Youth build guitars from scratch

Students at MacLaren combine their love for music with their newly-learned skills in computer-aided design and woodworking.

The giant router seems deceptively simple when you watch it at work. A young man lays a flat piece of wood on its work surface, backs away, and pushes buttons on a controller.

The router springs to life, spending the next few minutes drilling and creating deep grooves in the wood, until finally the intended product emerges: the body of an electric guitar.

It’s not as easy as it looks. Several students spent hours behind computer screens, navigating complicated math and coding, to ensure that this computer numerical control (CNC) router does its work correctly.

As one of the students, B.K., puts it: “I tell the machine what to do, it does it for a few minutes, and then we spend another hour or two trying to figure out how to fix all the problems we run into.”

He says this with a laugh, seeing the problem-solving as an opportunity, not a barrier.

B.K. and two other young men in Oregon Youth Authority custody put in numerous hours over the past year working in the computer-aided design (CAD) lab at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility.

Their goal: to infuse their love for music into tangible instruments they built themselves.

All three first started playing music during their time in OYA custody, and they all rely on music as one of their positive calming strategies — an important thing for OYA youth to develop as part of their rehabilitation.

A.F., who loves country music, first learned acoustic guitar through a music group at MacLaren led by Carlos Chavez of Morpheus Youth Project. B.K. taught himself to play piano but switched to guitar because it aligned better with the folk and math rock songs he wanted to play. J.W. began playing guitar when B.K. suggested they start a band together.

Since starting the guitar-building project, A.F. and J.W. have transferred to other OYA facilities. B.K., still at MacLaren, is continuing with the project under the guidance of Steve Middleton, a career and technical education teacher at MacLaren.

Middleton has taught vocational trades at OYA schools for nearly 10 years, and this is the first time any of his students have attempted to build a guitar.

“It’s a good challenge, probably one of the most involved projects we’ve done,” Middleton says. “There are a lot of technical pieces to it, a lot of math, and a lot of things that have to be just right so that the instrument works.”

B.K. is making a Fender Telecaster-style guitar. J.W. and A.F. both decided to make bass guitars.

The students learned what to do by looking up tutorials on YouTube. They used their CAD training to draw the designs and MacLaren’s high-tech router to cut the pieces.

“I got into CAD at MacLaren when I started college,” A.F. says. “I started out doing projects like laying out furniture in a house, and as I got to the last class, I was making my own building designs. I thought it was pretty cool, and I wanted to take it a step further. I started to design my own vehicles and instruments.”

Whether these youth continue building guitars or pursue other related trades such as woodworking or CAD design, they will have many vocational skills to help them gain solid work, Middleton says.

The students also gained numerous less-tangible skills, including problem-solving and patience, that will serve them well in community jobs, he says.

“We went into this project with little to no experience. Reverse-engineering a guitar took a fair amount of time,” Middleton says. “We measured an existing guitar and did internet research to make our CAD drawings. We had to figure out how to (set) every part in the machines. We made a lot of sample parts with inexpensive pine wood to make sure it would work before using more-expensive materials.

“For all the setbacks we encountered, the students have handled it with maturity and understanding. Their enthusiasm is still strong with the numerous setbacks.”

As B.K. demonstrated how to use the CNC router recently, he said he enjoyed the project so much that he wants to pursue similar work when he is released from custody.

For now, he’s taking one step at a time, edging his instrument closer and closer to completion. As he shows off the neck, he grins and says, “I’m so excited to play it for the first time.”

  1. So proud of the youth in this project. Keep it up!

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