Transforming a Love of Music Into a Business

Local luthier spends 10 years building guitars after taking it up as a hobby

By Molly Priddy

In the basement of the Knadlers’ home on Helena Flats Road, just outside Kalispell, lies a luthier’s playground. All of the clamps, wood, machinery, and inspiration are there, waiting to be transformed into beautiful acoustic guitars by Joel Knadler.

The walls feature some of his work, along with works-in-progress, and guitars from national and international companies. A half-strung ukulele lay clamped in a vice on a work table, waiting for Knadler’s knowhow to bring it back to playable shape.

A luthier is someone who is trained to build and repair stringed instruments, typically guitars. Knadler is someone who has spent his life involved with music instruments of all kinds, having taught band at Columbia Falls Junior High for the last 14 years.

“I’ve played guitar all my life, and I’ve always tinkered with them,” he said in his workroom last week.

It’s easy to see how Knadler might take up luthier skills as a hobby, given his connections to the music world; not only does he teach, but he also plays locally, and used to spend every weekend for six years playing with the house band at the Bigfork Inn.

In 2004, he went to luthier school, where the students learned to build – and did build – a guitar in two weeks.

Like any new skill, Knadler said he was enamored with making guitars, starting out crafting the instruments for himself, then his children, and then many family members. It was a nice gift, he acknowledged, but quickly followed up with a joke that those family members were also guinea pigs for his new hobby.

Though the fire to build guitars waxed and waned over the years, Knadler is about to have plenty of time to pursue this passion. At the end of this school year, he will retire, and he and his wife Melanie, a teacher at Glacier High School, will move back to Oregon, where they were teachers for 12 years.

It’s also where the couple’s granddaughter lives, Knadler said, and the call of being near the youngest generation of their family is pretty strong.

Starting a new chapter in their lives means he’ll have more time to devote to his own music, as well as his guitar-making business, Joel Guitars.

“That’s going to be my focus,” Knadler said.

Knadler’s creations are high-end pieces, running at about $2,400 per guitar, and he also builds custom instruments. After 10 years of repairing and building guitars, Knadler has a sense of which materials can accomplish making the sound an artist might be searching for. It can be tricky, he said, because the guitar has to be built before it can be tested, and making adjustments on a finished piece is difficult.

“The art of it, in my opinion, is balancing it,” he said.

There’s also the aspect of tailoring an instrument to its owner, he said.

“Any guitarist will create a different sound, even with the same instrument,” Knadler said.

Being able to build his own instruments also allows Knalder the opportunity to test his own musical theories, like those on how the thickness of the wood in a guitar affect the bass and the sound.

Generally, he puts his theories to work, and gives the resulting instrument to local musicians for test runs. The musicians then return the guitar with their comments and critiques, and Knadler then knows what he must fix.

Since getting his luthier certification, Knadler estimated he’s built close to 40 guitars in the last decade, and hopes to continue with a steady pace of one per month during retirement.

And like any true artist, Knadler said he continues to learn about his craft, especially the musical side, using multiple aspects of his life as inspiration.

“I’ve learned so much from everything I do,” he said. “Especially teaching kids how to play musical instruments.”

For more information on Joel Guitars, visit www.joelguitars.com.

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