IN HARMONY WITH WOOD
Story and photos
by Peg Willis
For The Observer
Suppose you are a talented artist. You have been trained and have experience in design. You love what you do and you are good at it. A promising future in Los Angeles beckons. But you don't like big cities. What do you do?
Well, if your name is Jerry Nolte, you move to the smallest town you can find, set up shop in a log cabin you build with your own hands, and design and build musical instruments of such high quality that eventually you have a three-year backlog of orders.
Nolte, a Wisconsin native and the son of a house builder, decided early on that following in his father's footsteps was not what he wanted to do with his life. In fact, what he most wanted was to be a cowboy.
The wide open spaces and the real West always held a fascination for this Midwesterner. When he realized that
Los Angeles was not for him, Nolte and his wife Leigh moved to a ranch just out of the tiny town of Bear, Idaho. The ranch work was fine, but the urge to get back to art prompted him to build a small log cabin where he could nurture his developing skills and interest in instrument construction.
He began with mountain dulcimers and by the time he left the ranch, close to 150 Nolte dulcimers were making music all over the country. But the national fascination with dulcimers had begun to wane, and his artistic urges were leading him down a new path. He made his first guitar and mandolin while still in Idaho.
In 1980 the Nolte family, now including three children, moved to Cove where they bought the only house in town that was for sale.
It has been a good place for them. The house sits on one corner of a large double lot, providing plenty of space for a garden, dogs and workshops. Nolte calls his business Evergreen Mountain Instruments.
Besides the log shop that Nolte brought to Cove from Idaho and reassembled, there is a second shop a short distance away. It contains the larger tools needed for preparing instrument wood, but also used in furniture construction, making toy boxes for the grandchildren, anything that occurs to Nolte's artistic mind.
He is glad to be at the point in his career where he can do more of that. There was a time when he couldn't do such things.
"I haven't said no to any orders, but when people hear that you're backlogged three years, that discourages them and they go somewhere else." Currently Nolte figures he could have a new instrument ready for someone in about 6 months.
He has designed and built more than 300 instruments. He designs his own instruments and has made most of the tools and templates used in their construction.
"The fun part of the job is working each piece of wood to its best, always with the owner's goal in mind. That's your job, not just to build a guitar, but you're building it for a person who wants a certain kind of sound out of it, and you've chosen these pieces of wood to do that.
"With my instruments, I can tell people I'll give you your money back if you don't like the way it sounds. I know what to do with the wood, and I do that." Jerry's confidence is well earned.
He has letters from delighted musicians in New York, Montana, Salt Lake City, California Â— all over the country. Buyers praise his choice of wood, finishing and the tone of the instruments he has made for them. Such expressions as "has blown every other guitar out of the water," and "ease of playing and clarity of string tone," are sprinkled liberally through the letters of praise.
Dan Emert, championship fiddle and guitar player from Pendleton, has known Nolte and his work for 20 years. "Jerry's workmanship is top of the line, the best quality I've seen in the Northwest," he says.
Most of Nolte's guitars are small, designed for fingerstyle playing. But he also makes acoustic bass guitars and can design a guitar to meet any need. Construction of the instrument usually takes about a month.
The finishing process may take an additional month and includes not only the surface finish on the wood, but setting up the instrument, the bridge, strings, tuners.
The current standard in guitar finishes is a discouragement to Nolte. It seems to be all about perfection in a flat, clear, shiny finish. His finishes are more likely to be oil finishes, warm and rich.
Hand made instruments are not cheap. Nolte's guitars often sell for $2,500 to $3,500. But considering the cost of materials Â— the wood for the back and sides alone can run up to $1,000 Â— the price is very good. Nolte says of his profession, "I do this because I love it, not because I think I'll get rich!"
The low humidity of Eastern Oregon is ideal for instrument construction. Since wood tends to swell as it absorbs moisture, the joints only become firmer when an instrument made in a dry climate is moved to an area of higher humidity. Nolte's shops are both equipped with temperature and humidity gauges and he's careful to work within the confines they establish.
In addition to guitars, Nolte makes mandolins and is well respected for his violin family repairs. He served as resident repairman for the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, Idaho, for 25 years. During the week-long contest he might repair as many as 75 bows and also do a lot of setup and repair work on fiddles and guitars.
It is an old world art, making instruments by hand. An art that is being passed over by many in the mad dash to have what's shiny and new. But Nolte's heart goes deeper than shiny and new. Instead he captures the music in wood and strings, creating a thing of beauty, a work of art.
On the Web: http://www.eoni.com/%7Eemi/