Franciscan frets

Sept. 14-20, 2006
Franciscan frets
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Local craftsman builds guitars at Assisi Center

After picking the guitar up five years ago, Sam Grosvenor was confronted with a problem. His fingers just weren’t quite long enough to wrap comfortably around the neck to reach the frets. Moreover, no matter how many different guitars he tried, he could never quite find the sound he wanted. Hoping to find the specific sound that suited his tastes and, knowing full well that, at age 53, his fingers were unlikely to grown anymore, his wife, Susan, who had heard just about enough of his complaints, chided him that he should build his own guitar. With no formal training, Grosvenor used an old guitar as a model and set about shaping a six-foot piece of mahogany into an instrument better suited to his own specifications.

Two years later, Grosvenor has a burgeoning guitar-making business called Franciscan Guitars in the basement of the Assisi Center on North Salina Street in Syracuse. A salaried employee of the Franciscans, making guitars doesn’t produce a dime for Grosvenor’s own wallet, it all goes back into financing the order’s ministry. The guitars are on display in the building’s storefront window.

“We set up a wood shop in the basement with the understanding that whatever money is made will stay within the Franciscan ministry,” said Father Canice Connors, OFM, the rector of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church. Although he still plays, Grosvenor has focused his energy more closely on building the instruments. “I’m what you call a campfire player,” he said. “My passion is building them.” Grosvenor has made a career out of working with his hands, both as a union bricklayer and as a trim carpenter. Two years ago, after witnessing the style of Grosvenor’s carpentry, the Franciscans asked him to stay on in a permanent capacity as their full-time construction supervisor.

The key element that the Franciscans saw in him, according to Grosvenor, was his creativity and his innovation. “When I was hired, I was hired for my ‘artistry’ – that’s how it was put to me,” Grosvenor said. When he is presented with an architectural design, for instance, Grosvenor explained that he is more likely to use it as a basic guideline. He usually takes opportunities to riff on different designs with new ideas. “He was part of a work team that helped me put the friary project together and I noticed his work ethic and he impressed me as an artist so we asked if he’d like to stay on and share his artistry and he said yes,” Father Canice said. Grosvenor’s signature on many of his guitars is a peace sign and he is fond of finely designed inlays. Often a peace sign will appear in the head of the guitar or in the base of the neck.

As a carpenter, Grosvenor grew intimately familiar with different species of wood. Now, as a guitar maker, he has become fascinated with how different woods produce different tones. Grosvenor built his first guitar using a six-foot piece of mahogany. According to the Cazenovia man, this wood produces a “very warm” sound.

He still prefers mahogany for the neck of the guitar but noted that many prefer rosewood. For the body, he doesn’t necessarily have a favorite although he is partial to both Ingleman spruce or Spanish cedar for the top and rosewood for the bottom of the body. He said that the lighter the wood, the more vibration there is. In keeping with that, Grosvenor usually does not heavily color the instrument with paint or lacquer. On a standard guitar, Grosvenor uses 15 coats of clear, water-based lacquer, sanding down the surface in between each treatment.

It takes Grosvenor roughly 40 hours to produce one guitar so long as the client is only asking for a no-frills product. “That’s nothing fancy,” he said.
Grosvenor sells each guitar for $1,000 and up; but he said that standard, custom-built guitars usually start at $3,000. He said he is willing to work with any client on exact specifications. The most elaborate guitar Grosvenor has built to date was a wedding present for his nephew. Photos of the guitar show an opening on the body shaped to resemble a shamrock. Other designs include a heart and a Celtic knot. The bottom of the guitar features a woodcut with a shamrock over individually pieced together bricks. Grosvenor said that the last feature was an allusion to his own occupation as a brick layer.

“I’ll never build another one like that,” he said. “That was too frustrating.” Currently, Grosvenor is working with a former FrancisCorps volunteer who is building his own electric guitar. Ultimately, Grosvenor envisions himself conducting classes for guitar building but for now he is simply trying to get the brand out there. For Grosvenor, the side project is his passion but it is also his delight. “It’s a joy,” he said. “It’s relaxing.”

Father Canice anticipates incorporating Grosvenor’s skills into the larger Franciscan project on the north side in Syracuse. “This is part of a large plan that we have to build skills in the kids in the neighborhood,” Father Canice said. “We hope eventually to get another project, a film school, up and running as well. We’d like to teach them skills they can relate to.”

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