Beauty built by hand

Monday December 10, 2012

Have you ever walked into a music shop, say, Maple Leaf Music in Brattleboro, looked at the guitars hanging in long, self-possessed rows, and felt like you'd found heaven?

When you gather your courage and ask to play one of the gleaming instruments, you hold it in your lap first. You turn it over, look at the back, feel the wood's subtle convex curve, lean close to see the miniscule inlay around the sides. You lightly touch the silver tuning pegs and the ebony bridge pins.

You know you've never held any object so beautiful before. Then you close your eyes and play.

At the Whetstone School of Lutherie on Birge Street in Brattleboro, director and teacher Scott Hausmann lifts up a guitar resting on one of the clean, well-lit workshop benches. It's a "Small Jumbo" design, patterned after a 1952 Gibson J-185. The heavy-gauge strings look kinetic and alert.

"This one, this is one of my favorites that I've made here," he says. He pulls a pick from his pocket and strums a D chord. The bass string is tuned down to a D note, making the already enormous sound as rich as real hot chocolate.

He plays a few bars of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon." The run of harmonics is almost too perfect and playful to be believed.

Scott smiles. "I do love this one," he says. "But it's headed up to Maple Leaf to be sold."

He runs his hand down the neck before setting the guitar carefully back in its stand. "The amazing thing is, in the entry-level workshop, students build guitars similar to this in 12 days."

If possible, his quiet smile gets even wider. "I'm proud of this school, and what we've been able to do here for our students."

Since 2010, novice and experienced luthiers have come from across the country -- and one from Wales -- to the Whetstone School of Lutherie to learn how to build guitars, banjos, mandolins and ukuleles. ("Lutherie," from the French, means the manufacture of stringed instruments.)

In groups of three, occasionally four, the students work with Sitka spruce and mahogany, rosewood and herringbone. They learn how to use precision machinery to measure, cut and sand pieces of wood to impossible thinness and curve. They learn how to assemble the delicate yet powerful woods, and how to bind it all together to make an instrument they're proud to play.

"It's a real immersion into woodworking," says Scott. He sits at his simple desk in the workshop classroom tucked behind the Estey Organ buildings.

It's a remarkably clean, orderly space. On shelves to his right are stacked bins labeled "Tuners, "Tape," "Finishing," "Bulbs," "Spring Clamps," and, more mysteriously, "LMI." Just beyond the classroom is the equally clean and calm machine room, where a jointer and planer and a mortise machine and a drill press and an oscillating spindle sander, and much more, sit like docile dragons.

"Not only that, guitars are a really archetypal object," he continues, speaking with the same thoughtfulness, care and expertise revealed in his teaching and in his instruments. "People have a strong connection to what their guitar means about them. And they come with a lot of assumptions, and sometimes doubt, about their ability to do this work."

During the eight-hour days of the course, Scott guides the students through both the woodworking skills they need to learn and the mental and emotional strengths they need to build up.

"The fact is, every student is going to make mistakes. This is hard work. The pace is intense. I am going to make mistakes as I build a guitar along with them, and I've been doing this for more than 35 years," he says. "You have to learn how to learn from those mistakes, and one of the best ways is to pay attention to the experience, to how you react to the mistake. Eventually you ratchet back your expectations enough to relax and have fun."

He is quiet for a moment, until another smile resonates from his heart. "I have so much admiration for these students. They choose to spend their vacation doing this rewarding and rich and really challenging course -- and in the end they get an amazing instrument that they built themselves."

He shakes his head. "This teaching thing." He assembles his well-turned thoughts, binds them together. "It's the hardest and most satisfying work I've ever done."

Scott had taught at various places before the Whetstone School in 2010, including Anderson Ranch Arts Center, The Center For Furniture Craftsmanship and The Putney School Summer Programs. But when he first moved into the Birge Street space in 2006, the idea for a school didn't even exist.

"I'd been shopless for a couple of years back then," he remembers. "I needed a shop. This space came up, a big empty room, and I hired four guys and two trucks and we just moved over all my equipment and put it in a pile on the floor. I had no idea what would happen."

Over the next couple of years, Scott pondered the possibilities. He had a wealth of knowledge and experience crafted over decades, beginning with his instrument-building classes at Marlboro College in the early 1970s. His time at Gurian Guitars, formerly located in Hinsdale, N.H., and Froggy Bottom Guitars in Chelsea, Vt., further honed his skills, as did his furniture-making business and his work as a product engineer.

All of these strands come together in teaching students to build high-quality instruments. With the success of the school, Scott has a chance to pass on all that he's learned about woodworking. He can use his engineering skills in precisely constructing an effective curriculum and workflow for a short timeframe. He helps create more beautiful instruments. He is doing purposeful, valuable work.

Beyond that, Scott has seen the school contribute to the Brattleboro area as a thriving small business.

"It's gratifying to realize the impact that bringing students to town can have on the economy," he says. "They come, they pay for lodging and food and entertainment. The numbers really add up."

He's also formed a strong collaboration with Maple Leaf Music. The two businesses promote each other's work, and the shop exclusively carries the guitars Scott makes in class, under the Whetstone Guitars label. Maple Leaf owner Christian Glines and Scott even worked together to design a soprano ukulele.

Scott picks up a recently built soprano uke and holds it gently in his arms.

"This school is a great way to finish up my career," he says. "I'm delighted. I am proud. I'm here to the end."

He strums a tune on the beautiful little instrument, jaunty and mellow in the way of ukuleles. The music fills the room. Eyes closed, he cannot help but grin.

To learn more about the Whetstone School of Lutherie, visit or call 802-579-1661.


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