By Richard Bienstock
Pete Swanson had logged seven years as a woodworker in the boat-building industry when a chance project set him on an entirely new course. While constructing a bicycle as a birthday present for his daughter, he decided to embellish it with several custom features, including a set of hand-built concave balloon-tire fenders. A hobbyist musician, Swanson noted that when he spoke into the distinct curvature of the fenders, it projected and amplified his voice as if filtered through a “mini amphitheater,” he says.
Inspiration struck. “I thought, This would make a wicked guitar design,” Swanson recalls, “because I could make something extremely ergonomic with a trickier aesthetic, and who knows how the concave interior will affect the tone? So I pushed the bicycle fenders to the side and made my first prototype guitar.”
That guitar, which he named Ruthy, became the first in a line of stunning instruments that Swanson, under the company moniker Dagmar, has produced over the past several years at his shop in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Though his creations take on various forms — including acoustic and electric, and single- and double-cutaway — his guitars all have at least one thing in common: a uniquely designed concave rim free of any 90-degree angles.
For Swanson, sculpting these rims is a matter of mathematical, as much as woodworking, know-how. Rather than relying on standard practices like steam bending, Swanson assembles each rim by joining together upward of 80 segmented, precision-machined strips of wood that are fit into one another much like keystones in a Roman arch. The concave interior of the rim is then reinforced with two layers of carbon fiber and the guitar’s top and back sound plates are attached to the structure’s recesses. The result is an instrument unique in both form and function. “Due to the compound curves, the rims take up the brunt of the lateral string pull,” Swanson explains. “So there’s not a lot of stress going onto the sound plate from the strings, and the plates can vibrate more freely.”
The Dagmar shown here — Swanson’s eighth and most recent example — was commissioned by husband and wife Mark and Denise Trokanski. Christened Denise, this double-cutaway electric features Swanson’s trademark concave rim, only in a more intricate iteration.
In contrast to Swanson’s usual blocky, keystone-style design, the Trokanskis requested something that resembled a shark’s-tooth pattern. This, Swanson says, “required doubling the amount of segments in comparison to all my previous work. All the angles are shooting in the same direction no matter how the radius of the rim is changing. So I had to figure out a way to fill in the gaps between each segment, which meant doubling the math, doubling the wood, and doubling the precision. It was a pretty intense build, to say the least.”
The results bear out Swanson’s exceptional efforts. Denise’s perimeter is a work of art in itself, a dramatic latticework of 156 segments of wooden “teeth” composed of alternating pieces of cooked and uncooked blond flame maple. The guitar’s top is equally eye catching, consisting of a highly figured slab of Ancient Kauri wood. Explains Swanson, “A bunch of farmers in New Zealand came across an ancient bog area and unearthed these gigantic Kauri trees. After the trees were kiln dried, they were carbon-dated to 50,000 years old. Which means the wood in Denise’s top predates the woolly mammoth by 10,000 years.”
Denise’s Ancient Kauri top is paired with a back of Flamed Claro Walnut, sourced from the same tree trunk that was used for an earlier Dagmar creation, the double-cutaway Gretchen. Other features include a nine-laminate neck of flame maple and carbon fiber, an ebony fingerboard set with mother-of-pearl lightning-bolt fret markers courtesy of renowned inlay artist Mark Kett, a TV Jones Power’Tron neck pickup and a Power’Tron Plus bridge pickup, Schaller locking tuners, a Graph Tech nut, vintage Bakelite chickenhead volume and tone knobs, and a Bigsby B5 tailpiece engraved with the guitar’s name.
Swanson delivered Denise to her new owners in July 2011. Needless to say, the couple was “pretty stoked,” Swanson says. In fact, the Trokanskis commissioned a second Dagmar, onto which the luthier is currently putting the finishing touches.
“We’re trying out an overlapping, interlocking pattern for the wood in the rim. Visually, it will be reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s bird-and-fish tessellations. Let’s just say it will involve a radically different method than any of my previous designs. It’s going to mean coming up with a completely new approach to guitar building.” And not for the first time in Swanson’s career.
Photo: Tom Alexander