Judy Threet

Threet Guitars
Calgary, AB

Judy Threet
Years Building: 21
Above: Lion: mahogany mane; maple face; ebony and gold mother-of-pearl eye. Photo by John Dean.
Judy Threet has been drawing since about the age of five, and her interest in music began at the same time. She learned her first ukulele chords at her grandmother’s knee. Guitar entered the picture about five years later. She studied printmaking as an undergraduate and went to Stanford for graduate studies in philosophy. Once she returned to Calgary to teach, she started playing guitar in a local swing band. That’s where she met Michael Heiden, the band’s violinist and a gifted luthier, who decided that she needed an archtop to really play swing. The two made a deal, she recalls: “I’d allow him to build me an archtop [laughs] so long as he allowed me to drop by on occasion and photograph the process. In short, I think I dropped by once too often.”

Threet’s interest was piqued when she saw Heiden working on some of inlays. “At some point he offered to show me some the basics,” she says. “That was all it took.” Having spent several years teaching philosophy at the University of Calgary, Threet was ready to have something tangible to show for a day’s work: “For the last year and a half that he was in Calgary, even though I was still teaching part-time, I did Michael’s inlays. By the time he left, he’d not only taught me the basics of inlay, he’d overseen the building of my first guitar and given me a new career.”

Beyond the mechanics of inlay, Heiden encouraged Threet to play with the chatoyance of different materials. “But lots of materials jump in the light,” Threet explains. “Even most woods do. From the start, chatoyance intrigued me, and the more I inlay, the more I find myself focusing on the chatoyant properties of the materials I use. For instance, I often spend hours searching for the right piece—a piece that holds its own within a design, speaks for itself, one that requires no extra engraving. And, if I can, I’ll require more—that every piece not only has to speak for itself but has to get along with its neighbors. It’s my attempt at social engineering, a perfect neighborhood of perfect individuals!”

The search for the right piece for the inlay has occasionally morphed into a different search: a search for the right inlay for the piece. “Perhaps the best example of this is Owl. I had a piece of bocote that was begging to be made into this inlay. So that’s what it became! With only a little help from me, it provided a suitable house for a little owl.”

A piece of curly koa suggested waves on a pond. “I tried to choose a lot of right pieces for the inlayed geese, but I also tried to choose the right inlay for this particular piece of wood.”

None of Threet’s inlays involve any engraving or extra colorant. All textures and colors in the inlaid materials are, according to Threet, “as God made ‘em.” Given the natural variations in both wood and pearl, Threet’s inlays are strictly one-of-a-kind. “I couldn’t repeat an inlay even if I wanted to,” she remarks.

Threet has so far resisted expanding her palette: “Basically, I just use pearl and wood. I’ve tried other stuff—some metals and Recon stone (imitation semi-precious stone)—but those don’t give me my chatoyance fix! I do use a lot of different mother-of-pearls, my favorite being black, and I use a lot of different woods, many of whose names I don’t even know because I pick them up in cut-off bins at the local wood store. The biggest problem with wood is that you have to leave it out on the bench for a while to see how much it changes with exposure to air and light. Some gorgeous woods get ruled out quickly because you can’t rely on them to retain their color. But wood does have advantages. It’s usually pretty cheap—and sometimes its use actually simplifies the inlay process.”

As for future projects, Threet will keep finding her inspiration in beautiful wood grains and chatoyant pearl. She adds, “I have an adorable panda on the drawing board that I need to talk someone into...”

Geese: koa background; darker koa shadows; ebony, white and black mother-of-pearl geese; gold mother-of-pearl goslings. Photos by John Dean.
Aspen: ebony background; gold mother-of-pearl leaves; gold, white and black mother-of-pearl trunk.

Owl: bocote background; maple, koa and ebony owl with black mother-of-pearl beak; gold and white mother-of-pearl eyes. Photos by John Dean.
Gryphon: koa background; mahogany haunches; rosewood foreground feathers and ebony background feathers; gold mother-of-pearl beak and feet; white and black mother-of-pearl.