It's been a year since Frank Schley IV and friend Jason Burr, both Columbus natives, launched their guitar-making company called Georgia Quarter. It sounded like a "dam" good idea and is shaping up to be just that.
The two have sold 13 of their electric telecaster guitars made out of pine wood retrieved from 1850s-era dams that were taken out of the Chattahoochee River during the creation of the whitewater rafting course in downtown Columbus.
The name of the stringed instruments was a natural -- Damcasters -- with Schley handcrafting the musical pieces out of his shop where he lives on Lake Harding in Harris County, and Burr handling much of the business side of the venture from his home in northeast Georgia.
The Damcasters' names are as custom as the way they are built -- Midland Ghost, The Original, Rapanui, Aotearoa, The 10:30, River's Rust and, most recently, The Transplant for a performer from Louisiana.
The Ledger-Enquirer sat down with Schley, 25, a Brookstone School and University of Georgia graduate, to talk about his passion for making the guitars, the unique way they prepare the 160-year-old wood, and the future of the burgeoning company.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, with an expanded version available at www.ledger-enquirer.com.
The genesis of this began when you were at the University of Georgia?
Correct. I was a psych major and I was about six months away from graduating and I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I definitely didn't want to go to graduate school. To do anything in psychology, you really need a graduate degree. So I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I took a guitar I had and was looking for a place to get it altered, and I started looking at luthier (guitar making) schools ... There was one in Athens, so I went in there and interviewed with a guy and he said it was great idea.
I played piano beforehand. I went to Brookstone and took piano classes there and really loved it. I was actually playing in the dining hall at UGA and playing four hours a day for three days a week and it burned me out so badly.
So I decided I wanted to play guitar and I got one for Christmas that year. I picked it up pretty easily. I'm a big Dave Matthews fan and was trying to play all of his music, which is a lot more complicated on a guitar. Instead of trying to play easy songs, I was trying to play intermediate and difficult songs, so it (improved my skill level) a little quicker I would think. But I don't consider myself much of a player. I can play, certainly, but I can't really sing. (laughs)
How did you and Jason come together?
I did that apprenticeship at the luthier school. It's a place in Athens called Baxendale Guitar. Scott Baxendale is the master luthier there. I did that for about a year and then I started working there. A couple of months after my apprenticeship was over, Jason called me because his mom and my dad are both on the board at the Springer Opera House. They were talking about their sons building guitars. Jason is in his mid-40s, 43 maybe, so he's a lot older than I am. He found me on Facebook and called me, and we talked about it a little bit. Then he came down to Athens and showed me some of his stuff and I really liked it.
How did the dam wood come into play?
Jason was making guitars as a hobby. He had made two, maybe three, at that time. I left Baxendale in June 2013 and he called me in July and told me he was friends with Ron Lucas of Ron Lucas Construction. He had gone there to show Ron one of his guitars and Ron told him to look at a table that he made out of wood from the dam that they pulled out. Jason went, 'Oh my, god. Wouldn't it be a great idea to make guitars out of that wood.' So Ron gave him some of the wood from the dam and he called me and said, 'Hey, I would love for you to be involved in this project since you're from Columbus and everything.' ... The timing was perfect.
From there, we spent about six months getting the whole idea together, testing different things out. Because the wood was under water for more than 150 years -- the dam was installed in the 1850s -- it is so soft. Being underwater that long, it was unstable. We could take a piece and just break it with our hands. Obviously, that wouldn't stand up under tension. So we had to try to figure out the best way to make it sturdier. We've done a couple of different things to do that.
Drying it out?
We tried drying it, like kiln drying it, and it disintegrated. So what we do is we take a big Tupperware box and fill it with glue and water. Then we put the wood down in the box and put a cinder block on top of it. After a few hours, the glue is thinned out by the water so much that it soaks into the wood. We take it out and that glue hardens and stabilizes the wood.
That's the first thing that we do. Because the wood is still wet, it moves some while we're working it. Standard guitars are made with a nitrocellulose lacquer finish, and we knew that wouldn't work because as soon as the wood moved a little bit the finish would crack and look terrible. So we settled on a hand-rubbed gun stock oil finish, just like a finish on an old shotgun. What that does is soak into the top layer of the wood while we're rubbing it in, and then you build it up on top and it looks like a nitro finish. But just like the glue, it hardens the top layer.
I actually think because we're using that finish it alters the sound of the guitars in a really cool way and makes them sound different than any other telecasters.
Where do you get your dam wood?
Most of the wood that we have now I bought from a guy who lives here in town named Shay Austin. He was walking on the riverwalk when the wood was coming out and just looked at it and said, 'I need some of that.' He had never done anything with wood before, but bought a bunch of it ... I bought 70 guitars worth of wood from him in the form of five 10-foot boards.
Is it expensive? It is well aged.
I think I paid about $7 a board foot for it. That's pretty expensive for untreated, unfinished wood.
But it has a uniqueness?
Then Damcaster and the name evolved?
It was all Jason's idea. He takes full credit for that. As soon as he called me and told me the idea, I was like, 'Yes, I definitely want to be a part of that.' For the first little while it was a lot of trial and error. We were kind of like some mad scientists in a lab trying to figure out what we were going to do. But once we figured it all out, and especially since we live in separate places, I've taken over all of the building and he handles the business aspects of it, because he's a venture-capital guy. His brain works like that.
He's the money guy and you're the crafting guy?
I do the crafting. I get antsy if my hands aren't on the wood.
How long does it take to make one guitar?
These (Damcasters) take about 45 hours. That sounds like a week's worth of work, but because of drying time and finish curing, it usually takes about a month per guitar. An acoustic guitar takes about 120 hours, but it also can take about a month because (with the electric guitar) I can work on other things. I can do three at a time and they'll all come out in a month. With an acoustic, I might only be able to do one in that month because I'm working constantly on it. It's got a lot more glue-drying time and that kind of stuff.
So everything is custom orders?
Everything I do is custom. The acoustics, I'm still working on getting that started, but that will be all custom orders as well. They're going to be called Silvan guitars. It's actually Latin for 'from wood.'
Will you use dam wood on the acoustic instruments?
Oh, no. That is entirely different. The dam wood is too unstable to be used as acoustics. Because the wood in an acoustic guitar is real thin, it would break.
Have you sold a Damcaster to anyone notable?
We've had some cool people play them. One of my favorite things to do is go to The Loft on weekends and post up and listen to the bands who are playing. I show them the guitars during the set breaks and if they want to take it up and play it, they certainly can. We've met a lot of really cool Georgia musicians that way. One of the next ones is going to a kid named Brooks Mason. His band is called The Georgia Flood and he's amazing. We're really excited to get one in his hands. We're about to start on it.
We're really interested in getting in touch with the Georgia-rooted bands, like the Zac Brown Band and Widespread Panic. I would really love to get my guitars in their hands.
What's the cost of a Damcaster?
The base price for these is about three grand. If you want custom inlays or really nice neck wood with lots of figuring in it, or lots of binding and stuff like that, it will increase in price. I don't think we can go much higher than four grand on one of these. We do have artist discounts.
How does the design process work?
My favorite thing about these guitars -- and just building them in general -- is if you decide if you want to buy a guitar from a store, the excitement process for you goes from when you decide to do it, then you go to the store and pay for it and pick it up ... But with people who order from me, I talk to them while I'm building it. We sit down and talk about their musical style and what kind of stuff they play. And we talk about (vibration-capturing) pickups, because we hand-wind all of our pickups. One of our friends, Blane Mullinax, lives in Dacula (Ga.) and hand-winds them for us. So we talk about what he can do to get the right sound for them, what they want their neck shape to be depending on their hand size and their playing style.
Once all of that gets decided, as I'm building it I can text them pictures and emails and say, 'OK, what do you think about this design?' And, 'Check this out, what do you think about this?' And they can make changes. So it's kind of like watching it be born. They get to be involved in all of that, and I think that adds a lot to it. It really is more personal to them that way.
Do you hand deliver them?
I haven't had to ship one yet. Most of the people I know who have gotten them, I've delivered almost all of them, and then seen them again when they played them on stage. We've got several really great musicians around Columbus and some that are in Atlanta; one lives in Savannah, one of my old friends, Alex Furness, he's got a band called Rapanui that's from Statesboro, Ga. He's got the number one Damcaster. And Neal Lucas, who's a local blues musician and one of my favorites, has the other number one model. They were twins, born hours apart. Neal has the other one and he plays it downtown all the time and goes to blues at The Loft on Wednesdays and plays it there, and plays it at church. So we're really glad that he has one.
So the Damcasters sound different than a traditional electric guitar?
Yes, they do. The wood makes a difference because of the way it was finished. You have really soft wood with the glue inside that hardens it, but the center is still real soft, and then you have the oil finish with the harder outer layer. So it's kind of like an Oreo cookie, soft in the middle.
Which is not normal?
It's not. Normally you have the same consistency all the way through and the nitrocellulose finish doesn't really impact the sound that much. But with this you get a real echo .. you get lots of reverberation. When you're playing it, you can actually feel it in your stomach, which you can't normally do with an electric guitar. I had no idea that was going to happen until I put the first one together.
That's one of the crazy things about being a luthier is that you don't really know what you're going to get. By now, with 13 (Damcasters) made, I pretty much know what I'm going to get, but I still get surprised with things. However, with acoustic guitars, every one is different. I can build the same exact guitar twice and both of them will sound different ... With an acoustic guitar, there's a lot more nuance to the sound. With an electric guitar you're doing most of the work with the pickups and the amp. That's where most of the sound comes from.
What's the most satisfying part of what you do?
My favorite part is finishing the guitar and the first time I take my hands off it and going, 'Done!' That's usually the big relief for me. That and watching them get played on stage. I remember one show where we had Kenny Lewis, a local musician and he was playing his fretless base that Jason made, and Neal was playing his guitar, and Matt McCabe, who is a professor at CSU and he also runs The Loft recording studio, they were all three playing their instruments on stage at the same time. It was a big ego trip for me. I was just loving it.
What's the most difficult aspect of it? And are you still learning?
Oh, yeah. I have yet to finish one that I would be willing to take to my old boss, the master, and say, 'Look what I did. This is perfect.' I have yet to hit that stride, but I hope to do that soon. I'm getting closer every time. I have not made the same mistake twice, which is important ... It's similar to painting and other forms of art in many ways in that each one, to the artist, is defined by the little mistakes that turned into something better. Or the little mistakes that you spent 15 extra hours trying to fix.
Are you relaxed when you're making the instruments or is there a little anxiety?
It depends. A lot of times I'll get in the zone. My favorite part of making any guitar is shaping the neck. Everything is done by hand. We go from a square piece of wood to a finished guitar. No matter what I'm doing, I do it all by hand. And going from a square board to a three-dimensional curved symmetrical neck, I'll get in the zone and look up and go, 'Oh, it's been five hours. I probably should eat something.' It's really zen for me.
But I also think it's the most technically difficult part because there's a lot of little adjustments. I go from a file that's this big to a (smaller) file that's this big to a (smaller) file that's that big.
One of the things I do when I'm making a guitar, if I'm building it for a musician, is play their music while I'm building it. The romantic in me likes to think the guitar already knows the music.
How do you build business, by word of mouth?
The great thing about the Damcaster is they have such a cool story behind them. That's what draws people in. They look really cool. People will see them on stage or see a picture of them and go, 'That looks awesome.' I want to check out more about this. That's the way most of the Damcaster business has been done.
Do you and Jason have a long-term plan?
When we first started doing the Damcasters, that was our only thought. We're going to do these. The Damcasters are going to be a limited run.
I don't want to build telecasters for the rest of my life. And there's not enough wood. So we're going to do maybe 50 and then we're going to take stock of our lives and see if we want to go to 70. But we're not going to do more than 70, probably.
We did recently start working on other instruments. We're working on an electric bass guitar that we're designing ourselves. We're making those out of dam wood and calling those 'Cutbait,' like the rapids.
And we're also working on a 335, which is a Gibson-styled semi-hollow body Chuck Berry-style of guitar. The Gibson model we're calling 'The 706.' But those are not made out of dam wood. They're made out of some of my family's maple trees in Maine.
Another thing we're working on: My dad is hugely involved in the Springer, and that got me really involved with the Springer, and all of my best Columbus friends and even my girlfriend work over at the Springer. So I'm there a lot. I like the feel of everything there.
So we're in the early stages of designing our custom Georgia Quarter guitar. We're going to use the Springer kind of as the design element to create it. The first one is going to be made from some pine we found from their 1998 renovation. So I have enough for one guitar, and we're going to give that to them. We hope that it will be used during 'Tommy' when they do that in April.
So I'm really excited about that. It's a real passion project for me. Then we're going to use that guitar design to kind of be our not-a-Damcaster, not-an-homage-to-anything guitar. It'll be just our custom kind of thing.
Name: Frank Schley IV
Current residence: Lake Harding area in Harris County
Education: 2008 graduate of Brookstone School; earned bachelor's degree in psychology from University of Georgia in 2012
Previous jobs: Luthier is his first primary job
Family: Parents are Meg and Frank Schley III
Leisure time: Enjoys playing music and going to concerts. He's a major Dave Matthews Band fan and has been to 27 of his concerts
Of note: His grandfather, grandmother and great-grandfather were all pediatricians here in Columbus