This story originally appeared in the July 4, 2014 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.
VIENNA – Josh Buskirk’s garage workshop has been known to produce some strange sounds: bangs, crashes, the eerie sound of old piano strings snapping.
He says his neighbors probably think he’s a mad scientist. They’re not far off.
Buskirk doesn’t reanimate dead bodies like Dr. Frankenstein, but he does turn old, dead pianos into brand new guitars.
It all started when Buskirk found an old Steinway square grand piano at Parkersburg’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
Square pianos were popular in the 1800s, but fell out of favor as piano makers discovered ways to make louder, better-sounding instruments.
Buskirk learned this Steinway had been in the thrift store for a year but had yet to find a home.
“They told me a museum in Charleston called and wanted it, but realized they couldn’t afford to restore it, he said.
But Buskirk wasn’t interested in restoring the piano.
He knew the old Steinway was built in the 1800s, which mean its wood was even older – probably from trees that were born in the 1700s.
The piano’s soundboards were made of red spruce, which is now quite rare since many of the trees were cut down to build airplanes in World War II.
The piano case was veneered in Brazilian rosewood. The hardwood has been illegal to trade since 1992, when it landed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “red list.
Buskirk thought the inside of the instrument might be made of Brazilian rosewood, too.
He bought the huge piano for $200 and got one of his friends, a professional piano mover and restorer, to help him get it home.
Then he got cold feet.
The piano was so pretty and had so much history, Buskirk felt bad about tearing it apart.
He spent three weeks trying to decide what to do.
His piano restorer friend eventually assured him the instrument wasn’t worth saving. Restoration would be incredibly expensive and take about a decade to complete. Plus, the old square grands don’t sound very good anyway.
“I said Okay, that makes me feel better. I’ll cut it up,’ Buskirk said.
But even that proved more difficult than he expected.
Buskirk tried using chisels to break the wood apart, but nothing budged.
He switched to crowbars. That didn’t work, either.
“I took sledge hammers to it. I took a Sawzall to it. Nothing would break that glue, he said.
Finally, he asked one of his buddies to loan him a chainsaw. And that’s when Buskirk knew he’d struck gold.
Buskirk initially thought the piano’s interior was made from Brazilian rosewood, but then realized that wasn’t quite right.
After a few weeks of research, he realized it was American chestnut, which was almost completely wiped out by blight in the early 1900s.
“It’s the equivalent of extinct now, he said.
Using a band saw, Buskirk began breaking down the wood into manageable chunks.
He cut strips from the chestnut to bend into the guitar sides, and used larger pieces for the guitar’s back.
Buskirk used the rosewood and elephant ivory from the pianos keys for decorative inlays.
He cut apart the spruce soundboard to make the guitar’s top. He cut strips of chestnut to make braces for the inside of the guitar.
Using old materials presented a few challenges, however.
Normally, Buskirk bends the sides of his guitars by steaming the wood and clamping it into a mold.
The process will not work for his Steinway wood, since it is much drier than younger materials. He had to bend the wood over a red-hot metal pipe, heated by a butane torch.
“Everything seems like a challenge. Most of it is just little puzzles, he said.
Despite the constant frustrations, Buskirk said he loves the thought of giving the old Steinway new life.
“This thing has been a musical instrument for 100 years or more. It gets to keep making music, he said. “At the risk of sounding like a hippie, it’s pretty great to not send something to the dump.
Buskirk fell in love with guitars when he was nine years old. And he fell hard.
He’d spend hours every day just practicing, sometimes forgetting to eat and drink.
As he got older, he began playing gigs around the state, traveling to bars and coffee houses in Charleston, Morgantown and Parkersburg.
But performing eventually lost its luster for Buskirk. He realized he doesn’t need an audience to enjoy playing guitar. He just wants to play.
“Every day I’m more excited about guitar than I was the day before. And it’s been that way since I was nine, he said.
He began building guitars two years ago. He was already doing instrument repairs, and building an instrument from scratch seemed like a natural thing to do.
He had virtually no tools, however, and very limited woodworking experience.
“Before I’d built my first guitar, I’d built a CD rack. It was like a high school shop class.
He spent a lot of time staring at guitars and books about guitar making, then took the plunge.
“I went to Harbor Freight, bought some clamps, went to Lowe’s and got some wood glue and ordered some wood.
He has built three guitars to date and is hard at work on his second Steinway guitar. Buskirk also has his next victim in sight.
A local man recently dropped off an old Windsor upright piano at Buskirk’s shop.
For more information about Buskirk’s guitars, visit www.buskirklutherie.com or check him out on Instagram at www.instagram.com/ buskirklutherie.