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By Dan Rudy 

Local luthiers bootstrapping a business

 

Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

Steve Helgeson and Kevin Skeek showcase two prototype instruments – a mini dreadnought at right and a concert cutaway model at left. Starting Raven Guitars, the pair have begun manufacturing high-end guitars in Wrangell using local spruce.

A pair of entrepreneurs have begun to make their shared dream a reality, building and selling guitars using locally-derived materials.

Wrangell resident Steve Helgeson and Kevin Skeek of Hoonah together launched Raven Guitars after winning a $40,000 entrepreneurial grant through Path to Prosperity two years ago. Initially the two were in competition with each other, having independently reached the final round with a similar idea to build guitars using local resources. Concerned they would undercut each other's chances of winning, the two talked it over after passing the semifinal round.

"We decided that instead of

competing with each other for the final round of the competition that we would join forces, and submitted a proposal together," recalled Helgeson.

As part of their compromise, they adopted Skeek's brand idea of Raven Guitars, and on the strength of their new proposal ended up winning the

competition. The seed money from the award then went toward furthering their education in the manufacture and

marketing of guitars.

"That allowed us, with the grant money, to go to Portland to study under a master guitar builder three different times," said Helgeson.

They studied under Charles Fox at his American School of Luthierie in Portland, Oregon, participating in a combination of group classes and one-on-one mentoring.

"I went into it completely a

novice," said Skeek, who has recently relocated to Wrangell for the business. Having never built an instrument before, what had drawn him to the idea was the entrepreneurial opportunity.

"I played the guitar for like, 13 years, 14 years now," he explained. "Honestly, I never thought of building guitars until I got into working with Sealaska, where I was an intern for corporate

communications. Through that

opportunity I got to meet Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars, Chris Martin of

Martin Guitars, and Dave Berryman of Gibson. It wasn't until I was

handed a $110,000 guitar by Martin and they were explaining to us,

Sealaska, that 'OK, we are using your wood as our sound board – the top of the guitar – and that's what makes that sound.'

"It just sat at the back of my

mind for a long time, about eight years, and it wasn't until Path to Prosperity came along and then that's when

I said 'Hey, here I have a shot to go do this.'"

Formerly a wood-worker and

with some prior luthierie experience himself, Helgeson had come to a

similar conclusion. A high quality, hand-built guitar using local spruce or cedar could fetch anywhere between $15,000 and $40,000, presenting a real

opportunity.

"This is the highest and best use of Sitka spruce," he said, explaining

the wood's strength-to-weight ratio makes it highly sought within the industry as a material. "We live where the materials for the best sound boards in the world come from. It's universally accepted."

Under the tutelage of Fox, Skeek and Helgeson learned the hundreds of steps that go into making a guitar.

"You could spend the rest of your life exploring the depths of that particular craft," said Helgeson. "But certainly we came away with enough to understand what is involved in building a quality guitar, and at least one technique for getting there."

For the Raven Guitars brand, Helgeson and Skeek collaborated to develop prototype models using

their newfound techniques. Under Helgeson's direction, these were

carefully planned out using a modeling program before being constructed at the Portland workshop.

"I'm pretty good at CAD drawing – computer aided design – because of my background in woodworking," he admitted.

At an interview last week Helgeson and Skeek brought along two of their creations, one of them a concert cutaway model with a spruce top and mahogany sides.

"It has a unique bracing style," Helgeson pointed out.

Rather than a more usual x-brace on the underside of the body's soundboard, Raven Guitars instead opts for falcate bracing, which instead uses

sickle-shaped strips for more even

stiffness and greater efficiency. The style was pioneered by Australian

guitar-maker Trevor Dore, and has

been adopted in all of Raven Guitar's designs.

"You have to build it strong enough so it can withstand the constant loading of the strings for years and years and years," said Helgeson. To that end, for the pair's other prototype – a large, cedar-sided guitar called a mini dreadnought – makes use of manmade materials for added strength.

"It may look pretty traditional but on the inside it's pretty high-tech," Helgeson explained. "This particular guitar has bracing that is reinforced with carbon fiber and epoxy."

The lighter the top, the more

responsive the guitar is, and the tensile strength of the carbon fiber gives the instrument even greater rigidity, and with it a better sound. And because it bears the strain of the guitar's strings, Helgeson said the wood will have greater longevity.

"That's really what we're focusing on right now. We want our guitars to be a player's guitar. In other words, they've got to sound good and they've got to have good action – they've got to be easy to play," he explained. "We're

pretty confident that we have some of the best wood in the world to build guitars out of, which sets us apart, and we're really focusing on the technology and physics of the acoustics of the guitar."

In addition to the design techniques, Skeek and Helgeson have also built new relationships and potential business contacts through their participation at the Portland school. The pair do not anticipate that being based in Wrangell will be a difficulty for the new business, and have already worked out a strategy to market their brand.

The guitars produced by Raven are to be sold in around the $5,000 range, marketed for experienced players, typically males between 28 and 50 years old. In 2012, Helgesen said there were around 56,000 units sold in that price range to that particular group.

"It's a fairly good-sized demographic," he said. "We're going to have an innovative marketing strategy to reach those people. We're going to use electronic media quite a bit, we're going to work on the ground at folk festivals and places like Portland, and Nashville, and Seattle, where there's a healthy, vigorous live music scene. It's really going to be a grassroots, from-the-ground-up marketing strategy."

The two have already received orders for production, selling two models of the concert cutaway

and one of the dreadnought.

"We're aiming towards kind of a small production setup," Helgeson explained. He and Skeek will initially aim to build four guitars per month, gradually increasing from this entry-level production.

"We're going to do it slowly and steadily," not work beyond their means. Both are working day jobs to finance their materials, with the intention of transitioning to making guitars full-time if and when they can sell enough models. Further afield, Helgeson could see the business bringing jobs to the community. Making even 500 guitars per year, he estimates the company could afford to employ five workers full-time.

"But right now I'm building them out of a spare bedroom in my house. We're bootstrapping this thing," he said.

"We are already finding enthusiasm for the instruments we're building, and getting orders. And now we need to catch up by getting them built," Helgeson went on. "We know enough to be confident to start out. Now we have to learn how to do it quickly."

 

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