Craft Culture: Tim Reede’s Custom Guitars and Basses

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Woodworking tools hang in Reede’s workshop // Photo by Kristine Erickson

The process gets more complex with each step. Next it has to be bookmatched, Reede explains, “which means it’s cut out of the same piece and then folded open.” When placed side-by-side, bookmatched portions mirror each other. Reede pushes his glasses up on his forehead and eyeballs the grain closely, noting the alternating light and dark stripes. He says that when inspecting the wood, he’s looking for perfect symmetry; straight, even lines; no defects; and stiffness.

“Stiffness is important,” he says. “The trick is to design an instrument that responds to the lightest possible touch, but which is still strong enough to hold up to 170 pounds of string tension so it doesn’t collapse. That’s the balancing act.”

Once Reede is satisfied with the wood he’s chosen, he begins joining the pieces, using old-fashioned hand tools, braces, and hot hide glue—an adhesive made from connective tissue and hide of animals—to shape and fit everything together properly. It’s a technical, but not technological, undertaking. “Handmade guitars—there’s not much difference between how they were made 100 years ago and how I make them,” Reede says.

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One of Tim Reede’s handmade guitars // Photo by Kristine Erickson

Just like a handful of other luthiers making instruments by hand in Minnesota, Reede takes pride in working with historic designs, hide glue, lacquer finish, spruce tops, and braces. “I’m pretty much a traditionalist when it comes to that,” he says.

Reede uses the hide glue—which can smell like road kill on a humid day if it’s allowed to mix with water—to join braces to soundboards and guitar necks to bodies. He prefers hide glue, which he also uses to attach fingerboards, because it’s “acoustically transparent.” The adhesive, he explains, dries very hard and brittle, and that allows vibrations to transfer cleanly when the guitar is played, producing a pure sound. He likes that the glue is reversible, too. “If you ever need to remove the neck,” for example, “you can heat it up and remove it for repair, or to reset the neck.”

Of all the steps in building a guitar, the neck often requires the most patience. “It’s kind of a form of meditation,” Reede says, grinning. Because he prefers to use a dovetail joint, a method that uses no hardware to bolt the neck onto the body, he needs to make sure the neck fits perfectly flush against all points of contact. Any gaps between the two will deaden vibrations and affect the tonal properties of the guitar.

To eliminate those gaps, Reede uses chalk to determine where the separate pieces line up properly and where they do not. Then he uses a small scraping tool to pare down those uneven spots, shaving away wood where it’s too thick. “This is what takes patience. You just have to do it over and over until you get the correct angle, until it is centered right.”

Other parts of the process have become intuitive to Reede over the years, such as tap tuning. This involves tapping the soundboard, listening to the noise produced, and trimming excess wood off the attached braces until the desired quality of sound is achieved. By tapping around and finding as many frequencies as he can, scraping here and there, Reede can ensure all notes will resonate equally.

After the body is complete and the neck is joined, Reede can start applying the lacquer. This step is another practice in patience, he says. “Getting the finish on requires a lot of time. It takes 12 to 14 coats to get it right, and after lacquering I let the instrument sit for two months while the finish shrinks.” The purpose of that long waiting period is that Reede is looking for a finish that is perfectly smooth, like glass. And that can’t be rushed. “I get impatient and people get impatient sometimes,” he says. “But the reason I’m taking four months or more to build a guitar is because I’m trying to give you the best instrument I can.”

Between the various stages of production, while waiting for that final layer of lacquer to set, Reede often takes to gardening. The vegetable garden behind his workshop contains onions, asparagus, broccoli, radicchio, peppers, tomatillos, and more. It’s just one more area of passion for Reede, and this love for botany has even manifested itself in his guitar designs: he’s currently working on a prototype electric guitar that will feature rose inlays along the fret board.

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Tim Reede in his Minneapolis workshop // Photo by Kristine Erickson

There’s another thing Reede is excited to grow in his garden for the first time this season: willamette and cascade hops, which he plans to use in his homemade beer.

“I just started homebrewing this year, and I’ve made about 16 gallons so far,” he says. “I’m just one of those people who has to do things myself, you know? I can’t just buy a guitar or buy some beer; I have to make my own.” The hobby, he says, has provided him with yet another way to learn and grow.

So far Reede hasn’t cared much for the beer he’s made, citing a lack of carbonation. But he thinks he’ll eventually get it to where he likes it. “It’s kind of like guitars,” he explains. “My first guitar was not so good. But now I’ve built 60 of them. I’m taking custom orders by appointment and selling them here and there at shows, and they’re coming out really nice now.”

As he finishes the thought, Reede remembers he has a bottle of homebrewed Irish Red stashed in the fridge.

“Do you want to try it?” he asks.

Of course you do.

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About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.

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