Making Hallowed Guitars From Formerly Sacred Wood

A detail view of one of the Sag Harbor guitars made from wood from The Church. April Gornik photo.

It’s almost Biblical: removing a rib to create something new.

In the case of the big book, it was the rib of Adam to create Eve.

In the case of The Church in Sag Harbor, it was removing one of the church’s ribs — or a 180-year-old floor joist — to create a quartet of prized solid body electric guitars.

“It’s fascinating, the use of a tree after it dies by countless microbes and animals,” said April Gornik who, along with her husband, artist Eric Fischl, founded The Church, a creative incubator they have crafted from the village’s former Methodist church. That repurposing is something she found very attractive. “It’s what interested me, using old wood for guitars.”

And why guitars? Well, it started with a movie.

G.E. Smith trying out one of The Church guitars. April Gornik photo.

“Carmine Street Guitars” is a documentary about a tiny store and workshop in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the shop’s proprietor, Rick Kelly, who makes custom guitars from old salvaged wood. Real old, some from buildings 200, 300 years old. The film was screened during the 2018 Hamptons Doc Fest at Bay Street Theater during an evening when the co-presenter was the Sag Harbor Cinema, another of Gornik’s interests. She is a member of the Cinema’s board and was intimately involved in acquiring the theater as a non-profit temple for film.

The documentary follows Kelly and his co-worker, Cindy Hulej, over several days in the shop, building guitars, collecting wood and talking with a string of guitar aficionados who stop by to either check on their instruments, try out a new one, or just shoot the bull with the affable Kelly.

Following a post-screening conversation with Kelly, Gornik, whose church was in the throes of renovation at the time of the screening, suggested to her husband they give the guitar maker a few pieces of broad beam ancient pine that had been removed, she believes, from the lower level during a renovation of the 1835 building by a previous owner. The result is four unique guitars, each very different in feel and appearance, but all raw and rough-hewn, and full of character, warts and all.

The pine beams taken from The Church are much like the wood that Kelly has harvested at a number of old sites in lower Manhattan, including the Chelsea Hotel, Chumley’s speakeasy, McSorely’s Ale House and Trinity Church, which dates to the 1600s. In most cases, the wood has been in its building for a couple hundred years. And at the time when the wood was first milled and installed in a church or a bar, it had already been standing in a forest for a couple hundred more years.

A guitar made from wood from The Church by Carmine Street Guitars. Notice the knot hole on the upper left of the instrument. April Gornik photo.

In colonial times, “these old growth pine were harvested throughout the state, up through the Adirondack Mountains,” Kelly said in a recent interview. The trees were prized for their tall, straight growth and straight grain.

“It was no wonder they were called the ‘king’s wood’,” said Kelly, noting that much of the timber was sent back to England for construction, and masts for ships.

But while that characteristic translates well for the guitars’ necks (more on that later), the real benefit from the aged wood comes in the resonance it offers the instrument.

As wood ages, the resin crystalizes, opening pores in the wood, which makes the guitar more resonant, Gornik explained. Something Kelly calls the “weird chemistry of molecules” in the wood.

“As a string vibrates, it makes the wood resonate, and accentuates different frequencies,” said the guitarist G.E. Smith, who has played three of the guitars made of The Church’s wood.

Smith, who lives in Amagansett, owns a bass that Kelly made for him when he toured for a couple of years with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (also an East End resident). He also had Kelly make him a guitar, which he calls a true New York guitar.

“The neck is made from wood from an old building on the Bowery, and the body is made from wood from the Chelsea Hotel,” he laughed.

The instrument has a remarkable quality, he said, and recalled playing it one night in a show at New York’s Beacon Theater.

“I hit this one note that night and it just went off,” said Smith. “I rapped my knuckles on the neck and it just rang like a bell. It was beautiful.”

A Sag Harbor guitar made from wood from The Church by Carmine Street Guitars. April Gornik photo.

He noted that the guitars Kelly makes are very reminiscent of Fender Telecasters, a staple of rock guitarists and one of the most recognizable guitars in the world. There are a couple of key differences, though. The age of the wood, for example; modern guitar makers typically use wood that is just a few years old. And the old growth pine that Kelly uses in the guitar necks which enables the guitars to be made without truss rods.

“When the first Fenders were made, the vast majority were made with truss rods in the neck,” Smith said. Some were made of maple, a much harder wood that pine, but they had trouble with some of the necks warping under the strain of the string tension.

“There is absolutely a difference,” Smith said. “Without a truss rod, it gives you a greater warmth.”

Kelly, who started using reclaimed wood as a cost-saving measure, built a niche for himself as more guitarists learned about his instruments, and his shop is full of racks of thick slabs, what he calls the bones of New York. He also found more friends turning him on to some prized stashes of wood.

“After 9/11, a friend got me some wood from the bell tower at Trinity Church,” Kelly said of the lower Manhattan church built in the late 1600s. “Those giant bronze bells have been clanging in that wood for over 300 years.”

The wood in The Church, of course, is a mere 180 years old, but the building has given up boards that, at least in one case, appear to be large enough for one piece to make the entire body of a guitar.

“It had to be at least 14 inches wide in order to make a guitar out of one piece,” Kelly said. “That’s very unusual. The pieces we get here are generally about 9 inches wide.”

And the instruments retain their character. A knot hole runs front to back through one of the church guitars, while its pick guard, a thin veneer of old wood, remains naturally distressed and worn. One guitar he made for Gornik had a couple of holes in it, probably from bolts or posts, while another had the inclusion of three big spikes.

“And after I finished, I put them back in,” said Kelly. “I tried to keep the wood as much as possible as it came out of the church.”

In some cases, Kelly and Hulej will decorate the guitars, burning designs and art into the wood. One guitar features a scene with a couple of fishing boats with sea gulls and the words “Sag Harbor” burned into the pick guard. Another features the Sag Harbor Cinema logo.

“They didn’t ask me, I just decided to do that,” Kelly said. “I thought it would kind of fit.”

Another, with artwork by Hulej, has designs burned in between the frets on the neck and “Cindy” at the top of the neck.

“It’s very cool, very hipster,” said Gornik, who said she once belonged to an all-girl band at her all-girls high school.

“I’m a sad guitarist, but a happy guitarist,” she admitted, and compared her playing to singing in the shower. She has moved away from the electric guitar of her youth, she concedes, and has since picked up an acoustic guitar and learned some Brazilian music, and may be leaning toward Bach suites for lute that can be adapted for guitar.

The future of the quartet of guitars is a bit uncertain. There were two originally intended for the Cinema and two for The Church, said Gornik.

One guitar is at the moment in The Church, and another is in her studio at home. The other two are at the Cinema on Main Street.

“One needs to stay at the Cinema,” she said. Originally she thought one might be auctioned or used some way as a fundraiser.

“I don’t know. We’ll see what the people who are running the Cinema want to do,” she said, holding out hope for guitarists that the instrument could someday become available.

Smith, of course has played three of the guitars, and said they were all special in their own way. One though, he described simply as “magical.”

But he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — say which of the three it was.