Pulling strings in Bristol: Artisan turns weather-beaten redwood into guitars
BRISTOL — In 2012, when the University of Vermont dismantled its Centennial Field soccer bleachers, it sold off thousands of feet of weather-beaten redwood planks. Bristol luthier Micah Plante got the chance to pick through about 300 of those planks and selected just eight. Now, slice by 3/32-inch slice and curve by curve, he’s turning the redwood into acoustic and electric guitars.
Those guitars and several others, crafted from a variety of wood species and bearing their maker’s unique polar bear logo, will be on display Nov. 10, when Plante Guitar Co. holds its grand opening at 54 West St.
In addition to building custom guitars Plante repairs and modifies a wide range of stringed instruments, from banjos to mandolins to upright basses.
Plante, who moved to Bristol in August with his partner, Taylor Welch, grew up in Moretown. At age eight he began learning how to play guitar from his dad, who is a folk musician.
“I remember strumming along to James Taylor and Bob Marley — dad’s music,” he said.
As a child Plante also found himself drawn to the cellar, which was full of workbenches and tools and “nuts and bolts” he could tinker with.
“It was where I developed a commonsense approach to building and fixing things,” he said.
In high school, while playing in bands and dreaming about being a rock star, Plante began modifying and repairing guitars. By the time he entered the University of Vermont he was building his own. More bands followed in college, but his drive to be a performer diminished.
“I realized I’m more of a contemplative person,” he said.
His bliss, it turned out, was luthiery. A luthier is someone who builds and repairs stringed instruments. It goes back the medieval stringed instrument — the lute.
‘HOTBED OF LUTHIERY’
After a few years in Burlington waiting tables and working as a repairman for the Guitar Center in Williston, Plante moved to the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, home to a number of revered luthiers, including the Cuban-born classical guitar maker William Cupiano, author of the world’s leading guitar-making textbook.
Though he only had limited contact with Cupiano, Plante managed to fill a giant notepad with notes from their encounters, some of which would forever change the young luthier’s way of thinking.
“Bill said the structure of my guitars was good, but he pointed out that the finishing aspects could be better,” Plante said.
The young luthier had been so focused on structure (which stands to reason: the body of an acoustic guitar is made from about 25 different pieces of wood) that he hadn’t given much thought to the finish, which, it turns out, is incredibly important.
“The finish affects what I like to call the ‘handshake of the object,’” Plante said. “It affects, for instance, how much the instrument slides around against you. There’s a kind of synesthesia, as well — it can affect how you perceive the sound of an instrument.”
In Northampton Plante and Welch lived in a first-floor, two-bedroom apartment.
“We had very kind neighbors,” Plante said with a laugh. “They never complained about my band saws.”
Those saws, their tables mantled with fine redwood sawdust, now stand at the ready before a wall of angled greenhouse windows in Plante’s backyard workshop.
“I cut everything by hand,” Plante said.
This may eventually become something of a rarity in a field where computer numerical control (CNC) of machining tools is growing increasingly popular and is viewed by some as the best path toward innovation.
“If you like the idea of an instrument maker peeling off each shaving of wood with fine old tools, your instrument coming slowly to life, then I’m your guy,” Plante wrote on his website.
“I know CAD (computer-aided design),” he explained. “I’ve used software like (3D modeler) Rhino. CNC would lower prices, but I stubbornly saw by hand and sell at CNC prices anyway. For me it’s about the old hand planes and other tools.”
The luthier’s tidy shop is filled with tools of the trade: awls in one corner, a rack of spool clamps on the wall and a hot iron on the shelf, used for bending wood. A pickup winder Plante bought on eBay from a Chinese factory that had gone out of business sits on a table beneath a paper towel rack repurposed as a wire dispenser. (Pickups capture the mechanical vibrations produced by musical instruments and convert them into electrical signals that can be amplified.)
PLANTE’S NAME AND an inlay polar bear design adorn the headstocks of his custom-built guitars.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
A poster from the movie “Wayne’s World” hangs from one wall.
Part of Plante’s job as a guitar maker is to help musicians distill all of their needs and ideas into a workable design. His first step, before a contract is signed, is to make a full-scale drawing on graph paper and discuss the design elements with the prospective client.
“All the other shops were concerned with prices and materials right up front and wanted me to fill out forms and such but Micah just wanted to talk,” wrote Drew Steinberg of the Burlington band Jeddy in a testimonial on Plante’s website. “He said he would love to work with me and that he ‘wanted to build me not just a guitar, but a best friend for life.’”
Plante makes instruments for musicians working in a variety of genres: jazz, folk, pop, rock, nü-metal. He also builds custom instrument modifications — both structural and electronic. And, he says, he’ll never turn down a repair job. About 75 percent of his business comes from customers within a hundred-mile radius, but he’s worked with people all over New England.
Settling in to Bristol, Plante has also begun to do work for Melissa Hernandez at Recycled Reading, which sells musical instruments.
“I’m sort of an out-of-shop shop-repair technician,” Plante said.
In the near term Plante will focus on expanding his business and adding on to his shop. Someday he might even hire an apprentice. In any event, he plans to stay.
“I’ll be here for the next 60 years,” he said.
Whatever those years may bring, Plante added with a smile, he’s not terribly concerned about “progress” in his field.
“I have an enthusiasm for what I’m doing and it’s already ‘behind the times.’”
For more information visit planteguitar.com.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]