When Luke Wilson was asked which instrument he loves to play the most, his answer came easily.
“The closest one,” he said, with a laugh.
Born into a Canadian family of musicians, Wilson learned to play the harmonica at age 6, then moved on to the viola and mandolin at 10. Today, 67-year-old Wilson plays more than 15 instruments, or “anything with strings,” including the less-heard-of cittern, baglama and bouzouki.
It’s clear that his grandfather — an Ontario piano and banjo maker who died before Wilson was born — somehow passed his love and reverence for fine instruments on to his grandson.
“My grandfather was born in 1864 and was 50 years old when my father was born,” Wilson said. “I never knew him. When I was 10 years old, my father gave to me all of my grandfather’s wood, tools and instruments. Many of the tools had been made by my grandfather.”
A working musician for most of his life, Wilson is also an accomplished “luthier,” otherwise known as a person who makes and repairs stringed instruments.
When he’s not out on gigs — such as playing with wife Maggie McKaig’s much-praised group, Beaucoup Chapeaux — Wilson can be found in his work space, Wolfnote Studio, on the outskirts of Nevada City.
Scores of stringed instruments hang from the walls of his tool-laden workshop, all in various stages of disrepair — or glory. A dobro, a mandolin, a viola, a fretless banjo, a tenor guitar with intricate pearl inlay and many others. Each has its own story, said Wilson, a dimension of the job that adds depth and appreciation for fellow craftspeople through time.
“I do restoration on instruments that range from museum grade to those who say, ‘I want my guitar tomorrow and I don’t care how it’s done,’” said Wilson.
“I’ve fixed instruments that have been smashed by the airlines and driven over by cars. I’m here to restore and build and help with broken instruments. I want to make right what’s been done wrong.”
Tremendous satisfaction comes from bringing an instrument back to life, he added, such as an 1880s’ banjo he recently worked on.
“People find instruments in the attic, and they’ll bring them from the Bay Area, even Canada,” he said.
“Sometimes a band on tour will bring in 10 instruments at once.”
Redwood, walnut, madrone, Italian spruce — every piece of wood has a different sound, and it’s all about the lay of the grain when it comes to tone. Knowing the strength, flexibility and growth patterns of each piece is vital.
Wilson has accumulated 40 years’ worth of fine wood, none of which has been kiln dried. Some woods need to dry as much as five to 10 years in the studio, he said, where he also makes his own varnishes and cooks his own glue.
While there is little or no room for error when it comes to the paid job of building and repairing fine stringed instruments, Wilson has also donated his time to leading instrument building workshops at local schools, including Yuba River Charter School, where he founded the music program.
During his 18 years in Nevada City, he has also taken on apprentices, including Jon Wondergem, who met Wilson nearly a decade ago while building his deck.
“Jon had the patience, the drive and the juice for this line of work,” said Wilson. “I call him my ‘junior’ partner just because he’s young. He’s quite accomplished.”
Although Wondergem still enjoys working in Wilson’s studio, he has gone on to open his own business, The Unparalleled String Shop, on the San Juan Ridge.
“One thing that sets Luke and Jon apart from most luthiers is that they are both masterful musicians,” said McKaig, a musician herself.
“They understand the instruments they work on both from a builder’s side and from a player’s, which is one of the reasons they are so respected.”
Wilson’s training as a luthier is notable.
While still in his 20s, he moved to England in 1969 to play music and began to work with banjo historian Pete Stanley, learning to restore banjos.
Upon returning to Canada in 1973, he apprenticed at the Toronto Folklore Center, then moved to Calgary, Alberta, where he opened Player’s Custom Guitars with a partner.
In 1978, he opened his own shop on the farm that he and Maggie owned northwest of Calgary.
In 1985 the couple moved to California, and Wilson worked with violin maker David Morse at the Soundpost in Santa Cruz.
In 1987, Wilson and McKaig moved to Grass Valley and once again opened a shop, which was later moved to their present home in 1994.
Which type of instrument does he enjoy building or repairing the most?
“They are all for my own pleasure — if they give me pleasure, they will give others pleasure,” Wilson said.
“My particular favorite is usually the one I am working on at the moment.”
McKaig finds it hard to disagree.
“More often than not I look over at Luke in the middle of a song we’re playing, and hear him play some gorgeous line that I’ve never heard him play before, and see how much fun he is having doing so,” she said. “Or I see the joy on his face as he comes into my study carrying the guitar he’s in the midst of building to show me how lovely the inlay in the peghead looks — well, I can’t help but marvel at the man and this life we share.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.