Shortly before midnight not long ago, a mysterious Los Angeles businessman on a mission to purchase a Detroit hand-crafted reclaimed wood guitar rolled up to Mark Wallace’s house in a black, chauffeured limousine. Barely speaking a word, he went inside, picked up an electric guitar and slowly strummed it. Pleased with his new treasure, he pulled out a wad of cash, pushed it in Wallace’s hand and quietly disappeared into the night.
Everything Detroit is suddenly hot, and the transaction was befitting of the occasion: A rare chance to buy a superb-sounding, one-of-a-kind instrument made from old-forest lumber salvaged from Detroit ruins, abandoned houses and shuttered buildings.
“A lot of people are excited about Detroit right now all over the world,” says Wallace, founder of Wallace Detroit Guitars. “I’m excited about Detroit and I wanted to capture that excitement in the product; I wanted people to be excited when they see how beautiful the instruments are.”
Wallace sees the old Douglas fir, oak, pine and mahogany, and its rebirth as shiny musical instruments as a metaphor for Detroit, a city with a rich history of manufacturing and music that enjoyed grand days, weathered terrible storms and is under reconstruction.
“Detroit has a great history of music with Motown, Jack White, Eminem, techno, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, and the MC5. But Detroit also has an amazing history of people making things—and not just automobiles,” Wallace said. “Most of us grew up with a grandpa who had a woodshop or a metal shop in the garage or the basement. Most people know how to fix their own cars, and there are still some old timers who know how to build an entire house with just a couple of tools. I’m excited about being a part of that tradition.”
Wallace, 39, founded Wallace Detroit Guitars in 2014 with a goal to literally build guitars from Detroit history—a former Detroit firehouse across from the Cobo Center; the historic David Whitney Building; a defunct Cadillac stamping plant; and old Detroit houses slated for demolition. Each guitar is stamped with an address with some meaning to him. So far, he’s sold about 75 guitars through his website, WallaceDetroitGuitars.com, and hopes to scale up to producing around 200 a year.
He got the idea to use reclaimed wood during a serendipitous tour of a reclaimed wood warehouse, where he caught a glance of a countertop being fabricated for a coffee shop. He scanned the sides and realized it had about the same thickness as his electric guitar, and he wondered if a guitar could be constructed from that type of wood.
A friend’s father had a cabinet-making shop with a computer-driven CNC router, which could be programmed to cut a guitar’s shape and holes. He took the design to an architecture professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he got his first two guitar bodies cut.
“I built two because I thought I was just making a guitar for myself,” he said, “and I thought that one of those two would fall apart. I made an extra one just in case it didn’t work.”
Once he had the prototype, friends encouraged him to apply for a grant. In 2013, he won an $8,000 Knight Arts Challenge Detroit grant to bring his dream to fruition.
“These guitars are special,” Wallace says, fingering a $2,000 showpiece assembled with wood from the Cadillac stamping plant. “There’s something about them that reminds me of Detroit. They show their scars. They’re strong and solid, and they perform when you want them to.”
They also show their age. A close look reveals dozens of pieces of wood, carefully cut and glued like a butcher’s block, exposing nature’s artistic tapestry in the end grain, spirals, waves, and annual rings.
“Because the wood is from these old-growth forests, it sounds really great. The sustain, the tone, the brightness of the instrument is really beautiful,” said Wallace, who purchased his first guitar when he was 16 with money from a newspaper delivery route, and has played in bands since high school.
“It’s very comparable to the high-end of any handmade instrument you can buy. It really stands up next to anything else in that space.”
He gets reclaimed wood from Architecture Salvage Warehouse in Detroit, a non-profit organization operating since 2003, which supplies wood to about 20 companies that make goods including furniture and kayaks. The Detroit Audio Lab is planning a line of speakers from wood at the warehouse, and Wallace believes they could pair well with his guitars.
People such as Tommy Backoff, the warehouse project manager, prepare the wood for the guitars, speakers and other projects. Once the wood is salvaged, it’s denailed, processed, bundled, and coded to identify the address it came from, and if necessary it’s kiln-dried. Then it’s cut, glued, clamped and sanded.
Backoff said the process requires an immense level of care.
“You’ve really got to be selective,” he explains. “You need to have forethought about what your problems can be. It’s rather tedious for something that seems so simple.”
After the wood leaves the warehouse, at least 10 people add touches to the guitars before they become a finished product; team members Wallace assembled such as experts in carpentry, electronics, painting and finishing.
“It’s really been a great experience to see the full breadth of what Detroit has to offer in terms of small, local businesses,” Wallace said. “Everybody’s doing what they’re good at, and it’s turning into a great product for this company.”
It isn’t his only position as a transformation engineer. Shortly after Wallace started his reclaimed wood guitar company, he became the president & CEO of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, a non-profit organization with a mission to use the Detroit Riverfront as an anchor to create more thriving, walkable and connected communities throughout the city. The Conservancy’s ultimate vision is to transform 5.5 miles along Detroit’s international waterfront, linking parks, adding fountains, gardens, outdoor art installations, lounging areas and sand volleyball courts.
While he’s managing the riverfront project from his high-rise office in the GM Renaissance Center with an enviable view of the Detroit River and Canada, he dons a classic suit and tie. But when he’s searching for wood at the Architectural Salvage Warehouse in Detroit, he sports jeans, boots, and a Wallace Detroit Guitar T-shirt topped with a flannel shirt.
This juxtaposition made him aware of how impenetrable his love and passion for his guitars are. He recalls a day during the infancy of his business while he was visiting the architecture professor to get some guitars bodies cut. He wore a suit, and was headed to work. But by the time the bodies were cut, wood chips covered his suit and shoes. When he got outside, it was raining. Without thinking, he stripped off his wet jacket and wrapped the guitars with it to protect them.
“I realized I just love what I do,” he said. “I really care about this business; this really matters to me. I’m very proud of the work my people do; I’m very proud of the product.”
Now, he’s ready to take his business from the beta-test stage to the next level with a trip to California to the National Association of Music Merchants convention in January. He’ll roll out a new body style, and plans to engage with retailers to sell guitars around the country.
“The instruments are so special because of their story,” Wallace said. “They have an authenticity, history and heritage that sets them apart from just a regular guitar where the wood came from anywhere.”