Form meets function in the gifted hands of local artisans
By Bill Newcott
Photograph by Carolyn Watson
From the July 2021 issue
Rob Fullerton owns every guitar he’s ever made, which is to say he owns seven guitars, ranging from a little parlor model made of Nicaraguan rosewood to a big, impressively resonant mahogany masterpiece that would look (and sound) at home in the arms of dreadnought aficionado Neil Young.
“There they are,” he says, gazing with obvious pride on his wasp-waisted children, arranged neatly on stands against a wall of his basement.
An awkward silence follows, because we both know I’m about to ask him what he’s going to do next, and we also both know what the answer is going to be: “Build another guitar.”
There have always been those fortunate few among us who seem capable of taking a few sticks of wood, or a pile of cloth, or a pen and paper and creating from those elements not just serviceable objects, but actual works of functional art. Such folks personify the difference between a craftsperson and an artisan, and while there’s no reason why coastal Delaware should have more than its fair share of the latter, the evidence seems to suggest that yes, yes we do.
And we’re not making any apologies.
Guitar maker Fullerton, who has also built several pieces of furniture in his home near Lewes, is a relatively recent convert to wood-working of any kind. In fact, he’s a retired Philadelphia pipefitter, which for some reason sounds like the exact opposite of a wood artisan. He still employs his old skills, though, as he forms the metal brackets required to bend unthinkably thin slices of wood into the curved contours of a guitar.
He shows me the body of his latest project, not yet glued to its neck: a graceful piece made of Bastogne wood from the north of France. (See photo on page 2.)
“I started with some wood,” he says. “And look at it now!” He seems as mystified by the transition as I am.
“Back in 2015, when I made my first guitar, it took me about 225 hours to build it,” he recalls. “I can get there, probably, in 85 by now. But I don’t sit down here and work on it straight through. I started this one about three months ago.”
He cradles this nearly completed work. Bastogne walnut is known for its intricate grain patterns, and this one lives up to that reputation. The halves of the guitar back are mirror images, having been sliced from the same length of wood, then glued tightly together along a long, straight edge. From top to bottom, virtually the only thing holding a guitar together is good wood glue.
Fullerton likes to mix things up when it comes to wood. Also in his lumber library is Mexican Chechen wood, East Indian rosewood, Sitka spruce from the Pacific Northwest, Nicaraguan rosewood, and “sinker” mahogany that gained unusual grain and tonal characteristics from being underwater in the Belize River for many years.
The heart and soul of any guitar, Fullerton tells me, is the soundboard, where the vibrating strings pass over a large hole that leads to the instrument’s interior. The guitar’s resonance is determined by the placement of spruce braces on the soundboard’s underside, and because each thin soundboard has its own peculiarities, the only way to correctly place those braces is through trial and error.
Fullerton lifts a guitar soundboard, still in a rectangular shape, by one corner. Placing his ear to the wood, he gently thumps at various spots on its surface, listening for just the right amount of resonance, what he calls the wood’s “tap tone.” When the wood “sings” to him, he knows where to put his next brace.
“It’s the difference between having a guitar that sounds good and one that doesn’t sound good at all,” he says. “It’s why my first guitar doesn’t really sound good, because I didn’t
know what I was doing yet.”
Beneath a work bench I spot some metal forms resembling guitar-shaped spring-form cake pans. For my money, this is where the magic of guitar making happens: Strips of wood not more than a 16th of an inch thick are soaked thoroughly, then pressed against the outside of these forms and shaped while heated to 350 degrees. (Fullerton used to heat the wood with a pipe he’d welded with a hot light bulb inside; now a heat blanket does the job.) Finally, the wood is clamped into place on the form until it is permanently guitar-shaped. I imagined this process must take, at the least, a week or so.
“Actually,” Fullerton tells me, “in about an hour it’s ready to go.”
He likes to let local musicians play his guitars during their sets, and it’s not unusual for them to offer to buy one.
“This one singer offered me $1,000 for a guitar,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Well, it took me 100 hours to build and the materials cost $500.’”
So, Fullerton won’t be hanging a “We Build Guitars” shingle out any time soon. Besides, he says, these guitars are something more than mere commodities. He grew up listening to the Ventures and the Doors, lying on the floor in front of his parents’ stereo, “just to hear the guitar solos.” Now he can build his own guitars, fiddle around on them himself, and hand them over to other musicians who really put them through their paces.
“When I’m working down here,” he says, “people are always asking me, ‘How’s that guitar going to sound?’ And I tell them, ‘I don’t know. That’s the last thing you find out.’”
Working to the letter
Katy Ackerman is a woman of letters: the ingeniously curvy, impossibly ornate, yet uncannily legible kind.
You might not think of calligraphy as a full-time occupation, but Ackerman not only makes a living at it, she’s got a thriving storefront business dedicated to the art on Front Street in downtown Lewes.
Wedding and event planners pay Ackerman handsome fees for her creations, which is a little ironic seeing as she got into the calligraphy biz largely because she couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it for her.
“When I got engaged in 2015, I went onto Pinterest to look at all the lovely invitations — and I said to myself, ‘That’s really expensive!’”
So Ackerman bought herself a calligraphy kit and some nice stationery and, learning the necessary skills from scratch, prepared all the invitations for her big day. As a long-ago father of a bride, it’s a story I can relate to, as I did much the same thing — with clearly less stellar results.
“Yeah, a lot of people try to do that,” she smiles with the look of a businesswoman/artisan who is, no doubt, envisioning my bundle of parchment envelopes scrawled with addresses that resembled those you’d find on a mass-mailing of ransom notes.
Unlike me, Ackerman discovered she had the talent and temperament for calligraphy, and began following fellow artisans on Instagram. “I just watched their tutorials online — I never took any formal classes,” she says. “Eventually I started posting a little of my own work, and then all of a sudden random people were asking, ‘Hey, would you do this poem for me?’ or ‘Would you do the place cards for my wedding?’
“It got to a point that a year after I’d started, when I was finally getting married, I was doing my own invitations at midnight because I had so many paying jobs.
“It became an obsession. Every day I was practicing, playing around with new fonts. It was incredible!”
Not that she was satisfied with her early products. “It took about two years for me to like my own work,” she confesses. “I was charging people — charging them almost nothing, in retrospect — and I would hand it over thinking, ‘This is so bad, they’re gonna hate it!’
“Finally, after about two years, I could tell myself, ‘This is good! I deserve to get paid for this!’”
About four years ago, the calligraphy business was so demanding that Ackerman quit her day job at Dogfish Inn and took up her pen full time, not only addressing envelopes and writing invitations, but also designing and producing a complete line of stationery. She opened the Lewes shop in June 2020 — in the depths of the COVID-19 shutdown.
Now, Ackerman sits on the other side of that Pinterest interaction that spurred her into do-it-yourself calligraphy six years ago. She calls my attention to a beautifully rendered wedding invitation on a shelf behind me: an exquisitely lettered light-blue invite-and-response set with ribbon and a lined envelope.
“That came out to $35 an invitation,” she says, a little embarrassed.
I can’t help but let out a breathless response: “No!”
She shrugs. “It’s the going rate! I have to make money on it!”
And, perhaps most importantly, there are mothers and fathers and brides and grooms out there who have apparently done enough homework to know what a good invitation should cost.
The true test of a calligrapher’s skill may be in whether or not the U.S. Postal Service can process those fancily written envelopes easily. As you’d expect, Ackerman passes that challenge weekly.
“However, they give me a hard time when I turn the envelopes sideways or use sealing wax. That can be a nightmare.”
Here’s the difference between Marshall Witt and me: If I need, say, a new drop-leaf table, I will head directly to Creative Concepts. Witt, on the other hand, will simply roll up his sleeves and get to work on one.
A tour of Witt’s house near Lewes is something of a greatest hits countdown. Standing in the middle of his living room, he points out one creation after another: the richly textured coffee table made of lovingly sanded ambrosia maple; the cushioned bench; the wall-length book case; the floating shelf that fills a space between two doors; the end table that consists of a masterfully finished piece of box elder floating in epoxy; a corner cabinet for wife Sharon’s cookbooks. And, yes, there’s the drop-leaf table with legs that swing out to support the hinged extensions. “We needed a card table,” he shrugs. “So I said, ‘OK, I’ll build it.’” (I shudder to think about the fold-up Costco card table in my garage.)
Witt’s do-it-yourself projects even extend to the kitchen: On the counter sits a striking cutting board, glued together from a brilliant array of birdseye maple, walnut, yellowheart and redheart wood. He’s made more than 100 of those as gifts, plus countless companion coasters.
Projects like those happen relatively quickly. Witt sees a need, envisions the type of wood he’ll require, buys it and gets going in his well-appointed basement workshop. Other creations take a bit longer. Like, nearly a lifetime longer.
“I must have been 18 or so when I heard about a sawmill out in western Maryland that was being demolished for a new highway,” he says. “You could have all the wood you wanted; you just had to go out there and pick it up. So, I drove 200 miles to the sawmill and picked up all the wormy chestnut I could find.”
Even as a kid, Witt knew wormy chestnut was something special. It’s actually American chestnut that bears the distinctive marks of the wood-boring insects that rendered the tree nearly extinct a century ago. He piled the boards into a pickup truck, trundled the load back home — and waited for just the right project.
Forty-five years later, it came along.
“And here it is,” he says, showing me into his bedroom. There, lovingly crafted and finished, complete with dovetailed drawers, is the wormy chestnut bedroom set Witt completed just three years ago.
“I finally felt I had the skill set,” he says, running his fingers across the textured surface of the dresser. “I finally felt I had the tools and the time.”
Not anywhere to be seen is the project Witt considers his most ambitious: a writing desk with Queen Anne legs he crafted several years ago.
“That burned up in a fire at my nephew’s house,” he says with a rueful laugh. But no matter; if Witt really wants to replace it, he can just build another one.
Reaping what she sews
You can be forgiven if you think of a quilter as a furrow-browed grandma with her hair in a bun and a shawl around her shoulders, her back permanently humped from bending over a king-size bed covering that’s been pieced together from every Sunday-go-to-meeting dress she’s ever owned.
At least, I’d forgive you. I can’t speak for Sarah Pavlik, who is at this moment energetically sprinting around the work space behind her Lewes home, enthusing about the inspiration for the abstract theme that repeats itself in much of her most recent, brilliantly colored, quilt work.
“You can see a ladder pattern in these quilts,” she says. “I find I’ve been coming back to that recently. I call it my ‘Childhood’ series. It’s about growth, and maturity, and sliding backwards and moving forward.”
Most of the quilts that enliven the walls, work tables, and shelves of Pavlik’s home will never keep anyone warm when the winter winds blow in from Delaware Bay. These are showpieces — works of art to be hung on walls or draped over furniture (she’s made one quilt that fits over her TV when it’s not in use). Besides exhibitions at the Rehoboth Art League and Peninsula Gallery in Lewes, Pavlik’s quilts have been displayed at shows in Maryland and upstate New York.
Pavlik made her career as a school counselor, but she’s been quilting since 2000. She started out crafting traditional quilts like the ones your grandma made, but soon the artist in her took over. She still stitches together pieces of material, but in place of square patches are complex patterns she incorporates in whatever shapes strike her fancy.
Other times, Pavlik will make “whole cloth” quilts: single large swaths of fabric on which she prints patterns using dyes. Next, she’ll layer that cloth on top of some fluffy wool or cotton batting and a bottom cloth, then create the quilting effect by stitching patterns onto the colorful surface. On those works, the stitching patterns — which can swirl, radiate from a center point, or take seemingly random paths across the field of colors — become an integral part of the artistic design.
Pavlik unrolls a large whole cloth quilt and holds it up — disappearing behind it except for her hands. The multicolored patterns that sweep across it resemble bicycle treads. And, in fact, that’s exactly what they are: She created them by dipping different-size bike tires in thickened dye and rolling them across the fabric.
“I was riding my bike along the trail and I noticed the pattern of all the bicycle tires in the gravel,” she says. “I thought, ‘That might make a nice quilt.’”
She was, of course, absolutely right.
I leave Pavlik’s home — feeling just a little guilty that she has to re-roll all the quilts she pulled out for me — and I realize I’m just a short walk from Katy Ackerman’s Lewes calligraphy shop. Then it occurs to me that guitar maker Rob Fullerton lives, literally, just a few houses away from furniture maker Marshall Witt.
I cast my gaze down the tree-shaded street, and I wonder just how many other artisans are quietly honing their crafts, creating beauty and functionality, beyond those front porches. Are artisans a lot more common than I once imagined? Or, as so often seems to be the case, do the welcoming arms of coastal Delaware just attract the thoughtful, the resourceful, and the creative?
A little bit of both, I guess.