How I became a luthier...
I've known George Orthey for over thirty-five years, having been friends with his two sons in high school. My first memories of his woodworking take me back to his shop and working with George's youngest son Scott, "making babies"... WAIT!... Let me explain! What we were doing was assembling limberjacks! What fun! At that time George was building Appalachian dulcimers and traveling around to craft shows and music festivals with his wife Mary Lou selling dulcimers as well as limberjacks. We were paid, if memory serves me well, the modest sum of a nickel a pin for hammering the pins into all of the limberjack joints!
It was also at this point in time, as a teen, that my musical interests were budding. I'd had a year or two of piano lessons as a youngster and began playing clarinet in elementary school and continued through high school, but I never was too much enamored with either of those instruments. Scott and I had become friends after his family moved to the area and he played drums in the high school band. Don't ask how rock bands start... they just kind of happen I suppose! Scott had a drum set. His older brother George had an electric guitar and I thought that was pretty cool! I eventually obtained my own electric guitar and after a few pointers from Scott's brother, the three of us were soon playing the Deep Purple song Smoke On The Water.... over... and over... and over in George and Mary Lou's living room at a volume that I can most likely attribute the hearing loss and tinnitus in my left ear to! I can still remember Mary Lou walking into the room and saying "Boys! That was wonderful!" What encouragement!
Looking back now... It was in that house, which Mary Lou had filled with a myriad of musical instruments, that I fell in love with music. It was wonderful to be able to pick up a dulcimer, explore a harpsichord, play the organ or a hammered dulcimer...
Upon graduation from high school I achieved a degree in Machine Tool Technology and then embarked on a career as a toolmaker at a local machine shop. Some years later George had begun building autoharps and approached me about manufacturing fine tuners for his instruments. Over the years, I've continued to produce the fine tuners as well as other parts for the autoharps such as lock-out sliders, lock-downs for hinged chord bar end covers, and more recently electic pickups for amplification.
In speaking with George in the fall of 2007 he expressed interest in having someone to apprentice with him in the hope that he could pass along his skills upon his eventual retirement. I mentioned to George that my daughter Katie was not sure what career she may pursue but that after spending several semesters studying art she had decided that art school was not her calling. Katie is very creative artistically, having done things such as taking a pile of dirty stinky sheep wool and singlehandedly cleaning, dyeing, spinning it into yarn and then knitting it into beautiful things. She enjoys, as I do, taking a raw material and transforming it into something useful. When I mentioned that George would like to have an apprentice Katie jumped at the chance! The very next day, Katie went to visit with George at his shop and began her apprenticeship! A week or so later Katie said to me "Dad, you should try this too." After some prayerful consideration and with the support of my wife Deb, I determined that I was not about to pass up the opportunity to learn how to build autoharps as well as the chance to someday work side by side with my daughter. I then approached my full-time employer where I currently work at a local trucking company as "the computer guy" about the possibility of arranging my schedule to allow me to spend several hours each morning working with George, arrive at the office later, and stay later. My employer agreed to this and I began my apprenticeship!
In December George treated Deb, Katie, and I to a trip to the Carter Family Fold. It was a special opportunity for us to learn some of the history of how the autoharp gained in popularity in the United States beginning back in the late 1920s when the Carter Family used the autoharp in their recordings and performances. George took us to Bristol, widely regarded as the birthplace of country music and the site of the first recordings of the Carter Family. There we visited the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the site of the mural commemorating the Bristol recording sessions in 1927. We also went to the Mt. Vernon Church cemetary to visit the graves of A.P. and Sara Carter and their children Janette and Joe. Janette and Joe were personal friends of George and he enjoyed sharing many stories of times spent with them. And of course, the trip was planned around the Saturday evening at the Carter Fold Family "Thee-8-er"(accent on the 8) as George remembers Janette's pronunciation! There we were privileged to be introduced to Janette's children, Rita and Dale. Here are some pictures from that memorable trip.
George at the helm
Katie at the mural
at the "thee-8-er"
The autoharp pictured below is my very first. It is a 21 bar chromatic which I completed in the spring of 2008. For this instrument, I chose to use Indian Rosewood for the back and sides and Western Red Cedar for the top. I've had a guitar for some time now built from these woods and had always been impressed with the tone... So why not try an autoharp using the same woods? I'm very pleased with the results and will always treasure it, having had the experience of working on it side by side with George in his shop.
#1 21 bar chromatic front
#1 21 bar chromatic back
#1 21 bar chromatic side
Also, early in 2008 I began "collecting" trees to be used for future autoharps. Ideally after cutting the trees and sawing them into boards, the boards should be naturally air dried (as opposed to kiln drying) for several years. George feels that the air dried woods give the finished autoharp a superior sound to one built using kiln dried materials.
Here's a picture of my little brother Tom... well he's younger, but at 6'7" tall definitely much taller than me! Tom has graciously assisted me in felling several trees. I haven't measured his "wingspan", but as you can imagine it's considerable. He's attempting to wrap his arms around a rather large cherry tree that will someday make many beautiful autoharps!
Tom with one big tree!
My father is retired from farming and enjoys woodworking. I think he's nearly as excited about this new venture as I am! With just a bit of "arm twisting" he purchased a small sawmill which has allowed us to process the logs into boards. We've successfully quarter-sawn several large cherry logs and have some walnut in the works. I never fancied myself a lumberjack but I can honestly say that I enjoy it! It is really neat to fell a tree, cut the logs, drag them out of the woods, load them on a trailer, haul them to the sawmill, unload them, saw them, load the boards, haul them to the barn, unload them, stack them for drying... WOW! Now if that sounds like a lot of work, believe me it is! However, I believe the benefit of all of this work is that I will be assured of a premium supply of wood in the future. Another benefit is that my father and I have been doing this together and I cherish this time working alongside him. Up until we began our sawmill escapades life had been racing by and it had been way too long since we had spent any time like this, working together. Here's a shot of my father pulling a nice cherry log out of the woods.
Dad pullin' one out
Having built and played my chromatic autoharp for several months, I began yearning to try a diatonic. George was planning to be away for a month beginning early November so I began acquiring materials and planned to build three autoharps in his absence. In hindsight, that was a pretty loftly goal. With a full-time job, I'm only able to spend a few hours each day in the shop. My plans were for three more Indian Rosewood/Western Red Cedar autoharps. A G-D-A diatonic for myself, an F-C diatonic for myself, and the third "to be determined". As it turned out, I did manage to have the G-D-A nearly completed and had the bodies completed for the other two. Below are some photographs of the G-D-A autoharp, the second instrument that I've built.
#2 - 15 bar G-D-A diatonic front
#2 - 15 bar G-D-A diatonic back
#2 - 15 bar G-D-A diatonic side
Well, the previously mentioned F-C diatonic for myself and the "to be determined" didn't quite turn out like I imagined... Before they were completed they were both sold! My Aunt Donna owns and plays several Orthey autoharps and was delighted to hear last year that I was apprenticing with George. She mentioned that she would like to be my first customer when the time came, and that time came when I received a phone call from Todd Crowley. He had heard that I was working with George and expressed that he would like to purchase an autoharp from me. That's how my Aunt Donna ended up as the proud owner of my third instrument... the F-C diatonic that was going to be mine! She is very pleased with the appearance and the sound of her new instrument and Deb and I had a wonderful visit with her family when we delivered it to her in January.
#3 - Aunt Donna and I
#3 - Aunt Donna enjoying her new autoharp
Early in February I had completed the "to be determined" autoharp that Todd Crowley had determined would be an E-B diatonic. Well, I must say that this autoharp turned out to be a wonderful looking instrument and has a beutiful voice of it's own. I had the opportunity to personally deliver the instrument to him and to hear him play it for the first time! If you'd like to read more about Todd and what he's doing with his instruments you can visit his website at www.diatoddnics.com
#4 - Todd Crowley's E-B diatonic
Having completed a total of 8 instruments while working with George Orthey in his shop, my own workshop is now under roof and I am working on the interior space. I'm hoping to have everything up and running and be building autoharps in the spring of 2010.
The shop is fully equipped and operational! Hooray! It's been a monumental undertaking both financially and physically over the last year to get to this point, but I can now say:
"WE'RE OPEN FOR BUSINESS!"
At this point in time we are accepting orders and can best reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org