Dragons and Vines: Museum celebrates Larry Sifel
Charlotte Hall luthier helped change the industry with Pearl Works
A Charlotte Hall company’s work is the central focus of a major new exhibit opening in November at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.
Dragons and Vines: Inlaid Guitar Masterpieces, which opens Nov. 5, showcases the work of inlay artists and luthiers from around the country but is centered around the late Larry Sifel and his enduring inlay shop, Pearl Works. Two-thirds of the 30 or so instruments — a ukulele, banjos and mostly guitars — come from Sifel’s private collection, in storage since his death in May 2006.
A standout guitar is the PRS (Paul Reed Smith) “Double Dragon,” a double-necked electric — 12- and six-string necks — with two elaborately detailed dragons battling each other on the figured wood body, their tails running up the fretboards.
While that guitar is one of the most visually striking, another of Sifel’s guitars, a C.F. Martin & Co. acoustic known as the D-100, is even more ornate with delicate vine inlays on the front and back.
“The most intricate inlay we’ve done to this point is the Martin D-100,” said Ray Jeffries, the inlay production manager at Pearl Works, who has worked there since 2004. “It’s the commemorative guitar from Martin for selling a million guitars. They made a very special custom one that’s up in their museum, but this also goes back to some of Larry’s genius.
“He was asked to take this initial design and make it production friendly. So, the version that we did here — we made 50 of them — they were very, very close to what the original was, sans a few bells and whistles like rubies and things like that,” Jeffries continued. “But it’s just stunning when you look at all the engraving that we had to do to it, the amount of pieces from shell and metal. It’s pretty impressive.” He said the inlay on the back of the guitar would take a week to finish. Those guitars sold for between $110,000 and $125,000 at the time, he said.
The D-100 exemplifies how the Baltimore-born Sifel helped change the inlay industry with Pearl Works, which grew out of his basement luthier shop in Mechanicsville in the mid-1970s.
Bill Seymour, the current president of Pearl Works who came to know Sifel when both had children at The Calverton School in Huntingtown, said Sifel took his deep understanding of abalone shell — one of the main components in instrument inlays — and luthiery and combined them with his interest in emerging technologies to create a new source material, laminated shell called “abalam,” and use computer numerical controlled routers to cut the shell laminate and engrave the wood for higher volume production.
“He put this genius and understanding and interest in technology together with an incredible knowledge of shell and guitar building and kind of took it into a new place, automating it in a way that hadn’t been done before — not just automating it, creating a source material that would be conducive to this new environment that he had imagined which was CNC,” Seymour said.
Sifel developed and patented the process of producing laminated sheets of shell with luthier friend Chuck “Duke of Pearl” Erickson. The two earned the patents in the late 1990s when they started using the laminates in production with C.F. Martin & Co. and PRS Guitars, a Maryland-based guitar maker.
Pearl Works’ craftsmen and artisans carry on the work with PRS and Martin as well as a host of other instrument makers, small and large, including Kamaka Ukuleles in Hawaii.
The company recently worked with Kamaka to design an inlay for a 100th anniversary ukulele, one of which will be used in a Musical Instrument Museum exhibit that celebrates Kamaka for its longevity as a family-owned business.
Seymour, who has been working with MIM on the Dragons and Vines exhibit, has seen the layout as it has been constructed and said other luthiers and inlay artists are present, but the exhibit leads to the homage to Sifel.
“It’s almost like you walk through this exhibit of inlay to get to an altar where Larry is celebrated. It’s pretty profound,” he said.
“His contributions to this industry are massive, but a lot of people who aren’t in the industr y might not know about him,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries said while he was working at the McKay’s grocery store in Charlotte Hall before coming to Pearl Works, he’d see this guy come in covered in dirt and dust, wearing torn jeans and tattered guitar T-shirts, and wondered if he was just someone down on his luck. A couple of weeks after he was hired at Pearl Works, he met that guy — it was Sifel — who by 2004 was semi-retired and had starting lining up people to carry on the business.
“Larry was a real special person. You could meet him and talk to him for five minutes and that would really come out,” Jeffries said. “It was amazing to me because he was really an unprepossessing guy.”
“He was really a brilliant individual,” Seymour added. “You can’t derive anything else, other than that, although he’d be the last person to tell you that.”
Dragons and Vines will be on display in the museum’s Target Gallery through Sept. 4, 2017.
Bill Seymour, left, president of Pearl Works and Ray Jeffries, inlay production manager, hold Martin guitars that were in Larry Sifel’s private collection. On the left is the Martin D-100 anniversary guitar celebrating the firms millionth guitar and on the right is the Martin D-50 Celtic Knot. In the foreground in the Paul Reed Smith Dragon 2002 prototype No. 2.
From left, Chuck Erickson (Duke of Pearl), Jeff Harding, Larry Sifel and Grit Laskin at the C.F. Martin & Co. booth at NAMM with the display of The Night Dive model.
Larry Sifel working on a guitar in an undated photograph.
The PRS (Paul Reed Smith) “Double Dragon” is double-knecked — 12- and 6-string — guitar with inlayed battling dragons.