2007-11-08 / Scene

Music from the sea Boatbuilding inspires guitar maker

Chris Dungey marnholt@laview.net

By Chris Dungey
VIEW Contributor

METAMORA — Jeff Pittel, 46, of Metamora, grew up in a family of sailors in a maritime community. From an early age, he was introduced to the skills of seamanship and boat maintenance.

“Growing up in St. Clair Shores provided me with lake access, fishing spots and parks on the water,” he recalls. “And, of course, the ‘Nautical Mile,’ which supposedly has more pleasure boats per square mile than anyplace else on earth. Lots of my friends’ families had boats.”

Soon, summers on the water were not enough and he found himself navigating the ice of Lake St. Clair on a boat with runners. He would eventually build and race three iceboats to go with the family Columbia 28 and his own later summer craft.

Woodworking skills required of the iceboats and the restoration of a fast Santana 20 eventually led him to other, more intricate projects. The subconsciously retained music of a fast vessel under sail would suggest other instruments.

Pittel began to consider the construction of guitars while flying at 60 mph across the frozen surface off St. Clair Shores. “Sliding a D.N. (which stands for Detroit News, an iceboat design first publicized in that paper after a contest in 1937) sideways at speed started a vibration of the stainless steel bobstay cable which was amplified by the hull,” he remembers. “It was kind of like laying on top of a huge stand-up bass.”
He already had built several iceboats from kits, constructing his own composite masts of wood and carbon-fiber lamination. When he quit racing in 1991 and moved inland to Metamora a year later, the computer analyst was ready for a new hobby.

“I still try to sail the D.N.s recreationally when time and weather permit, and I’ve taken up windsurfing, usually on Lake Nepessing or at Holloway Reservoir,” Jeff says. “But the idea of making guitars wouldn’t go away. I built my first in 2002, just to see if it was even possible. I’ve now built four of them, with the fifth one under construction.”

He’s been learning by trial and error — not only the mechanics of cutting, sanding, gluing and jig making, but the physics of acoustics and resonance. Pittel’s basement shop reflects the process: Jigs constructed for chiseling, milling, then laminating the necks; the huge Bridgeport milling machine inherited from his father’s machine shop; and molds to hold and shape the sides after soaking the wood and bending it around propane- heated pipe.

As a result, each model has looked and sounded better then the last: “All my guitars are built from scratch,” he explains. “But once you have the jigs and molds, the next one goes together quicker. I’d say that 85 percent of the sound comes from the braces under the sound-board (top) and how finely they’re shaved down. The other 15 percent depends on the woods you use — mainly the density. Rosewood is denser than mahogany and doesn’t wrinkle as much during soaking. Sitka spruce tops sound different than western red cedar.”

Fret wire is cut and tapped into grooves in the neck that have been cut with a coping saw. Pittel actually traced the fret positioning from his brother’s old Yamaha rather than use an expensive fret ruler. “The tuning was amazingly accurate,” he adds. “You can’t fudge that. If the frets aren’t measured right, the guitar will never play in tune.”

Pittel thanks Oakwood Cabinets of Almont for letting him thickness-sand those sound-boards, and his wife, who doesn’t mind all the dust from his projects wafting up from the basement: “I think she buys Pledge by the case,” he chuckles.
The 1/8 inch thick rosewood tops are carefully routed for an inlaid rosette that encircles the sound hole.

Though the satisfaction of woodworking is very much spiritual, Pittel also muses about what the guitars, once perfected, may mean for his future.

“Making guitars is pretty addictive,” he explains. “I install software on mainframes for AT&T, so the woodworking is an escape from the daily stress of software problems. The process (of guitar making) is a meticulous one and requires a special mindset. Whole weekends just disappear when I’m working on one in the shop. At this point it’s just a serious hobby, but I’ve kicked around the idea of selling them on eBay or something — maybe expand it into a second profession.”

So, through a sunny, blustery autumn day, the wind surfboard remains on sawhorses in the Pittel garage. Meanwhile, the basement gives off a rich bouquet of sawdust, epoxy and solvent. Smells like ... craftsmanship.

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