Paul Gardinier loves the exactitude.
That’s the part of making string instruments that stands out as the Juneau man’s favorite.
“It’s super precise,” Gardinier told the Capital City Weekly while seated near a fleet of ukuleles and guitars. “I like the fact you have to be extremely careful and alert. I like chaos and I like minutiae. I’ve always tired to mix those two. It’s almost a meditation because you have to be so, so precise.”
Gardinier, who has retired from working on exhibits from the state museum, has made well over a dozen instruments, including various sizes of ukulele as well as different types of acoustic guitars and electric guitars.
They’ve virtually all been for friends, family, loved ones or students of the craft because Gardinier, who has been working with wood for 50 years, doesn’t play them.
“I can play a few chords,” Gardinier said. “I play bass clarinet, and that would be really impossible to make in the garage.”
The instrument that kicked off Gardinier’s interest in making ukuleles and guitars was a travel ukulele, made so his wife, Rhonda Jenkins-Gardinier didn’t need to tote around a more valuable instrument.
“Then I kind of got the bug,” Gardinier said.
And he’s far from the only one from or in Juneau who’s been bitten, including some younger music makers.
Both Trevyn Days, 30, formerly of Juneau and guitarist for metal band Distance Defined, and Avery Stewart, 23, who can be seen playing guitar around Juneau, enjoy making instruments.
Unlike Gardinier, Days’ main motivation for making a guitar is crafting a quality instrument that he can play.
“The goal is to build a guitar to my dream specifications at a fraction of the price that I would pay for it,” Days said. “I’ve definitely been going back and forth with some of my guitars and making a Frankenstein guitar out of the best features of each one.”
Days said to expect to make mistakes early and often when first making an instrument, and recommended considering beginning with a kit.
Gardinier seconded that idea and said starting with a set of parts is an excellent way to get a taste of the process without having to hand carve a guitar neck. Plus, it can stop first-timers from having to accumulate expensive tools.
“At this point, I have at least $2,000 in specialty tools,” Gardinier said.
They also said online resources are plentiful and important when making an instrument.
“I’ve probably watched over 100 YouTube videos,” Gardinier said.
Days said when he made his first guitar, he turned to eBay for inexpensive parts.
Schematics and designs are also widely available online, and Days and Gardinier both specifically mentioned the Stewart-Macdonald, or StewMac, website as a great place to visit.
It takes time and money
Stewart said he made his first guitar at 13 for a school project and later pursued it as a hobby to fill time, and the local luthiers said making a string instrument from scratch will definitely do that.
Gardinier said he puts at least 40 hours into actually making a new instrument and finishing the wood adds seven more time to the total.
Days said he’s so far put 12 hours into the electric guitar he’s actively making and expects many more to follow.
“There’s a lot of cuts that I’m dealing with that are within fractions of an inch,” Days said. “All of those cuts and stuff you have to measure, measure, measure, then cut. There’s a lot to it.”
The attention to detail and work required to make an acoustic instrument far surpassed what it takes to make an electric guitar, Stewart and Gardinier said.
“I’d like to get into building acoustic, it’s a whole other ball game,” Stewart said. “Acoustic instrument building, it’s all about getting the wood to resonate. You don’t want to use too much glue, and you have to brace it. With electric you’re pretty much slapping a neck onto a piece of wood and getting it to look pretty.”
Gardinier said the intensive process actually makes it easier to linger over details, such as the hand drawn labels he includes on his guitars and ukuleles.
“You put 40 or 60 hours into an instrument, what’s the difference in taking an hour to draw a label?” Gardinier said.
Money is also part of the equation.
Days said the wood for the body of his guitar cost at least a couple hundred dollars, and transporting hunks of wood has been a frequent part of Gardinier’s plans while traveling.
He and his wife recall wrapping wood in plastic wrap, and forming plastic handles to make choice cuts of wood into luggage that can be checked.
“You could easily spend $1,000 in electronics or hardware, too” Days said.
Gardinier said the components used on an electric guitar he made make the instrument worth at least $2,000.
Even with time and money invested, the guitar makers may come out ahead given the cost of a high end, totally customized instrument.
“My most expensive guitar cost over $3,000,” Days said. “That guitar isn’t even top of the line.”
Stewart, Gardinier and Days said seeing lumber become a guitar is satisfying.
“I think my favorite part is the point when you start finishing it,” Days said. “I mean the dying and staining of the wood. That’s when a guitar starts to actually look like a guitar.”
Gardinier said he loves the moment he sets down an unfinished instrument and it makes a guitar-like noise.
“Each step you take toward making a block of wood into a musical instrument, it becomes more alive,” Gardinier said.
Plus, Days said constructing guitars has made him more thoughtful about how he treats and plays his instruments.
Knowing how guitars are made, he said, makes it easier to understand how they’re played.
“It can make you a better guitar player and owner,” Days said. “You really start appreciating instruments even on the cheaper side, because there’s a lot to it. Even a cheap instrument takes so much.”
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.