The coming end of the trimester at Sisters High School meant a flurry of activity last week in Tony Cosby's classroom.
In one corner, students hovered by a computerized numerical control precision router that, with the smallest of bits, was cutting shapes in abalone shell. Other students sat at computers, working in AutoCAD software to plot out the intricate designs. The rest moved rapidly about, grabbing tools, guiding saws and consulting each other on the projects.
Since the beginning of the school year, these roughly 16 students have been tackling one of woodworking's most intricate projects — building their own guitars.
“We stress at the beginning of every class that if this is built well, it can become a family heirloom,” said Jayson Bowerman, who volunteers with the students. “This can last through your lifetime and beyond.”
The class is Woodworking II. But it's better known as the guitar-making class at Sisters High, supported by the Americana Project.
It launched in 2006. Cosby remembers it as Bowerman's idea. Bowerman recalls Cosby first bringing it up. But they agree that together, they dreamed up a course in which students learn the intricacies of building a musical instrument.
“When we started, I couldn't imagine that they could do that,” Cosby said.
Today, the students build two guitars apiece over two trimesters. They are handcrafted beauties, made of materials like Oregon myrtlewood or walnut. Some students also include decorative inlays around the sound holes in the body of the guitar.
They keep one guitar. The second gets auctioned off at the annual My Own Two Hands benefit for the Americana Project. They've sold for up to $5,000.
“I think one of the great things is high schoolers don't understand difficulty,” Cosby said, reflecting on the craftsmanship. “They say, 'Sure, I'll build a guitar.'”
Supporting the students
Before entering the class, students must take Woodworking I, in which they make bowls and Adirondack chairs. Then, with a nomination from Cosby, they can enroll in the luthier class, a luthier being a craftsman who makes stringed instruments.
Cosby and the class are supported by plenty of outside help.
The Americana Project, a Sisters-based nonprofit organization focused on musical opportunities for kids, has sought grants to support the luthier class. It recently netted a $20,000 grant to buy wood and other materials.
Students must pay a $200 materials fee for the class, although scholarships are available. The actual materials cost per guitar is between $400 and $500.
Also, Bend-based Breedlove Guitars regularly donates materials.
A host of volunteers share their expertise with students.
Bowerman once worked for Breedlove Guitars. He now consults for the company and has his own custom instrument business.
Bill MacDonald, also a luthier, attends regularly, as well. MacDonald recently launched a ukulele-building class that is a one-trimester elective at Sisters High.
Kerry Bott brings his engineering background to help the several students who operate AutoCAD. They assist by plotting coordinates on the software for the inlays, directing the cuts made by the computerized precision router.
Steve Larimore also volunteers. He is an avid woodworker who has built a guitar.
The team is rounded out by students who return to the class after their first round to help others and build their own guitars again.
“I think it's really rewarding,” said Ross Robinson, 17. The senior has taken the class and is now helping out.
“At this stage it seems really tedious and tough,” he said, observing his peers. “But at the end it's all worth it.”
“OK, everyone,” Cosby announced at the start of a class last week, “we have eight days until we put the finish on.”
Students will start getting the first polyurethane coats on their guitar bodies — called boxes — this trimester. A second trimester in the spring is devoted to finishing the guitars — including stringing and tuning them — and then building the second one on an abbreviated timeline.
The class teaches about more than just the mechanics of guitar building, both Cosby and Bowerman said.
It schools students in budgets and time management. They must track numerous steps and often solve problems when something goes awry.
Students are also helping each other, learning about how to give and receive feedback and to have their performance out in a public setting.
Cosby said he grades students on their process, how hard they work and the quality of their product.
“In a lot of ways,” Bowerman said, “success is black and white. They either finish the guitar or they don't.”
“I've found guitar making to be a lesson in humility,” he continued. “Every time I think I know everything, I get humbled.”
Senior Andrew Dyer understands that. He displayed his finished guitar from a previous class, but said what he learned from the first round has motivated him to try to do better.
“I like it, but I wish I could have done stuff differently,” he said. “I'll probably make another.”