Working: John Blodgett

By Patrisha McLean | Mar 12, 2011
Photo by: Patrisha McLean John Blodgett

What’s the difference between something that looks like an instrument and something that plays like an instrument? “A lot of work,” according to John Blodgett, who meticulously repairs and restores guitars, banjos, dulcimers, violins and autoharps in an upstairs studio on Route 1 in Glen Cove.

The wooden acoustic instruments come to him in shapes ranging from, “broken/broken, just kind of neglected, or in need of readjustment.” He wields a variety of hand tools, including a block plane from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren and a jointing plane that was his grandfather’s. But his craft extends way past carpentry: “I’m optimizing what the instruments can do,” he says. "I want to get the whole palette of sound."

John is usually working on three or four instruments at a time, from dusty family banjos to 18th century, symphony violas and cellos to the signature Martin guitars that Don McLean takes on the road.

“Before you touch it you want to come up with a plan,” John says. Sometimes, that plan includes taking the instrument completely apart. He says there have been times that a customer has seen this stage and, “they’ve run out screaming. We’ve just dismembered their baby in front of them.”

A personality trait that makes John well-suited for his work is his ability to concentrate over a long period of time. Make a mistake and “you can’t scribble it out. You have to start over. It can be a lot of work to get back to where you were before you made the mistake.” A couple of days can go into properly resetting an instrument’s neck. “Half a degree off can be magnified to a much greater distance.”

While John has built a handful of instruments in his 21 years at Woodsound Studio, he likes leaving this side of the business to owner Ron Pinkham. In repairs and restoration, “They come to you with a problem, you solve it, and they pay you and you’re happy and they’re happy. It’s a nice relationship.”

John has always been handy, a trait he says that one of his two sons has inherited. “Except for the internal combustion engine, I can kind of fix anything and if I can see how it works, I can make it.”

At Woodsound, “I have repaired things that nobody else ever dreamed of fixing.” One guitar “had a badly warped neck that was falling off, and it wasn’t made well in the first place. If it was at the take-it-or-leave-it shop in the Camden dump, you would leave it.” And because the instrument purportedly belonged to the son of the pioneering jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt “It had to look like we had done almost nothing to it.”

John took the first steps along his career path while visiting a friend’s instrument-making class at Boston University, after having majored in religion in college himself. “The cool thing about that class is we weren’t given plans. We had to look at an historic instrument and build one from the strings up.” John’s project was a viola de gamba and all these years later he still feels now how he felt then. “It’s fascinating that you can make this little wooden box sing.”

Patrisha McLean is a nationally-exhibited photographer specializing in black and white portraits of children, and the author of "Maine Street," published by Down East Books in 2009. Her website is patrishamclean.com and she can be reached at patrishamclean@aol.com.

 

 

 

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