A couple of months ago, I had the idea to try something new on this blog and today I finally get to unleash it on the internet! This is the first edition of “shop talk” or “conversations with luthiers.” Hopefully I’ll be able to build on this first post and create a series of conversations over the next few years with a variety of other interesting and inspiring instrument builders.
Today’s post will feature the Canadian luthier Ross Chiasson. I first met Ross a few years ago at the Hamilton guitar festival, and his work has remained an inspiration ever since. Ross is a few years ahead of me in building experience, having completed 35 guitars and clocked 7 years of serious commitment to the craft, although he says that he has been “puttering since [he] was a teenager (give or take 15 years).” Ross completed the majority of his lutherie training with Sergei de Jonge in Chelsea, Quebec, after having completed a master’s degree in guitar performance at the University of Ottawa. He now works as a full time luthier in Kingston, Ontario where he has a small-but-mighty 300 square foot workshop.
Rather than conduct a traditional interview in person, I decided to (sticking with my introverted tendencies) send a list of questions for Ross to fill in so that he would have time to think everything over. What I came up with ended up looking rather more like an exam than an interview – I’ll have to work on my journalistic skills if I keep this series up! What follows is basically a copy-and-paste from the document we came up with. All of the pictures included in this post were provided by Ross – none of this is my work!
Favourite hand tool:
Record no.7 Jointer, which was one of my first purchases (used – from a collector in Ottawa) and the set of chisels my wife bought me early on.
ADDENDUM: right in the middle of writing this I bought one of those StewMac style luthier vises with the swivel heads because I was rebuilding a banjo headstock and couldn’t get a grip on it. I should have bought this thing years ago. Lee Valley has a knock off version now, which is bright green and adds a nice splash of colour to the shop. Game changer.
Favourite power tool:
My dust collector. It’s a 5 HP cyclone with two giant HEPA filters. It can suck up a full size tape measure. It’s also the only power tool I ever purchased new. Favourite power tool I don’t own? A jointer. I’ve been right on the edge of buying one for about 4 years. I’ve always gotten along with my handplanes, but it would be a time saver.
Most useful homemade jig:
I just get a jig working well and then I change my mind about what I want to accomplish. I end up free handing a lot of stuff. It’s wildly inefficient. I do use a lot of jigs, but they are usually in a state of flux.
Preferred heel joint:
ALL THE HEEL JOINTS! Just kidding, but I’m not a purist here despite building mostly classical guitars. I’ve done a few different joints and had good results with them all. Mostly traditional dovetails, that’s how I learned, but lots of mortise and tenons, and I’m working on an adjustable neck system based on Sergei de Jonge’s design. I’ve done enough neck resets in my repair work to appreciate a joint that comes apart reasonably easily – and if it didn’t have to come apart at all, that would be great too.
Favourite wood combination:
I’m leaning into domestic hardwoods these days – maple and cedar is a really lovely combo.
Favourite step in the building process:
I like planing tops. A sharp plane in quarter sawn softwood is a treat, especially compared to some of the gnarly hardwoods you have to deal with along the way. I’ve always enjoyed carving necks too, and taking the wrappings off the bindings to see what you’ve got.
Sergei of course, Some of the local guys in Cape Breton were big influences – Otis Thomas in particular. These days I love the diversity of the scene and the history. There’s so many amazing resources and ideas to draw from. It’s a great time to be alive.
“Long answer” questions
How does your background as a player influence your building? Do you think that it brings a unique perspective to what you are looking for in the finished product?
I think it helps in the evaluation process and in knowing what sounds I’m after. It’s challenging to objectively evaluate your own instruments, and having the training as a player helps with the ear. Sometimes I’m a bit jealous of folks with physics or engineering backgrounds, but everyone come to building with their own advantages and disadvantages, and there are a lot of very different folks in the world making great instruments.
Where do you see yourself in the spectrum of traditionalist – innovator? and/or artist-technician-scientist?
The guitar has to be a useful object, and that’s craftsmanship that does that – there’s definitely an element of artistry too, but I don’t know where the line is. I’m usually happier as an artisan than an artist.
I’m not any more comfortable trying to determine where I fall on the tradition/innovation spectrum. I keep my nomex on the shelf beside the hide glue.
Why do you build? How did you come to guitar building and what drives you to continue in this pursuit?
I like working, I don’t know why – I just like making things and solving problems- chipping away at things to make them better. It’s as much a compulsion or habit as anything. I get a bit antsy when I’m away from the shop for too long. That sort of brain mixed with my music studies seems to fit the job. I’m just about making a living at it now between building and repairs which eventually becomes pretty important in determining whether it’s a full time gig, a side job, or a hobby. I think a lot of builders have quietly fluctuated between those states over their careers.
You just have to keep at it.
What do you want to be able to accomplish with your guitar building? Do you find yourself indulging in personal building goals/technical innovations, or do you lean towards aiming to please the wider guitar playing audience? Perhaps these are not mutually exclusive.
I just want to make really really great guitars. Right from the beginning I was evaluating myself globally against all the best guitars and makers in the world. This is not a good recipe for happiness, but it speeds up the learning curve. I try to progressively improve my instruments, sometimes working in a more radical idea here or there to try it out, sometimes working it back out again. I’m always learning. I hope my instruments will make people happy and I’m really honoured when someone chooses to play one.
Of what are you the most proud?
Having one of my mentors, Dale Kavanagh play one of my guitars was a really moving experience for me. It was a rush of positive reinforcement in a very important moment for me. Both her and her husband/duo partner Thomas Kirchhoff (Amadeus Duo) have been really supportive.
What would you like to be able to tell your beginner luthier self?
You don’t have a cold! You’re kind of allergic to rosewood dust – buy the good dust collector!
Do you have any shop rules? Tips for beginners? Sage advice?
Safety wise I just try to use common sense. Hopefully that continues to hold me in good stead. There’s a lot to think about, you just try to make good choices.
For beginners? I can’t offer much advice except what I keep telling myself. If you keep at it and you care deeply about it you’ll eventually get good at it and maybe if you really keep at it you’ll get really good at it. That’s what I’m trying for.
For more information on Ross, check out his website: www.rosschiasson.com/
To hear one of his incredible guitars, check out Mike Ibsen’s video here:
I hope you enjoyed reading through what Ross had to say as much as I did. I want to say a huge thank you to Ross for being my first “victim” for this fledgling series of interviews with luthiers. Let me know what you think about this format, and please let me know if you have luthiers that you would like me to talk to! I’ll leave this post here with one more picture of Ross’s shop featuring his 6+ month old daughter, one of the youngest guitar repair apprentices out there.