By DL PERRIN
In the mid-1990s, Bill Grant retired from his position as administrator of the LaGrange County Health Department. One day he stopped by the Maplewood Nature Center to visit an old friend.
“I stopped by the nature center and they were about to begin a class in making dulcimers,” Grant said. “The instructor looked up and asked me if I’d like to join the group and since I wasn’t doing anything else at the moment, I said ‘Sure.’ He had a bunch of kits, which included all the parts. In the end I made a dulcimer out of cardboard.”
After he got home, Grant decided he could make a sturdier version of the dulcimer if he used some scrap paneling he had in his garage. From there he bought materials, books and tools. He began experimenting with different native woods for their diverse tonal qualities. He soon outgrew his garage and needed more room. He built on a family room (for his wife, Billie) and a workshop for his new “hobby.”
When in need of parts, advice or inspiration, Grant would visit a long-time guitar repairman and maker in Vicksburg, Mich., Aaron Cowles of Aaron’s Music Service. He worked for Gibson up until they moved out of Kalamazoo. He has been in the business for 50 years.
“I first met Bill when he came by to pick up some materials to build one of his dulcimers,” Cowles said. “He stops by on occasion and sometimes he asks my advice. He builds a beautiful instrument. He does his own inlay and picks all his own wood. It is a lot of work but his final product is very high quality.”
Grant is a self-taught luthier (maker of stringed instruments), but not a musician. He does not play guitar and says he can only strum a few tunes on the dulcimer. He makes guitars for his grandchildren but only after they have completed two years of formal piano lessons.
Over the years he has finished 25 guitars and he can’t recall how many dulcimers. He had no experience with woodworking prior to the day he made his first dulcimer out of scrap.
The esthetic of working with beautiful wood is his joy. But the sound is the goal. He taught himself how to build the “X” brace used by Martin Guitars on the interior of the sound box. After the wood braces are firmly glued to the back, he hand carves scallops into the braces to form a tone. He shapes the scallops, taps on the underside, whittles some more, sands it and taps again until he is satisfied with the resonance.
That search for perfection in the sound quality has won Grant many fans in the area.
Erv Troyer is a local guitarist and sponsors acoustic music jam sessions in the tri-state area.
“He built some beautiful dulcimers, and started experimenting with different woods, such as sassafras, for the tops,” Troyer said. “One day he told me,’ I think I will try to build a guitar.’ I told Bill that guitars are a lot different than dulcimers. They take special tools and procedures, they are much more difficult to make. He said ‘Well, yes, I suppose you are right.’”
Undeterred, Grant built a guitar.
Troyer had his doubts. “After he got the first one done he brought it to one of our jam sessions,” Troyer said. “I couldn’t believe what I saw and heard. It was a beautiful well-crafted guitar, and it played and sounded very good.”
Troyer said Grant began building fancier guitars, with a lot of inlay work. They continued to play well and had great sound quality.
When Grant finishes a guitar he usually has Troyer or Loren Heinlen try it out.
“Bill is the only luthier that I know personally, so I can’t say how he compares to others except to judge his work from the end product he produces,” Troyer said. “In my opinion he makes some of the best instruments I have ever played.”
Loren agreed. He said, “Bill is an extraordinarily thoughtful and talented craftsperson. His work building both dulcimers and guitars, especially in his use of native hardwoods, is inspired — with wonderful tone and appointments.”
Grant, on the other hand, calls himself a “duffer” and said guitar building is just his hobby.
Bill Grant can be contacted by phone: (260) 463-4974