Contoocook couple produces masterful mandolins
Max shapes a band around the edge of what will eventually be a mandolin while working at his business in Contoocook. Not satisfied with a mandolin he purchased several years ago, Max decided to undertake the job of building his own, which quickly turned in to a hobby, he said. Now, working out of a barn-like structure behind his home, building mandolins is his full-time job.
JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff
Max and Lauri Girouard receive various types of wood for creating their mandolins. Recently, they received a piece of a 600 year-old Yellow Birch that was found and pulled from waters in Maine.
JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff
Max and Lauri Girouard work together to fascine a piece onto the edge of what will become a mandolin at their home business in Contoocook on Thursday afternoon, September 5, 2013. The two have built mandolins full-time for the past several years, turning what was once a hobby in to a money-making endeavor.
JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff
Max Girouard never set out to be a luthier sought after by mandolin players from Los Angeles to London for his remarkable instruments.
He never planned to spend seven days a week with his wife, Lauri, scrambling to make mandolins and mandolas for hungry musicians smitten by internet images and sound clips of the radiant instruments built in his Contoocook shop.
He didn’t want to spend his days contorting maple, cedar, walnut, spruce and birch planks so that they could sing a scale and bark a chord and give a player voice.
Max Girouard’s only aim was to build himself a better mandolin, which he did. But it wasn’t exactly what he wanted, so he sold it on the internet and he built another, and another, and another, tweaking each one in a quest to get the perfect sound.
“I started getting people calling me about the instruments and asking about them, and then all of a sudden on eBay they started going for more money,” he said. “We started getting calls and people were putting in custom orders. It kind of happened.”
The couple converted their garage into a workshop and bought more equipment, he said, and put up a website to “just see how it goes.”
“I woke up one day and I thought, ‘Oh my God! Look at all this work,’ ” he added.
In 2011, Lauri suggested Max quit his day job at a Cambridge biotechnology company, where he ran precision equipment used to manufacture pharmaceuticals, so he could focus on building instruments. He took his wife’s advice.
“Surprisingly, even in a bad economy, we’ve got our head above water and we’re in a stage of growth,” he said. “The business is in the first couple of years, and we’re turning a profit already. That’s really good.”
Now their instruments are being sold by a major national dealer, the Mandolin Store in Phoenix, and by the Acoustic Music Company in England. They are also being sold on the internet by mandomutt.com as well as their own website, girouardmanodlins.com.
Customers regularly rave about their instruments, posting comments on their Facebook page about the sound, playability and appearance of a particular mandolin. Professional musicians have also been smitten.
“Everything that Max does when setting them up makes them easy to play,” says Concord musician John Holden, of Lunch at the Dump and the Chip Smith Project.
“They’re beautiful,” he said. “They look great, and I’m not a guy who cares what an instrument looks like as long as it plays well.”
Local music teacher and musician Carleton Page, an early fan of Girouard instruments, said Max and Lauri have hit a perfect pitch with both the instrument’s finished appearance and its sound.
“I think they are becoming so popular because they sound amazing, play amazing and probably should cost more than they do,” he wrote in an email. “They have an identity, and people respond to that as well as to the love and care that Max and Lauri put into them.”
Max’s mandolin odyssey began in Minot, N.D., where he was stationed in the U.S. Air Force and where he came across his first mandolin hanging on a music store wall. Having never seen one and not willing to plop down the $75 asking price, he moved on.
Later, he found himself strolling through downtown Providence, R.I., when he heard music unlike anything he had ever encountered coming from an old church. Curious, he stepped inside and saw his first mandolin orchestra.
“I was just completely blown away by it,” he said.
Hooked on the sound and the instrument, he turned from playing bass guitar and bought an inexpensive mandolin and started taking lessons. Within a year he was performing in that same orchestra. Of course, he wasn’t satisfied with the mandolin he was playing, so he bought another that he hoped would meet his expectations.
“Once you’re into something, you’re always looking for something better,” he said, “. . . so I started this long journey of trying different instruments.”
His second mandolin also didn’t sound or play exactly as he wanted, so he bought another instrument from a well-known maker, which also didn’t satisfy his ear. His only option, then, was to make his own.
He sold his name-brand instrument and bought some tools and started learning the subtleties of the woodworker’s craft. Just learning to use a particular woodworking tool such as a hand planer could take several weeks, he said.
“Your whole body becomes an attachment of this tool and you have to work together to achieve what you’re doing,” he said. “It sounds so simple, but it was one of the more difficult things I learned. . . . Everything’s got an ebb and flow to it. It’s kind of like a dance you’re doing.”
The learning curve was steep, he said, because he had no background sawing, planing or sanding wood.
“The only thing I ever built (out of wood) was that I made a little house for my sister out of Popsicle sticks when she was in the hospital,” he said.
He pressed on, refining his process where needed, using power tools when it made the most sense, and always finishing an instrument by hand before giving it to Lauri, who would apply a Girouard Mandolin’s signature varnish.
As his experience and knowledge grew and his building methods and processes evolved, he learned that mandolin making at its heart is about the wood and how it is shaped.
Finding a proper piece of wood is critical, he said, which often means getting a board originally milled for boat or furniture building, but that happens to have been properly treated so that it is suitable for making a mandolin.
“Once we do find wood that is good for use in an instrument, we let the wood tell us how it needs to be carved or treated while we are working it,” he said.
The initial stages, or “roughing out,” are done using powerful tools such as a band saw and a thickness sander to bring the boards nearer to the shape of an instrument, he said, but the final adjustments must be made using hand using tools such as chisels, carvers and planes.
Lauri noted that woodworking could eventually debilitate the luthier; so using machines makes good sense. “There are a lot of builders, 60 to 70 year olds, who are completely arthritic,” she said. “They can’t move because they’ve been using hand planes their whole lives. . . . they’re just crippled from the pain caused by having to work these hard, hard woods their whole lives.”
Machines can only do so much, though, and it’s human hands that bring the instrument to life. “No matter how machined you get, you always find that there’s a surprising amount of work by hand that has to be done,” Max said.
“Sometimes the difference between an okay mandolin and an excellent mandolin is only a few thousandths of an inch apart, and it takes lots of time and experimenting to figure that part out,” he added.
Once Max has a mandolin “in the white” – finished, but not varnished – he gives it to Lauri, who painstakingly sands away the tiniest flaws and decides the best color and hue before applying multiple coats of an environmentally friendly, waterborne varnish.
With Lauri’s final touches applied and the instrument sent to its new home, the journey that Max started years ago on the barren North Dakota plains pauses briefly, but just for a moment – the business is growing, after all.
Soon the two are back in the shop where Max carefully considers each plank of wood, gathers his tools and begins again to build a mandolin that will meet his musical sensibilities, but he knows it won’t be easy.
“Wood does not want to be a mandolin,” he said, “it wants to be a tree. You’ve got to contort it and change it and convince it that this is its new life. It’s not an easy path for either you or the tree.”