Drag­ons and Vines: Mu­seum cel­e­brates Larry Sifel

Char­lotte Hall luthier helped change the in­dus­try with Pearl Works

Maryland Independent - - Business - By DAR­WIN WEIGEL dweigel@somd­news.com Twit­ter: @somd_bized­i­tor

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.

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