Eugene artist Ray Kraut refers to himself as a luthier, a term used to describe someone who either makes or repairs stringed instruments.
Kraut may only have time to build a dozen or so guitars in a given year, but the value of his crafting skills has been sustainable since he moved to the Pacific Northwest. Based in the studio of a home that he now rents to tenants, Kraut works roughly ten hours a day for nearly two or three months on each guitar before he finally views the instrument as finished.
The difference between Kraut, an independent craftsman, and a major manufacturer can be found in his process. Kraut says larger guitar companies (e.g. Martin, Gibson, Taylor, etc.) build for mass quantities of production and have standardized styles for each of their guitars.
Kraut spends significantly more time with each instrument than many other craftsmen can afford to take with a single instrument.
In order to remain productive, however, Kraut works on two or three guitars at the same time. He may be working on shaping the mold of a guitar on the same day that he’s finishing the neck of a separate guitar.
Perhaps the most challenging part of Kraut’s crafting process is obtaining his favorite wood for the body of his instruments: Brazilian rosewood.
“Each piece of wood has a different stiffness rating,” said Kraut. “Depending on the looseness of the wood, the base creates a different sound and needs to be treated differently.”
Brazilian rosewood is considered to produce the most ideal tone for all stringed instruments. The wood was so popular with artisans and furniture makers, however, that it became overharvested.
In the mid-1970s, the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) treaty was enacted. According to CITES.org, the treaty was enacted to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival” and has all international trade subject to certain controls.
Kraut and other craftsmen have to follow strict laws to get the wood. For example, many suppliers harvest the wood from a tree that naturally fell down. Kraut has also heard of people that bought old South American properties in order to remove the particular rosewood from the beams. Kraut has taken trips to various parts of the world just to obtain the wood.
Kraut also works with many other types of wood as well. The back and sides of his instruments use wood from across South America and Africa. He features Italian wood on the soundboard, which makes up much of the sound for the guitars. In order to create the binding on each of his instruments, he uses African ebony. For the design on the front of the body, his preferred wood is Sitka spruce.
He is one of the few remaining craftsmen to use the dovetail method when building the necks of his instruments. This method uses a self-compressing joint that connects the neck of the guitar to its body. The advantage is that it does not screw a single bolt into the guitar. Kraut prefers the dovetail method because it does not add any extra weight on the instrument.
“Everything you do when building a guitar has an extreme impact on its sound,” said Kraut.
Because sound is created through the transfer of energy, Kraut explains that adding a bolt blocks sound from passing through the body. The dovetail joint, however, is self-compressing. It allows a more fluid “voice” to pass through the instrument without any disruption.
Additionally, Kraut sculpts the “braces” on his instruments to allow effective energy transfer. Braces are the wooden planks that structure the back of the guitar and hold the instrument together.
Kraut then rests the mold of his instrument on top of the body. Next, he seals the two together with weightless “shellac” glue. The glue comes from the shell of a lac beetle.
While Kraut is known for his association with his longtime mentor Ervin Somogyi, from Hungary, Kraut is considered to be a more affordable alternative. The base price is roughly $9,000 for one of Kraut’s instruments, but he remarks that upon completion a client will typically pay $12,000 to purchase one of his guitars.
When building a guitar, Kraut says that there is always more to think about. He explains that two of the most important aspects include the structural integrity of the instrument as well as the actual sound that it will produce. He hopes to produce unique qualities in his craftsmanship, and he spends hours working with clients on perfecting each design. Kraut prides himself on never reproducing the same design on two different instruments, and penciled sketches of ideas can be found in nearly every inch of his studio.
For Kraut and craftsmen around the world, process is how he gets from an initial sketch to a beautiful, finished guitar.