At 92, still making music

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 5:45pm

Block Island resident Carl Kaufmann started making guitars when an instructor told him 30 years ago that he needed a better instrument if he wanted to learn how to play.

“I had at that time an old Gibson guitar my wife had bought in bad condition from a pawn shop,” said Kaufmann, who splits his time between homes on Block Island and in Mystic, Conn., and first came to the island with his family in the 1950s. “I was trying to learn to play, and I never had any experience with it, and my instructor said, ‘This guitar is really hard to work with. You really ought to get a new machine that’s easier to play. Why don’t you go and buy yourself a better guitar.’”

The 92-year old Kaufmann said he visited the C.F. Martin & Co. factory located in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, “which was not far from where we lived in Wilmington, Delaware. And I saw what those guys were doing, and I said, ‘You know, I could do that — I could learn to do that.’”

“They said, ‘We sell kits.’ So I bought a kit from Martin, and the first guitar I made was a Martin dreadnought acoustic six-string, steel-string guitar, and it worked out very well,” he said. A dreadnought is Martin’s large bodied acoustic type guitar, which produces a richer, louder sounding instrument. Despite that, Kaufmann said he doesn’t “like very large guitars, like dreadnoughts. I build a smaller guitar, in the size range called triple-O, or double-O, down to an almost parlor guitar, which is quite a bit smaller.”

“I’ve made about 15 guitars, and I do not have any particular brand or copyrighted signature on them,” he said. “Other than guitars, I’ve built three mandolins, plus an Irish Bouzouki,” which “in effect is a mandolin on steroids.”

Kaufmann discovered the design for the Irish Bouzouki in New Zealand while working on a magazine article about luthiers living in New Zealand and Australia. “I liked it very much, and came home and modified the design to my liking. So there’s only one in the world that looks exactly like the one that I have.”

A luthier, pronounced looth-ee-er, is an artisan, or master craftsman, who makes or repairs stringed instruments, such as cellos, violins, or guitars.

Kaufmann said it takes about 100 hours to craft a flat-top acoustic guitar from scratch. “A mandolin, because it has a carved top and back that are made out of solid blocks of wood, carefully carved to elaborate shapes, takes a lot longer. I think making a mandolin takes close to about 200 hours for a really good one.”

“My favorite guitar is a steel-string acoustic for folk music,” said Kaufmann, who downplays his guitar-playing abilities. “Classical guitars have wider necks, and are strung with nylon strings, instead of steel. I like the steel strings better because they’re a much more popular instrument. And, I’m more likely to play a steel string instrument rather than a classical.”

Kaufmann said materials used to make the instruments, include varieties of woods, such as spruce, cedar, and Indian rosewood. “My most preferred wood is called Australian blackwood. It’s similar to a very famous guitar wood called Hawaiian koa. I get the Australian blackwood from a fellow in Australia, who has a large supply of it, and is a master luthier.” 

“Australian blackwood is wood that fell from trees 100 years ago,” he said. “So this is very nice stuff. I bought a whole pile of it, and have enough right now to make four guitars.”

As for his process, Kaufmann said, “I use a hotbox with curved sides to bend the curved sides of an acoustic guitar, which is done with heat and moisture. It steams thin sections of wood that can be pressed to very tight curves. I’ve made a device to do that, which other luthiers do.”

Kaufmann said making a guitar involves a leap of faith. “There is no testing phase. I don’t put them through a protocol. I simply try to follow a design, either my own, or someone else’s that I’m pretty sure is going to yield a particular kind of result, and just hope for the best.”

“I haven’t made any guitars that don’t pass muster,” he said. “They’re okay guitars. Some are quite good, but none of them could be called a really great instrument. I don’t for a minute regard myself as a master luthier, or anything close to it.”

“I consider myself between a beginner and intermediate,” said Kaufmann, who noted that he’s been to guitar symposiums where he’s seen artisans who have been crafting guitars their whole lives. “They make instruments that are simply world quality. I’m not in that league at all.”

Kaufmann said he and John Warfel, the former Block Island School shop teacher, taught four students how to make guitars in Kaufmann’s shop on Block Island. “It was a school project, and we had a great time with it. I think John may still have the guitar he built for himself.”

When island resident “Ben Miller was in high school I made him a guitar in my shop on Block Island. He played on the front porch of The National Hotel. That’s how he got started as a folk singer. He majored in music at Brown University, and started a band, and is now a well-known, highly respected professional musician. His band called The Low Anthem toured with Emmy Lou Harris.”

Kaufmann said he would rather make guitars than play them. “I’m not a very good player,” he said, noting that he does the work for the sheer pleasure of it. “I’m not building guitars to sell, or repair. I’m not looking for work. I never have. I’ve given away some guitars to family members. I do this for my own pleasure.”