Say "Vermont" and the images of winter come rushing in. Cabins, maple syrup, mountains bedecked in a sheath of white. Not today though.
It's an environment that can best be described as "a chewy eighty degrees" as I pull up to Creston Lea's shop in Burlington, which sits back from the street, just beside the former Rutland railway line. A sign announces "No Train Horn," which seems like a blessing to Mr. Lea's neighbors. Instead, the only sound they're likely to hear are those emanating from some of the most beautiful guitars I've ever seen.
We start, as you might expect, at the beginning.
"I was doing carpentry and the carpentry was starting to morph into more shop-oriented work like cabinetry," Lea tells me. "I was also playing guitar in bands and was just interested in guitars. My friend Mark Spencer asked me to modify an old Squier Strat body for him so he could change the pickup, but then he just abandoned it at my house after I’d done the routing. I got excited to have a guitar part in the house and I kind of scrounged together other parts and made the guitar. I got as far as I could and learned a lot in the process and then took it to a repair shop for them to do the trickier things like cutting the nut and maybe some of the wiring, too. But it got me excited and I realized I could combine those two interests.
"That's how it began: Just taking these two things that I knew a little bit about and realizing they could be combined. The tools I had were sort of lighter-duty portable things you could haul to a carpentry site. That kind of stuff. I had a little shop space and, as I did less and less carpentry and more and more guitar work, I'd slowly upgrade the tools to heavier-duty, more stationary kinds of things. I just threw myself into it and taught myself by reading a lot of good and bad information and asking questions to whoever I could find."
Clearly, he got the answers he was looking for.
Since then, he's crafted Creston guitars for a wide variety of musicians, including Adam Ant, Jimmy Ryan, and Ian MacKaye. I ask what makes someone want to buy a custom guitar. "The answer in many cases," he says, "is the same thing that's sort of responsible for me getting into building guitars, which is dissatisfaction with everything. Y'know, like: 'I love this guitar except the neck isn't quite right' or 'This guitar is so cool but the color is kind of bugging me' or 'I wish it sounded a little more like this or more like that.' So, I think there's something appealing about trying to get it pretty on the money from the beginning by ordering something custom. Also, the big guitar companies have made so many billions of guitars and, as you know, the appeal of the handmade is sort of in fashion right now for reasons good and bad. But, I think people really like the idea that there's one guy building a guitar, one at a time, for somebody specifically. It doesn't necessarily mean more precision comes with that, because those big factories have it so dialed in. But, there's a creative collaboration that’s missing when you go buy a guitar off the rack somewhere.
"I'm doing a guitar right now for a guy... I've made a bunch of guitars from spruce planks that came from his parents' property. They were originally framing planks for their house, which means the wall framing of the house is made from wide planks. On the interior side is plaster and on the exterior side are clapboards. But, they’d renovated their kitchen and had a bunch of these old planks stored in their barn, so I made a bunch of guitars out of them. Now, for this guy, I'm making a guitar with spruce planks that came out of his parents' house. The maple for the neck came from a tree on their property. His dad's a furniture builder, so he gave me a piece of granadillo for the fretboard. That's exciting to me: To make a guitar that he can't play without realizing the significance of the origins of the wood. That's a very specific example of what I try to do with each of these guitars, which is to make it so specifically for one person that is has real meaning to them beyond its function as just a musical instrument.
"There is something meaningful about making a guitar that's meant for one person to own forever. It makes them forget about their other guitars. Guitar players are so quick to horse-trade guitars back and forth. The guitar you love more than anything today might be the one you sort of can't stand in six months. I know that as a player myself. So, I'm really trying to make a guitar that has staying power as a favorite. And sometimes, I know that beyond just playing well and sounding good, that that other quality has to do with being specifically made for the person who ordered it."
"I've lived in Burlington for twenty years this year and I met her even before moving to town. We were friends right away. I really liked her from the beginning and really liked her work.
"In the early stages of my guitar-making life, when I was just sort of obsessively looking at everything in the world and trying to imagine how I could or could not appropriate its aesthetic into guitar design, I was thinking a lot about these William Morris-kind of floral prints—like the paper designs he did—and trying to imagine how I could appliqué those designs onto a guitar. That got me thinking about a hand-painted guitar and she immediately seemed like the right person to ask. So, the next time I saw her, I asked her and she got really excited. I sort of thought she wouldn't want to do it, but she did. So she painted a guitar for me in green and black. It looked great. I thought it was the coolest guitar I'd ever seen.
"And then we made another one just to try another one. It was one of the few spec guitars I've ever made. It was a little more feminine. We both like the idea of more women playing the electric guitar in general and especially guitars that we make. I sold it to a woman in Houston. And then people just started ordering them. I think the next one was for Jaleel Bunton from TV On The Radio. I know she's painted over a hundred guitars now. Not necessarily full coverage, front and back but she's put her brush on over a hundred guitars. Probably closer to a hundred and fifty. To me, they're totally perfect.
"People will say, 'I really like these two-color, more muted ones.' or people say, 'I want as many colors as she can stuff in there.' And people are, maybe for the first time in their lives, allowed to make a design decision. More and more, it's just Sarah working on a little information from them and coming up with a new design that she feels is pushing her further while trying to deliver something that will make them happy. And no one's ever told me they're unhappy. Usually, people will say, 'I think this is the best one she's ever done.' That's always a nice thing to hear."
It's those sorts of happy customers that have granted Lea a key bit of freedom — the freedom to turn down work.
"I quickly realized that I didn't want to make any guitar I wasn't excited about. And it doesn't take much to turn me off from a guitar. If somebody really insists on some knob that I don't like, then the entire time I'm working on the guitar, I'm like, "Ugggh, this guitar would be so great if not for that ugly knob." I just don't like that feeling. It's not to say I never compromise, because I do. But I don't ever compromise on something that's really going to gnaw at me the entire time I'm working on a guitar. When I realized that I was busy enough consistently enough that I could turn work away, it really felt good. I'm so grateful to anybody who would write me and ask me to make them a guitar but there are so many guitar makers now. Why hire some guy who's not excited to make a guitar for you? There's somebody else who'd be dying to make that guitar. And I really want to stick with guitars I'm dying to make."
Here's what he brought to show us:
THE STANDBY – MITUTOYO .001" Dial CALIPER
"I have a lot of calipers but these are particularly jumbo. I'll use it for squaring up a bridge plate or a bridge cover or something by measuring off the last fret on the neck. It reaches thirteen inches so I can measure two points and make sure everything's square.
"They used to belong to my father in law, who passed away last year. He was a farm kid in Iowa who grew up fixing the tractor but eventually became a machinist at Oral B Toothbrush in Iowa City. Among machinists, the top of the totem pole are the tool and die guys and among the tool and die guys, the real kings are the mold makers. By the end of his life, he was a mold maker of the highest caliber. He was really supportive of what I do here and gave me a bunch of his old tools. It's nice to see his name on there. I use this thing for every guitar I make."
THE SPECIALIST – ROCKWELL DRILL PRESS
"I only use it for one thing, which is to bore the 7/8” hole for an output jack on a guitar. So, I have that jig there to hold the body and I just turn it on and drill a 7/8”. If you try to do it with a hand drill, it tends to wander. And, on my other drill press, it would mean lowering the table to an annoying depth just for two seconds of work. So, I have this one.
"I bought it from this guy in Bethel, Vermont, who's a tool dealer down there. He's a really sweet guy who sort of wanders around in these barns full of tools. I was down there buying some other stuff and I saw it and I just really liked it. I didn't need it at all but I couldn't resist it. So, while I was loading up the table saw and the sander: 'Well, I'll take the drill press, too.'
"I like everything about it. Some previous owner made that hand-turned little handle for it. It just sits there, waiting for me to make that one hole on every guitar."
THE SENTIMENTAL FAVORITE – POWERMATIC BAND SAW
"Buying the band saw was the first big step that I took when I first realized that this was going to be an ongoing job for me, going from a handheld jigsaw to a proper stationary tool. I don't particularly love that saw itself. It was before I discovered various good tool dealers around here who sell older American stuff that's been fixed up. But, I’d been looking around for a band saw for what felt like forever. I was at the point of, 'I can't live another day without one!' So, I went and bought that Taiwanese Powermatic.
"I use it for any curved cut or small cut. I have a much bigger Bridgewood band saw back there that I use for resawing or any kind of long, straight line. I turn on the Bridgewood like twice a month but the Powermatic is on, like, every hour. Roughing out a body or neck or making a template or rough-cutting a pick guard — all that stuff happens on the Powermatic. So I get to use it probably more than anything else in here.
"We have an open studio every September and one year Sarah said, 'Maybe instead of just hanging up our work, I should paint one of your tools.' So, she painted that saw. And now it's sort of the central thing in my shop. You can't walk in here without seeing it. It's a perfectly serviceable band saw but the really nice part about it is the doors that she painted. I can't ever get rid of it. "