Strung out

Kenai barber makes music all day long

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2005


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  Dave Coleson glues a strip of carbon graphite into the neck of a mandolin he's building in his barbershop in Kenai. When it is finished, the instrument will be the 34th he has built. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Dave Coleson glues a strip of carbon graphite into the neck of a mandolin he's building in his barbershop in Kenai. When it is finished, the instrument will be the 34th he has built.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

When Dave Coleson isn't fixing up a fellow's flat-top, he's carving away at a mandolin's hollow-body top.

This licensed barber and master luthier, or maker of string instruments, performs his specialty tasks at RD's Barbershop in Kenai.

Haircut customers say his work is world-famous. The customers of his instruments might well be singing similar praises about his mandolins and guitars in the future.

He's confident the technology he's found will make sure of that.

In Coleson's 22 years of building and repairing stringed instruments, he's had many chances to experiment with his technique and new materials.

Coleson builds guitars with the intent they will last forever — and get better with age.

This is the reason he uses carbon graphite to reinforce the necks of his instruments. This needs to be done due to the tension placed on the neck from its strings.

He said he has eliminated weak spots commonly found where the neck of the instrument meets to body. Where it has been widely practiced for the neck and body to be two separate pieces, Coleson made them one.

"The strip of carbon-graphite laminate inside maintains the spring effect and will never rust or need to be adjusted," he said. "You'll see more people using carbon graphite like I'm using it in the future. People will catch on soon," he said.

"These should last from generation to generation and represent their builder. Four hundred years from now, my instruments will still be standing tall."

Coleson said another builder most comparative to his own work is Steve Gilcrest in Australia.

"Gilcrest puts out consistent sounding guitars, but he doesn't use the carbon graphite, so his work won't last as long as mine," he said.

Through the years, and especially since he was first starting out, Coleson has taken feedback seriously.


Coleson works on his instruments in the back of his Kenai barbershop.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"David Grizman and Bernard Spenard, musicians, helped me figure out what a mandolin was supposed to sound like. I would build one, and they would play it and tell me what I needed to do to make it sound right," he said. "It's just easier for a guy with a little bit of courage to build his own guitar than to go raise money to buy one.

The effort and planning he invested into his craftsmanship glaringly reflects in the finished product. The sounds they carry are clear and crisp.

Though he aims at getting whatever instrument he's working on as close to what his customers want, many of his traits will remain apparent.

"I have a particularly good sense of how to make them with good volume and power. But I can make them however anyone wants them, too. For a lighter player, I'll use more delicate woods and closer action (height of strings from fret board). Or for a heavier player, more power," he said.

"One of my known traits is creating a 'bark' sound that's full and loud. It has projection and good stiffness."

Coleson achieves those custom identities through the woods he uses.

"One of my favorite woods is Alaskan birch. It's good wood because it's soft enough to deal with but hard enough to make a real good sound. It is comparable to European maple," he said.

Coleson also prefers maple as a traditional wood and koa from Hawaii, "a beautifully figured wood," he said.

The result of wood choice, finishes and stains and inlays, is a feeling of intricacy.


Coleson displays a violin he made in 1994. It's made from Alaskan spruce and birch and features whale baleen and gold nugget trim.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It's taken me 20 years to execute a quality finish job, because I always just paid attention to what kind of sound it made. My first instruments looked shabby, but they all had their own sound. My whole thinking was about acoustics," he said.

These days, Coleson is confident with the look and sound and that having patience was something that made it work.

"You have to be patient when you're bending the sides around because they can break easily. It is tedious work. It just takes time," he said.

Coleson said working on instruments in the back of his shop was something that happened partly as a result of being a barber. Much of it had to do with having gaps between customers, as well as a keen interest in music.

"I was a barber in Anchorage, and the guy I worked with there built guns in the back of his shop. That inspired me, because we did have down time. Way back then, I didn't think I had any talent for that sort of thing. If someone would have told me I'd be able to build a fine violin and play a recognizable tune when I was younger, I would have laughed in their face," Coleson said.

The philosophy of surprising one's self applies to Coleson.

"I'm on a quest to learn all that I can. I think a lot of my attitude came from growing up without any walls. I used to run free and think with no boundaries. I just look at it like saying, 'Well, I didn't know I couldn't do that.'"

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