Meet your maker: Rob Chaunce

Rob Chaunce poses with a guitar he taught himself how to build. —Stacey Rupolo

The Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker Faire is going into its second year at the Ag Hall on May 13 at 10 am. The faire showcases Island “makers” — beekeepers, sword makers, robot designers, artists, musicians — anyone who comes up with a clever solution or a new idea. Over the next few weeks we’ll be introducing you to some of the makers. This week we talked to Rob Chaunce, who handcrafts guitars out of his home in West Tisbury.

What started out as a student’s desire for an expensive guitar turned into an art form for Rob. He began by teaching himself how to make a 24-fret hollow-body electric guitar. Guitars normally have 21 frets, and the extra frets allow the guitar to reach another octave. Most of the guitars that Rob could find with 24 frets were either wildly expensive or really cheap, so he decided to make his own.

MVT: How did that go at the beginning, teaching yourself how to make these guitars?

Rob: This first guitar took close to a year at the beginning. It was tough because this one here is what they call a through neck, where the neck goes all the way through the guitar, and these sides are attached to that. This was difficult because I laminated this purple wood and two pieces of maple together, and the sides are made of a matched piece of maple on the top and bottom, which means that I had a piece of wood and I cut it down the middle like a butterfly. But there were a lot of pieces of wood that had to meet up, which was difficult. I’ve done a good bit of woodworking, but this is probably the most in-depth I’ve done.

MVT: And you said that’s the first one that you made?

Rob: Yeah, and that one over there is the second one. This one is where you can see that butterfly effect that I’m talking about. Here’s the seam down the middle, and basically this slab of wood got cut open and glued together, so you get that cool mirror image.

I have a fascination with wood. I just think it’s awesome. Have you ever seen those tables where it’s a slab of wood and it’s all oiled up? Some woods are just cool. I was never into those guitars that you just painted. Some people like them, but I just really like the wood. I’m an artist. It’s not that it’s better than the painted one, but this is like art to me, this awesome stuff that the wood does. I didn’t do it. When it’s bare, it doesn’t look like that. You can kind of see that it’s in there, but once you polish it and sand it and oil it, it starts getting all those weird 3D effects. Each one is just fun to do in that way.

I guess the part I really like is when it comes out at the end and it’s another piece of art. Some people have asked me if I could make a copy of some other guitar. I don’t know. Not that I don’t like that other guitar, but I just feel like if I don’t make something out of my head or my own design, it would be like drawing somebody else’s drawing. It’s cool, but it’s not as satisfying for me.

MVT: Are you custom-making these for people, or are they just for yourself?

Rob: I’ve sold a couple. I hope to sell more, ultimately. I guess now I’m addicted to it. I’m getting too many of them. I just like doing it, making it, playing it. Each one is different. Each guitar has a different feel. It’s just fun. Being an artist, I always do visual things, and when I started doing this, I get done and instead of hanging it on the wall, I move onto the next one. I can play it.

MVT: Can you go into the engineering of the guitars? Do you play around with that at all? Like changing the shape of the body or something like that?

Rob: The acoustic guitar’s shape is more crucial. You know, with acoustic guitars, they’re smaller in the front and larger in the back, that’s where the wood is really important. Here the pickups are picking up the vibrations of the strings, but in acoustic, all you’re hearing is the wood vibrating from the strings, so that little part is the higher notes and the bigger part is the bass notes. So you can’t really mess with that, but with electric guitars, you really make any shape. You’ve seen the Flying V or those X guitars — you can really make anything.

The only thing that needs to be right is the bridge. These frets have to be within thousandths of an inch, depending on the scale and size of the bridge. If these weren’t right, you would have notes that were off pitch. So as long as you get the length right, and it has to be totally straight before you put the strings on, so if you were to lay a ruler over it, there are no low spots. What would happen with the low spots is that you would hit the string and it would be rattling on the other ones. So long as you do that, the shape doesn’t matter at all. The neck has to be strong and the frets have to be exactly in the right spot. There are all kinds of sounds you can get from different pickups and the electronics inside working with the pickup, so I change it up that way. I make things interesting, but the main thing that has to be right is the neck, frets, and bridge.

MVT: How long does it take for you to finish one?

Rob: It’s hard to gauge because I work on it in my free time. Most of them took a better part of a year but then I was working on more than one at a time. If I just did that and nothing else, I could certainly make one or two a month, if it was eight hours a day, but I don’t even know if I could do that. There’s stages where you get to a point and you can’t do anything else for the day. You’re gluing or something, but I guess if you had three or four going, you could jump over. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell if I could stand doing it full-time.

MVT: How do you choose what kind of wood you’re going to use? Is there a better type of wood?

Rob: Definitely. For the neck, it has to be really strong. I don’t know the number exactly, but I think I read somewhere that there are 160 pounds of pressure on the neck, and it depends on how long the neck is, but there is a lot of tension there. For that you’d use a maple or mahogany, something really strong, but there needs to be some flex to them; if they’re too tight they won’t work as well either.

Then there’s the whole thing about tone. It’s one of the big arguments in the field; some people say that it’s all about the pickups and electronics, and some people insist that different woods create different tones. If I were to make the same guitar, where the neck was mahogany and maple and the body was ash, and everything else was the same, people argue that it would sound totally different.

MVT: Do you agree with that?

Rob: I think so, although I’ve never made an exact one and tested it. When you have the wood and it’s raw, you can tap it. Pine, when you tap it, is a dull thud; oak is strong, but it doesn’t have any resonance. When you tap wood, it has a sound. Supposedly that sound resonates. For the bodies, you can have woods like rock maple, or softer maples, it doesn’t matter — sometimes you want a lighter wood that has tone because it’s so heavy. So that’s where the wood comes in. Mostly it’s the strength of the wood and the tonal quality. Of course if you like what it looks like, you can pick that out.