A marriage of art and science. That’s how husband and wife team Tom and Becca Nania describe the work they have immersed themselves in over the last four years.
Although their business, the Nania House of Luthiery, only got its start a few years back, the couple is no stranger to the music industry. Tom comes from a family of professional musicians, while Becca grew up listening to her grandfather play guitar and violin. In fact, music is what brought them together in 2008 while Tom was playing guitar at a local pub in South Bend.
“In addition to music, the other half of my family has a passion for woodworking and both trades became a focus of my life at a young age,” Tom says. “In my early twenties I was sort of searching for my true calling in life. It was after visiting a local guitar shop that I realized independent guitar makers even existed. Luthiery, or the craft of making string instruments, was a melding of both my passions. It just seemed to make sense.”
With the wheels of their newfound passion now in motion, the Nanias didn’t waste any time making their dreams a reality. The day after returning from their honeymoon in 2014, they began converting their home into a woodworking studio. Since then, the House of Luthiery has made its name in the music industry creating custom instruments for a number of local artists, including Chicago-based folk group Frances Luke Accord.
“We had our first order before we even had a shop,” Tom says with a laugh. “We just started saying yes to everything and slowly but surely the orders just kept coming in.”
The Art of Design
Since that first “yes” the Nanias have worked to streamline their business model and perfect their instrument design. Now, instead of creating one instrument at a time they are able to produce batch orders, building up to three at one time — a process that takes five to six months from start to finish.
Once an order has been placed, the process begins by selecting the raw timber — typically Alaskan Sitka spruce or curly maple sourced locally in Michigan. From there, the design of the piece is selected and the material properties of the wood measured.
Next comes the shaping, carving, and joining of each of the guitar’s structural parts — sides, top, back and neck. Once the instrument has been properly sanded, it’s up to Becca to put the finishing design touches on the piece in the form of inlay, colors and stains. After a couple of weeks have passed, allowing the instrument adequate time to set, the final step is to add the strings.
“I always joke that the next guitar is the best one,” Becca says. “I’m really proud of how far we’ve come but I’m always looking ahead to what’s still in store. It’s exciting any time we get to work on something new and improve our skills. In fact, our next batch of guitars will be candy apple red, which is something we’ve never done before.”
The Science of Sound
While the art of design is a crucial aspect of each instrument, the science behind the acoustics makes up the other half of the marriage. In addition to studying guitar making at Galloup School of Guitar Building and Repair, Tom also holds a degree in physics, with a concentration in acoustics. He currently serves as an Affiliated Scholar with the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Indiana University where he studies the intricacies of sound.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research into guitar acoustics and many people don’t realize that each instrument can sound completely different even if it’s built with wood from the same tree,” Tom says. “By better understanding vibrations in relation to the material properties of wood, it allows us to make a more consistent sounding instrument.”
This knowledge is something the Nanias hope to share throughout the music industry in an effort to engage fellow builders, musicians and scientists.
Looking ahead, the couple hopes to continue spreading the word about art of luthiery while building better instruments with each new batch.
“It’s been great to be part of a community here in South Bend that is open to new ideas and supports the work we are doing,” Becca says.
“South Bend has been a great city to start a business in,” Tom says. “I grew up here and have always viewed it as a blank canvas in a way. The city has a strong music scene and there is a lot of opportunity for us to continue to grow.”