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Burnham woodworker carves out time for making custom guitars


Jim Macdonald of Burnham holds a guitar that he made for a friend, with a design based on a mural at Capricorn Recording Studio in Macron, Georgia. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The first guitar Jim Macdonald ever bought was a 1968 Gibson Les Paul with a gold-top finish.

He was in seventh grade and had saved all the money he made delivering newspapers just to get it.

As a teenage boy and aspiring musician in the early 1970s, Macdonald was most interested in hearing what kind of wailing sounds he could produce with that guitar in his hands.

But he was perhaps just as interested in the instrument’s craftsmanship and artistry.

“I think most of my aesthetic comes from staring at that guitar,” said Macdonald, a professional woodworker and artist who specializes in marquetry, the process of using pieces of veneer to form patterns or designs. “I would play it, but I also looked at it from all angles. It was just beautiful. I think that Les Paul was the representation of eliminating everything that was clunky and highlighting everything that was graceful.”

A half-century later, Macdonald, 63, custom makes his own guitars, modeled largely after that Les Paul.

From a studio he built at his home in the small northwestern Waldo County town of Burnham, he starts with planks of mahogany wood imported from Honduras, which he uses to shape the body and neck, and then adds the fretboard, tuners, strings, control knobs and pickups.

What sets his guitars apart from those of other luthiers, though, and what transforms them from instrument to art, is the marquetry work on the body. Macdonald spends hours upon hours layering thin pieces of veneer that have been expertly cut into his desired design – a process he’s spent years perfecting.

Some of Macdonald’s guitars on display through September at the Chocolate Church in Bath. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Ten of his custom art guitars, as well as some of his more traditional marquetry artwork, are on display inside the art gallery at the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath through September.

“We’ve never had anything like this that was related to instruments, or this kind of woodworking,” said Kimberly Becker, the gallery’s curator. “It was such a great opportunity for us too, because he’s local and his work is brilliant.”

Macdonald has been making his living woodworking his entire adult life, mostly crafting custom furniture and cabinetry for contractors building houses for deep-pocketed clients on the coast.

But as he’s gotten older, he’s also made time to focus on marquetry art guitars, which combine two of his biggest passions.

His designs are often nostalgic, a time transport back to when he bought that first Les Paul and learned his first riffs.

“I think part of it is a chance to reach out to my generation, my people,” Macdonald said, referring to the Baby Boomer generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. “I don’t think that generation has one specific voice anymore. It’s very diffused.”

James Macdonald of Burnham has been making handmade art guitars from scratch for decades from his home studio. Some of them will be on display through September at the Chocolate Church in Bath, along with his other artwork. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

FINDING HIS PLACE

Macdonald grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, between New Haven and New York City.

“That period of time, there was a lot going on,” he said with a chuckle. “But most parents didn’t hover over you. You were sent out the back door, and you just found your tribe.”

He also found music at a young age, in part because he had an older brother who played guitar. Macdonald’s first instrument was a hand-me-down, an English Vox with a sunburst finish that only whet his appetite for something more substantial. The Gibson Les Paul is one of the top electric guitars ever made and the go-to for Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and dozens of other classic rock virtuosos.

Macdonald continued to play, eventually swapping that Les Paul for a Gibson S345 (a decision he lightly regrets) and went to business school after high school. It wasn’t the right fit, but he soon found an aptitude for woodworking and pursed that as a career.

“It just struck a chord and off I went,” he said.

His first jobs, still in Connecticut, were at a small company that made electric guitars, naturally, and a boatbuilding firm.

“I got to be in my 20s and was looking around for land to build, and this was a time when people my age were sort of directed to move to the country and build a business,” he said.

Macdonald at his home studio in Burnham. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

That’s how he ended up in Maine. He’d been coming here since the early 1960s with his grandparents, who owned a camp on Unity Pond.

“I was looking for land on the coast, and my grandfather said I could buy this piece of land from him if I wanted. So, I did,” he said.

Macdonald built his house in 1984 and opened his woodworking business around the same time.

There was plenty of work, so much that he didn’t have as much time for guitars. He also was raising a young family.

Five years after his house was built, Macdonald added a workshop.

Saw blades and sander belts are stored on the wall of Macdonald’s shop. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I got started when my son was an infant,” he said. “We had an intercom system, so when he’d go down for naps, that’s when I’d go out and start swinging the hammer.”

Before he started building his own guitars from scratch, Macdonald did marquetry work on other guitars that already were built. At one point he sent pictures of his work to a Gibson custom shop “on a whim.” As it turns out, they were doing a show featuring artists’ work on their guitars and Macdonald was asked to produce something that was included and later sold.

“That got the door open a little, so I did more for other people here and there,” he said.

When he decided to build his own guitars, he came back to the Les Paul, his first love.

Macdonald said although his guitars are works of art, they are meant to be played.

“Guitars are so far-flung. There is still such a width and breadth of what you can make,” he said. “I just do what I feel no one else can do.”

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

If Macdonald were to work eight-hour days, taking breaks on the weekend, he said he’d probably be able to finish a guitar in about two months.

But that’s rarely how it goes.

Cutting and sanding the wood for the body and headstock is one thing, but the marquetry and inlay work that goes into finishing each instrument is what takes the most time.

Macdonald uses a variety of specialty saws and knives to make his cuts and has developed a method of using double stick tape to attach veneer. For some of the finer details, he uses a knife-tipped wood-turning pen.

He credits the Massachusetts woodworker and marquetry expert Silas Kopf for helping take his work to the next level. Kopf hosted a workshop on marquetry at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle in the 1990s that Macdonald attended.

“I think I have always viewed this as artwork,” he said. “There is a constant barrage of little decisions you’re making along the way, so you have to see with an artist’s eye.”

In total, Macdonald has made 20 custom guitars. Half of them are on display (and for sale, starting at $4,500) at the Chocolate Church gallery.

A detail of Macdonald’s guitar “Steal this Book,” based on a book written by Abbie Hoffman. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

One guitar depicts a buttoned-up shirt, with one hand reaching in between the buttons to produce a copy of a book, “Steal This Book,” by Abbie Hoffman, a 1960s activist and counterculture legend. The detail of the hand rivals a realist painting.

Another guitar, titled “Tribute to West 48th,” is an homage to a famed music store, Manny’s in New York City. Macdonald took a photograph of the sidewalk in front of the store – where the name had been famously etched into the concrete – and recreated that on the body of the guitar.

Macdonald said it’s hard for him to pick a favorite, but he said the work he did on one of the most recent guitars, titled “Separate Reality,” is probably his finest detail. It includes a recreation of the cover of a 1971 book by Carlos Castaneda, another counterculture figure, but also a worn hand letting go of the book and a raven flying across a desert scene.

Macdonald’s “Separate Reality” on display at the Chocolate Church. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

One guitar that’s not on display is one Macdonald made as a tribute to his favorite band, the Allman Brothers. In 2018, he donated the instrument to the Big House Museum in Macon, Georgia, the official repository of Allman Brothers Band memorabilia.

William Lederer, executive director of the Chocolate Church, first heard about Macdonald’s work from a friend who saw a post on Facebook about the guitars. It took nearly two years to iron out the details for an exhibit.

Lederer, who is also a musician, said having Macdonald’s guitars hanging on the walls over the last couple weeks has been “torture.”

“I just want to take them down and play them,” he said.

Becker, the gallery curator, said patrons have been thrilled with the exhibit.

“We’re bringing in people we haven’t seen before,” she said.

Macdonald, meanwhile, doesn’t know how many more custom guitars he has left, but he still likes being in his studio working, connecting to his younger self and thinking of a time when the world seemed smaller and simpler.

“It always felt like my generation was an ‘us,’ ” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again.”


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