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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Nichols transforms instruments into treasures

March 2, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

WHIPPLEVILLE - Luthier Dave Nichols is the owner-operator of Custom Pearl Inlay and celebrates his 50th anniversary this year as the custom pearl inlayer for Martin Guitars. He's also an authorized Martin dealer and repair man.

Walk into Dave's wood shop just south of Malone and it's all about the music. He mostly builds guitars, though he also works on mandolins. He plays them, and he decorates them with custom inlay: mother-of-pearl, abalone or wood, all with his favorite music playing in the background. On a recent visit, it was Merle Haggard, for whom Dave says he's built an awful lot of guitars.

"I built 16 for him one year to give to his buddies. So Merle is a standard here."

Article Photos

Dave Nichols
(Photo provided — Andy Flynn)

Dave's shop looks like a museum. There are posters of bluegrass concerts and lots of photos on the walls and ceiling of the instruments he's built or inlaid.

"There's so many of the people I've built for," Dave said, looking at the photos. "I don't know if you remember who George Jones was. There's one I did for him. And up in the ceiling, here is an early one I did for Hank Snow."

Dave grew up on the St. Lawrence River, between Waddington and Massena. He likes to tell people he grew up "in the river" before the Seaway flooded part of his family's homestead in 1956. Dave's grandparents were farmers and sturgeon fisherman, and his father was a state conservation officer - with a very creative side.

"My dad always had a workshop. He was a clocksmith and a gunsmith. My grandfather was a gunsmith, too. We built guns and clocks, and I did inlay on guns from as long as I can remember, inlay and engraving."

But it was music that first got Dave's attention as a kid, music from faraway places like West Virginia.

"When I was young, my dad and I would go duck hunting in the mornings, and in the early morning, you could listen to WWVA, Wheeling, West Virginia, on the radio," Dave said. "And I loved the old bluegrass and country music. My mom had got me into piano lessons, but I wanted to play guitar because I wanted to play the old-style music. I bought a really cheap one, and that cheap one became the pattern for my first guitar that I built in high school."

That was 1959. A year later, he graduated from the Massena High School. He then graduated from college in Canton, Oswego and Syracuse. With a PhD in psychology, he landed a job at the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg.

But he couldn't stay away from music or guitars, and back home in Waddington, Dave opened a luthier shop. He calls building guitars a "consuming sideline." It's his passion, and in 1968, Dave became the custom inlay guy for Martin Guitars. All custom inlay for Martin goes through Dave.

"I built Johnny Cash's first fancy guitar, and I got a nice letter from him," Dave said. "It was a black guitar but had fancy inlay and stuff on it. ... Lucille, the guitar, for BB King. We did two of those, and one of those is in the Vatican. He gave one to the Pope, two Popes ago. So I have a guitar in the Vatican."

When Dave gets a custom order, Martin sends him the information each order is unique and parts, things like fingerboards, headstocks, or necks. Sometimes he's given a design, and sometimes it's up to him. Then he works his magic.

"They might send me a blank headstock veneer or a neck that's all together and say 'I want the headstock and the fingerboard done.' Or a bridge that they want inlaid or a pick guard they want inlaid. Or the whole guitar before it's finished and inlay that and send it back."

Just like a painter needs paint, a custom pearl inlayer needs material, too. Dave uses mother-of-pearl, abalone shells, all kinds of wood. He even uses woolly mammoth tusk as a substitute for ivory.

To make cuts on the instrument, he uses pre-existing tools, as well as those of his own fabrication, such as an air-driven miniature die-grinder,

"[which is] designed for cutting the exact holes in the wood so that everything just looks like it grew there."

He didn't invent the die grinder, but he did design the base. When put together, it acts like a miniature router, cutting holes in the wood to place the mother-of-pearl or other material.

Custom inlay is a lost art, and that's good for Dave Nichols. He can transform an ordinary instrument into a personal treasure, a family heirloom, or both.

It's like we just did a memorial type thing for a fellow whose mother passed away," Dave said. "She was a Steinway piano player, and he had the Steinway logo put in on it with her initials inside of it, and that made the guitar something of a treasure to him and something he can proudly show."

It's like getting a tattoo without getting a tattoo. And Dave jokes it's easier to remove if you don't like it. For Dave, building guitars and making them pretty isn't enough. Passing the torch to the next generation, now that's what he likes. He'll teach you custom inlay, and he'll teach you how to build your own guitar.

"When we're gone, the only thing left is what we've managed to teach others or the skills that we've passed on," Dave said. "Because when I'm gone, there's going to be an awful lot of people that have learned from me that can continue doing what I have done. It's something, kind of a legacy I want to leave where I don't just leave some guitars or that kind of thing but I've left the knowledge of 'how to' and I don't have any secrets."

Dave Nichols is many things: a luthier, custom inlayer, bluegrass musician, and teacher. He plays in a bluegrass band called David Nichols and Spare Change. He's currently the board president of the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans.

A recent project was helping to open the new "Instrumental Stories" exhibit at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY) in Canton, which includes some of his custom-designed instruments and the stories behind their creation.

(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out www.ncpr.org/work.)

 
 

 

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