by Chris Chase
Coastal Journal Staff
BATH — It doesn’t take long to determine that Carter Ruff’s garage hasn’t seen a car in a long time.
The first thing that catches the eye upon walking through the door is a row of guitar cases, lined up and labeled. Look up a little further on the shelves, and there’s a small mandolin hanging from a peg, next to a shelf full of guitar bodies. The shelf above that has yet more guitar bodies of varying shapes and levels of completion.
The walls are covered in stringed instruments of various kinds. A massive pad of paper is covered in detailed diagrams of guitars. Guitar parts are labeled and categorized in a shelving unit. Guitar pieces are set up next to tools, waiting for work. The room is, quite literally, crammed with guitars.
At the center of it all, patiently working over the fretboard of his latest project, Ruff stands in quiet concentration.
Ruff has been a full-time luthier since 2002, when he founded Subterranean Guitars. Originally based in a basement, he’s now working out of the garage of his current house in Bath.
The guitar he’s working on today is a bit different from the others in his shop. Most of the time he works with wood purchased from suppliers, and has a set goal or customer in mind. This one is made out of the remnants of a church pew, specifically a pew from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, which burned down in 2011. Ruff plans to give the guitar to the church to sell at an auction the church is holding to raise enough money to build a new church.
“It was an idea I had been kicking around for a while,” said Ruff of the project. “I was just wanting to do something to help.”
Ruff is a long-time member of the church, and has plenty of memories of it, including his wedding. Now, a part of that church is being transformed into something useful once more.
The entire guitar is made from wood salvaged from the fire. Ruff had wanted to use something from the building itself, but hadn’t found anything suitable for a guitar in any of the structural elements of the building. Luthiers are notoriously picky about the wood they use, and for good reason: Small differences can change the sound immensely.
In the end, he found the wood he needed in the pews. Most of the body and neck will be made of ash, which formed the bulk of the pews. Typically, wood like mahogany is used, but according to Ruff, ash will work fine. The soundboard will be made of pine, an uncommon choice, but not unsuitable for a guitar. Typically, spruce or cedar are used, but pine has similar enough characteristics to work.
The hard part was finding the perfect piece of wood. The soundboard must be straight-grained, have no knots, and needs to be strong enough to handle the tension the strings will put on the guitar. With over a hundred pounds of force pulling on the bridge at all times, a piece of wood that is too thin will buckle under the strain. Make the wood too thick, though, and the guitar isn’t going to resonate properly.
“It’s a delicate balance,” said Ruff. “With stronger pieces of wood, I can make it a little thinner.”
Luckily, the seat of one of the pews had a piece of wood that fit what he needed, a quarter-sawn piece of pine with perfectly straight and consistent grain. The only problem with the wood he selected for the back was small nail hole that sits just below where the neck begins. Ruff decided to just leave a nail in it as part of the guitar’s charm, and feels it won’t affect the sound.
The guitar’s design is unique for Ruff in other ways as well. A bevel in the body of the guitar allows the player to be more comfortable, a small addition Ruff had wanted to try in the past. In addition to that, a second sound hole will sit on the side of the guitar towards the neck, facing the player. Ruff hopes it will allow the player to more accurately gauge what the instrument sounds like from the front. With no specific guidelines for this project, Ruff has been able to branch out and be more creative than usual.
“I like challenging myself,” said Ruff. “I’ve been having a little fun with it.”
The headstock is adorned with Ruff’s personal symbol, a large half-moon, emblazoned in silver. Ruff chose the symbol years ago so his guitars would be easily recognizable.
“A lot of makers put their names on it in some sort of script,” said Ruff. “Once you get far enough away, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes. But you can tell what this is from wherever you see it.”
Making instruments out of salvaged materials isn’t that uncommon for Ruff. Currently, he has a set of staves from a wooden fermenting vat that came from a Guinness production plant. Ruff plans on making a guitar out of them, when he finds the time.
“I plan on calling it the Guinntar,” said Ruff with a chuckle.
Unusual designs are a bit of a hobby as well. As noted above, a massive pad of paper, the kind typically seen used for manufacturing design, hangs on the wall in his shop. On it are dozens of carefully measured-out guitars, usually copied from unusual specimens brought into Ruff’s shop. The current guitar being built for the church is designed after a 1920s Gibson. Other designs include a mid 19th century design, and a variety of interesting and uncommon shapes he had taken a liking to.
Typically, the asking price for one of Ruff’s custom guitars starts around $3,000. He’s hoping that interest will be high enough for his church guitar to bring in at least that much. The architectural design has already been completed for the new church, and bids are already coming in, and all that is needed is a final fundraising push to make it reality. Ruff hopes both the money and attention his guitar is garnering will help.
“Being a parent with young children, we don’t have a tremendous amount of treasure to throw around,” said Ruff. “Here, I had the opportunity to use my powers for good, so to speak.”
The auction will take place on November 3 at the Brunswick Knights of Columbus. The auction will occur alongside a potluck dinner put on by the church. For more information, visit www.uubrunswick.org.