Monday, Nov. 3, 2008 | When Patrick Wilson built custom furniture in his garage in La Jolla, he picked up an expression that exasperated builders use to convey they’re satisfied, if underwhelmed, by a piece of work: “It ain’t no piano,” they’ll say.
Now Wilson builds guitars, and there’s no room for that kind of insouciance.
He is the neck and body production manager for Taylor Guitars, a locally based manufacturer established 34 years ago that annually churns out more than 78,000 high-end acoustic and electric guitars for musicians worldwide.
The factory is the place where raw wood is bent, cut, sanded, glued, and finished to metamorphose into some of the most sought-after instruments in the world. It’s a point of local pride that the guitars are made here, that Bob Taylor, the company’s co-founder, grew up here and built his first guitar in the woodshop as a student at Madison High School in Clairemont. A trip to tour the Taylor Guitars factory is a common pilgrimage for musicians worldwide who’ve grown enamored of the company’s work.
But behind that famous name is an army of people who marvel at their fortune that they get paid to make guitars.
Several of the factory’s seven buildings are set up as expansive warehouses, with workbenches and machines arranged like desks might be in an office setting. The process is less an assembly line than an assembly labyrinth. Workers carry pieces from one end of the factory to the other, delivering a completed chunk of wood to the next worker. Each guitar is assembled with many pairs of hands working on its various pieces. Wilson is the one to oversee some of those hands, to answer questions or invent solutions to problems. He holds a piece of wood to the light to look at potential flaws; he sends a guitar back for more work.
Wilson presides over necks and bodies. His uniform: black T-shirt (one day proclaiming “41 years of rock and roll,” another day professing an affinity for the thrash metal band Slayer), jeans and running shoes. Wilson is one of hundreds of buzzing employees in a given day shift. Four hundred people work for the company, almost one-third of whom have been there at least a decade, like Wilson, who’s been here 14 years.
Outside, Santa Ana gusts hot and dry, the wind scorching the late October morning air and swirling fallen leaves on the street in front of the factory. Days like this trigger whirring fans inside the factory. Vaporizers create clouds of fog that hover in the rafters, attempting to keep the air at an ideal 75 degrees and 45 percent humidity.
The environment is controlled for each room where pieces of guitars are carved from wooden blanks, to try to protect the wood from warping or cracking, and to give the wood — a variety, including maple, spruce, mahogany, sapele and rosewood — space to become acclimated to its new shape and bent. “By the time it leaves this room, it’s been allowed to twist and turn,” Wilson says.
Under Wilson’s watch, the necks and bodies for about 60 guitars are assembled in the 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift — a portion of the company’s 336 guitars produced here and in the baby guitar factory in Tecate. He supervises workers, monitors their production, tracks the buildings’ temperatures. Some workers feed wood through precision cutting or sanding machines. Others carefully lay plastic or abalone around the edges of the body.
Constructing necks is a nine- to 11-day process, a formula that sends blocks of wood destined to become guitar necks through machine after machine. As Wilson makes rounds on the floor, workers pass associated pieces from bench to bench for gluing and sanding and inlay-placing. Some use computerized Fadal machines that Taylor has tweaked and programmed to deliver the company’s signature setup.
A factory that once produced 28 guitars a day now produces 336. The neck department is assigned several dozen necks a shift to assemble, bind and sand daily. If someone is on vacation or sick, the rest of the workers assume extra work that day.
Several pieces of the unassembled guitar are marked with penciled numbers to identify them as belonging to particular other pieces. As raw wood, the two pieces for the guitar neck are matched with the top of the guitar, the back and the sides. If something happens to one of the pieces, a detailed search must be conducted to make sure the replacement matches.
With earplugs in and individual workspaces, the workers focus intently on their tasks, nodding quick hellos when Wilson walks by, then focusing again on their work, unless they have a question.
Those come frequently.
“Patrick Wilson, 287, Patrick Wilson, 287,” sounds a loudspeaker, paging him to a phone where a few workers stand peering at a guitar. It’s one of the highest end guitars the factory makes. In the corner of the rectangle where the neck will be attached to the body, there’s a tiny warped line of inlaid detail. Though Wilson can barely see the flaw without his glasses, he sends it for more work — this is a pricey guitar. “For $15,000, we’re going to fix this,” he says.
Wilson is a go-to quality control checker, sending guitars back for touchups, sometimes taking them himself to work on. He tries to make as many decisions as he can, to deflect as much as possible out of his bosses’ hair.
“I usually can’t walk from one side of the factory to the other without getting four or five questions along the way,” he says.
Here comes one: a worker holds up a guitar with a tiny ding in the body. Wilson lays it on a table and grabs a bottle of water, some paper towels and a soldering iron. He squirts a drop of water on the ding, wets the corner of the paper towel and holds it near the body of the guitar. He aims the soldering iron toward the paper towel, producing steam. He hopes the steam will coax the wood up to the same level as the wood around it, or even higher, to later be sanded level. It’s a technique he devised.
He puts the guitar on a rack to dry; he’ll check on it later.
Another employee stops him to show him a knothole in a guitar made from one of the rare woods. Wilson suggests filling the hole with sawdust from the same wood and glue and seeing how that goes.
“You don’t want to throw it away just ’cause it had a knothole,” he says. “Wood is wood.”
Wilson pushes through swinging doors to check on the body department. Here, each worker is responsible for about six bodies a day — installing braces, gluing and binding pieces together, inlaying abalone or plastic to add flair to the guitar.
The guitars come in five sizes and are constructed out of a variety of woods. The least expensive guitar Taylor makes is a $398 baby guitar with a Sitka spruce top and sides and back made from an African sapele tree. The baby guitars are made in a factory in Tecate, where Wilson consults once a week. Prices and woods range from there to a $12,000-plus guitar made from rare Brazilian rosewood or Hawaiian koa — both trees the company only gets when they die of natural causes.
With the employees buzzing, Wilson leaves the department for a few minutes to turn on the air for the building where electric guitar necks are carved. Right now, his shift is responsible for five electric guitar necks a day in addition to their acoustic quota. Wilson is about to use a machine to cut slots in the neck where two pieces of steel will go. He places the neck blanks into five grooves, hammers them in with his fist, then punches a sequence of buttons on a number pad. The machine begins to hum, its head appearing as a miniature street-sweeper brushing over the wood. A piercing sound reveals the drill bit in the brush is cutting into the wood.
And then, the machine head lurches. One of the necks is caught askew, and the drill bit is mangling the groove it’s trying to make. Wilson lets it continue in its path, then pulls the mistake neck out of its groove. He catches the broken bit in his hand.
The hiccup only happened because he was being watched, he jokingly blames a visitor. But it’s early enough in the process that this neck hasn’t yet been assigned to a guitar body, so it’s easy to replace.
Wilson’s been around factories most of his life. His grandfather had a manufacturing business. His father and uncle owned a maquiladora operation for assembling electronics parts, and Wilson spent parts of his childhood in Mexico City and Colombia. While his uncle ran the workings of the factory, his dad perpetually traveled in Central and South America to scout out growth for the company. Wilson, born in Rhode Island, returned to the United States with his family to live in La Jolla as an 11-year-old.
Now, several decades later, Wilson, too, is a factory man.
A love for building guitars sparked in Wilson as a teenager. He visited the Martin guitar factory in New England — and, he adds, took a Dumpster dive for castoff pieces. Inspired, he went to guitar-building school in Vermont in the 1970s and built a couple of guitars himself. Now, for 14 years, Wilson has seen guitar-making through the Taylor lens.
He doesn’t play much guitar. “Once I started building guitars, I concentrated on that,” he says.
Throughout the day, Wilson does random inspections, peers over shoulders, encourages his team in daily meetings to stop and check before moving on if they think there’s a problem with a guitar, these precisely constructed instruments made not just to look good, but to sound good. He says it’s paying off.
“Right now, we’re making the best guitars we’ve ever made,” he says.
This despite the fact that the company hires young workers. Many are straight from high school, from one of Bob Taylor’s education programs in San Diego schools. Some have woodworking backgrounds, others are musicians. For many of Wilson’s hires, this is their first job, he says. Most start in the sidebending department, using machines to coax flat boards into s-shapes to fit the front and back of the guitar. Throughout the factory, there’s a relaxed dress code except for the required closed-toed shoes in the workshop. Other than that, anything goes.
“You saw the Mohawk in sidebending,” Wilson reminds a visitor.
Wilson has two sons, neither of whom plays guitar, and neither of whom is a woodworker. His 18-year-old attends University of California, Santa Cruz, and his 15-year-old goes to Wilson’s alma mater, La Jolla High School.
Wilson’s not building anything in his home shop these days. His table saw holds piles of boxes, he says, and a couple of half-finished guitars that he’ll complete when he retires. As a custom furniture builder, he remembers feeling some excitement when a customer would take a piece home and implement it in daily living. But that doesn’t compare to the feeling he gets building what he builds now, he says.
“There’s really nothing more satisfying than hearing a guitar played that you’ve had a hand in making,” he says.
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