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Self-taught master guitar crafter makes high-end instruments in Northern Neck shop
Jim Merrill heats pieces of wood before shaping them into a guitar body in his Kilmarnock shop.
SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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By Rob Hedelt
GROWING up in Wood-
What singled him out was the fact that he wasn't afraid to take electric instruments apart to repair them, as was often necessary.
"I didn't think there was something mystical or magical about them," he said. "I had no trouble pulling them apart to see how everything went together."
These days, Merrill still knows how to put together fine instruments, which he does with other skilled craftsmen at his Merrill & Co. on the outskirts of Kilmarnock.
There, in the Lancaster County shop filled with hand tools and shelves stocked with cedar and Brazilian rosewood, Merrill and three assistants turn out 60 or so high-end guitars a year.
The five main models the guitar company markets--one is The Woodbridge--are by and large modeled after the Martin guitars that achieved legendary status starting in the 1940s.
Each is made by hand with some 120 man hours going into each, putting the price of the highly regarded instruments at $4,000 and up.
"With special woods, decorative inlay and other custom touches, the price can top out around $16,000," said Merrill. "We make it any way the customer wants."
That's a far cry from what Merrill got for the first guitars he made, in between doing repairs on guitars and other instruments early in his career.
Living in the Tidewater area, the Woodbridge native worked at various shops in Smithfield, Gloucester and elsewhere before striking out in a shop of his own.
He's a self-taught guitar-maker, who practiced on guitars that found their way into the music and repair shops where he worked.
"Someone would bring in a broken guitar and find out it would cost $300 to fix," he said. "They'd say 'keep it,' and I'd start taking it apart to see how it was made."
Each time out, he improved the guitars he built, striving to understand how different types of bracing and woods affected the sound of a quality guitar.
Asked about the hallmark sound of his company's guitars, Merrill answered, "I'd say a full, robust, rich sound, with strong volume."building a business