The Sound of Music

Local luthier turns wood and strings into musical works of art

“The story is in the wood.  Every guitar has a story, <a href=

website like this and the wood tells the story, dosage ” says Reuben Forsland, at work in his studio. Photo by Lisa Graham” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> “The story is in the wood. Every guitar has a story, and the wood tells the story,” says Reuben Forsland, at work in his studio. Photo by Lisa Graham

Joan Jett once said “My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself. It is who I am.”

These words denote a belief system that Reuben Forsland understands completely. He’s not a musician though, he’s a luthier—and a luthier, in case you didn’t already know, is a person who makes stringed instruments.

Forsland doesn’t just make acoustic guitars, though, he makes one-of-a-kind works of art that any musician would be proud to own.

“An instrument is so much more than just an instrument,” says Forsland. “Musicians are storytellers, explaining their thoughts and emotions through song. A good instrument is how they do this—so the guitar is really an extension of the musician.”

Forsland, 40, hasn’t always built guitars, but it seems like he’s always been building something.

“I’ve built a lot of things over the years,” he says. “I’ve built bridges, high rises, concrete forms, log homes and fine homes too. My dad was a stonemason, so I grew up on construction sites. As soon as I graduated from high school at 16, I got a job working in construction. So I guess I’ve been building things for at least 24 years.”

Forsland has always admired people who can play an instrument well. “I’m an avid kiteboarder so I’ve spent a lot of time at the beach,” he says. “I’d see these guys sitting on the beach strumming on their guitars by the fire. I wanted to be able to do that too.”

So eventually Forsland went to a shop to see about buying a guitar. While he was there he saw a business card for a luthier named Brian Hart. “When I saw Brian’s business card I realized that I could make my own instrument instead of buying one of the guitars in the store,” Forsland says. “I called Brian and, under his tutelage, I built my first six string guitar.”

That was during the spring of 2008. Later in the summer of the same year, Forsland relocated to the Comox Valley from Alberta. After the move, Forsland continued to build guitars, learning more with each instrument—but he didn’t do it alone. “I’ve had a few amazing mentors these past few years. I know I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them—luthiers like Brian Hart of Alberta, Scott McKee from Cumberland, and Al Hosokawa from Courtenay, have all generously offered their time and expertise to share their craft with me. I owe them so much. They’ve been very good to me.”

Over the years Forsland continued honing his craft during his free time, mainly on evenings and weekends. “Making the guitars during my free time was a great way to learn,” Forsland says. “Eventually, though, I realized I wanted more from life. I realized I wanted to make guitars as my profession.”

So early this year, Forsland began working full time out of his shop, creating his custom guitars. It’s a leap of faith, but it’s what he believes he should be doing.
And it’s a good thing Forsland has decided to make his guitars full-time, as it’s an extremely long process to transform sheets of wood and guitar strings into a beautiful and functional work of art.

“This is not something you can rush,” he says. “Building these guitars is a complicated process, one that can take months or years tracking down the perfect products for a specific guitar.”

To Forsland, the wood is the heart of the instrument. In fact, the first thing Forsland considers when he makes a guitar is the wood. “The story is in the wood. Every guitar has a story, and the wood tells the story.”

For example, it took Forsland three years to find the right piece of Brazilian tulipwood for his guitar called Spring.

“Brazilian tulipwood, considered by many luthiers and guitarists as one of the finest tone woods on the planet, is a stunningly beautiful hardwood which is in short supply. The tree itself is only found in a narrow geographical area, and it’s small enough to be considered a shrub, typically yielding very small and narrow boards,” explains Forsland. “This is why it took so long to find—it is so rare to find Brazilian tulipwood in sizes large enough for a guitar. But I would settle for no other wood to represent my guitar named Spring.”

Right now Forsland is waiting for a piece of wood from a tree up in Alaska that was carbon dated to be almost 3,000 years old. This wood will form part of a guitar Forsland will call the Ancient Earth Guitar. Forsland will also use wood from an I-beam from Mozart’s house for his guitar he plans to call Love, and an historical piece of wood from a tree that stood near a civil war hospital for the guitar which will be called War.

Forsland also tells the story of a large piece of quilted maple he found on the beach. “I knew it was a special piece of local wood, so I went up to the owners of the house adjacent to the beach and asked them if it would be okay for me to cut a piece from the log,” he says. “Quilting only occurs in one out every 1,000 maple trees, but it creates the most beautiful wood—it looks almost three dimensional when it’s been sanded and polished. It’s quite stunning.”

The wood can also determine the sound the guitar makes, as some woods have deeper tones, and others are crisp and bright sounding. “Sitka Spruce has a powerful direct tone that is capable of retaining its clarity when played forcefully,” Forsland says. “Brazilian tulipwood is heard in the base but it has a brighter sound, and Maple has a very tight and quick sound.”

Though each type of wood has its unique characteristics, each specific piece of wood needs to be considered too. “I’ll tap the slice of wood to hear the tone that comes back to me,” explains Forsland. “I’m listening for what I call sustain—the note should hold for a good length of time.”

A work in progress.  Photo by Lisa Graham

A work in progress. Photo by Lisa Graham

According to Forsland, the amount of wood grain is what can change the sound. “Grain is like an I-beam in the wood,” he says. It’s like little structural pieces that give strength to the wood. Lots of grain lends a brighter sound to a particular piece of wood.”

The thickness of the wood changes the sound too. “As I’m building the piece I can manipulate it to get the exact sound I’m looking for. The thinner the wood, the more it can vibrate. But I have to be careful—if I sand it too much, the sound will become sloppy. It’s a fine balance. You want the sound board to dance around as much as possible.”

Since each wood lends a unique tone, Forsland will work with the musician to create an instrument that complements their unique sound and personality. “I’ll work with the musician to find the wood that works with their voice,” he says. “For example, a singer with a lower range will tend to prefer a warm tone wood like mahogany with a Sitka spruce top.”

In addition to the wood, Forsland finds other ways to make guitars that are truly unique. “I put items in my guitars that are very interesting, like fragments from the Hawaiian ram’s horn, a walrus tusk or even a narwhal tusk,” he says.

“For example, in the Winter guitar, I put parts of the skull of a polar bear for the nut and saddle pieces. A friend of mine had visited the Arctic and found this skull while he was there. I like to hunt down unusual stuff like that. It makes my guitars something interesting to see, as well as something interesting to talk about. Then the musician can say, ‘Man, I have a piece of polar bear in my guitar.’”

After the body of the guitar is constructed, but before he strings the guitar, Forsland hand buffs each guitar with genuine shellac. Shellac is the excrement of the lac bug, and using it to shine the guitars is time consuming, to say the least. “I have to soak and strain the shellac pieces a couple times before I can use it for the wood. After that it’s just a matter of 30 or 40 hours of gentle circular movements to get the perfect sheen.”

Forsland also makes each guitar a story onto itself. “Every guitar has a name,” he says. “And each guitar suits its name in every way—from how it looks to how it sounds.” For example, the guitar called Winter is made from grey wood and it has a cold, crisp sound.

Forsland also adorns his guitars with designs that match the theme of each guitar. For example, the top of the guitar named Water has an inlaid design that looks like waves. Forsland uses precious stones and local materials such as crushed oyster shells to create these designs.

In the future, Forsland hopes to form connections with aspiring musicians. “I can make a guitar that matches their voice and playing style,” he says. “I also want to be able to see them grow as musicians. It’s pretty special to see someone play an instrument I built. I’ll think to myself, ‘I wish I could sound that good,’ but then I think, ‘That’s okay, because but I can build a guitar really well.’ It’s very satisfying.”

One local musician Forsland has worked with is Des Larson. “I saw him play one night and I thought, ‘This guy is amazing—his playing style and stage presence… wow! I need that guy to play one of my guitars.’ Eventually, we hooked up and Des became the owner of one of my guitars. It’s called Wind and it’s perfect for him because he’s always blowing around from place to place,” he says, laughing.

After a musician has purchased a guitar from Forsland, the relationship is not over. “I like to take care of musicians,” he adds. “After a musician has purchased a guitar from me, I make sure they’re taken care of string wise.” Forsland goes on to explain that guitar strings should be replaced at least once a month, so his ongoing commitment to his clients is no small thing.

In addition to building custom guitars, Forsland also rebuilds and repairs existing guitars. He will also make custom guitars for customers who have special objects or stories they would like within the guitar.

“An instrument is an emotional purchase—almost a family member for some,” he says. “The guitar never really stops, and the enjoyment never stops. I think it’s great that a guitar can just keep spreading the sound.”

It’s obvious Forsland has found his true passion, and that passion is illustrated by the beauty of his guitars. “I get so much out of making these instruments,” he says. “That’s why my guitars are called Joi—I really love this and I love doing this every day. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

To Forsland, his guitars are more than just a way to make a living—they are works of art.

“As a luthier, I look at the guitar as a canvas, writing stories and sharing emotions with choice of wood, stones, etcetera. Auditory and visual works of art that a player connects with acoustically and emotionally is my goal with each instrument I build.”

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