Steve Andersen
(circa 1981)

 

 

 

  

 

I built my first guitar in 1973 in Phoenix, AZ. I was in high school physics class, and a friend who also played guitar told me about a shop he had visited over the weekend. He said they were making guitars, and in fact anyone could go in and build a guitar for a small fee. Well, I went to check it out, and it was true. The shop was open from noon to midnight and the owner would help you build a guitar. I was 17, a junior in high school, and to me, this was pretty cool stuff. I signed on to build a 12-string guitar. It took about six months, but I ended up with a guitar I had made myself, and I was hooked.

I had some very basic woodworking skills, having worked summers for my father, a home contractor. After I got out of high school, I went to work at a cabinet shop, starting out doing grunt work: deliveries, sanding, clean-up, etc. Eventually I started learning the basics of cabinetwork, and learned more woodworking skills in the process.

In 1976, the guitar shop where I had built my guitar became the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. This was one of the first schools of its kind, and I decided to attend. For me, this was my first introduction to the idea that one could make guitars for a living.

After completing the school, I continued working in cabinetry, as well as doing some traveling to the Northwest and Canada with my brother Tom. It was during one of these trips that we ended up in Sandpoint, ID, where my brother had some friends. It was there that I met a guitar maker named Bob Brook. He was the first person I met who was earning his living making guitars.

I continued to live in Phoenix until 1978 and continued to pursue guitar making there, setting up a small shop, collecting tools, and building several instruments. In 1978, I set out from Phoenix, determined to move to the Northwest. I packed up my '62 Ford Econoline, and with my dog Scooter traveled through California, Oregon and Washington, and ended up back in Sandpoint. By this time there were several instrument builders in Sandpoint, and I went to work for one shop, Franklin Guitar Co.

This small shop, owned by Nick Kukich, produced high quality flattop guitars, and was one of the first guitar companies besides the Martin Guitar Company to build an OM style guitar. I spent less than two years at Franklin, but that time was pivotal in developing my understanding of many important aspects of guitar making: wood choice, clean workmanship, good finish work, and basic production techniques. During my tenure at Franklin I developed a foundation of sound building techniques that I've been able to build upon and refine, and still use today.

While working for Franklin, I took up playing the mandolin, and before long I was hooked. Of course, I had to build a mandolin. I was playing a Kay or something, and a fellow I worked with (Mike Dulak, who now owns Mid-Missouri Mandolin Company) let me borrow his A-style mandolin built by Bob Givens, another Sandpoint builder. When my friend needed his instrument back, Bob helped me build a mandolin for myself, which I still have.

I left Franklin in 1980, and immediately set about putting together my own shop. I attended an auction and bought some power tools, and began purchasing woods and materials. I rented a house and put a shop in the basement.

The next year I moved about 15 miles out of Sandpoint to the village of Hope, putting together my shop in an old storefront on the main road through town. It was here that I was really able to develop as a builder, refining my models and honing my techniques. I started building F-5 mandolins, and throughout the 1980's gained a national reputation for my mandolins. I continued building flattops, and experimented with archtops, as well.

In 1986, I moved to Seattle, and for the first time started doing a fair amount of repair work, mostly to offset the higher living expenses. One added benefit, though, was seeing first hand (and working on) some excellent archtop guitars. These include guitars by D'Angelico, D'Aquisto, Stromberg and Gibson. Seeing these instruments was both inspiring and instructive, and I began to get serious about building archtop guitars.

As I focused more on archtops, I began to see that the skills I had developed while making flattop guitars and mandolins had parallels that could be leveraged into my archtop guitar explorations. For example, while the archtop is much bigger than a mandolin, the arching of the plates is similar. Other design elements found on the mandolin, such as the neck angle, bridge height, f-hole placement, have equivalents on the archtop guitar. The result for me was that my experience in the mandolin and flattop guitar gave me a "leg up" in my quest to understand and build high quality archtop guitars.

Throughout the early and mid 1990's, I focused mainly on the archtop guitars, developing a number of new models, honing my skills, and developing the "sound" of the Andersen archtop guitar. I also experimented with a number of tailpiece designs, which lead to the unique tailpieces I make today, built of carbon graphite fiber and ebony, seen below at left.

In the summer of 1996 I bought a commercially zoned, two-story house in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood, and moved my shop into it. The structure is given over entirely to shop space, and I have more room than in any of my previous shops. I've taken advantage of the extra room to acquire new tooling, allowing me to build more efficiently. By the use of specially designed tooling, I can reduce the number of hours in a given instrument, allowing me to maintain prices at a (hopefully) affordable level. My goal is to slightly increase the number of instruments built per year, while actually spending less time in the shop, thereby improving my income and avoiding burn-out at the same time. Guitarmakers are notorious workaholics.

I've found an added benefit to the improved tooling: not only are my guitars easier to build, they are becoming more consistent and I think the quality has improved. For example, I've developed a method for rough carving, by machine, the necks for my guitars. The necks still require handwork to refine the shape. However, I'm able to consistently reproduce my standard neck shape that has wide appeal among players. Of course, custom neck shapes are available at no extra charge.

 

Tailpiece made from carbon graphite with an ebony face