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Hempfield woodworker transitioned from furniture to musical instruments

| Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, 9:04 p.m.
Faith Dent, 13, of Hempfield plays the harp made by her grandfather, Mike Byers. The Harrold Middle School student plays the violin for the Westmoreland Youth Symphony.
Submitted photo
Faith Dent, 13, of Hempfield plays the harp made by her grandfather, Mike Byers. The Harrold Middle School student plays the violin for the Westmoreland Youth Symphony. Submitted photo

Shortly after Mike Byers and Karen Laughner married in 1971, she surprised him with a radial arm saw for his birthday.

Never mind that Byers, a Hempfield Area High School graduate, had absolutely no background with the tool.

While putting the “impulse purchase” to good use, Byers “became enthralled with making furniture,” he said.

He first made a dining room table. He had no pattern, but he knew the dimensions and went from there.

His largest project was a communion table for his church, Open Door Baptist Church on North Main Street in Greensburg. Byers designed the inscription on the front and carved each letter with chisels.

One piece led to another until, 30 years later, the woman who started it all politely told her husband, “No more furniture.”

So Byers crafted a banjo, similar to those used during the Civil War era.

Byers, 63, got the idea after watching a craftsman, using basic hand tools, construct a banjo on a public television show.

Byers did some research, learning how to bend the necessary oak and find the right type of wood.

After he built the banjo, Byers decided he would learn how to play it. He found an instructor and took lessons.

Since Byers crafted that banjo in his home workshop about 14 years ago, he has built and restored banjos, guitars, violins, violin bows, mountain dulcimers, banjo-ukuleles, mandolin-banjos and autoharps.

For his day job, the St. Vincent College graduate is a certified public accountant.

A golfing friend once brought Byers a smashed banjo with no strings. The friend valued the instrument because it had been strummed by his father.

Over six months, Byers painstakingly restored it. “That was the most touching restoration I've done, and there was a tremendous amount of satisfaction in returning it to him,” Byers said.

Before embarking on violin restoration, Byers, who has worked at Wilder and Company in Greensburg since 1974, purchased a model to understand how they were built.

Although Byers started with no musical background and no background in woodworking, other than Wood Shop 101 in school, he can easily explain different types of wood necessary for the pieces and how they are used in various instruments.

Byers restores old instruments he finds at flea markets, junk shops, music stores or on eBay. After restoring a dulcimer, he joined a local club and learned how to play.

Perhaps Byers' most unique restoration was a ukelin he found on eBay “for about $30,” he said.

Ukelins were sold door-to-door by traveling salesmen in the 1920s and 1930s. A salesman would get off a train in any small town. He would play one song for a captivated family, sell it and head on.

“The seller generally taught the buyer only one song, but provided a song book, as well,” Byers said. “Unfortunately, there were few, if any, ukelin teachers in small communities and the instruments were quickly forgotten about.”

Byers discovered his ukelin in its original box, with the original music book. He plans to use it as decorative piece.

Violins are the most difficult instrument to repair or restore, he said.

“Violins are the most interesting because of how delicate they are and how exacting and demanding to specifications,” he said. “After working on them, I understand why becoming a good violin maker takes decades. Without question, they are the most amazing instruments I've worked on.”

Two years ago, his granddaughter, Faith Dent, then 11, came home from a rehearsal with the Westmoreland Youth Symphony and matter-of-factly announced she would like to play the harp. Byers sprung into action and looked into harps.

“After the sticker shock wore off,” he decided to build a harp.

During Byers' research, he found that different woods produce a different tone. He needed a wood that would resonate well with the sound box. He selected local walnut for the harp's arm, maple and cherry for the main parts of the instrument and California redwood, with maple reinforcement, for the sound board. He purchased the hardware and strings from a New England firm.

“That harp project included approximately 40 hours of reading and research prior to the actual construction,” he said, “and another 50 hours from start to finish.”

Byers' first step was the sound box. The he cut the harmonic curve and front arm, fitting them to the sound box. He measured precise distances between the strings. Attaching the nylon strings, with their lengths determining different sounds, was the final step.

After six “short weeks” of using a band saw, table saw, radial arm saw and drill press, the instrument was ready for Faith to play on a Sunday at Open Door Baptist Church.

“Needless to say, that has been one of my all-time favorite projects,” Byers said.

In his workshop, where sawdust is scattered on the floor, pieces of maple, walnut and cherry await his next project.

Nearby hangs a black horse's tail he uses to restore violin bows. He uses a homemade rehairing tool to repair and restring bows. Byers restored three violins for

Dennis Boyce of Greensburg, who has been performing for more than a decade with the Edgewood Symphony.

“This type work, restoration, takes time and Mike makes sure everything is perfect,” Boyce said. “I am more than pleased with the finished products. For an instrument of this type, the finishes take time and redoing. Mike finds the right colors for the finish. His finishes are smooth and very well done. He is meticulous and very detailed and does not miss any steps in getting the violins to work properly. He obviously likes his work.”

And it produces beautiful music. “They look great and the sound is perfect,” Boyce said.

Les Harvath is a freelance writer.

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