The ‘grainy grooviness’ of Big Wave Guitars

Wed, 02/01/2017 - 7:45am

Lifelong guitar player Rob Dmitrieff left his boat building career behind not long after he began making his first guitar. And when you think about it, who better to make an instrument than the musician who knows and loves it so well?

Dmitrieff was working at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in 2006, as was a master guitar builder, Nick (Nikos) Apollonio of Rockport. One afternoon, he told Nick that he wanted to buy a new Martin guitar. He'd had a Martin once before, but it was stolen from a sailboat in Santa Cruz.

“Nick looked at me and said 'Buy a new Martin guitar? With your woodworking skills you could make a better guitar than a Martin,” Dmitrieff recalled. “I thought to myself, damn right I could and asked him what I had to do. Nick recommended the book ‘Guitar Making Tradition and Technology’ — so I got it.”

He really got it. Dmitrieff's guitars are works of art. Already.

Apollonio referred Dmitrieff to David Hill of Monmouth for tops. Hill sawed tops for many Maine guitar makers. Dmitrieff says he was fascinated by the whole sawing process and began helping Hill out. And he loved it.

“Nick said Maine has the finest wood for soundboards, Adirondack red spruce,” Dmitrieff said. “I bought a log from Tony and Bet Finocchiaro and brought it to Monmouth to be sawed. I got about 100 top sets from it. Dana Bourgeois in Lewiston bought them. Dana had been one of Hill's clients, but Hill offered the gig to me, so I started selling top sets to Bourgeois and on eBay.”

Dmitrieff also landed an annual gig making 5,000 brace sets for a major international guitar company for its hollow electric guitars. So yeah, some sweet business had come his way, and all the while Dmitrieff was also building his first few guitars — small jumbos. As all good luthiers know, when it comes to materials, you look to the tone woods — from older trees: Brazilian rosewood (the “Holy Grail” of the tonewoods), mahogany, ebony (fretboard), abalone, curly maple and mahogany for the neck; white maple, sika spruce bear claw sitka spruce — from the northwest — that Dmitrieff describes as “super pretty with all that grainy grooviness.” In a guitar forum online, Bourgeois wrote, “Bearclaw, like the curl in curly maple, is a rippling of the longitudinal fibers, which divides the surface of the wood into shimmering patterns.” Grooviness bordering on psychedelic – in the right light, of course …

Then there are torrefied woods, spruce and maple. Torrefied wood has been thermally aged in a process that takes 72 hours. Dmitrieff sends the wood to a place in Minnesota where the process is performed to give younger woods the sound of wood taken from trees hundreds of years old, Dmitrieff explained. And a lot of guitar makers are using it. Dana Bourgeois says, “Torrefaction doesn’t just make a guitar look old, it gives it the opened-up sound that’s prized in actual vintage guitars. Luthiers are just beginning to discover its depth of possibilities.” Dmitrieff uses this spruce for tops and maple for the backs and sides. 

Dmitrieff mostly uses mahogany, Brazilian rosewood, Adirondack red spruce, sitka spruce and curly maple. The abalone is used for edging, sometimes down the middle of a guitar back, but always for the Big Wave Guitars logo.

“I've always been fascinated by the hokens art of Japanese watercolor artists who did those crashing, foaming waves … that kind of inspired me,” Dmitrieff said. “I was taking a drawing class with (the late) Jim Taliana at Boothbay Region Art Foundation. We had an exercise called the evolution of the wave. The wave I use was the last of the simple little pencil drawings. The light just came on and I said to Jim, 'This is the logo for my guitars.'”

For the past year, he's just been building guitars and is working on two parlor guitars in his Boothbay Harbor studio. The quickest you can make an acoustic guitar he says is eight weeks. Dmitrieff has molds to build five guitar models: the small jumbo, dreadnought, the 1906 parlor, OM (orchestra model) and the jumbo OM. Once he finishes these two, Dmitrieff has a real high end beauty to make for a client.

Tools of the trade include a band saw, drill press, and side bending machine. Before he got this machine, the first four to five Big Wave guitar sides were bent with a piece of pipe and a blow torch! Several years ago, Dmitrieff acquired all of the equipment from a former New Hampshire guitar maker, including that side bending machine.

The process gets a bit tricky, he says, when binding the sides together and cutting the channel for the edging material. If it isn't done right — the guitar's already made at this point — there's not much you can do.

“Every one of my guitars is different — the grain of the wood is different. I'm not into production guitars,” said this laid back luthier. “I'm in it to build really nice guitars. What I enjoyed about boatbuilding was doing wood work around all of those curves. A guitar is very much like a boat that way, they're curvy and require that extra dimension of thought to figure out how you're going to fit the wood to the curve.”

Dmitrieff will often hear a tune running through his head or the radio, or wherever, that'll make him stop to pick up a guitar and play a riff or two. He says he works tirelessly and is often so involved in the process, his longtime partner, Susan Papineau, has to come over to the studio “and beg me to come to supper.”

A friend once told him you don't really know what you're doing til you've made 100 guitars. “I thought, s- -t! (laughs) I shoulda started this a lot sooner ...”

But, according to Apollonio, Dmitrieff shouldn’t worry about that “magic” number. Apollonio says if Dmitrieff had been a student in one of his guitar-making classes, the Big Waves luthier would be “pushing an A+.”

I finally had a chance to work with Rob at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard and the conversations got around to lutherie … since then he has set up his own shop and 10 years on has far surpassed the skill I had at that point,” Apollonio said. “I recently had the pleasure of visiting Rob in his shop and he is well set up with his tools in a sunny location, currently working on a little gem of a parlor guitar with the Spruce for the top and rosewood body. Will probably visit him when it’s done just to hear and play.”

Big Wave guitars are rich in color and the movement within the grain is mesmerizingly beautiful. You can tell they've been built by, as Dmitrieff refers to himself, “a wood freak.”

“I know guitars and every guitar has its own voice, even those built identically the same,” Dmitrieff said. “It's a living thing. In the end you strive to have an instrument that sounds really good — and looks really good. I use the finest materials from the wood to the finishes and varnishes.”

Every guitar he's made has been sold, sometimes before they've even been made. So, what DO people say about his guitars?

“They like 'em so far,” says Dmitrieff with a slow smile as he picks up that first Big Wave parlor guitar to play the tune rockin'  in his head.

For more information on Big Wave Guitars, call Rob at 207-350-6219.