Hidden away about a mile off the Old Sterling Highway in Anchor Point is a musician’s paradise. On a small patch of tundra, surrounded by trees in a house that doubles as an impressive woodworking shop, Ray DeMeo makes a living coaxing beautiful music from the trees growing around him.
DeMeo is a luthier, or a maker of stringed instruments.
His warm, tidy workshop is lined with shelves filled with well-organized tools and counters covered with instruments in various states of creation. A tall worktable stands in the center of the room and tacked onto the sloped ceiling are plans for a few different guitars that hint to the intricacy of DeMeo’s work.
On the counter at the opposite end of the room is a music stand, piled high with sheet music, and beside that, hanging proudly, is DeMeo’s viola.
“I was a professional cabinetmaker and carpenter for years before I decided to learn to make instruments,” DeMeo says as he carefully glues wooden struts onto the inside of a guitar form. “I found my interest in instrument-making when I was a kid in Chicago. That lute hanging on the wall was the first instrument I made back in high school.”
In the early nineties, in Redwing, Minn., he enrolled in a violin repair class taught by a master violinmaker.
“She agreed to teach me to make violins so long as I did all of my repair school work and had perfect attendance,” DeMeo says. “So I did. I was really passionate about it, really focused.”
After school, DeMeo worked at violin-making shops in Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul. He then moved to Denver and nine years ago, made the move to Alaska.
“I love the peace and quiet up here,” says DeMeo. “It helps that the trees are the right size, too. Perfect for what I do.”
A lot of thought goes into every instrument DeMeo creates, from the wood he harvests to the glue to the varnish.
“I use hide glue for its amazing acoustic properties. It’s been used since ancient times. Takes more than a year to learn how to use it fluently. I even make my own varnish,” he says. “People just don’t do that anymore.”
Around the corner from his workshop is another bright, impeccably tidy room lined with even more tools of his trade: joiners, table saws and band saws. Sitting on top of another worktable is a stack of thin rectangles of wood.
DeMeo picks one up, holds it to his ear and taps on it to demonstrate the raw wood’s tonality.
“It’s there,” he says, tapping. “Now the work begins to harness it.”
Back in his workshop, DeMeo carefully clamps down the freshly-glued struts.
“I’ve worked with master instrument makers from Poland, Cambodia and, of course, the U.S.,” he says. “I believe in doing it right.”
A few years go, Cathy Stingley of Homer approached DeMeo about building a five-string fiddle.
“He told me that he had never made a five-string but would be willing to try,” says Stingley. “He was not able to find plans so he worked from his knowledge of making violins and violas and designed a pattern.”
When DeMeo makes an instrument, he makes at least two, each from different woods and each with slight differences.
“You get to try each instrument, listen to the differences, admire the woodwork and pick the favored one,” says Stingley. “Win! Win! I tried the two five-string violins he made for me and knew right away which one I wanted.”
Later, Stingley commissioned DeMeo to build her a mandolin.
“When time came for me to preview the mandolins, I went out to Ray’s workshop and there were two beautiful instruments with special hand-carved vines across the front and back with inlaid mother of pearl and abalone shell,” recalls Stingley. “It took me three trips out to his shop to choose the one I wanted.”
The other mandolin that DeMeo made for Cathy Stingley is on display at the Bunnell Street Art Gallery.
Kevin Wilmeth, a local musician, took the instrument for a test drive.
“This mandolin is cleverly designed and it sounds exquisite,” said Wilmeth. “The sustain is outstanding — you play a note and it just keeps going, especially in the bass octave. Where do I find its maker?”
For information on instrument making, instrument repairs and restorations, call DeMeo at 907- 399-5711.
Sarah Richardson is a freelance writer living in Homer.