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News arrow Features arrow MAKING A FINE GUITAR

MAKING A FINE GUITAR Print E-mail
September 21, 2004 11:00 pm
Les Stansell shows visitors wood that will become guitar neck. ().
Les Stansell shows visitors wood that will become guitar neck. ().

Pilot story

and photos by

Bill Lundquist

PISTOL RIVER – Guitars, hand built in the Spanish classic tradition, may be the last thing people would expect to find anywhere on the Oregon Coast, much less in tiny Pistol River.

Nevertheless, a mile up the Pistol River, Les Stansell is hand crafting guitars that any Spanish flamenco musician would be proud to play.

Jan Norwood's Hospitality Tours group paid a visit to Stansell's studio Wednesday to find out how guitars are made, and how Stansell got into the business.

It actually started out as a hobby when Stansell was a builder of custom homes. He went to school to learn how to play the six-string flamenco guitar, which was invented in the mid-1800s and became the father of the modern guitar.

The Spanish guitar builders of those times had no electricity or adequate lighting, but plenty of civil wars, he said.

Stansell began making his own guitars in the late 1970s when he lived in Seattle. During the next 20 years, he said, hand built instruments experienced a renaissance.

"The public became aware of the superiority of hand built guitars over those made in factories," he said.

"The business has mushroomed in the last 20 years. It's a very competitive business now to build instruments by hand."

About five or six years ago, Stansell built his studio on property pioneered by his great-grandparents in 1887.

He decided to build nylon string flamenco guitars instead of classic steel string guitars built by famous companies like Martin. Steel strings, he said, are strung with enough tension to break a nylon string guitar.

Stansell had one advantage over his competitors. "This is the heart of Port Orford cedar and myrtlewood country," he said.

Stansell also runs a profitable side business by supplying Oregon white Port Orford cedar and myrtlewood to wood wholesalers.

"I buy high grade wood in the hopes of finding a few sets of instrument grade wood in it," he said.

"Some sets are completely unique," he said. "I have the best Port Orford cedar and myrtlewood in the world."

Stansell also buys decorative woods like ebony, mahogany and rosewood from brokers, but uses mostly native Oregon woods to make his guitars light and strong.Port Orford cedar, he said, is not a true cedar, but a relative of the cypress that is used by Spanish guitar builders.

The resulting blond guitars, he said, look like the Spanish cypress guitars played by traditional flamenco musicians.

Stansell showed the group a $5,000 white Port Orford cedar guitar that he had borrowed back from its owner for the day.

The grain in the wood on the back of the guitar displayed a unique chevron effect.

"This is the only guitar like this on the planet," said Stansell.

He said he has enough of that uniquely patterned wood left to make up about 30 to 40 wood sets.

"The next one (guitar) I make will be mine," he said.

Stansell puts about 150 hours into assembling each guitar. He turns cured wood into the back, sides, top, fingerboard, neck and bridge of a guitar.

The wood making up the sides, back and top of each guitar are made from mirror image sets of wood.

To make the sides, the two millimeter thick wood is wetted, then bent in a press for about 10 minutes.

Stansell said making the neck is the most time consuming process. It must be slotted, drilled, carved and finished.

The sides are glued to the neck. The top must be braced on the inside, then Stansell applies the solid ebony bindings.

He uses a special saw to slot the fingerboard for frets, installs the frets and builds the solid ebony bridge. Finally, the guitar is finished, buffed and strung.

Wood, like skin, dries out and cracks in low humidity, so Stansell assembles his guitars in a room kept at 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity.

A guitar, he said, is like a drum. Most of the sound comes from strings vibrating the bridge and top of the guitar. The sound then projects out from the hole in the top.

Stansell, who has put on the Pistol River concert series for 20 years, played his own Alaska yellow cedar guitar for the group.

He also pointed out all the filters and vacuums he uses to keep his shop dust free.

Another feature of his shop, at least for now, is the 400-pound skull of the gray whale that washed up on the Pistol River beach a few years ago.

Stansell retrieved the skull after a storm washed it into the river and tore the hide off the bone. He is looking for a more public place to display it.

As for his guitars, Stansell said he sells them every way he can, including from his shop and through the Internet. He will ship one for a trial period.

"I've sold more than I thought I would locally," he said.

Stansell said he is going to back off on advertising for a while and try to build up an inventory.

For more information, call Stansell at his shop at (541) 247-9121, at home at (541) 247-7636, or check out his Web site at www.stansellguitars.com.

 

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