The Art of Imperfection: Luthier Builds Instruments by Hand

The Art of Imperfection: Luthier Builds Instruments by Hand

Staff Photo Nick Brothers
Bayard Blain, a local luthier, plays a tune on his own hand crafted L Double-O guitar. The guitar will be given away in a raffle during the Fayetteville Roots Fest.

With each rapid scuff to the sitka spruce arch top guitar, the luthier wipes away the fluffy-looking wood shavings with a brush of his rugged, calloused hand. As the rhythmic shaving continues, he carries a look of relaxed focus, paying attention to each detail he creates in the wood.

The man is Bayard Blain, and he is a luthier — one who makes stringed instruments by hand. Blain has made more than 150 instruments throughout the course of 10 years, and he’s built flat and arch top guitars, classical guitars, mandolins and ukeleles. He also builds furniture if asked.

Blain, 35, takes pride in the woods he picks out in person, and loves collecting them. Some of his favorties to work with are Honduran mahogany, paudouk, sitka spruce and Maccasar ebony. The latter makes for gorgeous, darkly striped fretboards.

While building his brand, Bayard Guitars, Blain played in several local folk and bluegrass bands throughout the years. With his experience in playing, it brought along a different kind of knowledge for tone and feel in an insturment.

When he isn’t whittling away at his sawdust workshop, you can find him in town at Sunrise Guitars making instrument repairs. You’ll also find a few of his own guitars for sale on the acoustic racks. His custom guitars can range in price from $3,000 to $5,000 or more depending on the custom needs.

The tone of a Bayard guitar is unique to each instrument, but the sitka spruce L OO guitar featured a full, bright sustain that came from within the guitar. At this year’s Roots Festival, Blain will be giving away this guitar in a raffle for the attendees.

So, we at The Free Weekly thought it might be a cool idea to sit down with a local luthier and talk about some of the process that goes into building the instruments that make the music of the Roots Festival possible.

Here’s our Q&A. Unfortunately, it’s impossible transcribe Blain’s casual guitar playing throughout the interview.


Staff Photo Nick Brothers
This panorama photo shows the layout of Blain’s workshop. On the right he keeps a storage of raw woods. Luthier tools and body templates line the shelves and counter space throughout the workshop.

TFW: What got you into working with wood and making instruments? When did it start?

BLAIN: As a player. I enjoyed playing. I was one of those kids that always enjoyed making things, whittling and making things out of wood. I grew up in the mountains in Montana right by the boundaries of Yellowstone in Paradise Valley. I was always crafty. I was really into the do-it-yourself mentality. I was a voracious player. I played all the time, hours and hours a day. That’s what got me into guitar building, just the mystique of how the instruments work.

On a whim I made the decision to go to a luthier school in Canada in 2003. I saved up for 9 months or so and did a two month luthier course in Qualicum, British Columbia. There was about a dozen students. It just taught me the basics of assembly and the tools required.

I moved down here shortly after that to play in a bluegrass band and my grandfather in Illinois gave me a bunch of his tools. That’s sort of where I got my start. I worked building furniture for a couple people here. I worked part time building furniture and playing music. It took me a couple years out of luthier school until I was kind of encouraged to do it. I built my first three by myself.

TFW: How long does it take you normally to craft an instrument?

BLAIN: Anywhere between 60-100 hours. I can do a couple in a month’s time, but it varies on the specifications of the final product. Staining and finishes can sometimes take up a lot of time.

TFW: Who are some of your clientele?


Courtesy Photo
This 13 fret parlor guitar by Bayard Blain is available for purchase at Sunrise Guitars in Fayetteville.

BLAIN: My clientele has always been musicians. I had a little bit of an advantage there and I had this awesome group of friends. After playing in 3 Penny Acre and all that stuff with traveling and doing folk fests. A lot of my guitars go to musicians and still do. It afforded me a meager lifestyle

There’s a lot of people who start building but don’t have an outlet for their work. You might be really good, but don’t know how to sell them. I just gave them away real cheap for a while because my musician friends don’t have a lot of money to buy nice guitars.

Now it’s come around full circle. I have the return customers. Things like the Roots Fest are great because I see a lot of my guitars come back that are being played on the main stage.

I’m super stoked to hopefully get Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers to check out my mandolins. I’m at the position now where a lot of builders get a jump from one player. Chris Thile did that for a guy in Boston that makes mandolins. I’m just waiting for my rock star.

It takes money to move the machines. All those pieces of woods are pretty valuable. It requires some income. It’s such a bummer to do what I do and look at the stuff coming in from China. You can even buy a pretty nice guitar nowadays for less money than it takes me to just buy the parts needed to build it. I can’t build a guitar for $200-$300, let alone labor costs. It’s crazy. Our world is so skewed like that. The Walmart sensation is taking over. We want it cheap, and high quality.

TFW: When did you get serious with the business?

BLAIN: Probably about the last five or six years I’ve grown out of my experimental phase and began producing numbers of good instruments. It’s just persistency. My wife does my numbers and taxes and website. I don’t like that stuff. This shop is kind of like my work, but also kind of like my man cave. I live with four women. I have three daughters.

TFW: Who are some of your favorite luthier contemporaries?


Staff Photo Nick Brothers
Bayard Blain sands down a flat top guitar to a desired width in his luthier workshop.

BLAIN: One of my favorite companies is Collings Guitars out of Austin, Texas. They only do high end stuff. They’re probably making the best guitars in the world. Any musician who’s into building mandolins or guitars will know Collings. They’re top of the line. They’re expensive as hell and engineered amazingly well. They also have 50-80 employees and automated carving machines. They’re assembled by hand. They’re able to be super consistent, and they cut out tons of man hours. If you’re starting from the same curves every time, you can really end up with a consistent product.

If you do everything by hand like I do, It gets a little different. That’s part of the mystique of it. Perfection’s overrated.

TFW: So what’s a commercial guitar brand that you think makes a fine product?

BLAIN: Well, Martins are probably the best. There’s a lot of guitars out there that look hand made. I hate Taylors.

TFW: What’s your favorite style of music?

BLAIN: I’ve always liked all kinds of stuff. Playing-wise I’ve always liked bluegrass, Irish or folk song stuff. I really appreciate the musical aspect from the history perspective. I’ll listen to the radio, like today, I was listening to the classical hour. There was a violin that wasn’t quite right. Normally you hear concert violins that sound great, but with this one there was just some frequency that was off about it. I could totally hear it. Mandolins are one of those instruments where there’s a lot of bad ones out there. It’s a hard one to build because it’s small and inherently bright and barky. I think 98 percent of mandolins out there are really bad. But when you hear a really nice one being played nicely, it’s so beautiful. It has a bad rap because it’s so bright and nasaly. Then you’ll hear Chris Thile play a Bach piece and it’ll be great.

TFW: Are you worried at all that Chris will pick up one of your mandolins and just be like, “Meh”?

BLAIN: [laughs] No, I think he’ll like my stuff. I have two new mandolins down at the shop and they’re both stellar. There might be little bugs in them that, if anybody could, he’d find in them. I feel really good about those mandolins though. Where you get nitpicked being a no name builder is in finishes. I’ll spend a lot of times on finishes.

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