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Making the Music

by Lou Christine

Inconspicuously, in a small home workshop tucked away in an obscure San Miguel neighborhood, Sergio Huerta does his thing six to eight hours a day. The thirty-something artist produces stringed, musical instruments from his studio, a small bedroom that's been converted into a workshop. An open closet houses half-a-dozen or so silent, stringed guitars. A wooden, waist-high shelf serves as a workbench and a couple of stools and an assortment of shims and wood-trimming devices hang off the wall in juxtaposition behind the bench. Bits and pieces of wood, taking on the partial forms of musical instruments, are propped up, drying in various corners of the room.
With cat like moves, Huerta maneuvers through the tight space from embryonic instrument to instrument, skilfully creating pieces that will become a guitar or violin. Huerta starts the process from scratch, using traditional woods such as European maple and spruce. The work is slow and there is little room for error. If care isn't taken from the earliest stages, the instrument will be of poor playing quality when finished. Dimensions are crucial. Even-handed sanding and duplicated crevices are painstakingly manifested. The etched out faces of a violin have to endure 36 kilos of pressure on their paper-thin facade. The shaped and sanded panels lean against each other as pressure is applied at strategic points. The pieces are held into place using animal-based glues.
Huerta explains how the differences in neck sizes and other measurements can alter the tone of a piece. Each of his instruments is custom built to fit the needs of the client. His guitars vary, from those created for beginners to ones for professionals involved with Philharmonic orchestras. A concert guitar is of the highest standard, as it must endure every performance. Naturally all of his guitars are acoustic.
The young craftsman is a proud product of the first-generation of students to graduate from an instrument building program at the National Bellas Artes school in Mexico City. His class was the first which majored in the assembling of guitars, violins, violas and cellos.
Huerta says he can build a good guitar in a month's time, a violin takes about three months. Prices vary, depending on woods and specifications. A custom-built studio guitar will run from $900 to $1200 U.S., while a concert guitar goes for about $1400-$2000. Violins range between $1500-$5000. The prices can skyrocket to almost out of sight when using Brazilian rosewood, which currently has a 5-year restriction, Huerta notes. New violins of high quality and master workmanship ordered from top-notch music makers can dictate a price tag of $20,000 to $30,000, and some sought-after craftsmen are backed up with a decade's worth of orders.
The San Miguel based music maker says the city's climate is conducive to making wood-encased instruments. "There's not much humidity," a sworn enemy of woodworkers. A slightly fluctuating humidity gage is always on duty, providing the artist with instant "humidity intelligence," warning him when non-warping precautions need to be taken. Although San Miguel is not a hot bed for those seeking custom-made instruments like Vienna is, Huerta feels like he's doing something rewarding and productive none the less. To give San Miguel some additional musical notoriety and diversity, the artist is helping to organize a guitar festival that will take place in this town July 8-13th, 2002.
Huerta also has a growing reputation for restoring old instruments, a skill that can test one's patience, he confessed. He comments that there is a certain thrill to bringing an old instrument back to life, especially once he sees the attention to detail by the original craftsman. Vintage violins can be worth in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and are highly revered by collectors and world-class musicians.
Besides providing fine-tuned instruments to the public, Huerta hopes to create a musical awareness and deeper appreciation for stringed instruments. When asked if he plays or performs, the artist replied that naturally a music maker must at least test his finished products to see that the guitar or violin makes musical sense before being placed in the hands of its new owner, but he modestly professes that his concerts take place on the workbench, while calculating numbers and measurements. It takes years of dedication to become a proficent musician, Huerta adds. These days, he is too busy dedicating himself to the making of fine, healthy-sounding instruments for committed virtuosos. Stop by his studio on Beneficio #16 to see for yourself.