Sunday, June 29, 2014 —
About two years ago, Archie Smith got into an argument with his table saw.
As he says, the table saw won.
“It cut off these three fingers and took a big bite out of this one,” Archie said as he pointed from his left index finger to his pinkie.
“Right through the knuckles.”
Archie considers himself lucky, though. He lost his middle finger permanently, but doctors managed to reattach the index and ring fingers. He can keep doing the work he loves: making stringed instruments.
“I was determined that I wasn’t going to let it stop me,” Archie said at the opening of his show at Falling Rivers Gallery last week.
A sampling of about a dozen of his bowed psalteries, a stringed instrument in the zither family, and a dulcimer lined the walls of the display, which will remain at Falling Rivers through July 5. Each one was made with a different combination of woods, design and accents.
“I never do the same thing twice,” Archie said.
“They’re all unique.”
Self-taught, he began making the hand-crafted instruments in the 1970s as a hobby.
“I loved working with wood, but I didn’t want to make furniture,” Archie said.
His passion for music, and what his wife Rosie calls a “natural ear” for sound, led him to the careful craft of instrument making instead.
After he got off work as a history professor at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, he would head to his workshop, grab his tools and relax to the scraping of sandpaper or the careful hammering of pins.
“Got so I wanted to do that more than anything else,” Archie said.
So in 1997 he retired from teaching and he and Rosie moved back to an old family farm in Mt. Pleasant to start selling the instruments full time. He bought more exotic woods, started experimenting with new techniques.
“Oh, it’s been wonderful,” he said.
After he lost his fingers in 2012, he said he never even thought about quitting.
“The brain is incredible,” he said.
“I’ve learned to do all type of things. I taught myself how to type again, which is fun with a missing finger. About wore out the backspace key doing it, but hey.”
Archie likes making dulcimers, but he’s putting more effort into his bowed and plucked psalteries.
“I really love making the psalteries,” Archie said.
There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on a psaltery’s strings, he explained, so he has to create a very substantial frame.
“The rails are about an inch wide,” Archie said.
With all of that support going into the frame he can use a weaker, more unusually grained wood on the face and back of the psaltery than is typically used on other stringed instruments such as a dulcimer or violin.
“This one is Amboyna burl, which comes from Southeast Asia,” Archie said.
One of the most rare and expensive kinds of wood, a burl is a growth on the side of a tree that is harvested for its highly figured grain.
“Each burl’s different. The thing that I really like about this one is that you have these distinctive spots in it,” Archie said.
“It’s like having your own portable Rorschach test. You can see something in (the dots), but have fun trying to figure out what it is.”
To bring out the grain of his woods, he gives each psaltery six coats of instrument lacquer, a process that takes about a week.
Instruments in his Signature Series get an additional 12 layers of lacquer, a process that takes a month.
But the hardest part of making the psalteries, Archie said, isn’t the body of the instruments, but the cosmetic inlays.
“It takes a lot of time,” Archie said.
“You’ve got to be real exact.”
All of his instruments have some kind of inlay to accent the edges of the instrument. Those in his Signature Series, though, feature a special themed inlay with a matching inlay on its hanger.
“I’ve probably got the most time put into this one,” he said, pointing out “Autumn Glory,” a Signature Series psaltery with its body patterned to look like a tree trunk and the hanger patterned to look like branches.
“Each leaf you see on there is an inlay of a different kind of wood,” Archie said.
That kind of attention to detail is what makes Archie’s work known throughout the country, Falling Rivers director Nancy Lipe said. He frequents shows from Ohio to Florida, but he does not often show his work locally.
“We’re thrilled to have him,” Lipe said.
“There aren’t many people who make these instruments, and (Archie’s) work is just beautiful.”
Teresa Hunsucker, a dulcimer player who came down to look at Archie’s work, agreed. She was so impressed with the psalteries that she spent more time looking at them than the dulcimer Archie had on display.
“I just love the workmanship and the sound (of the psaltry) has this haunting, ethereal ring to it,” she said.
“I might have to take up a new instrument.”
Archie’s works will be on display during the gallery’s regular hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. The gallery is at 119 W. Main St., Albemarle.
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