Luthier carries on hand-crafted music tradition in Kenmore workshop

July 7, 2017 by Alyssa Keown

Joe Heindel is a luthier, who hand makes guitars, ukuleles and other stringed instruments from his workshop in the Kenmore neighborhood. (Photo: Alyssa Keown)

A man sits down in the small workshop behind his house on a warm summer morning, dog at his feet, and begins sketching in a notebook.

“Right now in my head it’s perfect, there are no flaws,” says Joe Heindel who’s a luthier, meaning he creates and repairs stringed instruments by hand. He even carves the wood using hand tools. His preferred creations are guitars: archtops, to be specific.

Heindel considers the art above all else and lives his life by the belief that most of what everyone does is art. For example, his workshop, which he rebuilt with the same care he puts into his instrument-making, could itself be considered a work of art. And like other artists, Heindel admits he enjoys the process of creating things more than the finished product.

“I had so much fun making this shop that I don’t care if I move,” he says. “It was a curious and creative process.”

Unlike visual art, whose final resting place is typically on a wall in a home or gallery, an instrument’s creation is only the beginning of its journey: its true potential is realized when it gets into the hands of a musician.

Another element to making instruments that resembles other mediums is the risk of the artist spending too much time on the craft, a reason why Heindel doesn’t install too many lights in his workshop (so he won’t be tempted to work all night carving and cutting). “And I have to be careful, because if I do it too much, I can go into the martyr artist (mode), where I give everything to my craft and then my relationships fall apart, my health falls apart,” he says.

Luthier Joe Heindel hand-makes musical instruments inside a workshop he rebuilt, which is itself a work of art. (Photo: Alyssa Keown)

A mentor, a new direction About 10 years ago, Heindel found himself in college, overworked without a chance to hold down relationships. After mistakenly sitting in on an inspiring woodworker’s class, taught by a man named Doug Unger, Heindel sought to register for a course taught by the professor. However, each class was full and it was the professor’s last semester teaching.

As if by fate, Heindel ran into Unger outside of school and introduced himself. The woodworker invited Heindel to come to his shop, and from there Heindel began his journey into making instruments.

His first creation was made from wood he found in his backyard, a slide guitar from just a piece of oak. This process also led to the discovery of how different types of wood create completely different types of tones for the instrument.

Originally, Heindel did machine work and created scales for forklifts and cranes. He wrestled with the idea of creating guns with his machine work, but instead wanted to make things that gave life, like music. Today he sells guitars happily and healthily and lives with his wife, two children and dog named Blue.

(Photo: Alyssa Keown)

Heindel says he often meditates on the power of art and music bringing people in conflict together. He tells stories of ceasefires on Christmas during World War II, where soldiers ate, sang and danced together. He believes we can do the same today through exchanging artwork, thanks to mass communication.

“What if artists, instrument-makers and musicians shared work, shared music with the people we’re supposed to hate?” he ponders.

For info about Heindel’s hand-crafted guitars, visit

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