Heritage Guitar has a history of
going its own way. While other
guitar manufacturers increasingly
build their instruments in Mexico,
Korea, China, Indonesia, and other places
known for inexpensive labor, and in a
market where computer-aided manufacturing
is the norm and mass-produced
instruments dominate, the team of craftsmen
at Heritage do the exact opposite.
By designing and building small batches
of handcrafted, high-quality guitars from
solid woods right here in the United States,
Heritage is able to pay attention to those
crucial details that define a great 6-string.
“You can instantly hear it if you are a
professional, and usually you can feel it,”
says Rendell Wall, a second-generation
guitar builder at Heritage. Wall has been
making guitars in this same factory for 48
years—26 with Heritage and the previous
22 with Gibson, where he worked
in research and development. His father
worked for Gibson for 37 years.
“One of our guitars that runs $3,400?
You can go downtown to one of your
cheaper places and find one that looks like
ours—from a distance—for maybe a couple
hundred dollars,” Wall says. But the similarities
fall away quickly when you compare the
feel of the neck, the sound, the materials,
and the traditional construction methods.
If Heritage is starting to sound like a
throwback, we’re only getting started. The
building that houses the Heritage factory
is almost 100 years old and is the former
home of Gibson Musical Instruments in
Kalamazoo, Michigan. Wall is just one of
the many Heritage employees who have
been building guitars for years in this
same plant, some of them for more than
Jim Deurloo and Marvin Lamb, two of the Heritage founding partners.
All in the Family
To really get the entire Heritage story,
you’ve got to go back more than a century.
Kalamazoo is steeped in guitar history.
It’s where Orville Gibson, inventor of the
archtop mandolin and guitar, founded the
Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing
Company Limited in the late 1890s.
Production of Gibson musical instruments
began in the factory at 225 Parsons Street
(now the home of Heritage Guitar), in 1917.
It’s the birthplace of the Gibson F-5
mandolin, now-vintage Gibson hollowbodies,
Les Pauls, and SGs that propelled jazz,
blues, country, and rock music into our
contemporary age and made Gibson an
iconic American brand.
Lloyd Allayre Loar, the mandolin virtuoso
and acoustical engineer for Gibson
who’s credited with numerous mandolin
and guitar design innovations—including
harmonically tuned carved tops, violin style
F-holes, tuned longitudinal tone braces,
longer necks, adjustable bridges, and the
design of the Gibson L-5 Master Model
archtop guitar—trod these dusty floors in
the early 1920s.
The Heritage-Gibson relationship goes
further: Heritage uses many of Gibson’s
original tools and production methods, and
many former Gibson craftsmen now run
the shop and business.
Marvin Lamb, a founding partner of
Heritage Guitar, has worked in this same
factory, originally as a Gibson employee,
since May 31, 1956—but his connection is
still deeper: His father worked here in the
Gibson mill room for 17 years. “I own the
last guitar [a Les Paul 30th Anniversary]
built here in the Gibson factory,” Lamb
says. He also has one of only five cherrywood
Les Paul 20th Anniversary guitars,
and a Les Paul 25/50, commemorating the
25th anniversary of the design and the 50th
anniversary of Les Paul’s musical career.
But Lamb isn’t a musician. “I don’t
consider myself a guitar player now. I’m
a builder,” he says. “I was around guitars
so much, I let up on it and lost interest in
playing. Maybe that’s what it was—I was
around so many guitars.”
A New Generation
In the heyday of the late 1960s and early
’70s, says Wall, Gibson had 175,000
square feet of production with close to
1,000 people manufacturing 500 guitars
per day. In 1974, Gibson expanded, opening
a modern manufacturing facility in
Nashville. In September 1984, Gibson
closed the factory in Kalamazoo.
In the spring of 1985, Lamb, formerly the
Gibson plant superintendent, plant manager
James A. Deurloo, and J.P. Moats, the quality
control man, founded Heritage Guitar
with Bill Paige and Mike Korpak (also former
Gibson employees). “I could have gone down
to Nashville, but I married a girl from here,”
Lamb says. “I didn’t want to go. Our goal was
just to make a good quality, original-type guitar
as best we could, and stay where we were.”
The first model Heritage produced was
the H-140, a solidbody, single-cutaway
electric guitar that was introduced at the
NAMM show in the summer of 1985.
Now, with 20 employees, Heritage creates
between four and six guitars per day and
has a lineup of 25 models, including several
solidbody electrics. But most of the company’s
output—as well as its reputation—is
based on vintage-inspired, archtop electric
semi-hollow and hollowbody guitars.
Rim bender with guitar-shaped mold.
“It starts out with the wood selection,” says
Deurloo, who began his guitar-making career
in “white wood”—making and sanding necks
and guitar bodies—for Gibson in 1958.
Heritage buys spruce for guitar tops
from Fred Tebb and Sons in Tacoma,
Washington. For most of their necks and
solidbodies, Heritage uses pattern-grade
tropical American mahogany—chosen specifically
for its smooth texture and straight
grain—supplied by Newman Lumber
Company in Gulfport, Mississippi.
The curly maple comes primarily from
the Great Lakes region. “We want it music
grade,” Deurloo says. “It has to be clean
and as figured as we can get it.” The “figure”
refers to the grain pattern, which could
be flame, bird’s-eye, or another grain pattern.
Heritage sources ebony and rosewood
fretboards from Luthiers Mercantile.
Heritage craftsmen begin creating their
handbuilt hollow and semi-hollowbody guitars
by cutting and bending strips of maple
to form the sides, which are known as rims.
The maple strips are first sawed and sanded
down to .095". Next the rims are soaked
and shaped over one of several molds,
depending on the model, and then steamed
until all the water is removed.
Rim assembly for a double-cutaway.
“That mold that you see is really a stove.
It’s gas fired,” Deurloo says. “I get that hot
enough that when you drop water on it, it
turns to steam immediately. So you bend
the rim as hot as you can, and then it takes
maybe five to eight minutes to form it and
dry it out, so it holds its shape.”
Using clothespins, the maple rims are then fitted
with mahogany linings.
To bend the rims, the maple strips are
secured on the front of the mold, also known
as a platen, and bent all the way to the back.
Foot pedals are used to press the wood to the
mold and keep the rims under pressure. To
bend cutaways, the wood is soaked overnight
to make it pliable enough to take the sharp
curves next to the fretboard.
Front to Back
The rims are then attached to a solid softmaple
center block, which adds stability and
tone. This block is notched to accommodate
the electronics, volume, and tone controls.
The rim assembly is then fitted with a
mahogany lining and corner blocks, which
provide a gluing surface to attach the guitar’s
top and back. Standard rim widths are 1 3/4"
and 1 5/8", and the guitar bodies range from
16" to 20" long, and 13 1/4" to 16" wide.
“The rim assembly looks kind of like a
little airplane kit,” Wall says. “You’ve got a
head block, tail block, you’ve got rim lining,
a few stays, and corner blocks that add
support. We put the top and back on the
blocks and then glue them together.”
Freshly pressed laminated curly maple guitar
back. Notice the imprint of a double-cutaway.
The tops and backs of many Heritage hollow
and semi-hollowbodies are made of laminated
maple. “Basically, we make plywood,”
Lamb explains, “using curly maple veneers for
the inside and outside over a basswood core.”
The wood grains are crossed, which adds
strength and stability, and the three sheets
are glued together and put into a die press,
nicknamed Bulldog, which is powered by a
20-ton jack. Once the plywood sheets are
seated, “registration” holes are drilled into
the wood, which help seat and center the
wood during other building processes, such
as the installation of “the patch,” which fills
the concave portion of the guitar tops and
backs to provide a glue surface for the center
block. Bulldog then stamps the domed
shape of the hollowbody into the wood.
The fronts are chosen for their grain patterns,
or figures, and then matched and
numbered with backs.
Left: Using clothespins, the maple rims are then fitted
with mahogany linings. Right: The Ferris Wheel.
Solidbodies are formed from two joined
boards. The pieces are glued together and
then held tight in a rotating rack, nicknamed
the Ferris Wheel, until the glue
sets in the center seam. The wheels can be
turned to accommodate many bodies and
save time, effort, and space. The bodies are
then planed to the appropriate thickness.
Left: Heritage’s custom carver. Right: Fretboard saw.
Necks and Other Body Parts
Heritage solidbody guitars are cut with a
band saw, then the domed tops and bottoms
are shaped using a carving machine
conceived by Deurloo. The pattern to be
traced is placed in the bottom wheel, and
the wood to be shaped is placed on the
top wheel. Both are then spun, and as the
arm on the bottom traces the dome of the
pattern with a ball bearing, the arm on top
duplicates the curve and carves it into the
guitar’s top. When the arm gets to the center,
a micro switch turns the machine off.
“It’s a simple device,” Lamb says, “but
it’s pretty neat, you know? It’s almost like
a duplicator, a pantograph machine.”
To remove grooves from the router, the
guitar bodies are then passed through a belt
sander before the necks are attached. To cut
fret slots in the fretboards, Heritage craftsmen
use a small swing saw, also known as a
fretboard saw. The fretboard is seated, and then
22 blades swing across the board, simultaneously
cutting the fret slots. “It’s all laid out—perfect to
the thousandth,” Wall says. “It’s a time-saver.”
Left: Ray Noud installs the inlays and then frets, binds,
and finishes the fretboards. Right: Custom-built fret press.
After the fretboard has been routed for
inlays and fret markers, Ray Noud chisels the
corners to seat each mother-of-pearl inlay and
glues them in with epoxy, which he tints with
the wood dust from each neck. He then finetunes
the curve, or radius, of the fretboard
by sanding to achieve a 12" radius. “I can tell
a lot by where this curl lands,” Noud says,
pointing to the wood dust on the fretboard.
Next, after the frets are cut from a spool,
glued, and tapped into the fretboard, it’s put
into a custom hydraulic press. Inside the
fret press is a “shoe” to match the 12" radius
on the Heritage fretboard. The fretboard is
laid into a tray, which self-centers within the
shoe. The craftsman then hits a button and
the hydraulic press raises and simultaneously
seats all the frets at the same height. The
press reaches full pressure and then releases.
Finally the fretboard is removed and set
aside to dry. “We used to do it by hand, but
that’s archaic, really,” Wall says.
Left: Freshly cut five-piece maple and mahogany necks. Right: Truss rods are inserted into “bendy straws” to keep the glue off them, tapped into the neck
and covered with a strip of maple.
In addition to setting the frets more
quickly, the fret press does a much better job
of leveling the frets, Lamb explains. “It’s very
difficult to press frets in one at a time and
get them fairly level. If they are not level,
when you go to do your fret filing, you have
to take more off of one than another to get
them level.” After the fretboard has been
fretted, binding is applied and the fretboard
is ready to be attached to a neck.
Rather than using computer numerical
control (CNC) or computer-aided manufacturing
(CAM) programs to produce
necks, Lamb carves most of the necks
himself and then “rolls” each of them
individually, shaping the neck’s profile
on a belt sander. “All guitar players like
something a little different,” he says. “If
they specify what they want, we’ll get it to
that thickness and feel: cheeky, less cheeky,
Heritage creates three standard neck
constructions for their guitars: A five-piece
curly maple neck with a 25.5"-scale ebony
fretboard and 20 bound frets; a one-piece
mahogany neck with a 24.75"-scale rosewood
fretboard and 22 bound frets; and a
one-piece mahogany neck with a 24.75"-
scale rosewood fretboard and 20 unbound
frets. The five-piece maple neck is constructed
with three pieces of curly maple
sandwiching two strips of mahogany. Inside
is the truss rod, which is seated and covered
with another strip of maple.
“Why five pieces? That’s kind of an
artistic thing,” Deurloo says. “It’s traditional
but it also develops the feel. When you
introduce a glue line between two pieces of
wood, it introduces stability.”
Another notable feature of Heritage guitars
is the severe angle of the headstock. All
Heritage necks have a 17-degree headstock
pitch, which aims to enhance sustain by
increasing string tension at the nut. “We do
it the old way,” Lamb says. “We take a block
of wood and get two necks out of it—the
bigger the angle, the wider the block has
to be.” Many other manufacturers cut the
necks with a smaller angle so they can use a
thinner piece of wood and increase the yield
from each block, he explains.
Top-Left: The neck center and angle are measured and
set. The tenon and mortise are covered in Titebond
glue, the center and angle rechecked, and
clamped until dry. Top-Right: Arnold Hileski checks the neck pitch of a Heritage
Kenny Burrell Groove Master. Bottom-Left: Heritage guitars are bound, then the binding is secured
with ropes until the homemade glue is set. Bottom-Right: Custom jazz guitar with spruce top, curly maple
back, rims, and neck, Heritage floating humbucker
pickup, and finger tailpiece, which eliminates feedback
by varying the pressure on individual strings.
The necks are joined with a simple
mortise-and-tenon joint, which offers better
support for the fretboard than a dovetail,
Lamb says, because the tenon, or “male”
part of the joint, extends further into the
guitar body. “If you don’t get the proper fit
and angle, then nothing works. We don’t
seem to have a lot of problems with loose
neck joints. It works.”
Binding and Hardware
Heritage guitars are bound with ABS
plastic. Craig “Curly” Spink (who has
been with Heritage for 11 years, but has
also worked as a carpenter and trained to
be an art teacher) first bevels the edge of
the binding so it lays closer to the guitar
body. Then he lays glue into the bevel and
secures the binding to the guitar body
with strapping tape.
To follow the curve of a cutaway, Spink
increases the binding’s pliability with a
heat gun and then wraps the guitar in rope
overnight until the glue sets and the body
can be sanded. He makes his own glue by
dissolving shavings and leftover bits of the
ABS plastic binding in acetone. When it
dries, the glue is invisible.
Heritage includes a variety of pickups
in its lineup, including their own Heritage
Pickups, Lollar P-90s, Seymour Duncan
’59 SH-1, TB59, and SH-55 Seth Lover
humbuckers. Seth Lover and Walter Fuller,
both former Gibson employees, are credited
with designing and developing humbucker
pickups and creating the Patent Applied
For (PAF) pickup that Gibson Musical
Instruments introduced in 1955.
“We’ll also install any pickup that fits
our routing,” Lamb adds. Most Heritage
guitars sport Grover tuners and TonePros
bridges and tailpieces.
Left: Patrick Whalen shows a freshly painted, almond
sunburst Heritage H-555. Top: Ted Beville scrapes the bindings to remove shading and sealer before clear coat is applied. Bottom-Left: Millennium Pro, customized for Wendy Kells Brown with abalone knobs
and ebony tuner buttons. Bottom-Right: Ebony tuner buttons for
Wendy Kells Brown’s customized
The Finishing Touch
As is every preceding step in the creation
of a Heritage guitar, the finishes are done
one at a time and with painstaking care.
“We don’t do anything that’s not in nitrocellulose
lacquer,” Lamb says. “That’s
the old-fashioned way, again. When the
guitars age, they get lacquer checks.” Of
course, he adds, that’s just what happens
to high-quality vintage guitars from the
’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Patrick Whalen, a local artist who has
been with the company for four years, and
Floyd Newton, who painted the original
Gibson Les Paul goldtops in the early ’50s,
shade and finish Heritage guitars.
“They are such incredible pieces before
they even get up here,” Whalen says. First
he applies the shader and then rubs it into
the wood with alcohol to make the wood
The guitars are then shaded with lacquer
and sealed. The bindings are then
scraped by Ted Beville, who has been
scraping bindings—first for Gibson and
now for Heritage—for more than 40 years.
Lamb notes that the job requires incredibly
strong hands and wrists, as well as excellent
hand-eye coordination. “Most guys will slip
and be into the wood, and there it is—a
repair,” he adds. Next, the guitars receive
four applications of clear coat and are then
allowed to dry for 10 days before they go
in for buffing.
Almost a third of Heritage guitars are
custom built to specification—from the
ornamentation to the hardware and pickups—
and almost 80 percent of the business
is for export, Deurloo says. “More
than half of that goes to the Orient: Hong
Kong, China, and Singapore. That’s the
developing market. Germany and the
Netherlands have always been pretty
strong for us, too.”
Lamb says he’s not anticipating any
major design changes and that new models
are released whenever an idea takes hold,
such as the Millennium Pro, which was
shown at the 2012 NAMM show.
“We build as fine a guitar as there is
in the world,” Lamb says. “We put a lot
of tender, loving care into our instruments.
We’re not mass-producing them. We only
run small quantities—that is where we
put our quality.”
That quality is the cumulative result of a
highly skilled team. “Every guitar we build
has a little different feel because they are all
handmade,” Deurloo says. “Each time a person
does their part of the process, it adds individual
character to that particular guitar. The
sum of the people who contribute to each
step—that’s what makes our guitars.”