Craft Culture: Tim Reede’s Custom Guitars and Basses

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Tim Reede in the attic above his Minneapolis workshop // Photo by Kristine Erickson

Photos by Kristine Erickson

Tim Reede sits on the edge of a green loveseat with a handmade Sitka spruce acoustic guitar in his lap. He’s in the attic above his custom guitar workshop, which looks from the outside like any other garage next to any other home in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Rock gods Jimi, Keith, Dylan, Lennon, and Neil Young tower above, their posters covering the ceiling. A blood-red curtain runs along the wall behind him. With his black-framed glasses riding low on the bridge of his nose, Reede giddy-ups through a quick minor chord progression that’s heavy on the low end. When he’s done riffing, the guitar sustains its ringing, filling the narrow room with its fading hum.

“Do you want to try it?” Reede asks.

Of course you do.

As he passes the instrument over, light bounces off its pale soundboard. The wood shines. “You see these ridges in the wood? That’s called bearclaw,” he says. Jagged white grooves crisscross the grain, vanishing and reappearing like a mirage. Up close, it resembles a wrinkled dress shirt.

Reede turns the guitar over and points out the rich, dark-red wood on the body’s backside. He traces the big swooping cathedrals of the grain with his finger. “This is Cocobolo rosewood, which is becoming more and more rare,” he explains. “It’s just a great-sounding wood, so I snapped up a bunch of it.” He points at the wood stacked along the wall opposite the love seat. The end of each piece has been labeled with neat black Sharpie, and the pile is organized by both type and length. Easily over six feet tall, it could fill a parking space.

“That’s mahogany there, and that’s walnut,” he says. “There’s some alder, and there’s some Swiss pearwood.” He picks up a thick, unshaped plank of the dirty looking pearwood and inspects it, wiping away dust before replacing the wood on the pile. One of these days, he says, he may use it to build a guitar.

“I have some blistered oak in here that would be good for cabinets, but it’s not resonant enough for a guitar,” he says, tapping on the oak with his knuckle. It sounds like he’s knocking on someone’s front door.

Reede, it must be said, knows his wood. That’s because when he’s not building acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitars, and ukuleles—which he’s been doing for 10 years—the 53-year-old works part-time as a cabinetmaker. He’s been at that for 20 years, ever since he built a birdhouse for a former girlfriend’s mom.

Wanting to do it himself, he learned how and realized through the process how much he enjoyed building things and working with wood. “That was a defining moment,” he says.

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Reede, it must be said, knows his wood. That’s because when he’s not building acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitars, and ukuleles—which he’s been doing for 10 years—the 53-year-old works part-time as a cabinetmaker. // Photo by Kristine Erickson

Even before he got into the physical part of instrument making, Reede was involved in the music industry. He studied sound engineering at The Recording Workshop in Ohio and entered the music business. “I was playing electric guitar in a band and working as a music buyer at the Electric Fetus, and I just needed a change. I needed something more tactile,” explains Reede. That’s where woodworking came in.

After finishing cabinetmaking school and building enough cabinets, benches, bookshelves, and coat trees to fill his house, Reede fell in love—with an acoustic guitar. He’d bought it as a gift for someone else, but it ended up benefiting him, too. “I’d always played the electric guitar up until that point, but then I started looking at that acoustic and really thinking about making one myself.”

In 2004, that urge led him to a one-year guitar repair and building program at Southeast Technical College in Red Wing, Minnesota. Ever since, Reede has found a way to balance music with craftsmanship, two things he is passionate about.

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Reede uses the unique characteristics of different types of wood to bring something special to every instrument he makes // Photo by Kristine Erickson

Reede selects the wood he uses for guitars very carefully, purchasing some of it from the cabinet shop where he works. The pearwood, for example, found its way to his woodshop because it was left over from cabinets Reede had built for a client’s exercise room. He gets his hands on exotic woods like blood, ebony, and zebra in the same way. “If I find a piece that has a lot of figure or a nice flame, they can’t use it for cabinets because it’s too crazy looking,” he explains. “For cabinets, you want the wood to be homogenous, but this”—he points at the patterned wood—“is what you want on a guitar. Something unique or odd.”

Downstairs in his workshop, Reede pulls a sheet of Carpathian spruce from a shelf and moves his hand over it in tight circles. The sound of his palm against the wood is amplified, reaching the volume of a loud whisper. When he holds the wood up to his ear and knuckles it in a few spots, the sound is tuneful. “Imagine how resonant that’ll be with strings,” he says.

The spruce he’s handling is from Ukraine. “It’s the same species and quality as Adirondack spruce, which is native to the U.S., but that wood was overharvested during WWII to make airplanes,” he says, explaining the wood’s long trip to his shop. The Carpathian, he continues, is easier to get and more affordable than Adirondack. Like all the wood Reede uses for soundboards, it has been quarter sawn for greater stability. This type of cut, which is akin to mowing intricate patterns in your lawn instead of cutting it in straight lines, makes a wood board less likely to cup or warp due to changes in temperature or humidity—well-known enemies of the guitar.

Next Page: A Process Steeped in Tradition

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About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.

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