A Guitar in the Barn – The find that Inspired BETHANY GUITARS

By Alex DeFelice / Photos by Jeffery Lilly

dsc02982When luthier, Phil Brunwin and his wife Janet purchased a derelict farmhouse in the town of Bethany, Connecticut, little did they know that a new career path would follow for Phil. The farmhouse and its outbuildings were in dire shape and needed a complete overhaul. Brunwin retired from his electrical engineering career to restore the property. At the same time, many area residents approached Phil to do custom renovations on their homes and to build furniture.

This went on for a few years, including a brief foray back into digital electronics. His heart wasn’t in it and that’s when Brunwin decided to fulfill his dream of building custom grade guitars.

“I had been playing guitar since I was a child,” Brunwin says, adding, “and one of the barns on my property had been used by a guitar luthier. I found the remains of an old Goya guitar which looked like it had been run over by a truck. I took what was left and made a copy of it. I was encouraged by how well it came out; and I set out to make a copy of a ‘50s Gibson J45, one of my favorite guitars. One guitarist friend of mine came around and he liked it so much, he asked me to make him one. This was around 2005 and was the birth of Bethany Guitars.”

The craft of guitar building requires skilled hands, incredible patience and a desire for perfection that thrives on meticulous design. The proper wood must be used for the sound that you desire. And that presents quite a challenge.

dsc02885-copy“Most of the imported wood I get from a handful of importers and distributors that I trust,” says Brunwin. “Some woods such as Brazilian and Madagascar rosewood are protected species under the CITES treaty – a 1973 treaty protecting endangered species of fauna, flora, plants, and animals – so I will only purchase legally harvested or reclaimed wood.”
The list of exotic woods – such as Honduran rosewood – is being added to the CITES Treaty yearly. As rain forests are depleted, so are many of the rare types of wood.

“I try to use domestic woods when I can, maple and walnut from a small mill in Connecticut,” says Brunwin. “Recently I was in British Columbia where Sitka spruces and red cedar are harvested. I managed to find a small mill and was able to pick up some large billets for a song.”

With the proper wood acquired, it can take up to three months to deliver the finished product. That’s due to the design, the treating of the wood, and the influences that Brunwin is trying to incorporate into his work.

“In my guitar building process there are times when I need things to just sit for a while. I will prepare and bend the wood for the sides of the body and place them in a mold,” says Brunwin. “Then I let them set for three or four weeks to allow the stresses built up in the wood to relax and the wood to become resigned to its new shape.”

The type of wood used is one of the most important decisions in regard to the sound that emanates forth from one of Brunwin’s guitars. Depth, tone, sustain and volume are all influenced by the types of wood used.

“Most of the woods used for the back and front fall into two categories: mahoganies and rosewoods,” says Brunwin. There is a significant difference tonally between the two types. Rosewoods are very hard and heavy woods. This results in strong overtones and a sharper attack suited to melodic playing. Mahoganies are lighter. Sound travels more slowly through the wood which has a unique damping factor. This results in a guitar with stronger fundamentals, less complex, but punchy and focused. It’s great for rhythm and country blues – Broonzy, Johnson, Blake.”

For the tops, Brunwin uses red spruce, namely Appalachian or Adirondack spruce. These woods were the preference of pre-war American guitars, like Martin and Gibson. Good quality red spruce is harder to come by these days, so the cost is higher. Brunwin will substitute Sitka spruce or European Alpine spruce. “No two pieces of wood are exactly the same, even if from the same tree,” says Brunwin. “Each will have its own tone and resonance. The top of the guitar is the most important element. This is where the vibration of the strings is transferred to the body and the movement and resonance of the top is critical. The selection of the top wood and the carving of the internal braces is where the true art lies.”

dsc03020Brunwin’s influences come from a variety of vintage guitars, but his heart lies with the classic Gibson acoustics. He is more of a traditionalist, keeping to the standard shapes and sizes that harken back to the classics. This allows him to deliver a high quality sound and tone.

“The shapes of my guitars are variations of standards that have been used for the last hundred years,” says Brunwin. “I am influenced more by the shapes of Gibson acoustics than any other. The inlays around the body of my more recent guitars were influenced by a range of arch top guitars made by Gibson in the ‘30s for the Montgomery Ward department store. I continually play around with new materials and designs for the bindings and rosettes. For myself, I am not a fan of a lot of pictorial decoration on a guitar. No skulls, marijuana leaves, hummingbirds, or flowers. But sometimes you have to do what the customer wants!”

Bethany Guitars are available through Brunwin’s one man workshop. Half of the guitars he makes are custom ordered. The rest are what he calls workshop specials. He keeps five or six workshop specials in stock at his workshop. Bethany Guitars currently features six models varying in size and shape. Due to the endless combinations of woods and decorative features, two are rarely the same.

“Customers coming to me thinking about having a custom guitar built, will often buy one of the workshop specials instead.  These guitars are usually priced lower than they would have been if made to order. For the most part, customers come directly to me,” says Brunwin. “I usually have a couple of workshop specials for sale displayed on my web site, but you have to e-mail or call, as I am not in the internet commerce business.  I also sell my guitars locally at Brian’s Guitars in Hamden. They took my guitars when I was first getting the word out about my work. They carry some of my lower cost guitars. They are a great boutique guitar store and nice guys too.”

“When you go to most custom builders, you are looking at prices of $5,000 and up. This is fine for collectors who buy my high end guitars, but for the working musician, it will put you well out of price range. So I will make custom guitars with a base price starting at $2,500 using mahogany, walnut, or East Indian rosewood. The exotic woods and fine decorations are great. I love them, but it’s the workmanship and playability that make a great sounding guitar.”

You can check out all of Phil Brunwin’s stunning guitar work at www.bethanyguitars.com  He may be reached by email at
[email protected] Phone: (203) 393-0598

Caryn B. Davis Photography