Life in Salt: How Yacht Building Student Anthony Daniels Fashioned a Guitar from an Old Wooden Boat
by Owen James Burke
Anthony Daniels’ Boat Guitar, built from the planking of a 1952 Beetle Cat sailboat. Photo courtesy of Anthony Daniels.
Boats and music are deeply kindred throughout history, not just because music makes for a pastime during seaward transit, but because, as any purist of either two traditions knows, each should always be made of wood. Anthony Daniels, a first-year student at Rhode Island’s International Yacht Restoring School, also happens to be a guitar player. While rebuilding a sailboat, he came across some rare planking that was just too good for the trash. Two months later, with the purchasing of a few bits and pieces of terminal hardware, Boat Guitar was born. Next, Daniels has his heart set on putting together a wooden surfboard from reclaimed wooden boat parts.
Anthony Daniels wanders out into frigid mid-winter surf at Middletown, Rhode Island’s 2nd Beach. Photo courtesy of Anthony Daniels.
Early stages. Photo courtesy: Anthony Daniels
How did the idea to build a guitar from salvaged wooden boats come about?
I am a first-year student at IYRS wooden boat building school in Newport, Rhode Island. As a first-year student, I happened to be rebuilding a Beetle Cat constructed in Germany by Abeking and Rasmussen for Concordia Company in 1952. The boat was planked in Honduras mahogany – unlike the cedar planking true to the original design of the Beetle family of New Bedford, Massachusetts. I found the history (and the mahogany) to be rich enough to save from the dumpster. I thought about constructing a coffee table, or a desk, shelves, chairs, etc. but was not moved. Being a guitar player, the thought crossed my mind organically one afternoon while working on some unrelated project. Mahogany makes for great guitar body wood, and I thought the remnants of the bottom paint and old fastener holes under some decking varnish would make a cool guitar face. The ball got rolling from there. If I were a derelict boat bound for incineration I would appreciate reincarnation as a guitar. It was settled then. My goal, to construct a guitar (that plays) using only wood from this boat.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Daniels.
Can you describe how you made the neck and body, and which parts you selected to use for each? The hardware, nut, and obvious bits did not come from the boat, but how about the inlays?
The Body: The face of the body was constructed from the flattest sections of the garboard planks on the Beetle Cat. Three pieces were steamed, flattened, and face jointed together. The rough body shape was then cut out – modeled after a Martin D15 parlor style guitar. The back was constructed from mahogany obtained from the centerboard trunk, with lighter-colored mahogany from the sole to accent, and to provide the dimensions I needed since I ran short of material.
The sides are made from mahogany from the centerboard trunk as well. I milled the mahogany for the sides down into three-foot lengths at 2 1/2-inches wide by approximately 3/16-inches thick, soaked for 4 days in the Narragansett Bay, steamed-heated for 15 minutes and pressed into a pre-constructed jig to acquire the body profile. The sides are constructed using two symmetrical pieces. The tone bars and interior bracing is mahogany from the decking. The teak soundboard was not reclaimed from the Beetle Cat but was instead donated from a friend’s boat, which I thought fit the bill and spirit of the project to let it slide. I shaped the soundboard into the profile of the original boat’s as lofted from true dimensions and then scaled down. The bridge plate was also a donated piece of material — black walnut from a nearly 400-year-old banister.
Boat Guitar’s neck in in transition from its former life as a keel. Photo courtesy of Anthony Daniels.
The Neck: The neck was simply a section of the oak keel that I cut to length, and shaped using a spoke shave until I felt it was a comfortable guitar neck (by my personal standards). I marked off the fret locations and then inlaid polished fastener heads from the original planking as the fret dot markers. Instead of a fret board covering a routed dado for a tension rod, I used the solid oak sprung keel with bottom paint exposed as the fretboard itself. I built up a clear epoxy coat to harden the fretboard and then installed the frets from fret wire rew stick.
I ordered gold Grover tuning machines that I felt resembled some Art Deco styling that may have been a likely finishing during the time period the original boat was constructed.
The old Beetle Cat’s keel, inlaid and fretted. Photo courtesy of Anthony Daniels.
You say she’s no Martin, but you’re “growing fond of her salty twang” — care to elaborate on her sound and feel, compared with your other guitar(s)? Do you perform live? If so, are you using this guitar – and does she have a name?
The action is a little aggressive and she sounds best when using a capo up the neck, but I installed a Braggs pickup so I can play at bars, and that kills some of the twang you get unplugged — though I don’t dislike the raw acoustic sound. Like I said though, she’s no Martin. This is the first guitar I have built. I learned a lot and still have more to go, so we’ll see how the next one comes out. There is a next one — I’m already working on it, and it’s another reclaimed piece…but that’s all I want to say about that for now. I’m not one for naming my guitars, so I just call her the boat guitar for identification purposes.
How long did it take you to build her?
I worked on this during my lunch break and evenings for about 2 months. I estimate start to finish was about 40 hours.
Are you considering retailing the guitar(s)? Because you should. Production of musical instruments is so standardized these days, it would be refreshing to see someone selling instruments so completely handmade with their own unique tone, history and soul.
I would love to build guitars and sell them. One may argue a luthier school would be a good place to start. I’m in a boat building school though, and it is boats that I want to build. That being said, I like to create things, all sorts of things. I built this as a side project in a relatively short period of time. Granted the quality of tone and feel may need to improve before I would feel comfortable promoting it. If I can develop a portfolio, take on a few commissions and can create a line of guitars I can stand behind, well that would be something! I guess I can say, I’m working towards that.
Suiting up for a brisk New England surf. Photo courtesy of Anthony Daniels.
You’re a surfer, too; would you consider building, or shaping, a surfboard from reclaimed boat parts?
Can’t say I haven’t thought about it! I would like to build a wooden surf board. The hard, or fun part about building from reclaimed material is sometimes you have to let the material tell you what it wants to be. A surf board is down the pipe, reclaimed or not.
Where are you from? Did you grow up near boats/the sea?
I grew up in Connecticut and have a strong connection to the natural world. I have a background as a carpenter, worked as an environmental scientist in New York City, and I play music. I love the ocean and love boats, but wouldn’t say I grew up boating. Kayaks, canoes and stuff, but not sailing. In fact, I don’t sail. But I will.
How did you get into boatbuilding in the first place? Is it a longterm career plan for you?
Life works out sometimes. I wanted to build wooden boats for some time, but careers and responsibilities got in the way. I’m doing it now and see it being around for a while. Woodworking is in my blood. Like music, you feel it. Boats can give you the same freedom music can make you feel.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In 5 years, I see myself building boats and guitars somewhere in New England.
Below is a video of a tune Daniels wrote recently, played in his living room on the boat guitar called ‘Outta Time’: