Music Maker

Les Stansell builds exquisite guitars from local and exotic woods.
Story by Norman B. Martin


music maker
I
n his roomy Pistol River workshop, Les Stansell designs, carves, chisels, saws, bends, braces, sands, glues, and strings guitars. Using his creative mind and skilled hands he works hewn pieces of trees and assembles them piece by piece into instruments that musicians treat with hallowed care.

“Over the last twenty years, we’ve seen a renaissance in handmade guitars, Stansell says. “The more serious musicians have become aware of their superiority over those manufactured on assembly lines.”
Stansell studied his craft under the noted designer Anthony Huvard at the Northwest School of Instrument Design in the late 1970s and in 1981. That experience focused his

music maker

interest in the Spanish–classical and flamenco guitar.

“Hand-built guitars differ greatly from assembly-line models,” Stansell says. “Many guitar makers are solo artisans who handcraft instruments to the special needs of a musician. It’s like fitting a baseball player with a personal glove, all custom-designed. If a musician wants a particular type of neck or a unique sound, something that doesn’t appear in assembly-line models, those needs can be accommodated.” However, this craftsman adheres to the traditional designs of the great Spanish builders of the mid-19th century, most notably music makerAntonio de Torres whose innovative designs set many of the standards for modern guitar making.

Stansell’s custom instruments are also exceptional because of the woods he uses, such as rosewood, ebony, captivating to the eye but relatively unknown to the rest of the guitar world, however, are the Port Orford white cedar and myrtlewood.

“Port Orford cedar and myrtlewood make very strong and light instruments, essential characteristics for flamenco guitars,” Stansell says. The wood of the Port Orford cedar is durable and aromatic. Each cut of lumber has its own discriminate color lines, making the wood ideal for guitar builders.

Stansell buys exotic woods from brokers, but purchases native Oregon woods locally. He is constantly on the lookout for fine-grain Port Orford cedar, and he also brokers this wood to other companies in the industry, acquiring salvage logs or small quantities of sawn lumber. He resaws volumes of guitar sets, and after allowing them to air dry for several years, he grades the wood, selects the top 1 or 2 percent for his shop, and sells the rest.

“I buy only high grade wood in hope of finding a small percentage of instrument grade in each lot,” Stansell says. “I have such an advantage living among these tree resources here on the South Coast.”

He is acutely aware of the circumstances of Port Orford cedar. The tree, which is really a cypress, has a dubious future because of a fatal fungus, Phytopthora, which has invaded much of the trees’ range. The infestation could possibly wipe out the species, which can be found only in the Siskiyou Mountains from Coos Bay to the Klamath River in California.

Stansell’s guitars are unmatched due to his attention to detail and the finished product’s unique wood patterns, although a hand-applied shellac finish on the blond woods has a similar appearance to the Spanish cypress guitars played by traditional flamenco guitarists.

Each instrument can take up to 150 hours to complete. Each is kept at a temp-erature of 70 degrees with a 50 percent humidity factor while Stansell assembles the pieces. The workroom is continually vacuumed free of dust and debris.

Using saws, planers, sanders, and shapers, he forms the cured wood into each component. To make the sides, a 2-millimeter-thick piece of wood is dampened and then bent in a heated press for 10 minutes. Stansell says the neck assembly is the single most time-consuming step. “Each piece must be laid up, slotted, drilled, carved, and then finished.”

The sides and neck are then fitted and glued to the braced top. The braced back completes the body, and then solid ebony bindings are applied. Stansell uses a specially designed saw to slot the fingerboard for frets, which are set across the fingerboard. Here he pays special attention to ensure proper intonation through the full three and-a-half octave range of the instrument. Then, with rasps and chisels, he carves the neck, then prepares the guitar for finish.

The final step is the setup. “This is crucial,” says Stansell. “As a student of the flamenco guitar, I know how it should feel— neck shape, string height and spacing, trueness of the frets, and proper compensation all have to work together,” he says.

Stansell is surely pleased with the increasing popularity of nylon-stringed guitars and flamenco music in particular. “Flamenco music is a multi-layered, very inclusive form of world fusion. Flamenco incorporates singing, dancing, guitar, clapping, and other forms of percussion,” he explains.

Once again, he claims, audiences are turning more to the serene, sophisticated sensuality, the energy, and the wide range of voicing of acoustic guitar sounds.

music maker

Oregon Coast January/February 2007

   

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