Ken Miller | 2009 | Luthier Interview
TT – Hey Ken, thanks for doing this interview with us! I was wondering how you actually got into the lutherie business?
KM – In about 1962 I bought my first “good” gtr, a classical from Casa Urapan in Mexico city. I immedeately glued on golpes – the tap plates that one needs for flamenco music. In a few months they peeled off ruining the finish. I went to a local music store & priced refinishing. I was APPALLED by the price quoted. (tho I now understand it)
I refinished my gtr myself and it turned out nicely. From then on I did my own work, which became more complicated as I got more specific in my musical desires. Soon I was making complete instruments as I could not afford or find what I wanted. I think that my first projects were a long neck 5 string banjo and a 12 string gtr. The folk boom you know.
TT – I notice a very strong flatpicking/ bluegrass streak amongst your guitar and mandolin models- is this intended?
KM – We are motivated both by what we play/listen to and by demand. I am omnivorous in my musical efforts but have enjoyed bluegrass since I became aware of it in the early ’50’s. Since we have become involved with the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamps, a larger percentage of our orders has shifted towards the old timey/bluegrass instruments. This is fun for us as my wife Virginia & I have a band (“Scrub Oak”) which plays mostly “Pre-grass” – songs and tunes from 1850-1950, or that sounds like that era. .
TT – I understand you’re involved in providing a door prize guitar at Kamp?
KM – We have been building a guitar as a “Door Prize” for the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp for several years now. This years’ guitar is “OM” style in Cuban Mahogany/Adirondack Spruce. We have been the first week Kamp Doctor (repairman) for five years now. Being associated with Steve and his Kamp is a delightful experience.
TT – So the dreadnoughts are the most popular model you build at the moment?
KM – Yes, we build slightly more of the Dreadnaught shape than anything else. Our “J” style is second and our 000 or 0M style is third. We really build a mix of styles- which keeps things interesting. Right now we have a small guitar, about a 3 1/2 in Martin sizes, in the works. It will be the smallest guitar that I have built to date.
I use Martin sizes for refference, but our instruments are not Martin copies in design or dimensions. I’ve seen many vintage instruments over the years and I think that they have ALL influenced our designs.
We also try to match up with what the customer wants. They may be oriented to Martin, Gibson, or something more exotic. Our goal is to build what the customer has envisioned, to make the customer’s vision a practical and artistic reality.
TT – I saw that “Tree Mahogany”-exotic indeed! What are your most favoured woods/ combinations and could you tell us a little more about how you ended up building with the tree mahogany? (read more about the Tree Mahogany in our upcoming article)
KM – As for combinations, for the last 7-8 years we have been using Adirondack (red) spruce exclusively for faces and bracing. This because we have a good supply and it works very nicely; perhaps most importantly, I think that it is really tough to “learn” how to work with face woods.
By concentrating on one species I have a better chance of gaining that intuitive sense that helps one produce “special” instruments. For favored woods, we think that both Koa and Mahogany are the most rewarding to work with. The “The Tree” mahogany was described in Fine Woodworking mag #54 in 1985.
Wood with a provenance is always more appealing both to the woodworker and the customer. Some years ago I was offered a chance at some. It was pricey, along the lines of Brazilian rosewood. I’m a sucker for wood so I bought a set. My goodness it was nice! A very different wood from “regular” mahogany. It is darker and harder (denser, more reflective/glassy) than “regular” mahogany, and the figure much more defined than on normal quilted mahogany.
I bought a few more sets – all that I could afford at the time. The instruments that I have built with this wood sound richer and louder than those of regular mahogany. The looks are spectacular – similar to the “tubular” figured maple one sees occasionally. I sure wish that I could find some more…
TT – I wish I had some of the tree to start with! How about the rosewoods, Ken?
KM – We do have a supply of Brazilian rosewood. We use it exclusively for bridges, often for peghead overlays and binding. We occasionally use it for backs & sides, it sounds great and can look really spectacular.
We have put a good bit of effort into getting wood that is legal BUT there is no way that we can conform to the current & future legal documentation required for international shipping. We have no had trouble shipping instruments with Braz components but full back & sides seems to be asking for trouble. On a similar note, we do not work with “tortoise shell”.
We do not care for Indian Rosewood (personal choice) – why use it if you have the real thing (Braz)?. We have started experimenting with Madagascar rswd, Malaysian Blackwood and Bois d’Rose. They have similar looks and sound capacity.
TT – And to go with the exotic woods are equally exotic inlays by Virginia…
KM – I am blessed and grateful to have Virginia in my life. She has wonderful artistic talent so I taught her the basics of inlay. She also took a course from David Nichols at one of the ASIA conventions. One of her earliest (2nd?) efforts was a Heron on a banjo head.
She used up almost all of our “curly” mother-of-pearl! I was appalled, but it was and remains an excellent job. We use many different types of shell along with exotic woods and stones to create our inlays. We try to keep the inlays simple and “cartoonish” rather that photo perfect, thus allowing the viewer to fill in the details mentally.
We want the inlay to be a part of the whole instrument, not it’s own entity. Fulfilling a customer’s ideas and keeping the inlay from being overpowering is a balancing act. Virginia is still working as a RN but we are looking forward to the day when she retires and can be with me in the shop fulltime. Her artistry takes our efforts to a much higher level.
TT – So no repros of the D100?
KM – No 8^D, that’s a bit beyond our aesthetic. I’m a real fan of CFMartin I, who headed up the Martin shop until about 1870. I’ve had a number of his instruments come through my shop. They have this wonderful simplicity of design while using quite a bit of color in the purfling and marquetry. With rare exceptions his use of shell work was very limited. His guitars were not standardized as they were later and I find them to be delightful to see and play. We often use shell around the soundhole but are not interested in the “42 or 45” edge shell work.
TT -Is it hard to get customers into using a marquetry border outside of the usual herringbone styles? I rarely see that in today’s market…
KM – This doesn’t hit us so much as we are NOT attempting to build for the D-18/D-28 market. People who see and hear our instruments realize that we are offering a different voice and look. Occasionally we get such inquires and if we find that they want something other than what we build, we try to gracefully pass them on to builders who might be better suited to their needs.
For instance: we don’t usually use cedar faces. Yes, we could, but wouldn’t one be best advised to use a builder who regularly builds with cedar- if that is what their heart is set upon? Yes we do occasionally use “herringbone”, we have several styles in stock- but we prefer to have a different, more handmade look.
TT – I was speaking of getting folks interested in multi-colour herringbone- I love that red/green/white scheme which sometimes makes an appearance on Sobells- but I’ve not so far found someone who would order a guitar with that trim!
KM – We have used multi color Herringbone trim often for rossettes but not for edge trim (marquetry). It probably is a little “busy” for us if too much is used. I do enjoy the multi-color look though.
TT – I notice you’re using oil based finishes, what’s the low down on that?
KM – I have never been a fan of Lacquer – neither the health concerns nor the brittle finish. I tried the water borne finishes. They did seem to work well and were very convenient – but the paint just didn’t look “warm”. So I went to varnish, the old stand-by. I started with a Behlen product with nice results but they changed the formula (imagine that?) and over night it became an unsatisfactory product for me.
Auggie LoPrinzi told me about the Pratt & Lambert product and I’ve used it ever since. It dries reasonably well and I think it contributes to the sound that I get. It is an oil based varnish, similar to the old violin varnishes. Lacquer finishes look the best right when they come off the buffer, then it is all downhill.
Varnish finishes look their “worst” when new. As they age they self polish; with reasonable maintenance the finish gets better forever. Varnish is softer than lacquer but much more resilient than French polish. A happy compromise perhaps?
TT – How does the climate in Florida affect the building?
KM – The Gulf coast is humid – like “stepping into a dog’s mouth”. We build in a climate controlled shop though, we try to keep the humidity around 50%. We have not had any unusual problems despite having instruments in New England and southern New Mexico – these being the acid test. So, other than worrying during hurricane season, our building and varnishing schedule is fairly normal.
TT – Thank you for your time, Ken. I was wondering if you had any words of advice for aspiring luthiers?
KM – For your first instrument build a Appalacian lap dulcimer. Don’t use a kit, get all of your materials locally – not from a musical instrument supplier. This will introduce you to all of the skills one needs to to be a luthier, in a gentle and economical manner.
Having done this one can evaluate their level of skill, enthusiasm and practicality and proceed accordingly. Look carefully at every instrument that impresses you for any reason. Listen carefully to every source of learning. Enjoy!
Ken Miller guitars http://kenmillerguitars.com/
©2008 Terence Tan.
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