By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
December 19, 2008 - 6:30 am
Luthiers are more than just instrument makers, they are also keepers of an alternate time zone.
Step into an acoustic instrument work shop and see the sawdust, smell the glue and sense something strange around you. That strange feeling is because you've stepped into central woodworking time, a zone far different than the zipping computer and television images our brains are normally focused on.
Nothing happens very fast here because care, quality, reliability and pride are far more important than speed.
Like the other day when I dropped by my local fiddle shop to leave one for repairs and to have another one cleaned, during my lunch break from work.
"I can clean it real quick while you're looking around," my friend and fiddle fixer said. "It'll take about 15 minutes."
An hour later I sauntered back and he was just getting to it, because there are always distractions such as visitors and conversation in a good repair shop. No problem, he was bending to it, and I was just a little late for getting back to work.
But my reflexes are trained to do something NOW and I started pacing beside his repair bench. I work in the newspaper business where when news happens, you write something in 10 minutes for immediate posting on the web and then crank the long story in an hour or so as edgy editors wait to edit it FAST and move it QUICKLY along the line.
That's why I noticed his hands, they moved at a totally different pace than the churning restlessness I felt inside.
In his left hand he gingerly held the fiddle.With the right, his fingers held a small cloth moistened with his own secret cleaning formula. He rubbed that cloth across the narrow-grained wood soundboard slowly and lightly. Lightly so as not to grind grime and caked resin into the finish, slowly like a terrapin taking it easy while climbing a steep hill on a cold day.
There was no bearing down, no gritting of teeth, no cutting to the chase and no shortcuts.
He's a patient man, with smooth temperament, evenly applying the just-right pressure to achieve superior results.
And I know this is repeated over and over again in musical instrument shops across this land, in hundreds of them if not thousands. Places where people believe that craftsmanship and doing good work is both a spiritual and economic pursuit.
One morning I was visiting a mandolin maker at his hilltop home in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. His commute was walking from the kitchen to the attached shop. I found him after breakfast sitting at his bench and rubbing a piece of sandpaper over a mandolin back over and over and over again. He rested a bit, held it up to the light, and then went back to rubbing the wood.
Two hours later, after I had shot multiple photographs, asked numerous questions, loaded my truck for my next road trip and handled all the various instruments loose in the shop, he was still sanding the same piece of wood.
I don't know if I could slow down that much. I've never experienced it.
I'd venture that many of my fellow cubicle dwellers out there in cubicle land are used to a computer responding to a command in a nanosecond, and they find this slow woodworker time zone foreign, too.
I'm sure most of my fellow Christmas shoppers in this mid-December season are strangers to this zone.
I've stood in line with them with our shopping baskets full of gifts our children want. Mostly electronic games that make life and death seem cheap and painless, and instant gratification a standard state of being.
Some I noticed had purchased a certain electronic game that uses controls or faux plastic guitars and such to simulate the playing of musical instruments.
"I always wanted to be a musician," coos a pretty young girl in a television ad for the expensive hardware and software that lets a computer chip do all the work. You spend five minutes plugging the thing in and a half-second turning it on and zap, you're a musician.
Meanwhile a Christmas card arrived at my desk this week that portrayed two young children in 1800s garb sharing a handsome, hand-carved wooden rocking horse. These images are meant to show the timelessness of the holidays, the never-changing joys of youth, gifts and family. Quality time.
Even though the daily reality is a mad rush to hold onto your job as people are laid off around you, or a desperate search for a new job, or a dismal review of dwindled or swindled savings as the stock market drops in recession, while still trying to buy gifts and make it right for those you love. We try to create for them happy moments in the alternate time and joy zone.
Christmas Eve, if you walk outside on the streets late and night and feel the vibe, it's there. All the hope, anticipation, love, the sincere prayers from the faithful of various faiths - and very importantly - the shutdown of businesses and the slowing down of people one night a year, all this makes the world slow and sweeten.
Then the pretty paper is ripped off, the quick shops reopen, shopping freaks hit the stores on Dec. 26 for returns and bargains and the illusive alternative time zone evaporates for most people.
But not in the lutherie shops.
They hold everything the Santa world portends to be. Elves supposedly are hammering wooden toys together at the North Pole. Hey, I enjoy that jolly good fun as much as anyone.
But in Boise, Idaho, a friend of mine really is sawing, cutting, sanding, filing and tapping together wooden wonders - mandolins. It takes months. There's no microwave way to make them with the super resonance and clean lines that he crafts. Magic happens when they're made and played just right.
I ordered one and a few days later I was already imagining that it was glued together and ready for refinishing. But imagination doesn't build them, human hands do, and that takes hours, days and weeks for each step.
Waiting for a mandolin to get built is like shaking a present under the tree on Dec. 15. Time seems to move so slow.
All while my life seems to be passing by in a flash. Each year goes faster. There is an inevitable end and it gets ever closer.
Mandolins on the other hand exist differently. Once built, people may be playing these fine instruments 400 years from now. Our fine new mandolins, guitars and fiddles are getting better cases and care than the 1700s Stradivarius violins did in their early days.
They're not timeless. They show age and wear. But to come from a time past and be so beautiful in the present, it's as if time doesn't matter that much, compared to creations for the human spirit and love evermore.
Special thanks to the Mandolin Cafe's primary business partners.