Tom Davis has been repairing guitars in Columbus since 1977. Now, in the twilight of his career, he is returning exclusively to his first love: making custom guitars from scratch.
It's a March afternoon,and Tom Davis is alone in the unadorned J. Thomas Davis Guitar Maker workshop. It's quiet, except for the low hum of a humidifier that keeps the relative humidity around 45 percent-the optimal environment for wooden instruments.
If it were 2014 or any previous March afternoon from the past two decades, this Clintonville shop would be bustling, with several craftsmen servicing guitars in the back and a steady stream of customers dropping off and picking up instruments. Winter is the busiest season for a repair shop, because cold, dry conditions are particularly tough on guitars, sucking moisture out of the wood, which can lead to bowing and cracking. On the coldest days, Davis has to dump 10 gallons of water into the humidifier.
From January through March, Davis and his employees used to cram 120 guitars in various stages of disrepair into this High Street storefront. Now, there are only a dozen or so guitars in the shop. But Davis isn't going out of business. The lack of customers is by design.
After running arguably the most respected guitar repair shop in Ohio and amassing 6,800 customers in 40 years, Davis, 66, is finally returning to his first love: building guitars from scratch. It's what he intended to do all along-why he named his shop J. Thomas Davis Guitar Maker when he first opened on Grandview Avenue in the summer of 1977 after graduating from Ohio State University's school of music.
Davis built his first instrument, a classical guitar, in 1975. Initially, he was on the trail of a harpsichord kit, until John Hoppe, a friend and former owner of the now-closed String Shoppe across from the Ohio Union, passed along a book called "Classic Guitar Construction."
"You're a guitar player," Hoppe told Davis. "Build a guitar."
"It was the one and only book on the subject at the time," says Davis, who used the book and skills he'd developed as a finish carpenter to teach himself how to build a guitar. "When I joined the Guild of American Luthiers, I was the 50th member in the whole country. Today there are thousands."
After Davis built his own guitar, a friend wanted one, too. Then another. And another. The building process perfectly married his interests in carpentry and music. "I thought, well, maybe this is what I want to do when I grow up," Davis says.
When Davis opened on Grandview Avenue in the space now occupied by Stauf's Coffee, he also sold guitars from other manufacturers and did repairs. It took all three components-making, repairing and selling guitars-to keep the business afloat.
"At the time, it was hard to sell a guitar if it didn't say Gibson or Martin on the top," Davis says. Customers thought all the best guitars came from the factories of respected brands.
Over time, Davis was spending much of his time running the retail store, so he sold that portion of the business and moved across town to Clintonville in 1992.
Through the '80s and into the '90s, interest in handmade guitars was growing. Not unlike the craft beer movement, people began to realize a custom-made product from a skilled artisan can trump the products larger factories churn out. Guitarists and music magazines began paying attention to small, independent luthiers. "Now the world knows the best guitarsdon'tcome from factories," Davis says. But by the time he could feasibly make a living building guitars, Davis and his three or four employees were trying to keep up with nearly 7,000 repair customers. He didn't have time to make more than a few guitars per year.
It all came to a head last year, when an apprentice he'd been training for more than a year took another job. Davis didn't want to start over with a new apprentice, but he also couldn't keep up. Five Gibson Les Pauls with broken necks had been in the shop for a year. Wait times on restorations from collectors around the country were even longer. Davis was waking up in the middle of the night, panicked.
"I thought, I'm old. I set out to be a guitar maker. It's time to just devote myself to that," he says.
So at the end of last year, Davis wrote a letter to his customers and put it on his website and Facebook and taped it to the window of his shop. "On January 1, I will turn my energies towards my core interest," the letter stated. "I hope to spend a few years again working as a solo artisan, designing and crafting fretted instruments."
Many luthiers copy the design of certain popular guitars made by Martin, Gibson or Fender. Davis is different. There is no standard version of a J. Thomas Davis guitar. Each classical or dreadnought guitar is different from another. Davis can build citterns and bouzoukis, which are similar to mandolins. He has even built a rarely made harp guitar.
"Rather than build what I think is the greatest guitar and try to convince the rest of the world it's for them, I like to tailor it to the individual," Davis says.
For decades, musician and teacher Jim Scarff took his guitars to Davis' shop for service. He and Davis had always talked about building a guitar, and in 2007, Scarff finally pulled the trigger. But before Davis ever picked up a tool, they talked in great detail about how Scarff wanted his guitar to look and sound.
Davis paid careful attention to Scarff's descriptions and vocabulary. Words like "bass" and "treble" can mean different things to a bluegrass picker or an alt-rock strummer. As much as he is a builder, Davis is a listener-to the desires of his clients, to the sound of the wood.
"I wanted big bass-a heavy sound that jumped out of the instrument," Scarff says, which eventually led to Brazilian rosewood for the body and an ebony neck that created more volume. "When Tom called to say it was done, I went over and tried it, and it just knocked me out. It was big, loud, powerful, sweet."
The guitar cost about $5,000, which Scarff says is a bargain, considering other custom guitars go easily north of $10,000, and sometimes more than $20,000 for a famous builder. "Tom's a very meticulous guy. He's an old-world craftsman," Scarff says. "I wish more people knew about him. But then it would be unreachably expensive."
A guitar typically takes Davis about 100 hours to build, but with lots of planned resting spots along the way. After doing so many repairs, he's learned that working with wood requires time. Sometimes a section hangs on the wall for two weeks to account for the shrinkage that occurs from water-based glues.
To achieve the right curved shape of a guitar, Davis bends the wood over a copper pipe heated to 500 degrees. At the end, he applies 15 coats of finish, wet sanding every three or four coats, until the final finish is as thin as a fingernail but shiny as a mirror.
Everything is measured, cut and chiseled by hand. Nothing is done in batches using pre-cut molds. "It starts with just a template, then he makes the rest freehand," says Gearld Strickland, who worked for Davis from 1994 to 2009 and now runs his own shop in Dayton. "Tom taught me about using your eyes and your fingers-relying on those as much as you would a ruler."
Stan Smith, head of the guitar curriculum at Capital University since 1978, hired Davis to build a guitar in the '90s. Smith loved a certain guitar Davis had made for a friend, and he was looking for a similar sound.
"I built the guitar, called him and told him it was ready," Davis says. "He sat down on the stool out there, and he just hit one chord and goes, 'That's it. That's the sound.' "
"Tom is able to take the sounds somebody has had in their head for years and put that in a guitar," Strickland says. "Each one he builds, he plans it from start to finish. It has a little bit of Tom's soul in it."
Davis has made guitars for Leo Kottke and Arlo Guthrie and serviced guitars forMetallica, Poison, Def Leppard and the Indigo Girls. One of his customers owns the archtop Gibson L-5 on which "The Hokey Pokey" was supposedly written. But it's players like Smith and Scarff for whom Davis enjoys building guitars the most.
"There was a period of time where I was anxious to gain some notoriety from having the stars play my guitars," Davis says. "In the last 20 years, I really don't care. I just want to make instruments for people I like."
A lot of J. Thomas Davis guitars don't even have an insignia at the top of the headstock. "I put a label on the inside, and I sign it," Davis says. "If people want my insignia on it, I do it. But I've kind of revolted against doing everything the factories do."
If Davis sounds like a rebel, he doesn't come off that way. He's a slacks-and-neutral-button-down kind of guy. His friends describe him as quiet, mannered and understated. When Davis attended monthly Clintonville Chamber of Commerce luncheons, he'd listen to other business owners recite job descriptions that seemed to go on forever, and when it was his turn, he'd say, "My name is Tom Davis. I have a shop called J. Thomas Davis Guitar Maker down the street beside Nancy's. I make sawdust."
When I spoke to Davis, who resembles a slender version of Wilford Brimley, I had to goad him into speaking about his accomplishments. He seemed more comfortable dropping pieces of synthetic and natural materials on the workbench and comparing the sounds (natural is better, of course).
"He's not much for petty conversation," Smith says. "He thinks about what he says. He's one of those quiet fire people: The fire is there, but he keeps a lid on it till he needs it."
Davis lets his guitars and his relationship with customers do the bragging for him. His shop is still the only authorized repair center for Martin guitars within 100 miles of Columbus. "We only work with the best," says C.F. Martin & Co.'s Darrin Trainer, who has worked with Davis for years. "We look for established, experienced repairmen. I wish we had more shops like him. He's great with customers."
These days, though, all those customers and the skill with which Davis can repair their guitars is an ever-present monkey on his back as he attempts to go from repairman and businessman to full-time artisan. The transition is taking longer than he thought. He still spends two to three hours a day answering emails, returning phone calls or "letting the poor bloke out of the cold that has his nose to my window."
Sure enough, as we talked that afternoon, the shop phone rang multiple times, and a steady stream of potential customers peered inside and then continued down the sidewalk after reading the letter taped to the window.
Going forward, Davis also hopes to spend more time playing music himself, particularly traditional Irish music; he plays percussion and tenor banjo in the General Guinness Band. Scarff says Davis' skills as a musician aid him in his craftsmanship.
"He has a very musical ear," Scarff says. "One of the things that always amazed me when I saw him in the process of building a guitar, is seeing him pick up a piece of wood, tapping on it and listening for the tone that it makes. I think the fact that he's a musician allows him to do that better. "
While it's hard for Davis to say goodbye to thousands of loyal customers, many of whom have become friends over the years, he's also looking forward to a weeklong vacation-something he hasn't done in years.
And there are still plenty of satisfying moments to come, especially when someone strums a J. Thomas Davis guitar for the first time. "They always do that one strum, and you see that smile come across their face," Strickland says. "Most of the people aren't making a living doing it. They're doing it for fun, so you wanna see them smile."
Strickland admits that, at first, he was a little surprised that Davis had decided to focus only on building guitars. "I knew how much he cared about his customers, how loyal his customers have been and how loyal he's been to them," Strickland says. "But once he puts the chisel in his hand, and he's building guitars, he'll be right where he needs to be."