DRUMMER FEATURE MARCH 26, 2017
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After playing a guitar a little bit over the past 50 years, local retiree has been getting good at building guitars
By Ed DuBois
Over the past 50 years, Dave Trelstad has played his guitar a little bit. The idea of building a guitar might have occurred to him now and then, but he never actually attempted it until about two years ago after seeing a video on the Internet. He decided to give it a try.
Trelstad, 78, has remodeled homes, and he has made furniture. But building a guitar involves a whole new set of skills. It also involves a delicate touch and plenty of patience because you have to complete several steps over an extended period of time while working with very thin pieces of wood.
"I went ahead and started building a guitar. When I finished, by gosh, it sounded pretty good!" he exclaimed.
"But I could do better," he added.
His first few guitars were crude compared to his more recent creations. He gave away some of the guitars. Most of his grandchildren each have one.
Trelstad has sold about seven guitars. He asks for around $500. He figures about $300 worth of materials go into each guitar project. When he was asked about the time he puts into each project, he smiled and said he makes about 25 cents an hour.
'Got better as I went along'
"I enjoy listening to good players play them," he said.
At Christmastime in 2015, five grandsons gathered with the guitars they had been given and played a song for him.
"I cried like a baby," Trelstad said.
He recalled buying his first guitar for $80 in Willmar. It was a Gibson LGO, and he still has it. He said it is a smaller guitar, size double "O."
"That's the size I gave my grandchildren," he said.
The second guitar he made sounded "thicker" than the first. It was a grand auditorium size, which "has a narrower upper belt" than the double "O." The body of a guitar has an hourglass figure, and the upper belt refers to top of the body. The bottom of the body is the lower belt.
"I got better as I went along," Trelstad said.
He has made 20 guitars so far.
Improvements in tone
Each new project takes about four to six weeks to complete. A luthier (someone who makes and repairs string instruments for a living) has told him he has made improvements in tone.
"He said he can tell there is a big difference (between his newest guitar and a previous model)," Trelstad said.
He shrugged and added, "I can't tell. I just build them. It's just really fun to do."
His wife, Judy, who serves as his quality control specialist, engraves "Trelstad" at the top on the head of each new guitar.
"She's a perfectionist. She can see things I miss," Dave said.
Met in Willmar
Dave and Judy met in Willmar when she was in school to become a nurse. Dave had grown up in the Fertile-Beltrami community, where his dad was a preacher. They moved to Appleton when Dave was 14. He graduated from Madison (Minn.) High School in 1956.
Dave and Judy have been married 55 years. They raised four children.
Dave worked mostly in sales. He said he was in furniture and carpet sales 25 years, working in Redwood Falls, Benson and Morris. He sold life insurance before retiring.
Judy went back to school in 1990 to become a registered nurse. She and Dave moved to Buffalo later that year. Judy worked at a nursing home in Winsted, and then she worked at the Park View Care Center in Buffalo. They owned a house near Sturges Park about 14 years, and in 2006, they moved to a house near Lake Martha in Rockford Township. Their four children live in the Twin Cities metro area.
Dave's workshop is in the garage. He said finishing is the hardest part of each guitar project. You have to spray lacquer, sand, spray, sand, spray, sand, and then buff it out to make it smooth and shiny.
He uses local walnut, maple or cherry wood for the back and sides. For the twentieth guitar, he used Indian rosewood.
"Guitar makers like to use Indian rosewood because it is hard and vibrates well. It has good sound," Trelstad said.
The top of a guitar is made with Sitka spruce wood. Two pieces are glued together.
Trelstad mentioned that if a guitar dries out, the top could crack.
"That's the only thing I won't guarantee," he said.
He recommends a humidifier to make sure your guitar won't get too dry in the wintertime.
Cut and sanded thin
The neck of the guitar is made with mahogany, walnut or maple. Trelstad likes mahogany the best because it is easier to work with than walnut and maple.
The back, sides and top are cut and sanded down to less than one-sixteenth of an inch thick. When sanding the top pieces, Trelstad goes "as thin as I dare without imploding."
He built his own clamping system to hold the bracing pieces in place after they are attached to the top. A special mechanism is used to precisely cut the sound hole in the top.
Trelstad cuts his own purfling material for the top, inner edge of the sides, where the top is attached to the sides.
The curvature of the sides is formed with a combination of moisture and heat. The wood is soaked, and then it is slowly bent on a hot pipe.
Glad he gave it a try
Some final steps include adding frets to the neck and a bridge below the sound hole.
"You have to do everything in sequence. You have to avoid doing anything out of order to stay out of trouble," Trelstad said.
"Once I start, it's hard to quit," he added. "I get into 'the zone,' and if I quit, I have to rethink everything."
He learned how to make guitars on the Internet, and apparently his experience with home remodeling and furniture making has been very helpful.
For someone who played a guitar a little bit over the years, he has been producing some very fine-looking (and fine-sounding) guitars.
He is glad he decided to give it a try.
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