Jim Farlow doesn’t want to know how much he makes per hour. What he makes is guitars, original, one-of-a-kind acoustic instruments, and he charges thousands of dollars for them. But the work is labor-intensive, when you do it the painstaking, old-fashioned way Farlow does, and the many pieces of exotic hardwoods that go into making a guitar are becoming rare and expensive.
“Since I retired, my concept of time is different,” he said. “If someone says how long will it take to make their guitar, I tell them ‘I’ll call you when it’s done.’” And he won’t copy someone else’s guitar. “If you want a Martin, go buy one.” Right now, for a custom guitar, said Farlow, the process takes about a year.
What he retired from is a very different profession, and a fascinating lead-in to the calm, precise work of fine woodcraft. James Farlow spent years, starting with the Reagan administration, as a security specialist with the U.S. Secret Service, protecting the President.
“I was not a special agent,” one of the people talking into their cuffs at campaign rallies, he said. “I did technical stuff. I would go out on advance teams, and spend time with people behind the scenes. We did a lot of bomb sweeps.”
Before joining the Secret Service, said Farlow, he worked for “another agency.” Asked for specifics, he just walked over and tapped a Certificate of Appreciation hanging on the wall in the office area of his shop, embossed with the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency. In any event, he doesn’t worry about security at his shop.
In that shop, behind his home out in the wilds of Golden Gate Estates, along with guitars in all stages of completion, plus the occasional mandolin or mountain dulcimer, Farlow has a rack of tonewoods that will eventually find their way into one of his stringed instruments or not. He reaches onto a shelf like a connoisseur pulling a bottle of fine wine from his cellar, and extracts a block of dark, dense wood.
“This is ebony it costs $90 a board foot. I’ve got rosewood, mahogany, cherry, Hawaiian koa, and maple burl I’ll use to decorate headstocks,” he said. “This is black walnut, from a tree my brother cut in 1974.”
Another piece of mahogany, sitting in the discard pile, was carved into the shape of a guitar neck, and the cutting revealed a wormhole through it.
“Would you pay $3,000 for a guitar with wood dough in the neck?” asked Farlow rhetorically.
Nothing gets thrown away, though. One of Jim Farlow’s current projects is a classical guitar, which will be the first one he has made in that style, almost. A previous attempt sits nearby, abandoned, a reminder of lessons learned, something that is key to the continual progress of a luthier’s development.
And that is what Farlow is, a luthier a word that goes back before the guitar, when the instruments made for minstrels were lutes, vihuelas, or theorbos, the ancestors of today’s guitars. In this work, measurements are in thousands of an inch, and tapping on a piece of wood tells the luthier what a guitar built with it might sound like. In addition to creating his own guitars, with “Farlow” inscribed on the headstock at the end of the neck, he does some repair work for local musicians, keeping their instruments playable.
“I don’t think of myself as a musician,” said Farlow, although he did play guitar “in a garage band” back in high school. “I got out of high school and put the guitar down. But there’s nothing as fulfilling as seeing someone playing one of my guitars. I just sit back and say ‘wow.’”
Jim Farlow got that thrill at the “Five Painters and a Potter” show at the Clay Place in East Naples. Joe McNichols, of featured musical act “Capt. Joe and the Bottom Feeders,” recently took delivery of his new Farlow guitar, and played it onstage as its creator stood listening. Befitting McNichols’ day job as a charter captain, the neck is adorned with a leaping snook carved from abalone.
“I love this guitar. It keeps sounding better the more I play it,” said McNichols. In talking to Farlow, always the first step in the creation process, he chose a Madagascar rosewood back, and an Adirondack spruce top.
Every new guitar needs to be “played in,” said Farlow, and the tone should only improve with time. But he still gets a thrill, almost like bringing a child into the world, when he completes an instrument.
“Putting the strings on, and hearing it for the first time, I almost cried,” he said of McNichols’ guitar.
For more information on Corkscrew Lutherie, Jim Farlow’s shop, call (239) 206-7591 or email email@example.com.