Detroit is once again on the rise, and Wallace Detroit Guitars is part of the fabric of artisans crafting a future for the city that birthed iconic automobiles like the Mustang, Continental, and Corvette. Like many boutique builders, Mark Wallace started building guitars as a hobby, not a business. But this hobby turned into a mission – to reclaimed old-growth wood from dilapidated structures and turn it into finely crafted instruments that literally are the sound of Detroit.
[GTR] Once you started building guitars from reclaimed wood, at what point did you decide you had to launch a company around the idea?
[Mark Wallace] This has been a dream of mine for a really long time! A friend of mine’s dad had a cabinet shop, and I bugged him to let me borrow a CNC machine, and that’s how it started. When I put the first image of the guitar up on Facebook, it went viral, and all of sudden my inbox was full of people who were interested in buying one. Up until that point, it hadn’t even dawned on me that it could be a business venture.
[GTR] What are the sonic hallmarks of these instruments?
[Mark] The sustain is pretty remarkable, and I think they have a unique, crisp edge to them. You’ve been playing on one for a bit now, what is your take?
[GTR] It’s got one of my favorite Fender-like qualities – you hear a lot of the sound coming from the pickguard. It’s refreshingly consistent from the lowest to the highest notes, which I don’t find in a lot of guitars. I take it that’s a result of the tighter wood grain from the old wood?
[Mark] Absolutely! The increased resonance is definitely from the tighter wood grain.
[GTR] How do you source the body wood?
[Mark] Through the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit, a local non-profit. They do a great job and take people who haven’t been previously employed and teach them how to deconstruct houses. Any profit they make from selling the wood gets put that back into historic preservation. Through them, we find out which locations around Detroit the wood came from.
I would love to see Detroit full of vibrant families, properties that are occupied with the grass cut, and we’re headed in that direction. In the meantime, I want to make sure that some of these materials don’t get lost forever. Once this wood is gone, it’s gone and no one will benefit from that history, and the heritage of those forests will just disappear.
[GTR] How do you pick the wood?
We’re typically looking for wood that is 75 to 150 years old and was harvested the same time that the classic instruments were made. We also look for wood from historic buildings that have relevance to the community.
[Mark] We’re typically looking for wood that is 75 to 150 years old and was harvested the same time that the classic instruments were made. We also look for wood from historic buildings that have relevance to the community. And sometimes people just come to us with crazy wood! I got a call from a neighbor who was working on the top of the Theodore Levin Courthouse. The wood that was used to hold up the water tower was redwood. I have no idea how redwood got to the top of a courthouse in downtown Detroit, but I got the wood and I made a couple of guitars out of it!
When we started, I knew that I couldn’t depend upon finding really awesome mahogany or neat-looking walnut, and there’s not a lot of maple that comes out of the houses around here. So, our prototypes were focused on building guitars out of pine and Douglas fir. There are 60,000 vacant properties in Detroit, so we knew that we would always be able to find a source to make guitars. Our fundamental question was, “Can we make great guitars out of old growth pine?” In terms of density and performance we discovered that old growth pine is much more like ash or some of the more typical electric guitar body woods than the Pine that you would pull out of a modern lumber yard. That old wood is much denser, and even though it’s pine, it performs incredibly well. The sustain and acoustic properties are great. We didn’t know that’s what we would find, so we were pretty thrilled when we did those beta tests.
[GTR] Why does the old wood have a tighter grain.
[Mark] Back in the day, trees were competing for water and sunlight and that slowed down the growth. When you look at wood grain, each line represents a season. Each dark line is a winter and each light line is a summer season of growth. One dark plus one light equals one year. What you’ll see in the old wood that’s in these guitars is 30 or 40 years in a two-by-four. Whereas if you counted the years in a two-by-four you pull off the shelf at Home Depot, there might be 6 or 7 years. As a result, old wood has more fiber, density, and weight to it, so it performs great for instruments.
[GTR] The neck feels like a Les Paul, but is Fender scale, how did that come together?
[Mark] Our guys in the shop were really excited about that neck profile, so put it out on the market and people really love it.
[GTR] Are the neck and the fingerboards made from reclaimed wood as well?
[Mark] It’s not reclaimed, but we do use maple from Michigan. We want to source locally as much as possible.
[GTR] From the nut to the tuner, the G is the longest string. Does that to help prevent it from going flat?
[Mark] That’s exactly right.
[GTR] Tell us about the pickups you use.
[Mark] They are scatter-wound by hand in the shop, and we try to use the best components and hardware that we can.
[GTR] Thank you for spending some time with us Mark!
[Mark] Thank you! Bottom line, we’re not just trying to get paid – we’re trying to do something that changes the narrative about Detroit – and also puts something special in people’s hands.