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Area instrument maker and repairman speaks about craft

March 20, 2004|By BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

STATE LINE, Pa. - Bluegrass music, down-home jokes and information about the history and technique of stringed instrument repair filled the Ruritan building in State Line Thursday night.

Ken Pugh of Twin Hill Express, a six-member band that plays bluegrass, gospel and old-time country music, spoke at the meeting of the Middleburg/Mason-Dixon Line Historical Society and played some of the instruments he displayed.

Pugh, of Waynesboro, Pa., was joined by Twin Hill Express banjo player Brad Yingling, also of Waynesboro, for the musical numbers.

Now retired after 36 years as a tool and die engineer at Landis Machine Co., Pugh has been playing, building and repairing bluegrass instruments for many years.

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Showing a violin made by Arthur Falardeau, Pugh gave credit to the French-Canadian instrument repairman who mentored him in the craft for at least a dozen years.

Pugh displayed a violin he finished recently, with a spruce top and a maple back.

"That's the standard," he said. "It produces a good sound."

A violin, he explained, is a piece of wood that's carved. There are no nails; it is held together with glue. The top and back vibrate to make the sound.

Pugh buys old stringed instruments at sales and fixes them up. Looks are no indication of sound.

"I got the plainest old fiddle, all beat up, and it sounded great," he said. "I had one of beautiful wood, and I could never get anything out of it."

He held up and tapped a piece of wood from an unfinished mandolin he is working on.

"That's actually a note," he said. "You carve the hole according to that."

Pugh said that after he had been repairing instruments for other people for many years, his wife, Norene, encouraged him to buy a kit to make a guitar.

"I looked at the instruction book and thought I'd thrown $400 away," he said.

He eventually made the guitar, which sounded fine, although he said the first violin he made was "a complete disaster."

Now, Pugh says that building instruments is easier than repairing them because "you can't throw anything away" when repairing someone else's instrument.

The mandolin is the most difficult instrument for him to make, Pugh said. He estimates it takes him more than 200 hours to make a mandolin, compared with between 120 and 130 hours for a guitar.

New mandolins sell for around $7,500, he said, although the one bluegrass legend Bill Munroe played sold in the $100,000 range.

"It depends on who played it," Pugh said.

Mandolins originally were made in a teardrop shape, Pugh said, then one maker added a hollow decorative element and discovered it gave more bass sound.

Pugh said he still does more repairing of instruments than building of new ones, and has made five guitars, four mandolins, four violins and four banjos. He does not do the metal work on the banjos. The heads now are made of plastic rather than calfskin, which changed with the weather.

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