Austin Clark’s workshop is a study in restrained chaos.
Tools cover every possible surface. The keyboard of his computer-controlled router is coated in fine sawdust. Archie the rescue dog lounges on the floor. Above the cluttered workbench hang three perfect mandolins glowing in the morning light, waiting for their varnish to cure.
In 2006, Clark turned his back on a successful 20-year culinary career to spend his days in this former West Boise garage, coaxing art out of raw wood. He has created a life that others only dream of, turning a beloved hobby into a brisk livelihood.
“I made a bunch of instruments because I kind of played and wanted something nicer than I could afford,” says the amateur-mandolin-player-turned-professional-instrument-maker. “Eventually someone saw one of my nicer ones, and word got out. Suddenly I had this two-year wait list. I quit my job as executive chef for the St. Luke’s hospital system and started doing this.”
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Idaho is best known for “famous potatoes” and a burgeoning high-tech sector. But it is also home to a kind of counter-intuitive industry: the making of fine stringed instruments. It’s a business model that allows former hobbyists like Clark and Bellevue’s A. Lawrence Smart to quit their day jobs and commit themselves to pursuits they love.
It’s no fluke that the Gem State nurtures those who make mandolins, violins and all manner of guitars. No surprise that it’s possible to make a living here as a luthier. Just think wood and wherewithal.
“As far as the region, I can only tell you that Idaho/Montana seems to offer a more serene, craft-friendly vibe, with access to good woods and a sense of space that taps into a focus of creativity,” says Ted Eschliman, who runs JazzMando.com, a website dedicated to all things mandolin. He has commissioned three Clark instruments and reviewed a Smart mandolin.
Luthier (pronounded LOO-ti-ehr or sometimes LOOth-E-er) is a French word that originally meant lute maker. Today, it refers to anyone who makes a stringed instrument, from violins to electric guitars.
Steve Weill, who owns Givens Legacy Mandolins in Cocolalla, Idaho, a hamlet near Sandpoint, says that Idaho’s natural resources and proximity to the outdoors make it a perfect location for this type of craft-based industry.
“Idaho is cheap and a pretty private place to live,” Weill says. Being a luthier “doesn’t pay very well. Most of us have day jobs, construction or furniture making.”
Northern Idaho also contains large growths of Engelmann spruce, a wood that gives a resonant quality to the sound boards of violins, mandolins and guitars, he says.
Turning a hobby into a paying pursuit is not for the faint of heart, as Clark is quick to tell you. Before he left St. Luke’s, he was working full time in the hospital system during the day and full time in his workshop at night.
“But I was building a business, and having the other job allowed me to accumulate tools and stuff that would be hard to capitalize right away,” Clark says. “I didn’t even know at the time that it would be an option for me. I talked to my wife, and we just looked at this wait list and said, ‘OK, we can do this, so let’s give it a whirl.’ It’s just grown from there.”
The 50-year-old luthier makes acoustic guitars, mandolins and octave mandolins (think mandolin sound one octave lower and housed in a guitar-like body) through Clark Fine Handcrafted Instruments. He officially started his instrument repair operation The Better Fret three years ago.
He fixes “everything from basses to banjos.” Repairs now take about 40 percent of his time. The Better Fret allows Clark and his wife, who works for the state, to weather economic downturns a little easier.
“When people feel good about spending money and the economy is good, they buy instruments,” Clark says. “And when they don’t, they get the old ones fixed.”
He builds between 15 and 18 instruments each year, about three-quarters of them through custom orders. The rest he sells at bluegrass festivals, where he also has an instrument-repair booth. His mandolins range between $4,500 and $10,000 per instrument.
“If people are going to spend that much money, they want to play the instrument before they order it or buy it,” Clark says. “Those musicians at that level, they usually want to bond with something. ... They may say, ‘These are all great, but this is the one I really like.’ It’s such a subjective thing.”
Carving out meaning
Smart, 60, quit his job as a high-school teacher in 1986 to make mandolin-family instruments and guitars. He had to augment his income for the first three or four years, but since then he has been a full-time luthier. He started the business in McCall and recently moved to Bellevue.
Smart left teaching because he “was looking for more meaning” in life. He considers himself “a toolmaker,” he says: “I make tools for artists who are the musicians.”
Idaho, he says, is a natural home for luthiers because of the Engelmann spruce that thrive in the state’s lofty elevations and its four distinct seasons.
“I love Engelmann spruce,” Smart says. “When I lived in McCall, I spent a lot of time searching for it and cutting it in the woods. In my personal world, I have a super connection to the woods I’m using. ... I love it. I cut it. It comes from the place I live.”
He also likes the quality of tone the spruce creates. Engelmann spruce generates a “warmer and looser” tone in mandolins and a “more crystalline sound” in guitars than other woods, he says.
Smart’s cheapest mandolins start at $4,500. A mandocello can cost $14,000. He doesn’t make what he calls “corporate kind of money,” and he’ll probably never be able to retire.
“I think, for most of us building instruments, it really is a labor of love,” Smart says. “My own personal journey has a lot of gratitude toward the fact that I’ve been able to do this for 30 years and contribute to the musical world and feel like I’ve been able to do good work and not harm anyone.”
To be a luthier, Smart says, “feels like a really pure and positive way to go through the world.”