Artisans Studio Tour invites the public to witness the creative process

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Dammann Fine Custom Instruments uses local wood—walnut, cherry, locust and Osage orange—to craft its mandocellos and guitars. Publicity photo Dammann Fine Custom Instruments uses local wood—walnut, cherry, locust and Osage orange—to craft its mandocellos and guitars. Publicity photo

Over the course of two days, the 22nd annual Artisans Studio Tour will feature 42 artists in 23 studios. Director and potter Nancy Ross says, “We’re bigger and better than ever.” She encourages visitors to make a weekend of it November 12-13 to soak up as much art and inspiration as possible on this free, self-guided tour.

The studios span a wide territory, from Kevin Crowe’s Tye River Pottery in Amherst to iron-forger Gerald Boggs’ Wayfarer Forge in Afton to Richard Gordon’s furniture and Ninika Gordon’s jewelry at Phineas Rose Wood Joinery in Madison. “It’s a good family event with demonstrations and some hands-on activities,” Ross says. One such activity is presented by Jo Perez, a stained glass and jewelry artist, who will give visitors the opportunity to design a small stained-glass panel.

New this year is the Emerging Artisan program, wherein a professional mentors an upcoming artisan who has the necessary skills but is still learning the business aspect of the art. Potter Tom Clarkson will share his studio with his mentee, Adam McNeil. “It’s a way for us to give back and to encourage the next generation to follow this unusual lifestyle that all of us have chosen,” says Ross, who has been throwing pottery for more than 40 years.

Though it is difficult to choose a highlight among so much talent and high-quality craftsmanship, Ralph Dammann is a unique addition this year as the only luthier, a maker of stringed instruments. “A luthier is something more uncommon and people will get to see how string musical instruments are made,” Ross says. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Dammann Fine Custom Instruments consists of a machine shop, workshop and showroom made from salvaged material and located between 29 North and Stony Point Road. Dammann, a retired contractor who began making electric basses in the 1970s when he played in a rock ’n’ roll band professionally, opened his first custom bass shop in 1997. Ten years later, he hired his first luthier, Ray Verona, who made the first acoustic five-course mandocello that the studio now specializes in and has sold to people all over the world. Dammann continued to expand the business by hiring Christian Ayala, who had worked for him as a carpenter, and the studio now makes acoustic guitars as well as custom orders and instruments on spec.

They craft all of their instruments from local wood, typically walnut, cherry, locust and Osage orange. With great attention to detail, the wood is quarter sawn, meaning the annual rings of the tree lay perpendicular to the face of the material. “This,” Dammann says, “makes the grain really tight and strong.” It then takes five years minimum to dry and season the wood. “Time changes the material a little bit,” Dammann says. “It takes a while to stabilize and lose its moisture, which will help prevent cracking and splitting.” It’s a highly controlled process, from log to finished instrument, and takes about 40-60 hours to make a single instrument, depending on the type and how complicated it is. The process is also dependent on the weather as they can only glue and put finishes on when the humidity level is right. Dammann estimates they have about 20 instruments in the works at any given time. “We use traditional forms of lutherie,” he says. “And the tradition goes back to the 17th century, if not before. …They are sophisticated instruments and they sound that way, too.”

During the studio tour, the workshop will be set up with instruments at all stages of construction, Dammann says, and he, Verona and Ayala will explain the processes necessary to reach those stages. Some of their early designs for instruments will be on display on the walls, and numerous finished instruments will be set up to play. Musicians will be on hand to demonstrate sound, including some Baroque-style music.

“We’re in impressive company on the Artisans Studio Tour,” Dammann says. “You could go to any one of them and see something neat.”

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