The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 30, 2012

Fiddlesticks


Lifestyles Editor

— Tinkerers. Pickers. Friends by bond and in deed. What wouldn’t these W.Va. woodcarvers and wonderers take a stab at, were they so inclined?

When Paul Blankenship’s son married Norm Thompson’s daughter, little did either father-in-law know they’d find a harmony of their own… in wood.

“We broke tradition,” said Thompson, the less expository of the two, a man who speaks only after he’s chewed it around long enough to spit out something worthwhile. Blankenship, touching one of many handmade instruments the two tackled inside his detached workshop (which also doubles as a mooring station for a fishing boat and a storage unit for the wood he and Thompson salvage), explained further.

“We’ve been told you don’t build a musical instrument without spruce on top.” Of course, that means the retired engineer who spent his life figuring things out, perhaps better than they’d been done before, used an entirely different wood. Since beginning several years ago, he’s experimented in the acoustic properties of all manner of wood, including rare wormy chestnut. Different bark, same idea.

“It’s got a good sound,” he said with a conclusive strum on a dulcimer whose twin will never be found. The likes of Blankenship and Thompson’s created instruments do not exist anywhere but the earnest, unmapped workshop in Monroe County, and their sounds are each one’s signature on air. Done for the love of it and to exacting, not exact, standards, a Blankenship and Thompson original is just that — original.

Upon the dulcimer with a string added here and one deleted there, Blankenship plays “Wildwood Flower.” The instrument, not the music, is what he considers one of his and Thompson’s successes, hemlock on top, with a maple back. Maple is on the list for good reflector of sound, the pair discovered. “Plywood is not,” said Blankenship, hinting at a past experiment-gone-wrong, another lesson learned. “They may not fit a master musician’s ideals, but most of us like sounds that are unorthodox anyway,” he reasoned.

Thompson, a retired carpenter and cabinetmaker, added his wood and carving knowledge to Blankenship’s ability to dissect a thing and figure out how it was put together. Both, with a deep-seated love for the sounds produced by mountain instruments, began making their own from scratch, planing planks into whatever struck their fancy. “We found out we liked the same pastime,” Blankenship said, summing up their humble and oftentimes fumbling beginnings.

Soaking, shaping, drying and carving. In times of a sudden, culminating crack, learning the methods of time-honored luthiers isn’t all it’s cracked-up to be.

The problem with musical instruments is not only looking good, but sounding good. In true, undaunted inventor fashion, the pair keeps their most colossal failure out in the open. It’s pretty... but you can’t dance to it.

“It’s a hurdy-gurdy,” explained Blankenship, holding his version of the crank instrument so easy a primate could do it. Pandora’s box of beautiful melody to the masters, their patternless reproduction was less than precise. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we liked them, so we thought we’d try.”

Some of their instruments lack classification, catalogued solely by inspiration. “This one is strung like a mandolin, but with only four strings instead of eight,” Blankenship said, taking inventory as well of the woods he’s discovered which make good instruments: Ironwood, cherry, sassafras and a Brazilian beauty named pernambuco.

Banjos, mandolins, dulcimers and a shepherd’s harp, each adding a bar or two to the compilation of what calms the savage breast. Most, they give away. A few have been kept, a few sold. The two will only take requests if they involve a qualifying challenge. Their art is as far from the principles of supply and demand as the east is from the west.

Looming on the horizon marked 2013, for Thompson and Blankenship, is a challenge bearing the same weathered “FREE” sign that caught their collective eye by the side of the road. Beneath the dirt and age, Blankenship and Thompson respected the detail a wood worker a century before them had carefully carved into the abandoned Bush & Lane upright piano. Instead of scrapping it for the coveted spruce from which it was made, they’ve set their sites on restoring it to its original magnificence. “If it were new, it would be worth over $50,000,” suggested Blankenship. “If we can get it right, it will be worth $5,000 to $10,000.” Money, however, is not the object. Like their other endeavors through trial and error, getting it done is enough satisfaction.  

For a couple of unorthodox instrument makers, Thompson and Blankenship are great all-around guys.

Blankenship is grateful to have the time to devote to helping a first cousin and close friend suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome take hunting trips, from which they’ve harvested several deer, enough to produce the hides Blankenship and Thompson will dry to stretch across as his next banjo heads. Along with being the most quiet, Thompson is the least resistant to requests for making special instruments, especially for family members.

In a season of half-hearted resolutions, the two friends resolve to continue doing what they do best this year — anything they darned well please.

“We’re retired. We’ve no steady obligations,” explained Blankenship. Without mass or micro-marketing breathing down their necks, the only cliff that intimidates may be the one their handmade sled courses over, another whim-made-good in wood, should nerve to try it and proper propellation (by pony or ATV) present.