An Enchanting Workshop:
Tom Bartlett Guitars
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
Somewhere deep in the heart of The Ward – Guelph’s storied neighbourhood renowned for its maze-like streets and hidden lanes, expansive vegetable gardens and picturesque century-old Italianate cottages, clucking chickens, a tightknit working class community and an emerging colony of craftspeople – lies a cozy workshop in a picturesque backyard where magical instruments come into existence. One by one. By hand. By a carpenter-turned-luthier named Tom.
Tom Bartlett. Of Bartlett Guitars. A one- (or two-, depending on the day) person operation that builds some of the most sought-after electric guitars in the world. Instruments that Guitar Player magazine has declared are ‘so beautifully put together that every little detail is worthy of examination.’ And that musicians like Paul Langlois of The Tragically Hip, Colin Cripps of Blue Rodeo, Sam Roberts of The Sam Roberts Band, Jimmy Shaw of Metric and Broken Social Scene, and so many more, have played in the studio. And in concert. Including The Hip’s iconic last show where Langlois wielded a Bartlett guitar in front of a third of this vast nation’s population.
‘I still can’t believe that happened,’ Tom says of the nationally-broadcast event as we sip pints of some local good stuff in his serene backyard on a long summer evening. ‘I can’t overemphasize how important The Hip’s music has been in my life,’ he continues. ‘I’ve identified with their music for much longer than I’ve been making guitars. Having them tour and make music with one of my instruments is something I’ll cherish always.’
Tom goes silent, as if pausing to re-play a moment of the concert in his mind. I promise myself that I’ll watch it later (again) on YouTube. And then, during this brief interlude, I look around the yard. Tom’s workshop, just steps away, casts a long evening shadow across the tidy lawn. The shop has a sort of enchanted air about it – even though it’s actually just a modest shed, I think to myself. It has functioned as the heart of Tom’s successful business from the beginning. Of two businesses, actually. And as his refuge, too.
Lit only by two small windows and a handful of table lamps, the workshop inside is a compelling instance of so much stuff in so little space. Well-used hand tools are everywhere – hanging in rows on walls, piled in containers, resting on table tops. And guitar parts – necks, bodies, fretboards – are sequestered in custom wooden shelving above the shop floor. An imposing (and gorgeous) belt-driven vintage saw takes up a good chunk of the workshop floor. Other large saws and drills collected by Tom over the years claim their territory in various corners. And an array of work surfaces – some bare wood, others covered in carpet, and others still laden with vices and clamps – take up the rest of the space.
‘I’ve certainly spent a lot of hours in that place,’ Tom remarks. ‘I first started building it up well over ten years ago when I was a cabinet maker.’ He continues: ‘It was always too small. From the very beginning. I can remember having to cut an opening in the wall so I’d be able to plane pieces of lumber – pushing them out the hole as I worked.’ He chuckles before adding: ‘The place has served its purpose.’ Then, yes. And now. And through the time that Tom transitioned from cabinet maker to luthier.
He tried his hand at his first guitar a decade ago during the slow period for cabinet makers between Christmas and February. ‘I paid a thousand dollars in materials for that first guitar and broadcast the building process online,’ he recalls. ‘I ended up selling it for three thousand dollars to someone following my posts. I invested the cash back into materials to build another guitar, and away I went.’ Within three months Tom doubled his price. Within another three, he doubled it again. And still the waiting list grew – to as much as four years. Actually, it’s less these days. He’s managed to cut the list down to two years now.
Today this extraordinary backyard workshop is where Tom and his apprentice, Jeremy, craft as many as thirty-five guitars a year. For customers all over the world. ‘We build the guitars in batches of fifteen-to-seventeen each,’ he tells me. ‘Although I want to get those numbers down.’ He pauses, before adding wistfully: ‘I’ve always wanted to get those numbers down.’ And yet the customers keep coming. And Tom keeps building guitars. One by one. By hand.
As the sun sinks to the horizon and dusk casts an ethereal glow about the yard, Tom waxes philosophical: ‘I’ve always told myself that I’ve got about a thousand guitars in me before I call it a day.’ He pauses, before adding: ‘Having worked at this business for a decade now, this means I’m about halfway there.’ We sit together in silence, taking in these weighty words. I take another sip of my brew, and try to imagine Tom spending days anywhere but in his shop – a space so personal it seems an extension of the man. Mosquitoes are out now – flitting about our ears and ankles. And then he continues: ‘And yet if I can sustain my joy in this craft, I might just build guitars until I die.’
Here – in just such a unique, oddly enchanting space as this, in just such a beguiling urban neighbourhood.