No strings attached: Restoring and building great guitars in Flourtown

Local Life February 28, 2013 0 Comments

Tim Huenke in seen in his Flourtown shop with a 1962 Fender “slab board” Precision Bass.

by Grant Moser

Tim Huenke, 48, owner of Superior Guitar Works in Flourtown, remembers when his parents gave him a guitar at age 12. He had just “discovered” music and was grabbed by the deep and powerful feelings it stirred. Fortunately for the world of guitars, the instrument his parents bought was not any good.

Huenke’s profession today is what he calls “a restoring luthier.” (A luthier is a maker of stringed instruments.) Looking back now at that first guitar his parents gave him, he knows what was wrong with it.

“It was made out of cheap materials with poor construction. The geometry was all wrong, the strings were sitting too high off the fingerboard, the notes didn’t sound cleanly, there was rattling,” he explained. “It was an instrument that a seasoned professional would have trouble getting music to come out of; it was something from Kmart or Sears.”

But back then all he knew was that he wanted a better guitar. After buying a few progressively better guitars, Tim got the idea to build his own guitar. He had grown up building model kits and was good at detailed work with his hands. His stepfather had a good woodworking shop in the garage.

“It came pretty naturally to me,” he said. It took him most of the summer to complete it. That’s when he realized he loved the technical aspects of guitars as much as playing them.

There are many technical aspects to restoring, fixing and building guitars. One of them is the action: the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret board. The strings are under an enormous amount of tension, anywhere from 150 to 200 pounds. “You don’t want to stretch a wire that’s pulled that tightly down really far with just your fingertip,” Huenke said. “You want to touch that wire and pluck that string and have the note sound.”

Another aspect is the geometry of the guitar: the alignment of the neck and the bridge and the fingerboard in relation to each other. Even many seasoned guitar players don’t understand the importance of geometry.

When someone brings in a guitar for Huenke to set-up (adjusting factors, including the action, to make the guitar play its best), often he finds that the geometry is misaligned. All that tension from the strings will stretch and buckle a neck over the years, which will make the guitar sound poor.

He used his know-how to earn money in college by fixing other students’ guitars. He attended Stockton State College in Pomona, New Jersey, briefly before he dropped out (“I was young and irresponsible”) and began working as a union carpenter. A car accident forced him to leave that industry, and he landed a job at Zapf’s Music Store at 5421 N. 5th St. in Olney repairing acoustic guitars, doing set-ups, refinishing, a little of everything.

After four years at Zapf’s, he decided to start his own business in 1992. Actually working on guitars for years is the only way to really learn the craft, according to Huenke. There are schools to learn how to be a luthier or to repair guitars, but “you can’t learn this in a few months.”

As an example, Huenke pointed to Martin Guitars in Nazareth, Pennsylvania; they are America’s oldest surviving guitar manufacturer. The repair department there has to know about only Martin Guitars, but that’s 175 years of history to master. When restoring a guitar, the luthier needs to take into account what types of glues were used, which types of finishing techniques were employed when the guitar was made and any manufacturing quirks particular to that guitar’s era.

Huenke has worked on Martin Guitars (one 1830s guitar he restored is in their museum), but he also works on many other makes of guitars from various eras. “I need to have an encyclopedic knowledge about every manufacturer of anything that comes across my bench in order to give it the care and attention it deserves. A lot of these guitars are antique Americana,” he explained.

While the Internet has made researching specifics much easier, not all the information is accurate. Knowing what to do and how to do it comes from looking at and studying hundreds of them. “I’ve been screwing around with this stuff since I was 16. I’m now 48. That’s a lot of guitars.”

Huenke enjoys restoration work but also will occasionally build a guitar from scratch. Many times a customer will have a neck but will want him to make the body. It’s rare for him to receive an order for a true custom-built guitar, mainly due to the cost and time that goes into that process. One such order was from a man who wanted a platform to show off his pearl inlaying skill. It has an entire coral reef and ocean ecosystem from the headstock to the bottom and is wrapped around the back in intricate handcut inlay. It was featured on the cover of the 12th edition of the Blue Book of Electric Guitars.

Tim’s work, whether restoration or custom-building, doesn’t come cheaply. He just restored a 1979 Fender Precision Bass for a customer. Huenke spent 50 shop hours restoring the guitar at $90 an hour. He says the man was thrilled to see it in working order and said Huenke him a piece of his history back. “It’s worth it to some people. I love giving them back that memory.”

The guitar man grew up in the Tacony/Bridesburg area for the first seven years of his life when his family moved to southern New Jersey. He moved to Mt. Airy in 1994 and has been a resident in the area since. He is married to Cynthia, without whom he could not possibly run Superior Guitar Works.

For more information on Superior Guitar Works, please visit www.superiorguitar.com.

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