Dave Petillo

Petillo Guitars
Ocean, NJ

David Petillo
Years Building: 17
Above: Asbury Park, NJ, Boardwalk scene headstock overlay of American beech dyed sky blue with American plain maple wave shadows dyed dark navy blue. Inside the mother-of-pearl wave foam is engraved silver particle dust to mimic the silver salty sparkle of the ocean.
David Petillo got a very early start as an inlay and marquetry artist. “When I was in sixth grade,” he says, “in Catholic school I had to keep a notebook with notes for math, history, etc., and I used to just draw in there and doodle, and draw my classmates and stuff. When I handed in my notebook at the end of the year they were going to leave me back, and my parents were called in for a conference. When the nuns passed the book to my dad he thought it was great.” Not surprising, as Petillo’s dad happens to be Dr. Phil Petillo, master builder, inventor, engineer, and allaround Renaissance man [see Phil Petillo, May 2009]. The elder Petillo took the younger into his workshop and started giving him projects, starting with shapes and designs to cut out.

Petillo says working with his father was extremely advantageous: “My father once restored a hurdy-gurdy for the Smithsonian, which had old marquetry in it and he learned so much from the experience of working with such an old instrument. He saw how the old masters did their gluing and veneer cutting. Later, when I learned marquetry, it helped me understand and develop my techniques. My father initially learned pearl inlay from the D’Angelico’s, and marquetry, boulle work, and metal carvings from Philipp Rimmler, who inlaid the Orient Express, the famous train. I am very fortunate to have learned the techniques of all these masters.”

I asked Petillo to explain what marquetry is and how it works. “Marquetry,” he told me, “is an art form using inlaid wood veneers to form a picture, pattern, or design. It is done in two different ways: with X-acto knife blades of varying shapes, and with a jigsaw. It differs from conventional inlays in that marquetry is done in an overlay form—you make the whole piece or scene as a single overlay and then glue it into the instrument, such as an entire headstock veneer featuring many intricate cut shapes and designs. For example, I’ll make a background out of one piece of quilted maple and cut out and add flowers or something else to it, and glue the final piece onto the instrument all at once.”

Both inlay and marquetry are complex and time consuming, says Petillo, but “with marquetry you’re dealing strictly with wood veneers, which are soft, so the chance of the knife blade wandering off track is there if you’re not careful.”

Part of what makes a Petillo guitar unique is the bindings, backstrips and purflings that are all handmade. The process involves layering materials together in a long block—thick or thin wood, fiber or cellulose plastic—and gluing them. After the glue cures, thicknesses can be cut off the block with a very fine saw blade.

There are some clear advantages to working with wood instead of pearl when it comes to shading and fine detail: “It’s easier with wood marquetry because wood is so soft. You can actually cut a flower petal and dip the ends in hot sand to create the shadowing, or, when it’s all assembled, you can take gasoline on a Q-tip and touch it to certain areas, then using a piece of metal as a guide, take a propane torch and burn it. The flame follows the edge of the metal and then burns that shape of the metal. In burning the shadows into the marquetry itself you achieve a three dimensional effect. I use a very small propane torch. So after all the hard marquetry work is done, you risk ruining it by burning a hole in it! That’s what makes it so much fun, the gamble.”

Petillo headstock crown with flower cluster overlay. The leaves are Lebanon cedar dyed green and American poplar dyed light pink. The rest are natural color veneers.
Flower Bouquet on the back of a Petillo acoustic cutaway classical guitar. Pennsylvanian cherry and African ribbon-grain mahogany.

Butterfly headstock overlay of German maple dyed sky blue and American pine dyed yellow.
Steven Van Zandt’s hand-lathed Nigerian ebony volume knob. Handcarved flower girl in pewter with inlaid South American purple heart wood veneer windows.