January 19, 2005

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Nite: Making a tree sing

A local luthier talks about his craft

By Richie Victorino  rvictorino@hippopress.com

David Dubois holds on to certain guitars like photographs. There are the guitars he’ll cherish forever, and those he’d rather forget.

His first attempt at building a guitar, at 18, resulted in nothing more than confirmation of his belief that he was neither skilled nor knowledgeable enough for such a task.

The remains of his failed teenage experiment literally linger over Dubois’ head. The unfinished guitar is stashed away on a top shelf in his wood shop.

Dubois rarely looks at this homemade relic — it’s obvious by the armor of dust that coats it. But it’s never far from his thoughts.

After years of gigging, Dubois gave up playing in the ’70s. Making his guitar collection secure in coffin-like cases, the Wilton resident hammered in the point: His relationship with guitars was over.

However, he secretly hoped his children’s curiosity would one day lure them to learn to play. But only his youngest child caught the music bug. For a high school graduation gift, 23 years after he swore off the instrument, Dubois made a guitar for his baby girl as a high school graduation gift.

It was the first one he successfully made.

“Still to this day, wherever she goes she still gets compliments on it,” said Deeann, with a proud smile on her face which only a lifelong partner could wear.

Life of a luthier

The stories David Dubois, now a part-time guitar maker or “luthier,” tells don’t get old — not when you realize how much of himself he puts in to each guitar.

He commands his wood shop with a familiarity that grants him a confidence he might not otherwise have. He balances on chairs to reach far-away objects. Chances are he could find a tiny screw in his shop with his eyes closed. It’s obvious he spends much of his free time inside this room.

Talk radio fights to be heard over the rumble of a monstrous humidifier, whose sole purpose is to keep the room at the right humidity. Not too damp, and not too dry.

“Things have to be stable,” Dubois said, matter-of-factly. “Or else you get cracks.”

Cracks are a sworn enemy to a luthier. Cracks mean dead wood. They mean back to the drawing board. Nothing is more deflating than having to start again from square one.

It starts with wood

Dubois knows how to spot the rotten apples in the bunch. Discolorations can be deadly for his purposes, and the growth rings speak volumes.

Dubois examines a piece of wood’s growth rings like fingerprints. He presses his fingers against the grain of the wood, deciphering its feel. Even before it becomes a guitar, wood has a story to tell.

“That’s as good as it gets, as far as wood goes,” he said, proudly, pointing to the slab of red spruce in his hands. Red spruce is like the Holy Grail, an elusive, highly sought-after type of wood used for guitar tops. To the uninitiated, it looks like a good piece of firewood.

Each ring reveals a tree’s dirty little secrets and the life it has endured, from living through five-year droughts to being exposed to too much sun.

Too much space between growth rings is like having too much baby fat on a prize fighter.

“That’s not what you want to have,” Dubois said.

But the red spruce in Dubois’ hands is safe from the scrap floor; its rings are wound like a taut fishing line on a reel.

The artist

Dubois is Michelangelo when manipulating wood. He understands that wood breathes; it swells with heat and shrinks in cold. He considers all this as he presses, bends and shapes the wood with delicacy and a steady hand.

Dubois is interested only in making acoustic guitars. He starts to say that he sticks to acoustic guitars because they are more challenging. But common decency keeps him from saying that. He opts for “The electric guitar’s tone is pretty much dedicated by the electronics you use.”

An acoustic-guitar maker is a gambler, a risk taker. He must be ready to push a piece of wood to its absolute limits.

“Typically the thinner you make the wood the better your sound will be,” he said.

Of course, it’s possible to make wood too thin. To avoid that, Dubois listens to the wood.

“Every piece of wood has a noble point,” Dubois said. “As it vibrates [when he taps the wood] there’ll be a point somewhere where it doesn’t vibrate.”

Dubois uses that noble point to guide him as he’s thinning the wood. Each time he thins the wood, he taps the noble point, making sure he still likes what he hears.

Tap, tap, tap. Dubois demonstrates the method.

He mutters something to himself, or maybe to the wood, as he searches patiently for that noble point.

Tap, tap, tap. Leaning his head in closer he resembles Schroeder, the pianist from Peanuts who laid his head on his piano as he played.

“Hear that, that ‘ting’?” Dubois asked.

I hear something, maybe. But clearly I don’t hear what he hears.

What he hears is music. He hears potential. And if he pushes that wood too far the song is lost forever.

“Then all you’re left with is a piece of cardboard.”

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com

Six String Samurai

Who: David Dubois

What: A luthier, or guitar maker

The info: Dubois’ Web site is www.duboisguitars.com. You can also contact him at P.O. Box 595, Wilton, N.H. 03086, at 654-5118 or at dave@duboisguitars.com.

A guitar from Dubois will cost at least $2,850.