Blending art and science makes music in Gorham



ROBICHAUD
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This array of beautifully crafted guitars are among the ones crafted by Richard Robichaud of Gorham, who started making the instruments as a hobby, but has now become a juried member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. (Photo by Katherine Burt) (click for larger version)
December 30, 2009
GORHAM — Richard Robichaud makes his living as a Process Control Systems Technician for Honeywell, but in his free time he crafts beautiful electric guitars.

"The nice thing about guitars for me is they're the perfect blend of art and science," said the self-taught Mr. Robichaud. "And the science part of it is great for me. That's just right up my alley, but the art part is where I need practice and more work."

Raised in Berlin, Mr. Robichaud lives in Gorham with his wife and two daughters. Like many from the North Country, he has always enjoyed hunting and fishing, but because he was on call at the mill, he needed a hobby that kept him closer to home. So, six years ago, at the age of 41, Mr. Robichaud began to play the electric guitar.

"I've always wanted to play, but when I was younger, we really couldn't afford to buy a guitar. And, then when I was on my own, I couldn't really afford to buy one. Then, I got into my midlife crisis thing, and I said, 'If I don't learn now, I'm never going to learn.'"

When his guitar broke, Mr. Robichaud took it apart to try to fix it. The poor craftsmanship of the inexpensive guitar inspired him to try to do better and what started as one guitar, has since grown to a dozen.

The instruments begin as ash, cherry, or maple trees from the surrounding forest.

"We're lucky where we live because there are a lot of tone woods, which is what they use for guitar making," said Mr. Robichaud.

The wood is cut into blocks and brought down to Mr. Robichaud's basement or backyard workshop. The sequence of steps in crafting the guitars is extremely important, said Mr. Robichaud. He begins with the neck, cutting out it's shape before inserting a truss rod for adjustability. Next, he traces the shape of the body onto a block of wood. He mates the neck to the body and performs the rest of the routing before finally cutting out its shape.

"I use a band saw, a drill press, and a router," he said. "Those are the three basic tools. And a lot of sanding."

The process is slow and meticulous, taking anywhere from 100 to 120 hours to construct one guitar, with many efforts finding their way into Mr. Robichaud's pile of "Fender firewood."

"It's great because I don't even know what they're going to sound like until I'm completely done. So, the whole time, I spend all this time on it, and then right when I get to the end, that's when I know what it's going to sound like," said Mr. Robichaud.

Every guitar is unique in Mr. Robichaud's workshop. Some even have their own names. There is Percy, for perseverance; SHK for the School of Hard Knocks; and Tootsie, named by Mr. Robichaud's wife, Carol, for its resemblance to the Tootsie Roll candy.

Though Mr. Robichaud taught himself how to construct the electric guitars, he credits the internet with enabling him to find parts and knowledge to do so, as well as with connecting him with the international electric guitar making community.

"I've collaborated with people from Sweden, England, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, and every state. There's a whole bunch of people on there and they all exchange ideas and show pictures of what they've built," he said.

Mr. Robichaud's work has recently earned him entrance into the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Now that he his a full juried member, he can sell his guitars in their seven stores across the state, though right now he is only affiliated with the North Conway location.

"I just built them for myself. I still do build them for myself, but, now, if people want to buy them, I'll sell them," Mr. Robichaud said. Up until now, he had only given his guitars away or charged friends the cost of materials.

"What I'd like to really do someday is to have a school and teach people how to make guitars. That's my long term dream," said Mr. Robichaud. "But, for now, I just want it to be a self-sustaining hobby. So, if I can sell one, then buy some parts and build a couple more, and then sell one and just do it like that, I'd be happy."

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