Where Sculpture Meets Music
Within the spacious interior of an industrial building, a door leads to 1,200 square feet filled with the warm colors of wood—wood that’s waiting to become stringed instruments. Tan, beige, honey, amber, burgundy, umber, and more glow in the bright, diffuse light. A partially finished guitar rests on a work table. An upright electric bass in the corner is as tall as a person and looks like sculpture. Welcome to Wishbass, the business and workspace of musician and maker Steve Wishnevsky.
“I make fretless electric basses and a variety of other guitar-based instruments,” says Steve, “mostly of domestic woods like cherry, maple, walnut, persimmon, cedar, locust, poplar. There are probably at least six different kinds of wood in one guitar.”
The satiny surfaces of the instruments are thanks to Teresa Wiginton, Steve’s wife and the person responsible for hand-shaping and finishing. “Colonial furniture-making and woodworking are in my family history,” she says. “I enjoy it, and I have a knack for it.”
Playing Led to Building
A maker since he was a kid, Steve eventually focused on stringed instruments—guitars in particular. “I learned to play guitar in the ’60s. Playing made me start wanting to build them,” he says. So he started “hacking away” at instruments. “I took apart my first three guitars, and I found that the model plane building techniques [of my childhood] translated well to guitar construction,” he explains. The rest is history: He’s been making guitars for more than 40 years.
Steve sells his work in the U.S. and internationally via eBay and other online venues as well as on consignment here in town. He does custom work, too. He posts regularly about what he’s currently working on and has also written a book with a lot of information about old-school guitar makers.
Instruments Are Cross-Discipline …
… says Steve, and that’s how he sees MIXXER affecting his work—by way of meeting interesting people and learning from them. “Building instruments requires a little woodwork, a little electronics, a little metalwork,” he says. “There’s art, ergonomics, and finish work. People with skills in different areas could be good resources,” he explains, adding, “You obviously can’t know everything.”
As for new opportunities through MIXXER, Steve says perhaps they’ll come from learning new techniques and new approaches to making things. Not to mention tools. “I’ve been coveting a waterjet cutter and a laser engraver,” Steve says. “I would like to have access to tools like this and learn to use them.”
It’s a two-way street: Our maker community surely does, and will continue to, benefit greatly from this longtime maker and the knowledge and expertise he adds to the “mix.”
More About Steve
How long have you been a maker?
Since childhood. I grew up in an aerospace area, near Hartford, Conn. Most of our parents were engineer types—they had cool toys, and sometimes they let us play with them. Things like radio-controlled model airplanes, for example. This was back in the days when you had to build your own transmitters. The area was primarily union machinists. People having a complete machine shop in their basement wasn’t unusual. It was a part of life.
How did you initially get started as a maker?
I built model planes and cars and then got into woodwork. I also did some sculpting and auto building. My sculpture medium was wood—carving it. I made sci-fi-inspired pieces, walking sticks, things like that. I did do some metal work, using a MIG welder as a “pencil” to build up metal on surfaces.
How did you get started making guitars?
I was in Union Grove, N.C., for a festival, and I met a guy who said he’d teach me to make guitars. So I apprenticed with him. At his shop in Piney Creek, they improvised all the time, and I learned a lot about that from them. I stayed for three or four years. Then I moved to Tennessee, got a job in a lumber yard, and started making instruments for myself—mostly mandolins.
I moved back to Connecticut and worked for a guitar factory as a polisher, and then I spent some more time in Tennessee really getting into making guitars. I wound up moving back to North Carolina and building a couple of shops over the years.
I had day jobs while I was making guitars. I worked in the furniture industry, but those jobs all went away after 9/11. Teresa worked a day job, too, and we eked along for a while. It was October 2001 when I started making guitars full-time as Wishbass.
In February 2015, my garage shop burned down. [See news coverage.] We used GoFundMe [to help get set back up], which helped a lot. We started renting our current space in an industrial building. And here I am. Wishbass just had its 15th anniversary last month.
Were there any obstacles to becoming a maker?
Lack of capital. And in response to that, work harder and improvise. For example, a saw in my shop is specifically for cutting slots in guitar fretboards. There’s a tool commercially available just to perform that function, but instead of buying that, I repurposed a different saw to do the job.
What traits serve you best as a maker?
Imagination and perseverance.
What skills serve you best as a maker?
Keeping my fingers out of the machinery! Also, design skills. I work directly in the wood. I sketch right on it. I eyeball a lot of it. You play music and you find out that sometimes just winging it is best. Sitting around and practicing and practicing isn’t always best. You learn from screw-ups; you can have happy accidents. I let the wood do a lot of the work. People get so hung up on perfection.
Do you have any habits that help you in your work?
Hard work for survival—you just get out of bed and go to work. “Also, flexibility. You have to be flexible when you work with wood,” Teresa adds, “You can’t describe it to somebody who works in an office. When you run your own business, it’s a flow. You have to adjust to materials and be flexible in both your thinking and doing.”
What’s the main thing being a maker has taught you?
What is something you’ve learned from being a maker that’s surprised you?
Just about everything. It’s a constant process of being amazed.
If you could say one thing to someone who wants to get into making, what would it be?
How has being a maker affected other parts of your life?
It’s just about my whole life.
What’s next for you in your work?
Keep going as long as possible. I have a new design for a bass and one for a guitar in the works. But I’m not always thinking up new stuff. I’m also trying to finish up stuff I’ve already thought up!
If you had to start over again as a maker, what would you do differently?
Get more backing and learn to be a better salesman.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Support your local maker. On Facebook and other social media. And by buying local, maker-made products.
Photos courtesy of Steve Wishnevsky.