Craftsman Keith Cary
On unhurried work
Text: J.G. Wirt • Photos: Mike Blanchard
Spotlight | Up and over a hill a few miles outside of Winters, Calif., and steps away from a small farmhouse, sits Keith Cary’s string-instrument workshop.
In a barn with a loft behind a sliding wooden door, an army of old violins hangs from rafters. Others in cases line shelves overhead and are labeled with masking tape.
In this space, Cary repairs authentic, functional things. Just don’t expect a rush job.
“I don’t do anything that’s time-sensitive anymore. Nothing,” he says with a laugh.
Much of the parts and relics are from estate-sale rescues or from music stores that have closed. Cary says he wonders what his family will eventually do with the stash he has collected.
This lean, goateed craftsman of 67 years knows his workshop’s random filing system well. He can also name the source of just about every piece in the place.
Narrow pathways around the workspace allow for careful stepping to look around.
In a small, open, metal cabinet are several ancient cans of varnish. Little projects and tools cover most every horizontal surface. Something or other also hangs on every wall surface. Rigging strung up along the ceiling under the loft holds even more instruments and pieces up out of the way.
On bench or table is gear for woodworking, electrical gear for soldering and shop instruments for monitoring and calibrating. Vintage amps are ankle-high and nearby in case he needs to plug in a pedal steel.
Low cabinets with deep drawers are filled with pegs and shims and metal bits for repairing and upgrading string instruments.
Wood shavings amid tools on one tall bench cradle an in-progress mandolin that Cary has been working on for a while.
But first, he sits in his main workspace and shows visitors a mandolin-banjo in pieces. It’s a family relic that he’d like to restore, but today it’s an object lesson about wood and steam and material persuasion.
He then describes the near-finished repair of a 1932 Martin 0-17 guitar. The patina is deep and true.
The owner had tried to use a palette knife to take the old bridge off. The palette knife had dived down and sliced into the guitar.
After Cary’s careful work, it strums fine.
He describes how he took the neck off and reset it.
“The neck warped … pretty significantly,” he says, turning the Martin and examining it side to side and down the neck.
Cary tells how he used fret wire to gradually coax the neck back into shape.
Buddy the dog takes up his listening spot in the open guitar case while Cary speaks softly and carefully about his life and his work.
Cary went to violin-repair school at community college in Oregon. There, he made his own tools and knives and jigs. “All we needed was good tool steel,” he says wistfully.
Then he shows the inside back of a Martin 000-17 to describe how he gets into the guts of a guitar.
He reaches for a special bent-back tool that he uses to remove the bridge plate. Then he describes how he steams the wood to persuade a guitar neck to separate from the body.
The shop boasts several double basses, including an aluminum one stripped of its wood-colored paint.
Huge cost comes with opening up a big double bass. “But if I spend an hour welding up some weird clamp that can do it, I can charge the person a couple hundred bucks instead of a thousand,” he says.
He has the pieces for that smaller Martin to put it back together, but Cary says it’s been in pieces for 20 years.
Priority work does exist for the guitars of such artists as “Little Charlie” Baty and select traveling musicians.
“A long, long time ago, I decided I wouldn’t work on anything I couldn’t buy. It just makes me nervous…”
Rarer now, he draws upon his electrical training at Sacramento City College when he needs to work on an electric guitar pickup. And he works on his own vintage tube amps, but tends to call amp-repair ace Skip Simmons for guidance when he needs to do the actual triage.
Cary repairs or creates when he wants to. He also is an accomplished player.
He asks visitors if he can tell about his adventures in pedal-steel.
“It’s a very impractical and weird little world,” he says, voice trailing off. “…they’re so interesting…”
He sets up and plays the pedal-steel whose case he made from reclaimed flooring and some flamed maple.
Continuing the shop tour, Cary shares how and why he learned to build mandolins.
“It was a really good way to get into the general work without working on somebody else’s instrument and making mistakes on somebody else’s.”
His shop drawing, resembling a topographic map, guides his work on the instrument’s front and back. A dial indicator and a drill press are used to work the wood down, and he uses special files and tiny wood planes to work the spruce to the right thickness.
And then, for a lighted portrait, he stands up his double bass outside the sliding barn door. Cary plucks and bows until the right image can be captured.
Keith Cary’s shop is where he makes things for himself and occasionally does repairs on his friends’ instruments.
He gets to not be in a hurry.