Mark Knowlton: A Mind for Design

By Steve Rider

Over the past seventeen years, Mark Knowlton has been building his knowledge and honing his skills with a mind to produce his own style of guitars. With twenty-six models of guitars and basses available on his website, he continues to push his design efforts into the future. With a lifetime background in design and engineering, he is a builder poised to take his place on the national stage.

Guitar Connoisseur: When did you first get interested in building guitars?

Mark Knowlton: It was about seventeen years ago. I saw a local builder giving a demonstration on public access. I was trying to play guitar at the time, and when I saw that I thought, let’s give this a shot. That’s how I got started, by buying necks and bodies from Warmouth and doing finish work and trying out different pickups, electronics, and hardware. Then I gradually started moving away from that, building my own bodies, using their necks. Now I’m into building my own bodies and necks and different designs in hardware as well.

GC: What were some of the challenges that you experienced in your early days?

MK: In addition to making the body and neck, it was getting used to soldering, dressing the nut, cutting the nut slots, basic setup. I was taking my first few guitars to a local shop called Twelfth Fret, and they took me back into the shop one day and started showing me the basics of how to do it myself. After that, the Stewart McDonald catalog started getting too much business from me. Twelfth Fret was where I got a lot of my information, and then I would see local builders listed in there and started looking at their websites. I started going to a local annual show, not to show my instruments, but to see what other people were doing and talk to them. Eventually, I started showing there, and from the very beginning people would look over my stuff and ask me how I did certain things and some of the more experienced builders would give me pointers on how to improve the accuracy or shorten the time for certain functions. So, learn something new every day.

GC: You had a pretty good community to learn from.

MK: Yeah, it is a good community. There are a lot of builders around here. There are people here that specialize too. I try to do as much for myself as I can, but there are certain things that I’m going to need to practice quite a bit more, so I’ll buy that part or subcontract that service. I’ve also got the CNC going on now, which kind of a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing from the aspect of precision and repeatability, but it also leads me to make lots of parts that lay around taking up space. I get into doing experiments that turn into, sometimes, quite extensive experiments. I have a cluster of orders I’m working on, then there are all these other things.

GC: Let’s talk about finishing. What were some of the important things that you learned about finishing along the way to get you to whatever process you use now?

MK: Initially it was using Tung oil finish, it penetrates well and provides a beautiful looking finish, but it’s not very sturdy. And now I’m using an oil varnish that I’ve been experimenting with. It builds on itself. I can build to a glass finish or buff it down to a softer look. It provides protection without using a heavy coat. But I’m still experimenting with finishes. One of my initial discoveries was helping me to get rid of the issues with dust and lint being attracted to the finish or bits of the applicator falling into the finish. It’s really a simple little thing. It’s a couple makeup remover pads wrapped in pantyhose. I recently purchased a spray booth so I can set up a booth in the shop and experiment with different kinds of finishes. I’m looking at the water-based finish since my spray booth is in the garage with the gas heater and gas furnace, I don’t want to use flammable substances.

GC: What is your background, you have a degree?

MK: Yes, I have a fine arts degree in printmaking and drawing. I went back to school after working in a design shop for a very short time and got my certification to teach. Then I moved out here to Oregon. Instead of doing the teaching, I got into drafting, worked myself up through equipment design and engineering, and that’s what I do now. Manufacturing and engineering, that’s the big job. And each step along the way allowed me to be around different people with different expertise. Right now I’ve been around a couple metallurgists, so I’ve been able to pick their brains about my next project and that’s guitar and bass bridges. I’ve worked for companies where they’ve had machine shops, and part of my training for machine design was I had to learn to run the equipment. So when I come up with a design and give it to the shop I have some idea of what works. I have to pay attention to what those people want, and it’s the same thing in designing instruments. I don’t play professionally, so I have to watch and listen very carefully to what other people want. I need to get the tone that they want and make sure that the instrument is comfortable to play and stays in tune. I’m providing musicians’ with tools. I don’t call myself a luthier.

GC: How are you using the CNC machine for your building?

MK: I do the main shapes on the machine. The bodies and necks are rough to semi-finished. On the bodies, I’m doing the three pieces of the hollow bodies. I’ve got it programmed for the two basic shapes that I make, but different sizes of them. I can do bass shapes, guitar shapes, and different sized guitar shapes. The one I’m working on now has three different sizes. One is a travel sized guitar. It allows me to offer a broader line, but they all take the same amount of time and, more or less, the same amount of material. The drawings are set. I’ve got different templates I use for different pickup arrangements. It doesn’t take long to change up configurations to meet the customer’s needs. I’ve also used the machine to do inlay and inlay pockets. I also have a few models, such as the Squiggly and Chili, where some pieces were laser cut.

GC: What is your approach to your materials and sourcing them?

MK: I used to keep a pretty open mind about what materials I would use, and then I started having a nasty reaction to some species of wood. I was using bloodwood, yellowheart, purpleheart, cocobolo, and I started getting weird reactions to those, allergic reactions. I had to stop using those. Last time I did, I ended up sitting on the couch with my wife tending me, eyes almost swollen shut. So I focus on materials I’ve been using for years: walnut, maple, cherry, mahogany, and ebony for the fretboards. Mostly it’s stuff I grew up with. I do most of my ordering online, but I have had experiences where wood, like spalted maple, showed up and it wasn’t usable. So some kinds of wood I only buy where I can see it beforehand. The hardware, that’s a different story. I’m using primarily Hipshot tuners and bridges. I started out trying to build a custom guitar with a strap and a case for two thousand dollars. I tried a bunch of other brands, but in the end, I settled with Hipshot and never turned back.

GC: Why did you pick that particular price point?

MK: I looked at other guitars I had purchased and all the items you end up having to get with it, a case, a strap, a set of strings, and it was above what big box stores were charging for a Fender American Strat. It may have been a little arrogant at that point in my career to think I could sell a guitar at that price point. I figured eventually I would have to lower the price or find some way to adjust things, but having a day job it wasn’t as big a concern. It became more of a concern when I looked at it from a business in terms of reducing costs. The CNC has helped with that quite a bit. There’s one function for creating the core, but all the other operations together that used to take hours to do are now taking half an hour. And it’s repeatable. There are some drawbacks. The machine’s not perfect. I’ve gotten parts that were undersized. There was one time when a piece slid out, and all I could do was duck. And it happened another time, I heard that sound and I just went into the house and closed the door.

GC: With the CNC, do you have to be there while it functions, or can you just set it up and walk away?

MK: It depends. There are functions that I will walk away for just a very short time because it’s boring standing there. When I’m doing fret slots or routing out the control cover on the back, it takes some time. But usually, I’ll be nearby in the shop where I can keep an eye on it and hear it. Periodically I’ll go over and remove some dust. But on quick operations, I’ll be standing there. My preference is to do things in moderately sized batches. I’ll cut blanks, do batches of tuning holes, etc.

GC: You mentioned you were doing some small sized guitars, are they on your website?

MK: Not yet. I just worked up the design for it. It’s a twenty-one-inch scale. Tuned to A. It will be a nice travel guitar that can be used for work as well as practice or travel. I don’t know if anyone will be interested in buying it, but I want to build them and I just hope that there will be a demand.

GC: The lack of a presence online of you as a person, as opposed to just your Facebook page, is due to the fact that this is still really your side gig?

MK: Correct. I’m my own webmaster and content producer. And at some point, I just run out of hours in the day to do all of it. That’s the frustrating part of it because I know my presence has been missing, and I know that’s my own doing. I tend to think things through too much rather than just putting something up. You know in some respects I’ve ended up where I am with this because I was just very lucky. The people that I went to work for doing drafting, in order to get me into the company, they hired me as an illustrator. Because they didn’t want to have to move people around and they just started teaching me, and many of them were self-taught anyway. I knew when I started building guitars that it was a “don’t quit your day job” kind of thing. I like doing both things, both engineering and building.

GC: What do you want people to know about Knowlton Guitars?

MK: Here I am! I want people to see that what’s on the website isn’t all that can be done. With my skills and the capabilities of my shop, I’m able to create more. I’m not crazy about just making someone a Tele or a Strat or a Les Paul; I want to provide my designs. Building somebody else’s design doesn’t appeal to me. There are style aspects to guitars that are pretty standard. The aspects of the design are mine.

GC: What do you have coming up in the future?

MK: Besides finishing up my new designs, what I’d really like to do is start getting to more shows. That and web development, advertising. I need to put my guitars in the hands of players. I have a few who will take them out and show them around. Selling an instrument online can be a bit of a challenge because people want to be able to pick it up, test the feel of it and get hands on. They want to see if the frets are dressed, if it stays in tune, you need to get hands-on for that. So it’s building a reputation locally at first and then letting it spread out is what it’s all about. The most responsive marketing comes from putting them in people’s hands.

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