ST. PAULS — Chad Carpenter is one wood-worker with an apropos name.
At a young age, he joined his father and grandfather in carving birds from simple blocks and slabs of wood. Now, the 60-year-old, who works as the director of Southeastern Health Heart and Vascular, whittles away his free time by making custom guitars for the most particular pluckers.
“I started playing guitar about 11 years ago, but I starting building them six years ago,” he said. “You get to the point where you’re seeking a guitar for yourself and you either find one that’s too expensive or you can’t find one that sounds right for you. I want to be able to build a high-end, handmade guitar that people can afford.”
Carpenter, a Michigan native, started making guitars under the guidance of skilled luthiers, or experts in string instrument design and repair, in Alaska, where he flew planes and lived for 25 years. When the sky would go dark for a few months and it was 30 below zero, Carpenter found a hobby with fellow string instrument enthusiasts and luthiers making instruments or bringing them to life at the local cafe.
“I worked with luthiers that made mandolins, violins and things in Alaska,” he said. “Dave Colson, a very close friend of mine, was the most amazing guy. He could take a chunk of wood that you would think was a piece of firewood and turn it into a masterpiece.”
After several stops at hospitals across the country, Carpenter moved to St. Pauls in October to work at Southeastern Regional Medical Center and continued his music-making therapy.
“I just make time to ensure I live life to the fullest,” he said. “I have spent 45 years in an administrative role directing others. At home in building guitars, I am an individual producer.”
Carpenter, who also made furniture for several years, learned how to make instruments with crude tools. He says when someone sees the inside of his shop, which located in his back yard, they are normally surprised to find that instead of high-tech machinery, he uses tools the average handyman might keep around the house.
But he says taking time on a guitar and making it with his hands gives its tune a little more spirit. He sees the creation of his guitars as a fusion of three worlds — wood-working, art and science.
“Every aspect of what comes with making a guitar contributes to its sound, including the type of wood and its thickness,” he said. “But first, for guitarists, we have to find the guitar that fits the type of music that we play.”
Before he delves into designing and creating the next guitar, Carpenter talks to the musician he is constructing it for. Bluegrass players may need a vibrant-sounding guitar that can be heard over a bass and banjo while a classical guitarist may need a more delicate sound.
“I think that, if nothing else, I’m really sensitive to what their needs are,” Carpenter said. “If they tell me what they need, I can normally make it that way.”
After assessing the needs of the guitarist, Carpenter gets to work on the first step in a nearly a six-week process — picking the wood.
Carpenter tries to use domestic wood because using foreign wood often promotes deforestation. He prefers maple, walnut, cherry and mahogany.
After choosing the wood, Carpenter shaves it down for the body of the guitar. He then takes the wood pieces for the sides of the guitar and uses a heated steel bar to mold the sides.
“It’s like flying a plane, it’s three hours of boredom and three minutes of terror,” Carpenter said.
Next comes the intricate work — crafting the internal organs of the guitar.
After the body is assembled and the sound hole is carved, Carpenter builds the neck and the head while constantly monitoring the sound.
“I actually tap the wood and listen to the vibratory response to give me an idea as to what the guitar will sound like when it’s completed,” he said.
Putting it all together is the tricky part, according to Carpenter, who says the fitting of the body to the neck is critical to the sound of the guitar, and can take up to three weeks. After that, the binding begins.
Following the binding process, Carpenter glues on the bridge and carves details into the head of the guitar. He finishes it with a signature and sends it on its way.
“Each stage of the guitar requires a lot of painstaking work,” Carpenter said. “I’m really picky, my name is on it. The really exciting part is being able to say you made something out of a chunk of wood and then you or someone else can enjoy the music from them.”
Carpenter said he has a lot of support from his family, friends and coworkers at the hospital. Each of them want their own guitar, although few know how to play.
Because he isn’t trying to get rich off of selling his handmade guitars, Carpenter tries to direct new guitarists to a good starter instrument rather than selling them a niche guitar. His works aren’t available in a store, only on commission. A typical guitar fetches $1,500 to $2,000.
“One of the first times I made a guitar, I went upstairs to show my wife and I was just so excited,” he said. “I said ‘look at this, I made a guitar.’ Now I have a beautiful Gibson that sits in the closet because I play my own guitars and enjoy making music from the instrument I made.”
Gabrielle Isaac can be reached at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @news_gabbie.