I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Whitney Lowe and of being invited to the workshop of Wade Lowe, his father and an Atlanta based luthier since the 1970s. Wade was nothing short of a Renaissance man. Before becoming a luthier, his primary wage-earning wisdom, from what I’ve been able to uncover, was that of a machinist, something that actually had intrigued me. He knew machine tools, how to make them, using lathes, other milling machines, and grinders to produce precision metal parts. Although he may have produced large quantities of a given part during his time on the job, precision machinists often produce small specialty batches and even one-of-a-kind, single production specialty parts. From the feel of ingenuity abundant throughout the workshop, I’m sure when the company needed a crucial, complex part for an important process, they sent the task to Wade Lowe. He not only learned it and made a living, but he brought this particular art into his home with an amazing machinist lathe placed right there in the workshop. I’ve never seen such a complex piece of equipment in someone’s personal space before, but rather only in the manufacturing jobs I’ve had myself.
In the second half of his life, Wade found lutherie and it was second nature to him, as if some genetic switch in his DNA was triggered to the “ON” position. He quickly became a master builder. I’ve read many accounts in the bios of other luthiers whoo credit Wade as being one of the most important figures in their development in the art of lutherie. On his website’s main page, John Kinnaird writes, “Along the way I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Wade Lowe. Wade owned a guitar shop in Decatur Georgia where he did repairs and made custom classical guitars and violins. He became a mentor and showed me what it meant to be a craftsman.”
He put together an amazing hermit-style workshop in the basement of his Decatur, GA home through his years in lutherie. When I first stepped into this unforgettable space, I literally wanted to hit the pause button on the control panel of our space-time continuum and then, with great care, pick up and inspect every single esoteric tool and jig, smell and feel all the Spruce and Western red Cedar boards that had been curing for decades. I wanted to tap them while attentive with my ear up close to listen for the sweet sound of sustained vibration luthiers want to hear when they’re searching for and considering tone wood for instruments they plan to build. If the wood is usable, there’s a special sorta ding! when it’s tapped the right way. This “ding” indicates is that you’re holding a piece that will be a good (or great) component of an instrument. I also wanted to hold, tap, and listen to all the instruments hanging around the place. But, I knew I had only about 45 min because another person was coming soon for their appointment to look through the shop. This was early on in what turned out to be a three-week day to day estate sale for Whitney, who had left his home and Academy of Clinical Massage in Bend, Oregon to come to town for this gargantuan task, which also included the sale of the home itself..
I had allowed myself a budget of $250 for that first visit, which was a lot of money to me at the time (and still is, currently). This money I had alloted myself was Covid-19 era poverty money that I raided from special reserves in a special bank account which had suffered many attacks in my previous two and a half years of lutherie studies and investments trying to start a new living myself in the field. There was just way too much to look through and I could only go on what my eyes caught by skimming through and endless reserve of chisels, hand planes, clamps, wood, guitar tops that’d already been “thicknessed” (luthiers know what I mean), etc. My time was up before I could be too sure of anything more than I’d simply grabbed a few quality things. One of those things was a drum sander Wade had made himself. I also was able to find some lovely Spruce and Western Red Cedar that had been drying at least 50 years and some chisels.
There was one room in the back corner of the workshop. It was full of exceptional species of wood when it comes to instrument making. There was Brazilian Rosewood, Bird’s Eye Maple, Mahogany galore, Walnut, Cherry, Sitka Spruce and so forth. It was the special reserve, Wade’s best. Serious inquiries only and it was being sold as an entire lot, not to be picked through. I did not even dare set one foot into that room because it was absolutely out of the question. No, Sir! Don’t even think about it! I got home with my goodies from my visit to his shop. I knew I had to make a 2nd visit. There were so many things that intrigued me. The next day, I contacted Whitney and made a plan to go back and dig again. I thought another $250 of special reserve funds was justified because I would never be in such a place again with this chance to acquire some really amazing tools and wood. But, NOT the special room. No way! I was going to stay out of there.
Wade had always been building things since he was a little kid. He had a background in machine design and transferred a lot of that background into learning how to construct instruments. He was always fascinated with music and had thought he might try to learn how to play some, but was more drawn to building instruments than playing them. At the time when he started learning how to build instruments there weren’t many teachers around and of course there was no Internet and no widespread dissemination of information. He got some books and had some early teachers that taught him specific things, but a lot of it was trial and error experimentation on his part. This is the best way to learn, in my opinion, but it does make for some emotional highs and lows, moving from courage with respect to the future back to despair, sometimes many times a day. His very first instrument was a balalaika that he built based on a picture from a record album. According to the family, a friend of his currently has this instrument.
I was able to get several personal facts about Wade from Whitney that paint a bit more detail to his life portrait. In his young years, his favorite musician was Benny Goodman. As he got older his musical taste got quite eclectic, Whitney said, but added, “we had a lot of good times in the late 60s and 70s singing songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival and he really liked them all away through his life.” He was really good at design and three dimensional renderings of things. Whitney recalls that “he was somewhat interested in art and he and I took an art class together one time which we had a lot of fun with but it’s not something he ever pursued much.” Outside of lutherie, he did have some daydreams about doing other things like building a boat. He always was interested in some kind of new and interesting challenge that would pose challenges or difficulties for him, something different and unique. A pity that there are only so many hours in a day!
Of all the instruments he made, his very favorite one was a Brazilian Rosewood violin. That was really sort of a tradition breaker and something he was really proud of. It was a marvelous instrument. Definitely a kindred spirit, he was, as I find it difficult to stay within the boundaries of traditional tone woods for classical guitars.
Whitney also reminisced that he had “so many memories of his marvelous workshop space. I used to go down there when I was a little kid and simply watch him work and create magical creations. Through the years it was always impressive to see what he was working on a new ways that he was finding to do things. More than anything he simply enjoyed the process of building things and also the end product of knowing that he would make people happy by what he was doing. Clearly he lived for the joy of making other people happy.”
Fortunately for me, Whitney gave me the chance to come shop in his family’s home when he found my website online and could see that I was local. On my third visit to the shop, I had the courage to inquire about the price of the lot of wood. I had already decided I was going to make an offer because it was unclear up to that point if there were any serious candidates. Still, I had no idea how much they were looking to get for that special room of sterling tone wood. Regardless, I had given it a lot of thought and knew very well just how much I could afford to spend without putting myself into a precarious spot economically speaking. When Whitney told me the price, I thought I might faint because it was something I could pull off. I pretended to think about it, “do some numbers” and get back to Whitney but I knew in my heart there was no chance I’d let this opportunity slip away. Later that day, I began hauling that treasure home.
Wade left behind a collection of wood that is hard to describe without consulting a thesaurus. Phenomenal, unparalleled, exceptional? I just don’t know which word to go with. Every piece of wood was labelled, dated, and kept in a humidity range that fine woods both deserve and need. If I am able to continue do this for many years to come, I will not run out of world-class pieces of wood that Wade had been caring for over the course of decades. Some of the Brazilian Rosewood pieces were cut “pre-1939” as one of the labelings indicate.Od all the Spruce and Western Red Cedar I acquired, there is none that hasn’t been curing since the 1970s. I could never have imagined I’d be having the opportunity to even look at such a refined collection and I certainly cannot believe, still, that I was able to buy it and bring it home. I
I made many trips to Wade’s shop, to load up my car to bring the things home I’d bought. Eventually, I was shown a picture of him from an article in a quarterly publication from the Guild of American Luthiers. Immediately I was struck by the feeling that I knew Wade. I’m almost positive I knew him, I just cannot remember from where. It may take me years to remember when and how I met him, but I’m sure it was in that hazy, forgotten time before I found lutherie. Until then, I’m gonna do my best to bring these pieces of wood together, shape them into instruments I hope would make him happy.
If you’re ever in Bend, Oregon or close-by and find yourself in need of a clinical massage from an expert, find Whitney Lowe. http://www.academyofclinicalmassage.com/
Friends of Wade who could not make it to his shop during the estate sale for an opportunity to buy some of his chisels, feel free to contact me and I will give any to you I can part with as a gift. I’d like to pass along a bit of the generosity extended to me by the family during my visits doing business with them.
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