The ‘Damico Sound’
Braddock Heights Woodworker's Craftmanship is Delivered with a Song
Jack Damico lifts the unfinished guitar by the neck, the face of the instrument close to his ear. He gently taps the wood with a rough finger, listening carefully. “That’s just about right,” he says. “I whittle away the wood until it sounds right. I’m a little surprised they all have the same sound. The Damico sound.”
He crafts acoustic guitars one at a time, and has been honing the “Damico sound” since 1983. He works out of a shop adjacent to the home he shares with his wife, Cindy, atop Braddock Mountain. Guitars in various states of completion are scattered throughout the shop, including several nearly finished models that Damico will never complete because they’re not up to his standards. The shop smells of sawdust and lacquer.
Damico, 53, bought his first guitar in 1981 with the songs of the late 1970s playing in his head. “I really wanted to learn to play them,” he says as a shop radio plays classic rock. “I am not a good player,” he admits.
“I play well enough to know I am building right.”
In the early 1980s, Damico made a pilgrimage to the C.F. Martin and Co. guitar factory in Nazareth, Pa. “I dreamed of owning a Martin guitar. Martin guitar is the standard by which everyone compares their guitar,” he says. The factory sold souvenirs and samples of wood used in Martin guitars. Living on a private’s salary in the U.S. Army, Damico knew he couldn’t afford a Martin. But he had another idea: maybe he could make one for himself. “‘This is reasonable,’ I thought, ‘I’m a woodworker. I’m going to build myself a guitar.’”
Back at Fort Detrick, Damico killed time in the base woodshop, gleaning skills from other soldiers. He soon set up a shop in his house off the base. “I tried to make a guitar in my bedroom,” he says. He started working on his first guitar in 1983. It took more than two-and-a-half years to complete. “The first four or five guitars I built were garbage. I couldn’t even play them,” Damico says. “The neck was wrong, the bridge came flying off.”
Those early models took between 250 and 300 hours of work each. He smashed every one of them to bits and tossed the shards in the trash. But he learned something from those failures. It was the only training he received.
He started his seventh guitar in 1986, and spent nearly two years finishing it. “I had built something good enough that I decided to sell the other guitars I had purchased. I got rid of everything else I had and decided to only have my own guitars.”
Since that first success, Damico has completed more than 75 guitars. Today, it takes between 60 and 70 hours for him to craft a playable guitar; then he begins the custom trim and finishing work. “At this point, I’ve basically worked out most of the problems. Now it’s a matter of honing my art,” he says.
‘Gorgeous and Sounds Good’
Damico’s first efforts might have been garbage, but his current pieces are not. Boe Walker, owner of Boe’s Strings on Market Street, grabs one of two Damico guitars that he is selling on consignment. His fingers fly through a country ditty. Then he plays a Martin for comparison. “His sound is right up there, comparable,” with the Martin guitar, Walker says. “Not only is it gorgeous, but it sounds good, too.”
Aside from consigning at Boe’s Strings, Damico sells most of his guitars by word of mouth. “Somebody stumbles onto me then his friends want one,” Damico says.
Damico guitars start as chunks of wood. The top, or soundboard, is made of soft wood. He prefers Adirondack spruce from New York, the same wood Martin uses. “It’s a wood that can do almost anything you want,” he says. Guitars built with “adi spruce” can produce “big, booming, bass sounds and sparkling treble notes that ring out like a tap on a crystal glass.”
Soundboards are book-matched, which means Damico splits a thick piece of wood along the edge to produce two identical, thinner pieces. He then opens the pieces like a book, and places them next to each other to create symmetry. He engineers a latticework of braces to glue inside the soundboard in order to withstand the tension created by the strings and the neck.
The hardwood back of the guitar is created in much the same way, but without a sound hole. It, too, is reinforced with braces.
The sides are also crafted from hardwood. Damico cuts the sides and back from the same piece of wood so the grain and color match. For the sides, he starts with a piece of wood about two-and-a-half inches thick, and cuts it down to about one-eighth of an inch on a band saw. A sander reduces the pieces to “bending thickness.”
Damico fits the thin sheets of wood into custom-made, heated molds to create the guitar shape. His sides are double-layered, glued and clamped together in another mold. He carves the neck and head from a single piece of hardwood. Once assembled, he adds a bridge, frets and tuning pegs. Damico builds in the winter to avoid the high humidity that affects lacquer and swells wood.
Everything on a Damico guitar is made of wood, except the strings and some tuning hardware. He does not use paint or stain. “If I want color, I choose the species of wood that has the color I want,” he says. A stylized “D” graces the head. His guitars are visually stunning.
Precision is paramount. “The preciseness of my guitars is literally in the thousandths of an inch,” he says. The pieces he uses for edges, for example, are cut to 20 one-thousandths of an inch: only as thick as seven pieces of paper. “I could spend days discussing the intricacies of shaving one thirty-second of an inch of wood and the effect on sound.”
Customers can choose the wood for the sides, back, neck and trim. He measures their hands and fingers before carving the neck.
Damico sold his first custom guitar in 1985 for $1,000, to an Army buddy who heard Damico playing his own. Today, his guitars start at $4,000. The average customized guitar runs $6,500, depending on the species of wood used and the amount of detail.
“Most of my customers have been dreaming about this for a long time before finally making this purchase,” Damico says. “As a guitar builder, I want to build something for that person that will fulfill their dreams.”