For 10 years, Preston Thompson hand-built acoustic guitars, many that made their way into professional players' hands. And after a two-decade hiatus when his reputation continued to grow in his absence, Thompson is back in business with plans to ramp up production in a new facility in Sisters.
Everything Thompson needs — thousands of tools ranging from sanders and rulers to a spray booth and chopsticks — is currently sandwiched into a 400-square-foot space on the top story of his Bend home.
“Some of the things we have that I operate with in here are fine for a small number of guitars,” he said, noting he's been making about a dozen guitars a year in the space since 2011. “But when we get up into a few more instruments, we'll have to increase our power.”
Thompson formed an LLC, PK Thompson Guitars, with guitar enthusiasts Dan Stewart and David Blakeslee in September 2012 and hopes to boost production to between 60 and 100 guitars a year. His speciality: bringing vintage guitars like the Martin D-28 back to life.
“Most of my instruments are patterned after the instruments made between 1929 and 1939,” he said. “It sounds so specific, but there was kind of this perfect storm that came together of ingredients, artistry, design and craftsmanship in that particular era that really created probably the most valuable and sought-after guitars period, for acoustic guitars.”
Because only a limited number of guitars were made during that era, he said, they are difficult for collectors and players to get their hands on.
“Most of those vintage instruments ... are either locked up and vaulted away someplace or ... they're just very, very expensive,” he said, adding the cost can range from $60,000 to $250,000. “But people want that tone, that look and that playability.”
Thompson said his guitars range from $4,000 to $15,000, depending on the model, the detail and the type of wood.
“It's a lot of money, but it's substantially less” than vintage instruments, he said.
Since he re-entered the business, Thompson said, the industry has become more profitable for smaller guitar makers like himself.
“Back in the '70s and '80s when I was doing this before, people might pay in the neighborhood between $1,500 to $2,000 for a handmade instrument,” he said.
Thompson plans to continue direct sales online but also wants to have his guitars sold at hand-picked retailers throughout the world in predominate music hubs, as well as in Central Oregon.
“Music stores can do something for you that you just can't do for yourself, even with a website,” he said. “Some people want to play that guitar before it's delivered because every guitar is different. Every (guitar) is going to have a little bit of a different personality and so a lot of players want to walk in and fall in love with a guitar that is already made, versus ordering one.”
For right now, Thompson said his goal is to get his guitars back on the market and let acoustic guitar enthusiasts know he's back in business. And once he moves into a new facility, he expects to take on a handful of staff to help him build and run the operation.
“Luckily my reputation hung around from when I did this before,” he said. “We want to capitalize on that.”