Eagle luthier Dennis Laird crafts wooden instruments by hand
Special to the Daily
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At the end of a street in Eagle, in a salmon-colored house, lives a soft-spoken gentleman who is fascinated by the intersection of sound and wood. Dennis Laird is a third-generation woodworker who has been patiently pursuing the art of luthiery, which is defined as instrument building.
Laird, who grew up in Amboy, Indiana, began playing music at about the age of 15. He continued playing guitar through his first couple of years in college, as an art major. However, hearing about the active lifestyle of Colorado, he packed things up and left for his new home, which would eventually provide him with a degree from the University of Northern Colorado in biology and work teaching yoga and rock climbing.
After working a couple of summers for Rocky Mountain National Park, he gravitated back to what he knew and loved the most: building things from wood, be it a house, cabinets or furniture. In February 2005, he bridged his skills in music and woodworking by building his first instrument, an electric guitar. Since then, he has focused his attention exclusively on acoustic instruments. In what might be considered a relatively short period of time, he has built 19 acoustic guitars, three ukuleles, a banjo, dulcimer, octave mandolin, Irish bouzouki and dobro.
Unlike the rest of us, who might think wood is wood, artisans who enter this field are always looking for “tone woods,” a phrase which refers to a collection of species that produce the best sound qualities for musical instruments. Amongst the traditional tone woods are species such as mahogany, spruce and rosewood. Less common are walnut, cherry and Douglas fir.
Being open to new innovations, Laird has speculated about using local beetle-kill wood for electric guitars or smaller instruments, such as a ukulele. Regardless of what wood is selected, great attention is focused on the quality of the grain and how it was cut.
Spending just one day in his shop, an observer quickly has an elevated admiration for the skills needed, leading up to that final moment when you can first hear the strings reverberate and enjoy the aesthetics of a finished, handmade product. Laird’s guitars are made of strictly natural materials: no plastics or other synthetics.
This is not a pursuit for the impatient. It involves careful wood selection, meticulous measurements, sanding, thorough knowledge of time-honored construction methods, minute filigree work, gluing and refinishing.
When a musical instrument is built, it becomes a part of your family. They also represent your progress and evolution in the art form. Thus, seeing them leave his home is a bit like giving away a pet or watching a son or daughter leave for college: the classic empty-nest syndrome. Parting with them is a conundrum of emotions: wanting them to be discovered and enjoyed by other musicians, yet feeling resistant to coping with the sense of loss.
However, after much thought and reflection, he has come around to enthusiastically embracing the professional and personal satisfaction that comes from knowing that these creations need to seek new homes and, perhaps more importantly, want to be played and appreciated by other hands and ears.
Over the past few years, musicians who intentionally seek out hand built instruments have bought a number of his guitars. This alone is a testament to his workmanship. Hearing his creations played by others is a source of great joy, satisfaction and education. As he watches and listens to a person play, he is passionately absorbed in the possible nuances that could be a part of the next instrument. As with every art form, evolution is key.
For now, Laird is excited about simply having more musicians discover his passion for building quality instruments and hear what aural expressions can be brought forth. Speaking as a musician, this author has had the distinct pleasure of playing almost all of them. Playing an instrument that was made, from start to finish, by just one set of hands is something that every musician should experience.
There is, however, one small and almost endearing caveat to this story. If, by chance, you play a certain guitar, with the thought of possibly acquiring it, then you might get a slow, thoughtful and sheepish smile from Laird, telling you that he “kinda wants to keep that one” — unless, of course, he’s changed his mind.