Before the housing bubble burst, Jay Lichty built houses for a living. Today he's building world-class guitars and ukuleles by hand, in small town North Carolina.
Roughly fifteen months ago, Jay Lichty had a dream. No, really, he had a dream.
A professional home builder and woodworker from Tryon, North Carolina, who has also been a musician for thirty years, Lichty, now fifty-four, was asleep one night when the next phase of his life got delivered to him.
"I had this really vivid dream, where i was playing this small-bodied instrument," he says. "It was like a small guitar, a really, really small guitar, and when I woke up the next day the dream just hung with me. So I decided to look into small guitars, and I hit on ukuleles. I now love ukuleles."
Within days of his epiphany, Lichty had bought a ukulele and was learning to play it. He loved the experience. "But that first one I'd bought was a big version of a ukulele," he says, slightly sheepishly. "And then I wanted a small one, too...so I got one. Then I realized I'd bought two ukuleles in about two weeks. So the next week, when i saw another one I wanted to buy, I thought: It's a recession, there's not a lot of work for house building right now - why not save money and use your woodworking skills? Why don't you try to make one?"
At this, Lichty has proved a natural. Before long, he was taking luthiers' workshops around the Southeast, learning to build guitars and othe stringed instruments from some of the region's masters. When he attended a seminar with famed Virginia craftsman Wayne Henderson, it all clicked.
"I watched how Wayne worked," Lichty says. "How his hands shaped the wood, how he trusted his hands to know when to stop shaving a brace or something. I watched very closely, and I thought, it's all in trusting the hands."
Since studying with Henderson, Lichty has never looked back. In the last fifteen months, he's built twenty-five guitars and a handful of ukuleles, only a few of which still reside beheath his roof. "I guess you could say I've been busy," he says. "It's like I've found a new outlet for my life."
When you see a Lichty Guitar, his commitment to craft is obvious. He often mixes different woods, including exotics such as rosewood and koa, each with a different shade and grain, or various parts of the instruments body. With their sometimes muted, sometimes bold features, the guitars look like fine art.
So far, four professional musicians (including Doug Lancio, lead guitarist from John Hiatt) use Lichty guitars, and neither Lichty's production capacity - working out of his shop in Tryon - nor his desire to learn has slowed since he first had The Dream.
"It's funny," he says, "this feels like what I was supposed to do when I grew up. I still have a lot to learn, but that's how it is when you try to make something nice and make it by hand. Every instrument you make is its own thing; with each one you learn something. There's a lot more to making a good guitar than working with wood."
**As the overall winner of the 2010 Made in the South Awards, Lichty will travel to Charleston, South Carolina, for a business consultation with Leapfrog Public Relations and Stitch Graphic Design.
This article was used by permission and granted from GardenandGun.com Written by Donovan Webster and Haskell Harris 2010. Photographs by Terry Manier