The axeman cometh...
(Tim Bayly: This post is written by a craftsman of musical instruments in our church named Andrew Henry. I asked him to write about his beautiful musical instruments and to include some pics. He's kindly done so and you'll see why I'm tickled pink to own his first guitar. The action is fantastic, the wood is drop-dead gorgeous, and I'm bragging so I'll stop. Read on and order a bass guitar for a loved one or yourself. You won't regret it!)
God has been very gracious in allowing me to make my living working with my hands. There have been woodworkers in my family for generations and, as a kid, I spent many hours with my dad in his wood shop. But it looked like I wouldn't be following in those footsteps until about two years ago when I was finishing up my Viola Performance degree at IU and considering what sorts of jobs to look for. I'd spent three years in the IU Violinmaking program, earned my Associate's Degree in Violinmaking and had fallen in love with woodworking again...
My hope was to move back to upstate NY and take a position building and restoring classical instruments (violin, viola and cello mostly) and then take whatever performance gigs I could find to supplement my income. There seemed to be a market for my skills so I was confident that if I looked hard enough I would find a job that would be challenging and enjoyable. I applied to work for a violin maker in Pittsford, NY and after talking to him it seemed certain that I would get the job so I prepared to pack up and leave Indiana. I was sad at the prospect of leaving Church of the Good Shepherd, but I wasn't going to find the kind of work I wanted anywhere in Bloomington (so I thought) and it looked like God was providing exactly the sort of job I had been praying for.
Then, four weeks before I was supposed to move, He took it away. I was shocked to find myself with no job in NY and no lease signed in Bloomington...
I filled out job applications at all sorts of places around town and hurriedly found my way into a lease with a young man named Mick who had started coming to my church. We didn't get along too well and I wasn't terribly optimistic about living with him for a year, but I had to live somewhere.
Discouragement was difficult to fight off as I was sure I'd end up working a frustrating dead-end job, if I managed to find work at all. Most of the places I applied never called back, and even persistent checking in with managers produced nothing. There was a small idea hanging around in the back of my mind about the possibility of building bass guitars, but it seemed like a high hill to climb given my circumstances. I had played bass in jazz ensembles in high school, and had done work on my own guitars, making adjustments and modifications, but I'd never built a guitar from scratch...
Erik Bulakowski, who had graduated from the IU Violinmaking program with me, encouraged me to give it a shot. We decided to build a matching pair of electric basses and set about sketching designs and acquiring materials with great enthusiasm, despite our nonexistent budget. We built router jigs out of scrap wood, made templates, and spent many evenings discussing the possible wood combinations and wiring configurations. This photo is of Erik getting ready to unclamp the second bass body after routing the cavity for the electronics.
Despite many stops and starts, we pushed our way through the project and I completed my first bass in August 2007. From that point on, I was completely hooked.
Seeing no other clear option to pursue, I decided that if I was ever going to consider trying to make a go of it as a bass builder, now was the time to give it a shot. I was single, my schedule was open and I couldn't wait to get started. However, optimism alone couldn't pay my rent, so I began working part time for Bob Sands at The Indiana Painting Company. I had thought of myself as a morning person until I took that job.
After weighing the risks, I took out a business loan and purchased enough tools to set up a small wood shop in my basement, and went to work designing my next bass. The man who backed my loan very calmly told me "I'll break every one of your fiddle playin' fingers if you don't pay it all back." I chuckled, and wondered a bit. Having my fingers broken by a man from Clay County wasn't a risk I had anticipated.
Getting my workspace ready required a lot of time and work, especially setting up and adjusting my larger power tools, sketching bass designs and selecting the lumber that I wanted to work with so my next bass wasn't finished until mid-February. It was a significant improvement over my first bass and I was encouraged by the quick progress I'd been able to make. I had also sketched out a few possible logos, but my budget was tight
enough that I didn't have any money to set aside for a website.
Taking stock of my business (if it could be called a business at that point) was a little alarming. There were still a number of important tools that I didn't have, and I was mostly out of money. I realized that I had bought a lot of lumber--too much, actually. Way too much. Without the rest of the tools that I needed, there was no way that I was going to be able to keep going.
Right at that point, God provided exactly what I needed through my friend, Matt Borders, who has a wood shop down in Harrodsburg. Matt offered to let me use his shop free of charge and he has a number of the large tools that I couldn't afford, without which I would be unable to convert my recently purchased pile of lumber into usable sizes for my small basement shop. Matt's generosity made it possible for me to continue building despite my poor planning. Without his help, I never would have made it past bass #2.
The spring of 2008 was one long uphill battle for me in many ways. Tim had told me that if I did actually get going and build some guitars, that he would buy my first six string guitar, so I decided to get started on that, and I also picked out some wood for a five string fretless bass.
Making new templates is by far the most time consuming part of my work. Seemingly simple things can be very difficult to produce, and if you don't get the master template just right, no matter how careful you are, every later copy will have the same problems. I spent weeks and weeks making the templates to produce my second bass, and since then, I've spent countless hours refining and remaking templates. Headstock and control cavity templates are especially time consuming. The headstock of a guitar has such a powerful impact on the overall appearance that a bad one can ruin an otherwise pleasing design.
Tim's guitar is a combination of classic Fender and Gibson designs with some small changes. It is based on the Fender Telecaster body shape, but I smoothed off the hard edges and added an elbow relief cut. It has 24 frets, instead of the usual 22 on a Fender Tele. Also, instead of placing the tuners six-in-line, I created a new headstock shape and did them three on a side. The body core is Northern Ash with a Curly Cherry top and back. The pickups are Kent Armstrong P90s. The other big difference between this and a standard Telecaster design is the neck shape. I thinned the neck down considerably, making it very slim and fast, which also takes some of the strain out of barring chords. I finished soldering the electronics in the guitar very late on a Saturday night, collapsed into bed for a few hours, and then rolled out of bed in a haze to go to church. It was Easter Sunday, and we were going to be playing Bob Dylan's In the Garden for offertory. Tim was very pleased when I delivered it, and he has generously lent it back to me whenever I have needed it. This has become one of my main guitars and I play it regularly at CGS. I keep telling Nathan Bayly that he should get one...
Bubinga and Bloodwood were the woods I had picked for the fretless five string bass, and while they are beautiful to look at, they are much more difficult to work with than most of the North American woods I had used in my first few instruments. Still, in the battle between wood and sandpaper, if given enough time, sandpaper almost always wins. Of everything I've built so far, this one is my favorite. I sold this bass to Jeremy Allen, who is the Professor of Jazz Bass at IU. He has been very helpful in trying out subsequent basses, giving me feedback and suggesting small changes.
Shortly after this five string was finished, I was able to scrape together enough money to buy business cards and have a website built. Ben Crum designed HenryBasses for me, and while I've been bad about keeping it up to date, having a website for folks to check out has been a real help.
At Christmas last year, an old family friend from my hometown of Rochester, NY heard that I was building basses, so he hunted down my email add asked me about ordering a bass. I had one bass in progress at that point, the Curly Ash five string that you saw at the very beginning of this post, and as soon as that was finished, I got started on John's order. We met up in NY while I was there visiting my parents and spent an afternoon at Pittsford Hardwood & Lumber, handpicking all the woods that would go into his bass. It was very fun for both of us. Thankfully, God gave me enough self control to only buy the wood I needed.
There was one other big change this past spring. I got married. There's so much that I could say about God's providence in bringing Kaitlyn to Bloomington, into our church, and into my life that it would undoubtedly turn this into one of the longest posts you've ever tried to read. So, I'm going to leave all that background info out, and make do with this--God brought a wonderful woman into my life, she has been a constant blessing to me, and I love her very much.
John's bass was a fretless 4 string with a Chechen top. A somewhat distant relative of Rosewood, Chechen also goes by the charming name Black Poisonwood. This bass was another step up for me in overall quality, largely due to the fact that I had found a new day job, and with the new job, came an entirely new wood shop. I had been working for Bob Sands on and off since graduation, and he had been an excellent and generous employer (sorry about that wall) but commercial painting wasn't what I wanted to be doing long term, and I also wasn't very good at it. God opened a door for me by way of a phone call, out of the blue, from a furniture maker named Nathan Hunter. My friend Matt Borders had recommended that Nathan call me when he needed a short term sub in his shop, and with Bob's permission, I took a week off from painting and went to work for Nathan. After that first week, he offered me a full time job, and I've been with him since. Nathan has been a blessing to work for, allowing me a lot of room to experiment, try new methods and tools, and giving me access to his wood shop outside normal business hours. Check out Nathan Hunter Design if you'd like to see his work.
John's bass in was finished in late July, and I delivered it to him in NY on my way to Maine for a honeymoon trip with my wife. We spent the week camping and hiking at Acadia National Park. I hardly thought about basses at all that week.
When I got back to Indiana, though, it was back into the thick of it, which is where I am right now. I have four basses underway, and have spent the better part of the past few weeks remaking templates... again. Still, the effort and time has been worth it, as I can see from bass to bass the subtle improvements that result from refining my designs and building process. My hope is to be able to continue to build basses part time until the business is strong enough to provide steady full time work. I have no idea when that may be, although if things continue as they have been going, I am sure that there will be many surprises to come. God has also blessed my wife and me with a child who should be arriving early in the month of April. I'd better get these next four basses done while I still have time to sleep.
All this to say that I'd love to build a bass for you or a loved one. If you're interested, please send me an email and we can get started.