BATH, Maine — After a couple hours of painstaking chiseling and sanding on the inner ribs of a custom guitar made from the wood of a burned-down church, Carter Ruff held the top face of the emerging instrument near his ear and tapped, first on the edges and then in the center near the sound hole.
Tap, tap, tap.
His brow furrowed and he did it again.
Tap, tap, tap.
Though the differences in the sounds produced by the taps would be negligible to most ears, Ruff could discern from those thuds what the finished guitar might sound like, and in this case, that his work on its inner support structure wasn’t finished. In his small and cluttered garage-based workshop in Bath where he runs his one-man business, Subterranean Music Works, he continued with the chiseling and sanding.
“My goal as a maker of instruments is to maximize the amount and quality of sound that they make,” said Ruff. “A guitar is in part a tool, but the other part of its job is to inspire the person playing it.”
Everything from the building materials to the type of finish to the slivers of wood Ruff deftly peels away with razor-sharp tools has bearing on the guitar’s sound. Luthiers all over the world obsess about these factors, but there’s something much more special about this particular guitar.
On June 6, 2011, an electrical fire destroyed the Unitarian Universalist Church on Pleasant Street in Brunswick, devastating the Ruff family (Ruff and his wife were married there) and the church’s 185 other members. Though the fire was severe and the site of the church is now a vacant lot, not everything was destroyed. In the church’s old pinewood pews, Ruff could see the makings of a custom guitar which he intends to donate to the church’s rebuilding fund.
“In this guitar, the wood has its own history,” said Ruff. “It’s wood that had a previous life for the church.”
Pine is not typically used in acoustic guitars, but Ruff was able to find planks in the pews where the grain was straight and tight and beautiful. One of the pieces had a nail hole through it but rather than fill the hole, Ruff has chosen to accentuate it in the custom guitar’s design. He also plans to incorporate the Unitarian Universalist flame-and-chalice symbol as well as its mission: “Bring peace to all the world.”
“My guess is that those pews were around 100 years old,” he said. “My hope is that this guitar will last another 100 years or more.”
Ruff intends to donate the guitar, which is modeled after a 1920s Gibson design, for the church to auction to the highest bidder. The most basic models of Ruff’s from-scratch guitars sell for $3,000, but the church’s minister, the Rev. Sylvia Stocker, said this one in some ways is priceless.
“He’s making it out of wood that was recovered from the church that burned, which makes it very special,” said Stocker. “To have him agree to make one for the church’s fundraiser is an incredible gift.”
But Ruff is just one of numerous congregation members who have stepped up in the church’s time of need. The capital campaign’s goal of $850,000 to rebuild the church has been exceeded by more than $150,000. Numerous congregation members have devoted countless hours to the fundraising, as well as ensuring that the church’s activities continue, for the time being at the Minnie Brown Center, a synagogue in Bath. Stocker said construction bids for a new church on Pleasant Street in Brunswick came in higher than expected, so fundraising continues. Still, she’s hopeful that construction could begin as soon as this fall.
As most people of faith know, sometimes the hardest challenges bring the greatest rewards, which Stocker said has been the case since last year’s fire.
“We’ve had to learn how to be a church without walls,” said Stocker. “Even though the fire represented a huge loss, we have really learned about ourselves and grown in ways that we might not otherwise have grown. Like many things in life, we had the good mixed in with the bad.”
Ruff, who became interested in music and woodworking through the legacies of his grandfathers, said the amazing show of solidarity and support from inside and outside the congregation in the wake of the fire inspired him to undertake the project.
“As we’ve worked through this as a congregation, it feels like we’re a little bit stronger and have more sense of purpose,” said Ruff. “All these things came out of a tragedy. It really does happen.”
To learn more about the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick’s capital campaign or to check for updates about when Ruff’s guitar will be auctioned, which could be as soon as early November, visit the website www.uubrunswick.org.