Crafter of stringed instruments passing on knowledge

July 13, 1998

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer


Creating musical instrumentsBy KERRY LYNN FRALEY / Staff Writer

BUNKER HILL, W.Va. - Going to school to become an industrial arts teacher, Bunker Hill resident Don Kawalek took advantage of class assignments to teach himself a very specialized craft.

Whenever he could, he chose creating a musical instrument as his project.

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"I just kind of had this urge to build instruments," said Kawalek, 44, who made his first instrument, a banjo, in an independent study class his freshman year.

More than 100 stringed instruments later, the Musselman Middle School teacher is passing on his knowledge to a fellow Eastern Panhandle musician through an apprenticeship program aimed at nurturing traditional arts and crafts in the state.


Since late May, Kawalek has been spending Saturday mornings in his woodworking shop with apprentice Gary Munson, 38, of Martinsburg, W.Va.

By September, Munson will have produced a very fancy Appalachian mountain dulcimer for his wife and learned some basic skills needed to make a guitar for himself, said Kawalek, who hopes to continue working with Munson through the guitar project.

Munson was referred to Kawalek through a Martinsburg music store where he does instrument repair work.

It was Munson's wife, Mirian, who researched opportunities for him to indulge an interest in building instruments, probably stimulated by his hobby of playing bluegrass and blues guitar, he said.

"I was always fascinated by that kind of thing," said Munson, a pipe layer by trade who never chanced fooling with his own guitars. "I was kind of afraid to do anything to them besides change the strings, that's it."

Despite having a grandfather and uncles who built furniture, Munson said his interest in woodworking never progressed beyond building a gun cabinet in high school.

Until now.

"The experience has been great. It's enjoyable," said Munson, who's finding his keen interest makes it easy to comprehend the intricate craft. "I think it's a wonderful thing, especially for people in West Virginia, because it's part of our heritage."

The West Virginia Folk Art Apprenticeship Program named Kawalek a master artist in musical instrument construction, which means other applicants can get grants to study under him, he said.

He said he's grateful that Munson sought him out as a teacher.

If he had his druthers, Kawalek said, he'd teach the beloved craft as a full-time job, especially now that computers have replaced all the woodworking machinery he used in his classroom at Musselman Middle.

Working with Munson is very different from what he's used to as a schoolteacher, Kawalek said.

"He listens," he said. "I'm also learning, too. I've never taught anyone on a one-to-one like this."

Stringed instruments require very precise work. From how thick you get the wood to the spacing of the frets, everything needs to be just right, said Kawalek, who said his ability has vastly improved with years of experience.

"It's basically a box, but you just have to know how to put the box together, where all the pieces go, so it plays music," he said.

Before he started making instruments, Kawalek's playing ability was limited to guitar and banjo.

But as he has made different instruments, he's taught himself to play them, he said.

He favors bluegrass and traditional mountain music on all but the hammered dulcimer, on which he plays Irish music.

The Appalachian mountain dulcimer is a good instrument for Munson to start with because it's relatively simple, Kawalek said.

However, the dulcimer he's making - based on a model Kawalek made in 1980 - requires a lot more skill than an average dulcimer, he said.

That's because he's incorporating elements Munson needs to learn for guitar-making, like how to put on a hand-rubbed lacquer finish rather than a standard oil finish, and how to decorate the instrument with fancy inlay work, Kawalek said.

Kawalek said he taught himself the painstaking art of inlay, in which he uses either mother-of-pearl or ivory overlay he recycles from old piano keys.

Munson is also getting lessons in instrument repair whenever Kawalek takes in repair jobs.

Kawalek custom-builds instruments - two or three a year - and does instrument restoration and repair work. Business comes entirely through word of mouth, he said.

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