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There's music in the wood: Bridgton wood carver creates handmade electric guitars

William Janelle of Bridgton has been working with wood for most of his life. He built furniture in the basement as a teenager, and later took up sculpture, shaping rough blocks of native hardwoods into eagles, bobcats and other wildlife. These days he's trained his chisels on a new subject, chipping away at slabs of white walnut, oak and cherry, and piecing them together to create hand-carved electric guitars.

"This kind of came about out of the blue. I had no intentions of building guitars five or ten years ago. Its just been a weird little turn in life," Janelle said.

A traumatic life experience a year and half ago prompted him to take a break from sculpture, and turn to guitars. First he dabbled in making three stringed cigar box instruments, and has since graduated to custom carved solid body electrics which he creates in his one room studio just down the long driveway from his house.

William Janelle carves an electric guitar in his workshop at his home in Bridgton, Maine.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
William Janelle carves an electric guitar in his workshop at his home in Bridgton, Maine.

Each guitar starts out as a block of hardwood firmly clamped to a work table which he methodically shapes with a mallet and chisel. One this day he's chipping away on an unfinished guitar body that features the head of a blue jay carved in relief at the back edge. Janelle said when he's working with wood, the shapes sometimes reveal themselves.

"As far as the carvings go some of them are 'told to me'," he said. "I don't want to sound weird but the wood kind of gives you an impression of what it is. Other times I try to force my will onto the wood. Not always successfully."

He intentionally leaves chisel marks in the final designs.

"Yes the chisel marks leave a fingerprint of the work. I personally like using hand tools, the tactile feel, the rhythm and the pounding away at the wood," he said.

Even the machinery that Janelle uses to build the guitars electronic components is "home spun." To make the pickups which convert the vibrating strings into electricity that can then be amplified into sound he uses an old sewing machine that he bought at a thrift store and has modified to spin long strands of wire-as thin as a human hair into a coil.

The machinery that Janelle uses to build the guitars electronic components is "home spun." He uses an old sewing machine that he bought at a thrift store, which he modified to spin long strands of wire-as thin as a human hair into a coil to make the pickups which convert the vibrating strings into electricity that can then be amplified into sound.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
The machinery that Janelle uses to build the guitars electronic components is "home spun." He uses an old sewing machine that he bought at a thrift store, which he modified to spin long strands of wire-as thin as a human hair into a coil to make the pickups which convert the vibrating strings into electricity that can then be amplified into sound.

"The number of winds affects the sound. Too many and its powerful, too few and makes it very weak," he said. "And the idea is to go back and fourth to create space between the wire so its not one wire on top of another wire."

Once the body, neck, fretboard, headstock, pickups and bridge are assembled, Janelle said he's ready to plug the guitar into an amplifier, and see how it sounds. On this day, he's picked up a guitar with a body of white walnut, a quarter sawn oak neck, and a cherry fretboard, and is cranking out some old-time blues.

On of Janell's handmade wood pickups, left, beside a standard pickup. The pickup converts the vibrating strings into electricity that can then be amplified into sound.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
On of Janell's handmade wood pickups, left, beside a standard pickup. The pickup converts the vibrating strings into electricity that can then be amplified into sound.

"I love playing the guitar its kind of alike a Zen moment for losing yourself," he said. "It's like carving when I'm wailing away on a piece of wood and totally focused on what I'm doing. That's what its like when I'm carving, and now building guitars. Its the same thing."

William Janelle brands his instruments as FeatherCrest Guitars, which can be found on his website.