which is the same size as the first generation Gibson L-5, which is my all-time favorite archtop. This lovely example of Wilkanowski’s work is priced at $18,000 and it’s for sale at Retrofret.
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