Luthiers craft on rise in southern Illinois

Some area luthiers are carving out a niche industry with handcrafted stringed instruments.

There are several luthiers, people who make or repair lutes or string instruments, working around Carbondale, and while their shops may be a bit hidden in the woods and hollows of the area, their profiles are on the rise.

Andy Kinser, of Makanda, will be featured on the March 1 episode of “Expressions” on WSIU-TV.


Terry Whipple, of Wolf Lake, demonstrates the resonance of certain types of wood Monday at the shop located in his home. Whipple, who has been building guitars for the last 12 years, is one of several guitar craftsmen in the area. Isaac Smith | Daily Egyptian

Kinser makes various instruments in his Makanda shop, including Weissenborn-style lap slide guitars, parlor guitars and resonator guitars. Although he’s made one ukulele for his girlfriend, for the moment he said he’s focused on guitars.

“There’s just so many different kinds of guitars to make; I don’t even have time to think about other instruments,” he said. “There’s so much to explore.”

Kinser said he’s been making guitars since 2001. He was turned on to the process when he met a luthier in California.

After he learned the craft, he made guitars in Chicago for a while, but after a snap decision while hiking the Appalachian Trail, he and his girlfriend moved back to his home in Makanda.

“It was probably a delusional idea that can only come to you when you haven’t been in town for a week,” he said.

He then moved into his dad’s furniture-making workshop.

“When he came back, I was certainly going to make room for him,” Kyle Kinser said.

Now the two share the same building and antique machinery, and the two occasionally work together on the guitars,  said Andy Kinser.

Andy Kinser said he’s still in what he calls the R&D phase, but he’s already selling guitars and has worked with local musicians.

He said he made a lap slide guitar with a resonator for musician Alex Kirt, who came up with the idea.

Kinser said he’s only been able to find one other luthier in the world who makes the same instrument, and he’s in Italy.

He said he enjoys working with musicians the most, as they can throw around interesting ideas of what to do. He said he also plans on presenting Woodbox Gang frontman Hugh DeNeal several guitars to choose from.

One project he said he’s looking forward to though isn’t for a professional musician, but for his dad who plays ukulele.

Being a woodworker himself, Kyle Kinser said he has some mixed feelings about Andy choosing that career for himself, as there are a lot of hardships ahead, but at the same time, he said he was always urged his sons to go into something they’re passionate about.

While Andy Kinser said he would never build something he couldn’t play, mandolin-maker Roy Davis said he can hardly play his signature instrument.

“It’s just a fun thing to build,” he said.

Davis, who works at his home on Tomcat Hill south of Murphysboro, said he started instrument making in the early ‘70s with banjo necks. He moved on to guitars in the ‘80s, and he started doing mandolins about 15 years ago, he said.

While Davis plans on expanding a bit and has recently bought some new equipment, he’s momentarily on hiatus.

He said he doesn’t see his mandolin making as a profession, and he would like to just make about three or four a year when he gets back into the shop.

Davis said he depends on word of mouth among local musicians to get customers. He’s also in steady contact with musicians through weekly jam sessions at his house, where he gets to hear some of his instruments in use.

He said he’s not surprised by the number of luthiers working in the relatively small area around Carbondale, as it’s a booming trade, and southern Illinois is as good a place for it to happen as any.

“In a way, it’s a golden age for small manufacturers,” he said.

Terry Whipple has also been making guitars for about 12 years, and he said he’s still getting better with each one.

Whipple, who’s also been playing guitars for 35 years, said he first became interested in making them after losing two of his fingertips to a table saw.

“As soon as I did that, I thought ‘There goes the guitar,’” he said.

Ironically, while the accident hindered his ability to play guitars, it put him on the path to building them.

He couldn’t find a left-handed guitar that that satisfied him, so he decided to use his base in carpentry and woodworking to do it himself.

After he left the carpentry business when he lost his fingertips, he went into occupational therapy, Whipple said. While working with school districts as a therapist, he met a guitar maker in Crossville, who ended up getting him into the business.

Now he can make about 10 or 12 guitars a year and sells them mainly through the Internet, he said.

Not only has his notability in the guitar world been on the rise, especially after a plug in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine thanks to Cobden-based musician Robert Bowlin, he said his technique is improving all the time as well.

“I just get better and better with each one,” he said.

While Whipple said he’s improving, he said he’s rarely satisfied with the finished product, and only three guitars come to mind that he was really pleased with. Those three are now scattered across the world in Colorado, Canada and Switzerland, he said.

At the moment he’s working at his maximum capacity, which can be a little too hectic, and he does visits to his shop by appointment only now, he said.

Whipple starts the day before sunrise most of the time, and after getting pots of both coffee and glue going, he gets to work.

Like Kinser, he said he’s content just doing his signature dreadnought-style guitars for the moment, though he also does repairs, and currently has several 90-year-old guitars sitting around his shop in need of work.

With his workload maxed out and his name coming up a lot on guitar forums, he said he’s really reached  the level of success he wanted but much faster than he’d expected.

However big he gets though, he said he’s remained focused on his craft.

“I want to do one thing, and I want to do it well,” Whipple said. “I think I’m  getting there.”

 

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