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Blowing Rock luthier Natalie Bovino holds one of her custom guitars, this one modeled after the Martin D-28. Photo by Jeff Eason

Originally published: 2012-12-06 09:01:25
Last modified: 2012-12-06 09:01:25

Blowing Rock woman pursues the art of the luthier


Unless you are a fan of stringed musical instruments, you are probably unfamiliar with the word.

The word has been around for centuries and is defined as “the maker of stringed instruments, especially of the violin.”

These days, most stringed instruments are built in factories that utilize assembly lines and computer-driven wood cutting techniques.

But there are still some luthiers who use traditional techniques for making guitars, mandolins, dulcimers and other stringed instruments.

Two of the most well-known in the area are Wayne Henderson and Paul Graybeal.

However, one Blowing Rock woman, Natalie Bovino, has been making a name for herself during the past decade for her work. She has primarily built custom guitars, but these days she concentrates her efforts on making handmade four-string bass guitars.

How she found her way to be lutherie is a story in itself.

“I traveled to Germany after college and was working there,” Bovino said. “Then I taught in England for a while. A parent of one of my students was from a kibbutz in Israel, and we got to be good friends.”

Bovino was invited to go to the kibbutz, a communal farming project, and she jumped at the chance.

“It was awesome,” she said. “My family is Italian and my grandfather had a winery in Italy that he sold when they brought their family to America. The kibbutz had a winery, so I thought I was going to pursue that.”

Instead she became more interested in the woodworking going on at the commune.

An 85-year-old master woodworker named Noam Yadin taught her the basics of guitar making.

“He was a straight up guitar maker,” Bovino said. “He didn’t branch out and make violins or anything. He just made one kind of guitar and he made it well. He had a little band and they were almost like a traveling troupe that went all over Egypt and Israel.”

Years later, Bovino traveled to Japan to study finer techniques from a wood sculptor who specialized in traditional Oriental designs. From there, she relocated to Portland, Ore., where she took classes in lutherie and design from a well-known Seattle master craftsman.

“What happened is I started playing music in Oregon and my bass fell and the whole head broke, and I said to myself, ‘I am not paying to have it fixed,’” she said.

Determined to put her woodworking skills to use to fix her bass, she got in touch with a luthier in Portland.

“There was an old stodgy man who was almost like a hermit,” Bovino said. “His shop was completely closed off with curtains. So, I bugged him to let me work in his shop.”

Bovino ended up doing fret work and sanding for the luthier in exchange for him allowing her to work in his shop on her own projects. He also put her in touch with a professor who taught instrument making at Portland State.

“I didn’t want to take the classes, I wanted to do my own thing,” Bovino said. “So, I basically paid him for an apprenticeship. I paid for guitar making lessons.”

Bovino completed her first instrument, a guitar modeled after the Martin D-28 in 2002. Not content to make one style of guitar, she moved on to other challenges.

“After my first guitar, I made a smaller parlor-style guitar,” she said. “But I don’t think they sound that good. They’re kind of a campy thing; a little campfire guitar. Then I made a big jumbo guitar, like the kind Elvis played.”

In addition to building the guitars, Bovino also built the wooden molds that are used to shape the wood for the sides of the guitar.

“You have to build a mold for each style,” she said. “There are libraries of mold patterns. There’s a huge guitar pattern library in Portland. That’s one of the hard parts; picking a good pattern and finding out what works.”

One of the other things Bovino had to learn about was wood selection.

“At first, I just took people’s word for what works best,” she said. “Making a guitar can be expensive. Your wood for your back and sides can easily cost $200 minimum. Tuners can also be expensive.”

“I used Hawaiian koa wood at first because they don’t harvest it anymore, so people were saying use that while you can, because it won’t be around for long,” she said.

After moving back to Watauga County, Bovino worked with luthier Paul Graybeal in his shop in Zionville, creating instruments under the “Bovino Guitars” name. She also earned her nursing degree and works full time as a wound specialist at Blowing Rock Hospital.

“Now that I am working full time as a nurse, I am probably only going to have time to make one guitar a year,” she said. “It takes 80 to 90 hours to make a guitar, and that’s if there is not a lot of decorative inlay work involved. I’m only making basses now, and I have three on order.”

Bovino’s passion for music extends into areas outside making instruments.

“Right now I am having fun learning how to play classical music on the piano,” she said. “I’m going to give my guitar to my daughter, Lula, but that’s only if she learns how to play it. Otherwise I’m going to keep it.”

For more information and stories, see The Blowing Rocket.

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