The KBBI and KDLL news team brings you the latest in our series “Peninsula Profiles." In this installment, Ariel Van Cleave met up with Ray DeMeo at his workshop just outside of Anchor Point. DeMeo is what’s known as a luthier. He’s been professionally building stringed instruments for nearly 20 years.
A musically-inclined friend of mine sent me a link to a Craigslist ad a few weeks ago that advertised custom-built stringed instruments. She told me she wanted to know more about the person behind the ad. And being a bit of a music geek myself, she knew I couldn’t resist. So I called the number that was listed and made an appointment to go see Ray in his element.
His German Shepard Beatrice greeted me as I made my way up the driveway and into the house. A large work table sits in the middle of the kitchen/workshop area. The walls are lined with shelves that hold tools, works in progress and completed instruments. Ray’s first instrument is included in that collection.
“I just had an interest when I was a young kid. I grew up in Chicago and I used to play hooky and hang out in places where they made them. I actually started making them in high school. That was one thing I did in high school, that lute,” he said.
Since that lute, he’s made another 58 instruments. When he was in high school, Ray would go to one of the libraries in downtown Chicago with pockets full of quarters and copy pages out of the instrument-making reference books.
He tried college after high school, but it really wasn’t for him. Since then he’s worked in construction, drove truck, served as a soldier and was a logger in Canada. Eventually he decided to put his focus back on instruments, so he went back to school to learn how to repair violins and violas.
“The teacher was a master violin maker. She taught me at the same time I was learning repair, on my own time… I was able to make a violin with her. She showed me how to make a violin. There was a night class at the same time for mandolin making,” he said.
Ray also has learned from masters from places like Japan and India. That’s translated into a more traditional approach to instrument building, which he said some people shy away from these days.
“I cook my glue. This is just hide glue. It’s just from animal parts,” he said. Ray also makes his varnish. “You ever hear of lac? It’s a bug. They leave this hard secretion… I use seed lac because it looks like little seeds. And then it’s mixed with a couple other things.”
Those more traditional methods, like making your own glue, tend to make the business of putting an instrument together that much harder. Everything Ray does has to be deliberate and controlled.
“You have seconds. You only have a minute at the very top. And a lot of times you’ll heat the parts to give it a little extra time. You know, we’re talking seconds.”
But he said the easiest way doesn’t always mean you’ll get the best result.
“There’s modern stuff, and modern ways and bolts and new kinds of glues. But there’s a reason why the 1960s Martins sound so nice,” he said.
Ray couldn’t give me an exact time for how long it takes to make each instrument. But from what I saw, it takes a while.
Ray told me the building process starts with selecting a piece of wood. Maple and spruce are pretty typical choices. And as a matter of fact, some of those pieces come directly from Ray’s yard. He draws lines with a pencil on the wood to tell him where not to go, then gets to cutting.
Soon he has a rough shape of what will eventually become a ukulele or violin. But remember, it’s all very specific. Ray takes his pencil once again and starts to measure out depths for each part of the instrument. There are posters on one of the walls of a violin, viola and mandolin. They are covered in numbers.
“This is millimeters. That’s the thickness. It’s specific. It’s been mapped out. So that’s a benchmark and then there’s a matter of pulling the plates and flexing them and tapping them. You deviate from that exact… and that’s a judgment call,” he said.
Ray said it’s part science, part instinct. One way he was testing his work was tapping the board to hear certain tones.
“The viola, the top is C# and the back is a D. If I can hit these I will. I’m happy. The violin is different, it’s F# and G. Mandolins are different, they’re a full step away.”
Ray loves what he does. And you can really tell as you talk to him about his craft, too. Another thing I noticed about Ray, he’s incredibly humble.
“I’m not a big shot myself. I’d rather have my instruments being played and I don’t really need a pat on the back.”
And it turns out that Craigslist ad was actually put online by a buddy of his. Ray said he doesn’t have much use for the Internet. Makes sense coming from a guy who spends his days cutting wood, making glue and mixing varnish. Why watch another cat video on YouTube when you can make a beautiful instrument instead?