Tom Thompson asked his colleague, Duck Dunlap, if he’d taken a look at the DC-16 Martin acoustic guitar.
“Oh you haven’t seen the carnage yet,” Thompson said. “Oh man, hot dog, this is going to be a man’s job, this one.”
The instrument with a crack down the back from top to bottom is one of the numerous projects at Tommy Tunes Guitar Repair.
Thompson is a trained acoustic luthier — a builder of wooden instruments — as well as repair and maintenance technician.
The basement of his Casper home is filled with machinery for building acoustic guitars and tools for repairing acoustic and electric instruments.
On the work table of his building room last week, two guitars lay in mid-build. He showed a plank of mahogany with a block that would become the neck and head of another guitar after he’s cut and shaped them. The room where he saws, sands, glues and bends wood into the side panels of guitars is often filled with sawdust from his projects.
In another room stands large buffers where the two men polish the instruments to a shining finish. Then there’s the shop where he and Dunlap repair acoustic and electric instruments and where Thompson adds finishing touches to his new builds.
Dunlap picked up a nearly finished acoustic guitar to show the end result.
“So lots of machinery, lots of money — but look what you get out of it, it’s so awesome,” Thompson said. “It’s probably the single the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.”
A semi-retirement plan
Thompson started thinking seven years ago about what he wanted to do when he retires from his job as a quality manager for oil field tools, he said.
“I’m 63 now and looking at the business end of retirement,” he said. “And I wanted to do something that speaks to me, something I can do in semi-retirement.”
So he spent a few months singing and playing his guitar at a restaurant on Casper Mountain and earned enough money to study at the American School of Lutherie in Portland, Oregon.
He learned to build guitars, and has taken other classes to certify in repairs and maintenance.
What he calls his “shingles” in the wall include certificates from the school on guitar building and guitar maintenance and repair. Another declares Thompson a silver-level service technician for Taylor, the only one authorized for the make in Wyoming, he said.
Thompson spends an average of 15 to 20 hours a week in his shop building and repairing. He and Dunlap perform as musicians with various local groups, while Thomson also teachers guitar.
Two years ago, he asked Dunlap to join him at his business. Dunlap repairs electric guitars and basses and had previously worked for years at a local music shop.
“This guy’s probably the preeminent electric technician, certainly in town, and probably far and wide,” Thompson said.
Precision and parts
To sound and feel right, guitars must be built to precise measurements. Jigs and templates in the shop guide him to size and place the instrument’s center-line and braces.
Standard woodcarvers try to keep everything within a 16th of inch, but guitar makers deal with 32nds and 64ths of an inch, Dunlap said.
“Two sheets of paper makes the difference, and we’ll sand them right down to 85 (thousandths of an inch) — no plus, no minus,” Thompson said.
He uses a belt sander to file the wood to the proper thickness. Another machine with two rollers shapes the wood into a tapered waist by steaming it at about 300 degrees. He finishes shaping the sides with a small iron, he said.
Guitars hang from the wall and stand on shelves or stands around the repair shop. Tools rest on pegboards, tool chests or shelves along with various guitar parts that are always kept for reuse.
One guitar on the wall belongs to Thompson, but he hasn’t had time to work on it with so many others in the shop, he said.
At his workbench last week lay a Hondo electric guitar with a Jackson neck, the same as the customer’s first guitar. Thompson converted the guitar from a 22-fret neck to a longer 24-fret, which meant the pocket it rests in had to be cut deeper, he said.
“Man, we labored with that for a little while, but we really got it fitting kind of nicely,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dunlap had just finished work on a 1968 Fender Telecaster. It took some searching to find the electrical problem — a bad solder job in the jack output, Dunlap said.
It’s not a collectible vintage, but it’s a well-functioning instrument, Dunlap said.
“He’ll get years of fun out of it,” Dunlap said.
The two pointed out spots on the fret-board where the lacquer has worn through and the wood accumulated discoloration from musicians’ fingers over the years.
“It’s kind of cool, it’s got finger stink on the fret board,” Thompson said.
He’s also repaired a 1946 Martin at his shop. It had been crushed in the side and patched, along with paces of the back.
It’s seen some serious damage, Thompson said. But he wanted to leave it a little rough, and you don’t varnish an old instrument like that, he said.
“I wanted to leave the stink on it, you know,” he said.
Sometimes parts are difficult to find for instruments made decades ago. So the repairmen often fabricate their own pieces, like a pick guard on an old Martin guitar and a nut on a tuner that Thompson made from a bolt.
“You couldn’t tell it from the other ones,” he said.
Thompson last week in the repair shop sanded down a part from about half an inch to 5/32 of an inch. He placed it on a slab of granite designed to be flat to two to four light bands, which means “bloody flat,” Thompson said.
“A lot of this stuff is hand-work, certainly building a guitar,” he said, as he sanded. “There’s a lot of machine work, but when it comes right down to the fine stuff — where we’re talking thousandths — that’s all hand work. You can’t do that with machines.”
The shop recently started carrying parts including strings, tuning keys, and small screws that tend to get lost.
When they’re not in the shop building and repairing, Thompson and Dunlap can be spotted at a booth they bring to local events, inclining this summer’s upcoming Nic Fest.
“It’s like bees to honey with guys,” Thompson said. “They see that going on and they all are just kind of, ‘What are you doing? That’s awesome.’”