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Artisans of Michigan: Zimnicki Guitars

We've been thinking about the kind of people you might like to meet. We talk with a lot of authors, musicians, politicians and policy wonks. But, what about artisans? They're the people who use their hands and hearts to build things that we use.

The next stop in our “Artisans of Michigan” series is Zimnicki Guitars in Allen Park, Michigan.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

Gary Zimnicki is using a sharp chisel to curl away layers of wood on a brace, the support system inside a guitar.

“What I’ll do is carve on them for a while and then pick it up, pick up the soundboard and tap it and see how it responds to my tapping," Zimnicki says.

At that moment, he picks up the piece, holds it near his ear and gives it a couple of taps with his index finger.

Zimnicki builds guitars. He has for a long time.

“It started out as a casual interest. I wanted a guitar and couldn’t afford it. So, I built one. It was the coolest thing ever, you know? I never knew I could do such a thing,” Zimnicki recalls.

He made that first guitar out of butcher block material his dad had in the garage. His friend thought electric guitars were great and asked if Zimnicki could build him one.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Gary Zimnicki taps the soundboard of a guitar to determine if he's shaved enough material from braces on the backside.

After “six or eight” solid-body electric guitars, Zimnicki wanted to take on the challenge of building an acoustic guitar. He found exactly one book on building guitars and was on his way. That was 1979.

Zimnicki eventually expanded to building mandolins and lately, ukuleles. He says he doesn’t want to specialize in any one style as some of the most successful guitar builders have done. He wants some flexibility. He never wanted to be a mini-assembly line of one.

Eventually, building guitars became all Zimnicki wanted to do. He was dissatisfied with his job in the health care industry at the same time he was getting increased orders for guitars. His wife volunteered to go to work full time, so he could pursue his passion full time. That was 15 years ago and both think it was the right choice.

Lately, Zimnicki has been experimenting with salvaged wood from houses and building demolished in Detroit. He gets century old floor boards from Reclaim Detroit.

“Over time wood becomes more and more dense. All the resins in it crystallize, and it just becomes harder and harder to work with,” Zimnicki explains. He says just sawing down the wood for one guitar will ruin a circular saw blade.

For all the piecing together it requires, the wood makes a surprisingly good source of material for an acoustic guitar. Zimnicki played a Beatles tune (listen to the audio above), and the guitar sounded great. He says that sound always makes him glad he made building guitars his career.

“Being able to listen to somebody play a musical instrument and remembering when that instrument was just a stack of wood, rough cut timber sitting on a bench, I can’t tell you what a great feeling that is. Even at this point. I’ve built close to 350 instruments, and I'm still thrilled to hear somebody play their new guitar when they get it,” Zimnicki said, smiling.

Then he played a little more.


Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

*This story was original broadcast on Aug. 26, 2016.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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