“You might hate me when you find out who I am,” is the first thing I remember Drew Heinonen saying to me.
I had spent two days working in Jim Olson’s shop in the middle of his 2011 batch, scraping binding and truing the tops of 46 guitar bodies to make them ready to route the neck pocket. It was amazing. I have never learned so much so fast. There are things Jim Olson does in his guitar building process that most builders don’t. There are prep steps for prep steps for prep steps. He’s a master builder and only a lucky few have ever assisted Jim with his work.
After that call, I ended up sharing my shop with Drew for two and a half years, mostly rent-free. He needed access to large woodworking tools, a spray booth and the ability to build up and plan out his own production methods. In return, I knew that having someone else in my shop would help me to remember to keep it clean. To me, that made it an even trade. I’ll get to Drew’s “rent” later.
In 2011, shortly after those two days in Jim’s shop, I went on tour with Bon Iver as a guitar tech. By the time I got home, Jim had found a new assistant… and he was afraid I was going to hate him. -Todd Lunneborg
Todd Lunneborg: So we should start with that first phone call. Do you remember that?
T. Drew Heinonen: I do. I had just been out to lunch with Jim [Olson] and Brian Applegate. They had recommended that I give you a call because you had a shop set up.
TL: At that point you were already working with Jim?
TDH: Yes. We had just finished up a couple of weeks earlier for the 2012 build year and he was about to head off to Arizona. I worked for both the 2012 and 2013 build years.
TL: What do you remember about the call?
TDH: I was sitting in a Cub Foods parking lot, right by Jim’s shop. I called you up and I was like, “Well, you’re probably not going to like me once you know who I am.” I don’t know if I heard from Jim or not that you had wanted to help him out there.
TL: Do you remember my reply?
TDH: Yeah. You were very gracious and had no animosity towards me. It was very much “any friend of Jim’s is a friend of mine.” I think I did end up driving straight over here after that.
Jim Olson is a prolific Minnesota guitar maker who has set the standard for what a one-man shop could or should be. He has built mainly by himself for almost 40 years now but there have been small periods where he has allowed, or taken on, assistants (one at the most) to work in the shop with him. Drew is one of maybe four assistants, including my friend Brian Applegate, that Jim has allowed into his shop.
TL: How did you connect with Jim?
TDH: It was very fortunate path crossing. He was giving a seminar on tool and jig design and construction up at a folk school in Northern Minnesota, where I was living at the time, shortly after moving back from Maine. I went to a lecture that he gave and then took the seminar and ended up running into him out getting a bite to eat after that. That was our initial meeting. A couple of months later I came down to the cities to tour his shop and it was shortly after that that he invited me to help him out for the following year.
TL: Did he call you for that?
TDH: It was actually when I first came down to tour the shop that he first brought the possibility up. Very much in uncertain terms, “Well, I’m not sure what my plan is for the next year but would you ever consider possibly coming down and working for me?” It was a difficult decision… That I had to think about for all of .2 seconds.
TL: Why do you think he wanted to take on a helper?
TDH: Just the rigors of the day-to-day, the stress on the body that the job requires. I think it’s a lot of stress for him, having somebody else in his shop. I think that he would have liked to work by himself as much as he could or can but our bodies are fickle things and don’t always allow us to do the things that we want to do.
TL: So it was all from taking the class and doing the trip [to see Jim’s shop] that everybody in the class does?
TL: What was your guitar making education up until then?
TDH: It started with the program at Southeast Technical College in Red Wing Minnesota in their Construction and Repair program. I was there for a year and completed three instruments and then moved directly out to Maine to work with Dana [Bourgeois]. I spent just under 4 1/2 years there and had a hand in approximately 1500 guitars.
TL: Doing what?
TDH: I started in the neck department, assembling and sanding necks. After a few months I moved to the binding department and spent the majority of my time doing binding and body work.
TL: What was a day like in that shop?
TDH: We worked in weekly batches so each department of the shop would get usually eight guitars every Monday and by the end of the week they would be handed on to the next department. You weren’t doing the same thing every day, day after day. You had a schedule to keep things on track. For me it was leveling sides, routing channels, actually doing the bindings and cleaning all the bindings up then routing neck pockets, round overs…
TL: Total body prep.
TDH: When we are done with the bodies in the binding department, we would hand them to the finish department.
TL: What did you like about your time out there?
TDH: I enjoyed that it wasn’t the same thing everyday. The people in the shop were great. Being able to develop relationships with amazing craftsman, to work next to them, and to learn nun chuck skills.
TL: Did you get to work with Dana?
TDH: Dana was very hands-on in the shop. He worked on the guitars, more so in the set up area. Gluing bridges on. Buffing. Installing tuners and final check. He also did a lot of approval. If you had a question on something, you would bring it to Dana and he would give it the go ahead or not, or make design choices. There was contact with him in that way but other than that I felt he was very good at giving you room. You knew what your expectations were as a worker and “you go and do it.” The level of craftsmanship of the guys that are working there is to the point where he can do that. He has trust in the guys in the shop.
TL: Why did you decide to come back to Minnesota?
TDH: This is home. It was getting to the point where I had to decide, “Yep, this is where I’m going to be and this is what I’m going to do.” I didn’t want to get to the point in my life where I would have to later completely uproot my life and go and start somewhere new. I was feeling like the decision was on me as to whether I was going to stay there and really put down roots. I just felt the calling [to move] back to Minnesota, which is and always has been home to me.
TL:What did you do when you got back?
TDH: I ended working and managing a canoe base up in the northwoods of Minnesota about three miles from Canada by boat or ski – depending on the season. It would take three hours or so to drive there.
TL: What took you up there?
TDH: I worked there through college. It was a way that I could get back to Minnesota and have immediate employment. So I got to spend two winters out in the wilds.
TL: Did you miss guitar building?
TDH: I did, but I was busy up there making a lot of music. It was such an amazing place. Your neighbors are wolves, lynx and moose. So it seemed like a fair trade off for a little while. I just knew that it wasn’t the end of my guitar making life. I didn’t necessarily know how I was going to get back into it at that point.
TL: Until Jim came up to teach the class?
TDH: Right. And even then it wasn’t for another three or four months before he even brought up the possibility…
TL: Working at Dana’s shop was department based. What was it like working for Jim?
TDH: That was way more fluid, I guess, in that we were going from the start. Layout, jointing up tops and backs all the way through to putting strings on. About 40 guitars all straight through… It’s very much a matter of efficiency from that standpoint.
Jim’s analogy is, “If you’re going to be painting the windows on your house you don’t want to bring out the power washer and wash one window, then put the power washer away, then bring out the primer. Prime that one window. Wait for it to dry. Then put your paint on it then go to the next window and power wash that and go through that process for each window.”
So, it would end up being you would be working at a certain station or portion of the build, depending on the task, for a couple of days to possibly a couple of weeks.
TL:So you did everything with Jim: bending sides, joining tops, binding and purfling. What were the differences between the two shops?
TL: Obviously, you had the process as a process but was one shop more jig-orientated and one more finesse-orientated? One more production-orientated?
TDH: I’d say they were actually fairly similar in terms of you have a tool for doing each task to make it efficient, repeatable and consistent. As far as differences I think they do have different build styles.
TL: What do you mean?
TDH: Well, for instance, in constructing the necks. Dana will construct the neck and fit it to the body to match up the geometry. Based on that fit, the neck is premade and then fit into the body where as Jim fits the dovetail to the body and then constructs his neck. It’s a small difference in the sequence of events but it completely changes your tooling and the process of building the neck. Jim’s tops are true flattops and Dana’s have a radius to them, Martin-style.
TL: Do you like one style of build over the other?
TDH: My build style is closer to Dana’s, particularly in the fact that I build my necks and then fit them to the body. But I couldn’t say that one is inherently better.
TL: Do you think one has had more of impact on you? Did you take more, detail-wise, from one builder more than the other?
TDH: I don’t think so. The fact that I was exposed to Dana’s first is probably part of the reason why, over the years, as I had been thinking about developing a guitar and building on my own, that was my mind set. I think that had an impact. But there are a number of things that I have definitely taken from Jim’s shop, little tricks. My finish now is pretty much identical to Jim’s. It’s very much a piecemeal, taking one from here and one from here.
TL: You’d think that there would be a larger contrast because Jim is a one man shop who at his best was making 50 or 60 instruments per year. He’s “dropped” down to 40-45 but for a one man shop that’s still pretty monstrous. To do it at the quality that he does and the speed he does, is insane.
TDH: Well if you think about, at Dana’s shop, if you divide the number of guitars by the number of people, it comes out to be about the same number of guitars per person. But that’s over the entire year and Jim is not working the entire year…
TL: He’s working six or seven months a year?
TDH: Yeah. Jim really has his process nailed down. He is one of those crazy amazing craftsmen who can work with both speed and incredible accuracy. Whether it’s cutting miters… to get the angle of a purfling just right, and there’s an angle at both ends of it. You have to get the angle and the length right.
Or just boxing in the end graft. You have two variables that you have to be mindful of and, if one of them gets off, you have to start over. He can do things twice as fast as I can. Partially it’s because I’m nervous working on somebody else’s guitars and I don’t want to ruin anything so I’m going slow… and I haven’t done it for 30 years. I’m doing it, checking it. Doing it, checking it. Doing it, checking it. He can just do it.
TL: His body mechanics are insane. I took a guitar to him to critique and he purfled six bodies in our forty five minute conversation. Which is insane. Just getting an even top sanding on the body angle. I had to figure out how much pressure to put on the back end, how much pressure to put on the front end. Not just down but am I rolling my wrist so there is uneven pressure on the body? He just came though and said, “I just do it like this.” He’s got a straight line across and I’ve angle city. He just hasn’t had to think about body mechanic stuff.
TDH: It was because those are feel things. You have to get a feel for it and you might have to make a mistake a couple of times before you know that’s what not to do in order to narrow in on what to do. It’s always hard when you have to make a mistake to learn especially with somebody that is so used to not making any mistakes.
TL: Was it tough to have to answer to him?
TDH: There were some days where it was. He was also very gracious about it but there were certainly some difficult days.
Throughout the two and a half years Drew and I shared my shop, it was obvious to me that he had it. Drew is a complete, complete, guitarmaker. As a builder, you need to have multiple skill sets. You need to be able to think spatially: The box needs to be seen as a finished object and you need to know how and where to add and subtract material, weight, and strength in order to achieve your desired results. Drew lived in a notebook with drawings and measurements: Standard brace sizes and shapes, rough and finished dimensions, from both shops side by side so he could compare and calculate his own standards. Jigs, tongue extension block, bolt diagrams, headstock profile, tuner locations all drawn to dimension, all by hand.
You also need to have what I call Craft Skill. Building clean is one thing but to be able to build clean and have the ability to over come the normal things that may happen when working with wood, like sides that will crack unexpectedly, glue spills or drips, a chisel slips or a square that didn’t remain square when you needed it to. It all can be corrected if you have Craft Skill – the ability to work and correct inconsistencies as you build. Drew was relentless in his craft. He has real finesse and there is an obvious ease in his handwork.
The last skill area, for me, is finish. Drew does his own finish work and finish is its own monster. The design process is hard, the build craft is hard, but the finish can be impossible. Drew’s finishes are clean, meticulous, and even. They are a focused point of detailed attention for him.
I was able to watch him work through all of the stages of his build process, from drawing, trouble shooting his jigs and their results, all the way through to finish.
TL: What was your plan going into set up your own building process? What did you focus on? I only gave you a 5’x2′ table to work on and a row of shelves to bring stuff in and some space for your tool box… that was it.
TDH: That first batch that I was starting it was very much just taking it step-by-step and looking at each step as a process of “how can I complete this part of the build?”
TL: I’d also add “with repeatability,” because you focused a lot on making jigs and fixtures- tooling up.
TDH: Right. It was very much starting to think long term at the same time but it was looking at each process and saying, “OK, how do I want to do this process of the build?” Both on those guitars that I was working on and for the next batches, I was thinking, “How am I going to do this?” Building off my experiences of what I had seen and done both at Dana’s shop and Jim’s shop. There are some things that they do in their shops that aren’t feasible for me because I don’t have access to a CNC machine, either for making parts or [for] making jigs to make parts.
TL: You spent a lot of time with a notebook.
TDH: Right. Drawing and making drawings, coming up with ideas for design.
TL: You didn’t have a lot of space but I remember you bringing in a lot of ply wood.
TDH: I think I spent nearly a month just working on braces. Just making, I counted them up, I think I have (counts out loud) 22-plus jigs just for making braces.
TL: A month on braces. Twenty two-plus jigs!
TDH: At that point though, I wasn’t full-time. That was when I was working at the cabinet shop and I would come out here in the evenings. If I were to do that now, when I’m here everyday, it would probably take a week.
TL: So where are you looking to make your biggest impact as a builder, what angle are you looking to come at it by? What type of instrument are you looking to make?
TDH: I don’t see myself building any particular type of instrument, aside from saying acoustic “flattop” guitars. I hope to be a versatile builder. That I can use the experience that I had in Dana’s shop and take that knowledge and be able to build guitars that are good flatpicking instruments that are going to have volume, project and respond to a more aggressive playing style. But to also, with having built with Jim, be able to as build more of a lighter, responsive fingerstyle instrument as well.
Depending on a customer’s playing style and what instruments they have, I can tailor an instrument to fit their needs instead of building a certain instrument and finding players to which that guitar fits the needs. Knowing both of the different styles of build, having built in both those styles, and knowing the design aspects that are going to have an impact, that’s invaluable.
If it’s not obvious by now I’m a big fan of Drew’s work, his education, and experience. Near the end of our time together I hatched a plan to have Drew pay “rent.” I asked him to build me an OM-43 1/2. I always wanted a Martin OM-42, I even bought one at one point, but I didn’t do it correctly. Store transfers are not the way to go.
So I asked Drew if he would build me my dream OM if I provided the materials and hardware. I gave him the paua shell necklace that I received from the New Zealand tourism board for the headstock logo. I also gave him one of the Brazilian fretboards that I purchased from Taku Sakashita’s estate and a Brazilian back and side set that I had purchased from Jim Olson himself. He bound the top, sides, back perimeter and tailblock in paua and we used a pre-cut abalone 45 snowflake set from Martin.
I’ve shown guitars at festivals, loitered and worked in some of the best shops in the world and watching Drew’s builds to the degree that I was able to was like watching the artists in those shops build and create. I feel lucky to have had the chance to share my shop with him. Drew is nearing the end of the build out of his own shop and from what Jason Verlinde [Fretboard Journal publisher] has told me, it sounds like you’ll be hearing more about Drew’s work in the coming months on the Fretboard Journal podcasts. The tradition of great Minnesota guitar makers has its next branch, for sure.
I’m sure glad I don’t hate T. Drew Heinonen. –T.L.
Follow the Fretboard Journal’s OM guitar build with Drew Heinenon via our podcast (iTunes link). All photos by Todd Lunneborg.