A couple of years ago, Curt Novara, a sheriff's detective, was combing through piles of old lumber at Reclaim Detroit, a nonprofit that's dismantling some 78,000 abandoned homes in the city and recovering materials for reuse. As he knocked on boards, looking for just the right ones to build furniture for his home, something caught his ear. It was a sound he hadn't heard since he was a teenager apprenticing for a local luthier, or guitar maker.
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"We were always listening to the tap tones of the wood," he says. "This wood was special, not like lumber from the big box stores, which gives a thud sound when you tap on it. This had a ring to it, and also a warm tone. I thought why not try to build a guitar."
The resulting instrument — an electric model with semi-hollow body — gave off a full, rich sound that was undeniably beautiful. And so was the guitar itself, handcrafted with lovely heirloom wood reclaimed from the ruins of Novara's beloved city — wood that might otherwise end up in a landfill. He was hooked.
The sounds of salvage
Woodward Guitar Company opened its doors in 2014, specializing in one-of-a-kind handcrafted electric guitars and basses that don't look or sound like any others. Part of their appeal has to do with the unusual history of the wood itself, gleaned from Detroit homes often dating back to the early 1900s. Many were abandoned during the recent recession, which hit the birthplace of America's auto industry and Motown Records particularly hard. The city filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and is currently on its way to an economic comeback.
"The wood in these abandoned houses actually comes from old growth forests, Douglas fir and northern white pine mostly harvested in Michigan," says Novara, who partners with other craftsmen to build his guitars. "The trees grew much slower and were much older when they were harvested. They've had 100 years to dry out."
Many of Detroit's older houses were built using trees from old growth forests, like Douglas firs and northern white pines. The wood from these trees produce a 'vintage tone.' (Photo: Nic Redhead/flickr)
Although most electric guitar bodies are made from woods such as mahogany, ash, alder and basswood, Novara swears by the music produced using the reclaimed non-traditional woods. "You get that vintage tone," he says. "They’re brand new guitars, but it sounds like they’ve been around forever."
And it's not just the wood’s resonance that appeals to customers. Many also love its stunning grains and time-worn beauty. Customers especially covet the imperfections that adorn many of the guitars, particularly knots and dark spots left from old rusty nails.
"These happen to be our hottest sellers," Novara says. "People really like the character."
Each guitar is also sold with a picture of the house it came from and a brief history, adding to its uniqueness. It's this attention to detail and one-off craftsmanship that has quickly earned Woodward some big-name customers, including Detroit-born bassist Deon Estus, who has played with the likes of Wham, Elton John and Marvin Gaye.
A guitar is under construction at Woodward Guitar Company. (Photo: Woodward Guitar Company/Facebook)
Novara always loved music, and played in garage bands in high school about the same time he was learning to build guitars. But for him it was just for fun. His real dream was to become a police officer. Now a 17-year law enforcement veteran, he currently works for the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department, located 30 minutes from Detroit, as a detective and hostage negotiator.
"My job is tough and stressful, but it's also very rewarding…I love it," he says.
So it was a major surprise when he suddenly found himself drawn back to his musical roots. But it also felt right being able to create something beautiful from Detroit's misfortune and contribute to its revival.
Novara and his partners, who also enjoy full-time careers, have no intention of quitting their day jobs. But they agree there's a sense of peace and satisfaction that comes from crafting something of lasting value by hand. "We all have stressful jobs," Novara says. "It's kind of relaxing when we can just hang out in the garage and produce an instrument."
Made from reclaimed wood, 'The Telegraph' is one of Woodward Guitar Company's newest models. (Photo: Woodward Guitar Company)
Woodward Guitar currently produces 20 guitars a year, each requiring between 40 and 50 hours to hand-build. In addition to the reclaimed wood, they also feature maple necks, rosewood fretboards and old-school hand-wound pickups (which detect vibrations from the strings and convert them to electrical signals that are routed to the amplifier).
Guitars start at $2,000 and are only sold at two Detroit-area music stores. And that's how Novara wants to keep things in order to maintain the classic craftsmanship and continue paying proper homage to his hometown.
"When you work with this wood you can tell it has history," he says. "That's what I love about it. I'm able to pass on some of Detroit's history and also repurpose wood that would end up in the landfill."
Here's a video of Jimmy Alter of the Jimmy Alter Band making a Woodward Guitar sing: