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Top Left: Mike Sherman at work in his one-man operation shop in Connecticut. He produces roughly 60 guitars (by himself) annually. Top Right: Sherman is calling this work in progress his “Flamed Bass.” Finishes are one of the most important processes for Sherman, who says the wrong finish can ruin hours of tedius work. All of his instruments undergo a 12-step finishing process that can include grain-filling of porous wood, and various degrees of sanding, dying, coating, and buffing. Bottom: Sherman has formed a niche with “a new breed” of players seeking fanned-fret instruments with 7, 8, 9, and even 10 strings.
Local Wood, Carefully Guarded
Sherman takes the utmost care when choosing materials for his creations: He uses quartersawn lumber from local mills, and outsources only pickups and hardware—veneers and fretboards are made in-house. “I pride myself on American-made products, and try to use them wherever possible,” he says. “I deal with [Southern California-based pickup company] Nordstrand a lot, because they’re willing to build what I want, and they have a laser cutter and can accommodate fan-fret pickups.”
If Sherman isn’t getting the right tone out of a certain wood, he’ll manipulate it until it’s just right. “I can tailor the sound,” he says. “Believe it or not, if you glue two pieces of wood together, they become one different type of wood with a voicing all its own.” In this manner, Sherman blends beauty, elegance, and playability into something many players find stunning, both visually and tonally.
Considering this unique mindset with regard to wood, it comes as no surprise that Sherman doesn’t take chances with it. He stores his lumber onsite in a climate-controlled room, where it’s stacked and stickered neatly for up to eight years. “I’m constantly buying lumber I won’t use for a couple of seasons,” he explains. With so much tension in the wood itself—he compares it to a big, hard, sponge that’s constantly growing and retracting in a way that requires constant monitoring—if it’s not sliced, cured, and stored correctly, the pieces begin to warp. “At that point,” he says, “you can only make veneers out of it.”
Top: The Rosebud Tiger Garcia Replica is another work in progress, showcasing Sherman’s talented woodworking skills with an intricate inlay on the back. Middle: Sherman instruments use a set neck that is easily accessible, similar to a neck-through/blended-heel design. Bottom: The back of this Sherman bass showcases unique patterns found in high-quality wood that is locally sourced, carefully stored and climate controlled by Sherman. He experiments tonally with wood choices, pairing different species combinations for specific sounds.
One anecdote illustrates how dedicated he is to proper wood storage: After a startling, pre-Halloween blizzard that left most of the East Coast without electricity for as many as 12 days, Sherman once faced losing his entire stock of lumber. “We were without power for so long that I literally had to run a separate generator just to fire up that room and keep the climate controlled—because one week can really freak out the wood.”
Painstaking Attention to Detail
Sherman isn’t happy unless his designs are as visually striking as they are user-friendly, and he’s not afraid to be unconventional. “There’s a new breed of musicians that are fantastic. Most guitar players can barely handle 6-strings, and these guys are playing 9- and 10-string guitars—and playing them well. It’s amazing.” Sherman cites these players because they’re the types coming to him for custom instruments. “Everyone likes the way I do my set necks,” he says. “They’re all-access, and don’t hinder your hand. There are no restrictions going up to the upper frets at all. It’s kind of a neck-through/blended- heel design, but adapted to a set neck.”
At the time of this interview, Sherman was working on a fannedfret 10-string for a client. Like all his instruments, it was undergoing a unique 12-step finishing process. First, the wood is grain-filled (if necessary): Closed-pore varieties like maple don’t need filling, but more porous woods like mahogany do. Depending on the instrument, this can take up to three hours. “When you have a lot of pin-stripe veneers and accents, some need to be filled, some don’t. So I spend a lot of time masking,” Sherman says.
From there, each piece gets a vinyl wash coat to seal pores, creating a suitable surface for the finish. Though the next step can vary according to client preferences or expediency, usually four clear coats are then applied and then allowed to dry for two days. They’re then sanded and color is applied. After the dying process, Sherman applies four more clear coats, waits two days, sands the instrument, and applies the final four topcoats. The guitar is then allowed to dry for three weeks before final sanding and buffing. “The finishing process takes a month,” he says. “You can’t be impatient in this business. You can have the prettiest woodworking, but if you put a junk finish on it, it’s not going to represent all the work that went into it.”
Addicted to the Rush
Though Sherman says he’d never trade his career for a less hectic one, he marvels at the workload his business demands. Between the eccentric and very particular personalities of his clients—“I’ll basically build whatever a customer wants, within reason,” he says—and the administrative tasks, there’s never a dull moment. And there’s always more to do. On top of all the work he puts in on individual instruments, Sherman says he’s spent many nights lying awake, mulling over the idea of “going big time” and creating his own line. But the answer has always been no, because, ultimately, he rather enjoys the challenges that come with being a build-to-order luthier.