In search of the perfect stringed instrument
by Nadine Munns Gerkey '49 | © Washington State University
Bill McCaw was always interested in music. But he waited until he was about 50 before he began thinking about playing the guitar. When a search of music stores failed to turn up a guitar that could accommodate his broad fingers, he decided to make his own instrument. Since then he's made 17 acoustic guitars, and now is taking on a new challenge-building a cello.
"You're not going to make a perfect instrument the first time," he says. "You just go ahead, and when you string it up, you'll be enthralled with the sound."
Some guitar makers work with an apprentice to master the craft. Some read how-to books, or get pointers from others.
McCaw read and asked and struck out on his own. But he didn't have time to pursue the craft until around 1980. Family, school, and work left little time for music.
McCaw earned two degrees at Washington State University ('51 Dairy Sci., '52 M.S. Dairy Sci.). There he met his future wife Sarita Veatch ('53 Speech/Comm.), daughter of William Veatch, longtime WSU debate coach. They were married in August 1952, before Bill began a three-year Navy hitch.
"I went back to farm with dad after the service," says McCaw. "While I was in college, dad was raising thoroughbred Hereford bulls and had a dairy cow operation of 25-30. We expanded the cow herd up to 150 and finally up to 315."
At the same time the family circle grew to include four children and six grandchildren. Nearly four years ago, the McCaws sold their interest in the farm at Lowden and moved into a spacious home in Walla Walla. To no one's surprise, Bill built a large shop next to the house so he can continue crafting guitars and other instruments. Sarita retired in 2002 after teaching speech for 34 years. Bill still adds his rich tenor voice to performances of the Walla Walla Choral Society he once managed.
When he found time to make his first guitar from leftover locust boards from the A-frame dwelling he built, he took the boards to a pine mill in nearby College Place to be cut into strips for the body of the guitar. He used cedar for the top.
"Most of our posts came from Idaho then and were heavier," McCaw says. "This first one has a gorgeous sound. Generally, my guitars are made partly of locust. It's light colored and very stable."
McCaw has only two of his 17 guitars left, his first and his last. He gave away one made of redwood and has sold most of the others. He traded one for stained glass windows for his home. Another belongs to a New York City jazz musician. His guitars sell from around $200 to $1,000, and each one takes him 50 to 60 hours to build. He's made a banjo and a dulcimer as well.
Sitting with guitar in hand in his living room, his head fringed with an unruly crown of curly locks, McCaw plucks the strings to demonstrate the rich quality of the tones. He usually uses a light wood for the soundboard, with a contrasting darker body and a lighter colored neck. He frequently goes to a lumber yard in California or Seattle for materials. And he always applies a tung oil finish.
Using a work board, he cuts out the back in two pieces and installs a decorative, black walnut vertical stripe where he joined the two pieces. Next steps are to carve out the front side of the guitar and the sound hole, and glue on the neck. Wood used for the sides help form the guitar "box," and inlaid bordering, or purfling, provides the ornamental finishing touches.
One of the final steps is the stringing. McCaw winds the first three strings with steel wire and the last three with nylon. The gold-plated brass tuners were made in Germany. He says installing the rosewood fret board, which regulates the strings, is the "most tedious" job of all. To get it all together, with the help of glue and braces and other tools, including a hot iron and water-and a large dose of patience and caring-the box had become a fine instrument.
"This is pretty nice," McCaw says, critiquing his work as he plucked the taut strings of the guitar with his powerful fingers. "But, it could be better."
Nadine Munns Gerkey ('49 Soc., '51 Educ.) was the first woman news reporter hired by the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in the early '50s. She retired from the paper in 1998, but still enjoys freelance writing.
Bill McCaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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