Sound investment: CEO turns reclaimed wood into guitars
Mark Wallace combines passion for music, city to create guitars from auto plants, firehouses and homes
In his Huntington Woods attic, cluttered with drums, keyboards and a ’70s photo of Elvis in Detroit, singer-songwriter Stewart Francke strummed his Wallace Detroit Guitar made with reclaimed wood from the Packard Automotive Plant.
“It’s a beautiful guitar. It makes you feel good to hold it. It makes you feel good to play it,” says Francke, 58, who’s recorded with Bruce Springsteen, toured with Bob Seger and opened with the guitar for Joan Jett at this year’s Arts, Beats and Eats festival. “I’ve got 25 guitars, but this one is the one that I play the most live, and it sounds probably the cleanest.”
Francke is among 70 local and national musicians who own one of Mark Wallace’s original guitars. The CEO of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy and a musician who plays the guitar, drums, violin and fiddle (which he played for 10 years with the Ypsilanti bluegrass band Black Jake & the Carnies), started making guitars on a whim.
While touring a reclaimed wood warehouse in Detroit, he spotted a counter-top designated for Great Lakes Coffee in Midtown.
“I was looking at the side of it, and I realized it was about the same width as my electric guitar,” he says. “Just daydreaming, I thought, ‘it would be really cool to have a guitar made out of that type of wood.’ ”
He contacted a friend, a University of Michigan architecture professor who worked with CNC technology that could cut wood into different shapes. After some research, he accepted the challenge to create an electric guitar out of reclaimed wood with his computer-driven router.
“I assumed I was going to make two guitars, and one of them would fall apart and maybe one of them would be cool,” Wallace says. “That was as far as my aspiration went.”
Then in 2013, after encouragement from friends who saw his prototype, he applied for — and won — an $8,000 Knights Arts Challenge grant that enabled him to turn his whimsical idea into a business.
Wallace, 39, has crafted guitars with wood from the historic David Whitney Building, Saint Andrews Hall, Cadillac stamping plant and old Detroit homes. His next batch will be assembled with maple from the former Detroit firehouse — now being converted into a hotel — across from Cobo Center. He also uses pine, ash and mahogany collected by the Architectural Salvage Warehouse.
“One of the big joys of the process is discovering that the wood works really well for guitars,” he says. “Most people would look at a guitar made out of pine and just turn their nose up at it. Pine is typically not good for making instruments because the density of the wood. .... You need wood that’s hard enough that it resonates and doesn’t get damaged when you set it down or when your belt buckle rubs up against it, but not so hard that it’s not going to move and vibrate with the strings.”
Wallace, who lives in a Corktown home he renovated, says pine was prevalent in Detroit forests in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As opposed to lumber companies that aim to grow wood quickly, the pine trees grew at their own pace.
“You have all this amazing variation in the wood because it was able to grow much more slowly,” he says.
At the Architectural Salvage Warehouse on Bellevue Street, packed with wood from floor to ceiling and engulfed in the scent of sawdust, Wallace points to a pine plank with blue rings. “That was the first piece that got me inspired,” he says.
ASW executive director Chris Rutherford then mentions a new collection of wood to check out, and Wallace is on his tail.
“Whenever he gets mahogany or pieces like ash, it’s like Christmas morning,” Wallace says, weaving through wood piles to follow Rutherford.
The nonprofit warehouse, founded in 2003, supplies reclaimed wood for about 20 companies that make everything from furniture and kayaks to bikes. The Detroit Audio Lab is even developing speakers that Wallace says could pair well with his guitars.
“I thought it was a really cool idea as soon as I heard about it,” Rutherford says of the guitars. “The more wild and crazy the idea, the more I’m on board with it.”
The ASW deconstruction crew usually gathers the wood, but sometimes Wallace finds gems he brings back.
“Once we remove it from the structure, we de-nail it, process it, bundle it, then check its moisture, and if we need to, we’ll get it kiln-dried,” Rutherford says.
The wood then goes through a gluing and sanding process before it’s sent to a luthier who puts the guitars together. By the end, a dozen people have touched the guitar.
Opening a maroon case, Wallace takes out a guitar from the Cadillac plant at 9501 Conner to show staffers who’ve never seen the finished product.
Holding the 6-pound guitar, operations manager Chris Tupper, marvels at the glossy instrument. “It’s a lot lighter than I thought it was going to be,” he says.
Wallace points out the serial number he started adding inside the neck pocket, where the neck connects to the body.
“It’s like taking a Harley-Davidson apart,” he says. “If all the numbers match, it’s official. It’s sort of a throwback to the automotive industry.”
Wallace admits he didn’t know if the first guitars would even work.
“I’ve put this in the hands of a lot of players who know about instruments, that play very expensive instruments, that play cheap instruments and everyone is surprised by how well they play and how great they sound,” he says.
Francke attests the guitar has a “vintage” tone that “sounds just like a top-of-the-line Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster.”
“It’s built with the musician in mind,” he says. “It’s not just an item to be admired from afar.”
While the guitars come with a high price tag — reaching $2,450 — Wallace argues they’re handmade and ingrained with the spirit of Detroiters.
“If you think about the history of Detroit, we’re a town full of people who constantly push to make things better,” he says. “Let’s go from a manual transmission to an automatic transmission. Let’s go from doo-wop to Motown. Let’s just make it slightly better and slightly more awesome than what came before it, and I wanted the guitars to reflect that heritage.”
Though sold only online at wallacedetroitguitars.com, Wallace plans to attend the National Association of Music Merchants show in January, where he wants to partner with retailers to sell the guitars in stores. Eventually, he’d like to make guitars from reclaimed wood in other cities like New Orleans — another music city experiencing demolitions and renovations of old buildings.
“Their houses were built out of swamp ash, which is the premiere wood to make the type of guitars that I enjoy playing,” he says.
Throughout his career, he says he’s tried to pull the potential out of people and things — whether it was helping students realize what they could accomplish when he taught high school English in Detroit Public Schools or transforming land into new developments when he worked in real estate.
“The riverfront certainly fits into that category of taking something that’s been used in one way and making it much more valuable to the community,” he says, explaining that he enjoys building parks and transforming decaying factories into greenspace.
“With the guitars it’s similar,” he says. “When you look at this wood, your first response is, ‘Where’s the dumpster? How quickly can we get this in a landfill?’ My mind never lets me stop there. I always think about the productive use of things that people want to ignore.”
Wallace Detroit Guitars