Dave Keeley makes guitars entirely by hand

March 9, 2014 - The Spokesman Review

By Alex Ashley

“When words fail, the guitar speaks.”

George Szell – a renowned, Hungarian-born, American conductor and composer – had it right when he said this so many years ago. Guitars are a remarkable instrument: They create expression where there might otherwise be silence; they create warm emotion where there might otherwise be cold logic; they create nostalgia when there might otherwise be oblivion. Still, whatever the case may be, someone somewhere had to create them.

That’s where Dave Keeley enters the picture. Keeley has been creating top-notch, vintage-style instruments for the past 20 years.

“When I moved to Curlew about 17 years ago, I worked with this guy in Republic who built harps,” Keeley recalled. “I worked with him for three or four years and made around 300 harps.
“From there, I just branched out to guitars.”

Staying true to the craft

Step into Keeley’s small workshop behind his home in Kettle Falls, Wash., and you enter a carefully constructed ecosystem – stabilized at 70 degrees with 45 percent humidity – that is like stepping into a time machine and going back to the 1920s. There are no industrial machines, no drills. The walls are not lined with synthetic, modern ingredients typically used by many of Keeley’s contemporaries.

“A truly great instrument needs the human touch, intuition and insight,” he said. “Therefore, I still primarily use hand tools so that I may feel the wood as I work with it.” Keeley’s objective is to produce – from scratch – “vintage-style” guitars that are unique, but characteristic of an instrument that may have already lived a few lifetimes.

One of the most important ingredients in “the perfect guitar” is the wood. “If you are building guitars from the 1900s, you are going to want wood from the 1900s,” Keeley said. “If you are shaping a piece of old-growth wood, imagine its history. Imagine the sounds it has absorbed throughout the years. And then, when you throw half a dozen strings on it and it becomes an instrument, you are literally playing history.”

Keeley’s careful selection of materials provides each of his instruments with separate and distinct personalities. “Many times, I’ll go out into the forest and fall a specific tree,” he said. “I’ll take the wood home and split it into billets so it will slowly dry. Then, I have a nice little stockpile of wood to choose from when it is ready. Each instrument is unique; I can tell you how old the tree was, where it was located, and anything unique about it. It may have been in a fire near Black Lake in 1910, salvaged old-growth from the bottom of Lake Superior or the wood may have been used as timbers from a century-old mill. Each instrument and the wood it came from has a story to tell.”

However, more is involved than just the wood Keeley uses. Two thick, dusty volumes sit on a shelf in his workshop: “The Tomlinson Cyclopedia of Useful Arts,” published in 1852. This is one of many reference books he uses to maintain authenticity when crafting his instruments. For Keeley, it is essentially a cookbook filled with recipes, which he consults when whipping up a varnish for his guitars from scratch.

“The last thing you want to do is try to reproduce a vintage-style guitar, and then spray polyurethane on it,” he said. “I try to use the same methods and products that were available at the time these old, vintage instruments were originally constructed. Varnishes were used on stringed instruments until about the 1940s, when guitars builders switched over to lacquer. Violins still use varnish, but modern guitar manufacturers now use polyurethane. I use lacquer, because that is what is most favored by guitar players.”

Although his experience has earned him the ability to flawlessly recreate many of history’s most celebrated and distinguished instruments – a Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin, or perhaps a Martin OM acoustic – the luthier said he still prefers innovation over recreation. “Yes, I can make a copy of a vintage instrument, because most people cannot afford to buy an original. But I would rather take my knowledge of instruments, build my own design, and take it to the next level. I have built many of my own designed instruments, and that is what I prefer to do.”

Mellad Abeid, guitarist of the Celtic band An Dochas, is a regular customer of Keeley Guitars.
“Dave’s guitars are well-built,” Abeid said. Among the Keeley instruments Mellad owns is a vintage-style Telecaster fashioned out of the stump of an old black walnut tree his uncle had.
“I like his guitars because he works very hard on them and aims to please,” Abeid said. “They have a great lively feel to them, and each instrument has its own character and voice. They are touch-sensitive and a joy to play.”

Staying local

Because Washington is so diverse and bursting with natural provisions, Keeley prefers to stay local when looking for materials for his instruments.

“When I first started building,” he said, “I strived to use local materials because it was affordable.” The nut and saddle of a guitar, for example, may be hand-carved out of cow bone retrieved from a local farmer. The body of the guitar may be crafted from a locally felled tree from the Colville Valley. The people who most often benefit from Keeley’s skills and craftsmanship are often as homegrown as the signature Keeley instrument they receive.

Paying it forward

Aside from reaping the benefits of the efforts he’s sown – seeing a raw piece of wood evolve into an advanced instrument, and a one-of-a-kind work of art – Keeley said some of his most rewarding experiences have come from the tradition he has carried out since 2000: mentoring high school students for their senior projects.

“It’s very therapeutic,” Keeley said. “Hours go by and I don’t even realize it. I wish I could do it seven days a week.” But as with most good deeds, the blessings that come from Keeley’s interest in paying forward his abilities to future generations, are not unilateral.

Kylan Kegel, one of Keeley’s former pupils, describes his mentor as “a patient and careful craftsman with a keen imaginative eye and an extensive knowledge base.” Kegel said his work with Keeley was “an enlightening, fun, and maturing experience. My woodworking experience prior to this project was very limited, and Dave helped me learn the value of careful work, attention to detail, and using one’s imagination for art.”

He added: “I would certainly recommend this type of project to any student who is interested in creating a high quality, complex musical instrument. It is something you can enjoy forever, and learn a lot along the way.”

Plans for the future?

Currently, Keeley said he is limited in his turnaround for instruments. “I usually build four instruments a year, and that’s working weekends and some evenings. Right now, the waiting list for my instruments is eight months in advance.”

He hopes to speed that process up and expand his business.

“You are going to see a lot of changes in my luthiery business before summer comes around,” he said. “I have hired a business consultant to help me expand my business. My goal is to be full-time with an employee in about three years.”

He is even expanding in terms of instrument designs, planning to introduce a bouzouki – an Irish, eight-stringed, mandolin-like instrument with the neck scale of a guitar and a teardrop body.
“It can be tuned for mandolin players like a bass mandolin, it can be tuned in open tuning and sounds great playing some of the Led Zeppelin covers, and of course there are Irish tunes as well. It would be a hot seller at the Spokane folk festival.”

The Irish Bouzouki Project

About 5 or 6 years ago I was working in my shop on a Sunday afternoon while listening to The Nacho Celtic Hour on KPBX Spokane radio when I heard a beautiful sounding stringed instrument playing Gaelic music. Gaelic music is an umbrella term for the folk music of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. What I heard was the sound of an Irish Bouzouki; an 8 stringed instrument tuned to GDAD which evolved from the Irish folk music revival of the 1960's & 1970's. 

Having never seen an Irish Bouzouki before I was able to find one on the internet that was made at Trinity College, Dublin. It is a mandolin like instrument that you are unlikely to find on the rack at your average music store. Generally speaking these are custom built instruments that are hand made on an individual basis. Once in my possession I strummed my fingers across the strings and there was that beautiful sound I had heard on the radio. I was hooked.

Interestingly, the Irish Bouzouki is neither an Irish instrument nor Irish traditional. Irish musicians visiting the Balkan's in the 1960's adopted the Greek Bouzouki. It is a bowl backed instrument that Irish Luthiers were unable or unwilling to duplicate. They ended up building a flat back instrument with a tuning system more suited to Celtic music.

This is a video of Kise Osamu playing The Rain Song. Kise is a talented Irish Bouzouki player from Osaka, Japan. His music inspires me when I am working in my shop.

My intention is to complete and display this Irish Bouzouki at the Spokane Fall Folk Festival this November. I will continue to update posts as the Irish Bouzouki Project continues.

Craftsmanship and Goals

September is finally here and this is my favorite time of year. The blistering hot summer days are behind us and the cooler nights feel much better. For me, September has always been a new beginning. This month I will also start my 53rd orbit around the sun. That means it’s time, once again to make an assessment of where I’m at and where I need to go in order to continue my lifelong goals.

Besides having a successful and rewarding career in city planning and grant writing, one of my goals is to be a successful luthier, or craftsman of guitars. Wikipedia defines a luthier as someone who builds or repairs stringed instruments. In addition, a craftsman is defined as a pastime or profession that requires particular skills and knowledge of skilled work. The term is usually applied to people occupied in small-scale production of goods, or their maintenance. For example luthiers!

My father Robert Keeley retired at age 57 as a tool and die maker from Milwaukee Electric Tool. A tool and die maker is a class of machinists in the manufacturing industries who makes dies, molds, machine tools, cutting tools, gauges and other tools used in the manufacturing processes. As my father would say, "I made the tools that made the tools." He was a craftsman! After 35 years with Milwaukee Electric Tool he retired early and his job was then outsourced to Mexico, most likely done by robots and computers. After 35 years in a hot and humid factory, his retirement was welcomed. I am now the custodian of many of his tools.

Today, craftsmen are difficult to find as our economy has transitioned to disposable consumer goods made in foreign countries. Many high schools no longer teach industrial arts or shop classes due to budget cuts. To make things even worse, some high schools no longer teach music programs. What a shame.

My great-grandfather Lester Lenhardt worked for Caterpillar. In the 1940’s he built his home in East Peoria, Illinois using only basic hand tools. 

I am the custodian of the two handsaws that he used to build that house. He was very proud of his home and his tools.

Last week I met a very nice retired couple, Roy and Orly Corey. I restored a very old violin that was made by Orly's grandfather. Her grandfather was a luthier! Roy was a retired pattern maker; a wood carver.  Roy was very interested in my shop and my tools, and I was very interested in his knowledge about woodcarving. As our conversation progressed, he mentioned that he was 71-years old and can no longer use his carving tools because his hands shake too much. He broached the subject of possibly trading his wood carving tools in exchange for the work I did on their violin restoration. He stated “I can see that you would appreciate and use my tools the same as I did.” I was humbled by his comment. 

This brings me to my next thought. As craftsmen, we are also caretakers of fine tools and one day will pass them down to the next generation of craftsmen. I would like to take a photo of Roy and some of his woodcarvings. I would also like to write a short and simple biography of Roy to keep intact with his tools. I hope his tools will carve beautiful objects made of wood for many decades, if not centuries to come. Roy’s woodcarving tools will outlive both me and him. Hopefully, when it's time, I as the new custodian will pass them on to the next generation of craftsmen.

Most of my hand tools are over 100 years old; several even older. They are quality brands such as Bailey, Disston and Marples which have worked flawlessly since their creation. I’ve collected them through the years wherever I can find them from family, friends, yard sales, secondhand stores and auction websites. Some of the tools have the previous owners name proudly engraved on them. 

My power tools are relatively new in relation to my hand tools. They have labels on them like Grizzly, Jet and Craftsman, but they are a far cry from the quality of my vintage hand tools. Made of plastic, cheap cast metal and manufactured in a foreign country, I continually struggle to keep these machines running smoothly to avoid disposing of them. Unlike the hand tools that produce wood chips, these modern tools produce a lot of dust; fine annoying saw dust which require a dust collection system and air filter. Plus, the bearings, belts and blades continually wear out. I doubt you’ll see my modern tools in some wood shop 100 years from now. They’ll more than likely end up in the scrap yard after I’m gone. Relics of a modern throwaway society.

This is my sharpening station. A true craftsman must learn how to sharpen a hand chisel with a stone before they can operate a modern day CNC machine.

My workbench is made from scraps of locally grown birch wood. Each board leveled, hand planed and held together without a single screw or nail. The legs are made from locally grown fir. I will say this: Roy the woodcarver spotted my bright red pattern makers vise as soon as he entered my shop. It is a tool of his trade! It is also a tool of a luthier...

What will the next generation of craftsmen, luthiers, pattern makers, woodcarvers, tool and die makers be like?

I don't know....

Until then, I will continue to work towards my goal of being a successful luthier, craftsman and custodian of vintage hand tools. 

Thanks for reading.