March 31, 2010

Guitar Maker: Racine's Nate Mortensen creates instruments by hand

Nate Mortensen stands at a workbench in the basement of his apartment building surrounded by curled, yellow wood shavings he chiseled away from the arch top of a guitar body he's crafted over the past three months. The apartment building's elevator whirs to life in the background.

His hand runs a Stewart-MacDonald tool, made just for sculpting guitars, over the aspen surface. Each turn, just millimeters thick, brings the instrument closer to life. It's taken Mortensen three months to reach this point on the guitar, and it'll take him three more months to finish. When done, if lucky, he'll sell the guitar for enough money to buy materials to build his next guitar. Basements, elevators and meticulous, patient work with little reward. It's the glamorous life of an artist in training - a life Mortensen is fully committed to. 

"You're building something that outlives you. It's a family treasure," he said. "Everything around us loses value. This is something that won't depreciate in value. It won't disappear."

By trade, Mortensen is known as a luthier, which comes from the French word for "lute." Luthiers build plucked and bowed stringed interests like guitars, basses, banjos, violins and fiddles. While most new guitars sold are manufactured by large companies using automated machines, there's a niche for craftsmen and women who can build and repair guitars.

Mortensen, 27, builds his guitars on Thursdays and in the spare time he gets on weekends. Otherwise he  works during the week, usually serving coffee at Dunn Bros. on Main Street. His "dream job" is to make instruments full time, but that takes putting in thousands of hours to learn the craft, develop a reputation and build up their own confidence to take on more complicated jobs.

"I don't want to rush it," Mortensen said. "I wouldn't want to do anything before I'm ready."

Mortensen invited me to his makeshift studio at the Mitchell Wagon Lofts in Racine to see firsthand how he crafts his stringed instruments using little more than a block of wood and specialized hand tools. On the guitar he's building now, the only pieces he bought were the tuning keys used to tighten and loosen strings. The neck has an inlaid padauk, a red wood from Africa, and the body was shaped using tools Mortensen built himself. One tool is a guitar body mold cut out of several pieces of plywood and the other is a pipe that's heated to a high temperature and used to bend wood soaked in water. 

Each step requires an intricate attention to detail, Mortensen said. It can be a painful process. A broken guitar body was hanging on the wall of his studio. It took him several weeks to build the body, only to realize it was warped and unusable. 

"There' a lot of disappointment and frustration," Mortensen said, "but when it works it's such a joy."

During my visit, Mortensen shared two finished instruments, one a guitar and the other a gourd instrument. Taking a break from his work, Mortensen plays impromptu jams on both instruments. Along with building guitars, he's learning to play and has had a couple of local gigs. Playing the instrument is an important part of building them, Mortensen said. 

"You have to have a knowledge of how to play so you know where to go with the instrument," he said. 

Working full time to pay the bills, Mortensen gets a day or two a week to build guitars. Despite the slow pace, he's had success in finishing instruments. He has two for himself, has given away a few instruments and has another three on display at Gary's Music at 312 Sixth St. in Racine.

He got into guitar making as an art student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Mortensen, a Racine native, said he was interested in sculpture, but knew early on he wanted to create art that had a function. One day, he walked into a guitar shop and met the owner, who was a luthier. Mortensen worked as an apprentice with the owner and learned basics of the trade while finishing his degree.

After college, Mortensen and girlfriend, Maria Swandby, who is also an artist, moved to Racine in 2008 to live at the Mitchell Wagon Lofts, which includes space and equipment for artists. Mortensen's basement studio is actually a collective space used by painters, ceramics artists, woodworkers and others. ]

"This building is the reason we moved back to Racine," he said. "I didn't plan on moving back here."

The move has worked well. Mortensen and Swandby are part of a small, but active, arts community at the Mitchell Wagon Lofts that puts on shows and supports each other's work. For Mortensen, the workspace in the building's basement gives him plenty of room to work. 

He has ambitious plans. After he finishes the archtop guitar he may try a bass guitar. Mortensen said he'd also like to experiment with some exotic woods to come up with some unique sounds. As word gets out about his art work, Mortensen said some people have asked if he'd give lessons on building guitars. He's also done some repair work, which could be a future source of income. 

For now, you can see Mortensen's work at Gary's Music during Downtown Racine's "First Friday" event this Friday from 6-9 p.m.


  1. Great article! I've been served many a mocha by him and never knew what an interesting art he practices when not behind the coffee bar. More articles like this Racine Post!

  2. As a fellow MWFL artist I would like to add he does amazing work in watercolors too!

  3. great article! thanks for posting it!

  4. Really nice guy too. Glad to see him getting attention for his great work. I like the fact that he's making his own way.

    Can't wait to see some of his instruments on Friday.

    Great article, thanks Racine Post for publishing this!

  5. Inspiring! Thanks for sharing your talent.

  6. These are the kinds of articles and the kind of people that bring together and make Racine a community. Excellent job by Dustin in bringing it to light, and Nate in handcrafting a future valued antique.

  7. What an awesome talent .. keep up the Great Works of Art.

  8. Nate is a true artist. The pictures do not do his instruments justice - you need to see them to appreciate the workmanship.

  9. He has always been talented. Glad to see that his talent OS being acknowledged.