Southern Vermont luthier Will Mosheim of Seeders Instruments sheds light on the artisanal craft process behind his exquisite heirloom-quality instruments.
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
From the moment that Dorset-based luthier Will Mosheim first laid hands on an electric guitar at the age of ten, he found himself spellbound and captivated by the magnetic mystique of stringed instruments. In the years that followed, Mosheim continued to develop his musical skills, and became acutely aware of how the subtle differences in an instrument’s construction could influence its functionality. Today, Mosheim crafts his instruments in the same woodworking studio where he once watched his father, Dan Mosheim, build handmade furniture during his younger years. Will Mosheim creates beautiful pieces of functional art that are carefully designed with both aesthetics and optimum playability in mind. By channeling the creative curiosity that was instilled in him by his passionate parents into bold and elegant feats of artistic self-expression, he has built a successful business with a loyal following of discerning customers.
Mosheim’s musical journey first began when he was growing up in Southern Vermont as a young boy. “I was the only dedicated musician in my family, but everyone else was a huge music fan,” says Mosheim. “My dad introduced me to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Waylon Jennings, and the Grateful Dead when I was very young. Those early listening experiences really shaped and influenced my musical development.”
After passing by an electric guitar in his living room nearly every day for several years, Mosheim experienced a life-defining moment of spontaneous inspiration “One day, I just grabbed the guitar and started playing,” recalls Mosheim. “In the beginning, I started by teaching myself out of a book that we had. I didn’t know what I was doing at all, but I really wanted to do it. At the time in the mid-90s, there was a music store in Manchester. My parents noticed my interest in music and they took me in there to look around. One of the instruments that really caught my eye when I walked in was an electric bass. I was instantly drawn to it.”
From there, Mosheim began taking bass lessons, and the bass became his primary instrument throughout middle school and high school. Mosheim says that after graduating from high school, he became fascinated with the banjo. “The banjo took over very quickly for me. That became my favorite instrument for years. I also started to dabble in playing the fiddle, as well. These days, I feel the most at home with the banjo, fiddle, bass, guitar, and most recently, the pedal steel guitar. I’m comfortable expressing myself musically with any instrument with strings, and I play both electric and acoustic guitar in equal amounts.”
While Mosheim was honing his musical skills as a young man, he was also spending a good amount of time in his father’s woodshop. According to Mosheim, the time he spent in his father’s shop helped to strengthen his powers of artistic perception. “I grew up with a woodshop right next to our house. My father is a well-known custom furniture maker. His talents are incredibly broad. When you look at his portfolio, it almost looks like the work of ten different furniture makers, because he’s comfortable in a variety of styles. My mother was also very talented. She was a gardener, a landscaper, and a jeweler. I was raised in a very creative environment, so it was almost inevitable that I developed a sense of artistic drive and a desire to work with my hands. I see the potential for art in nearly everything that I look at today.”
Although Mosheim always had a predilection towards art and music, he admits that the path he took towards his chosen career as a luthier wasn’t linear. “People sometimes assume that this line of work has always been in my plans. My father is a furniture maker. I’m a musician. My work seems like a perfect marriage of the two, but it was a little bit of a slow process to find myself as a craftsperson. Even though I dabbled a bit in woodwork during high school, I did rebel somewhat in my teenage years. I always felt at home in my father’s woodshop when I was younger, but it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I found that I really enjoyed being in the shop again. I had to rediscover my love for that kind of work.”
At the same time that Mosheim was rediscovering his love for woodwork, a series of chance coincidences allowed him to use the resources available at his father’s woodshop to take the first steps towards creative self-actualization. “I explored a career in the action sports industry after high school, but I didn’t find that it fit me well,” explains Mosheim. “In my mid-20s, I came back to the woodshop and started working full time with my father. It was then that I started thinking about the possibility of building instruments.”
Mosheim says that the first guitar that he ever built was actually a “resonator” guitar that was built from a kit that his father had purchased for him years before he came back and started working full time at the shop. Much like when he first picked up the electric guitar in his living room as a young child, Mosheim was struck by a feeling of creative inspiration in his early adult years that propelled him to open up the kit and begin building. “I feel like my father was always gently nudging me in the direction of building instruments. He knew I was thinking about it,” says Mosheim. “When I completed that first instrument from the kit, I had just started to get really into the banjo. I had been playing it for around a year and a half or two years, and I needed a nicer instrument than I had. I started looking around at high-end banjos, and I realized that they were more expensive than what I could afford. All of a sudden, it just clicked in my brain. I thought ‘I can probably build one of these. Why don’t I just try it myself?’ My father and I put our heads together, and we figured out how to build a banjo. We built the first one together, I built the second one on my own, and it took off from there.”
Over the course of the next several years, Mosheim went on to develop a reputation as an expert luthier and build a faithful clientele base. Today, his operation has grown into a well-respected artisan imprint: Seeders Instruments. Although he has continued to expand his social media presence – and has become inundated with requests for new instruments – Mosheim says that many of the instruments that he makes are still crafted with the specific needs and preferences of every client in mind.
“Every custom instrument that I create is unique,” notes Mosheim. “If I’m building an instrument for a client, it’s a very different process than the process I use for building something for myself, or the process I use for building something for a retail store that placed an order for a certain type of instrument.”
According to Mosheim, the build process for custom instruments for his individual clients usually starts with a detailed and thorough one-on-one consultation. Mosheim says that these types of consultations are most commonly done over email or by phone. “The consultation process is very in-depth. There are a lot of factors, including size, inlay design, and wood choice. Those factors can make large impacts or small impacts depending on the instrument.”
Mosheim says that one of the most difficult parts of the process is navigating a client’s expectations and figuring out if it’s possible to bring their vision to life. “It can be a very challenging process, but it’s also very fun and rewarding. I like to challenge myself with the instruments that I make.”
Recently, in addition to his line of custom instruments, Mosheim has expanded his offerings to include a line of non-custom instruments with standardized designs. “They are selling faster than I can make them,” says Mosheim. “It’s been incredible to see my customers respond in such a positive way.”
Mosheim believes that although looks are certainly an important factor to consider when choosing an instrument, playability and quality of sound are even more significant. “The years I have spent working as a luthier have made me incredibly perceptive of certain things. If I pick up someone else’s instrument, the main things I look for in terms of quality assessment are definitely the tone of the instrument and its playability. If it’s hard to play, it’s not going to be fun to play. Truthfully, I tend to be less picky with the instruments that I play than I am with the instruments that I make and send out my door. I’ve developed a reputation for being quite meticulous and painstaking with my work. Still, if someone handed me an instrument that they made and wanted my opinion, other factors I would look for are overall craftsmanship, design cohesion, design proportions, and quality of execution. I like instruments that play beautifully where the vision and design flawlessly come together.”
Mosheim explains that when building guitars, there are a number of important measurements and construction variables that must be considered to ensure that the instrument will play correctly. “With guitars, body size and body depth are incredibly important. Essentially, the body of the guitar is a sound chamber. An interesting fact about acoustic guitars that not everyone knows is that the sound is not coming out of the central hole next to the strings. It’s coming out of the top of the guitar. The sound you’re hearing is the wood at the top resonating and vibrating the hole in the top. You don’t have a closed box – you can’t have sound waves moving without somewhere for the air to move. That’s where the little holes on top come into play. Adjusting where that hole is in relation to the bracing on the top of the guitar is also a big factor. The wood that is used for the back and the sides of the guitar is also crucial, because that determines the rigidity of the structure of the box that the sound vibrates through. Then you have to consider the vibration length of the string, or the ‘scale length.’ That determines how the strings vibrate, and how the instrument is tuned. Many factors have to be simultaneously considered. For example, you wouldn’t change the scale length of a guitar without thinking about the body size. Those two things have to be in harmonious proportion to ensure a properly functioning instrument.”
Mosheim is incredibly passionate about his line of custom banjos. He explains that there are two main distinct styles of banjos: ‘open back’ banjos and ‘resonator’ banjos. Open back banjos are typically more prevalent in the folk and traditional music world, and resonator banjos are seen more commonly in bluegrass.
According to Mosheim, the two different types of banjos are very distinct in terms of their construction, and players expect very different characteristics from the two distinct banjo varieties. “Resonator banjos have big closed backs and are generally very heavy instruments,” notes Mosheim. “They also have something called a tone ring, which is underneath the ‘head,’ or vibrating membrane of the banjo. The tone ring creates some of the sound that the head makes when it vibrates. By contrast, open back banjos tend to be lighter instruments with many more variations in design and tone rings.”
Mosheim says the two different types of banjos also create very different sounds. “The closed backs on resonator banjos pushes the sound out and gives it a lighter and brighter quality. With bluegrass music – which typically uses resonator banjos – the crispy and bright sound of the banjo usually cuts through all of the instruments. The playing in bluegrass tends to be very fast, technical and precise, so that type of sound is conducive to that type of playing. In the folk and traditional world, people usually want a mellower and warmer sound. The open back banjo is better suited for that type of music.”
Mosheim adds that multiple different measurements greatly influence the sound of the custom banjos that he makes. “A lot of factors go in to play with banjo construction. One of the biggest factors is the size of the head. When you’re making a banjo, you’re essentially taking a drum, putting a neck on it, and putting some strings on it. Like a violin or fiddle, the bridge of the banjo – which is where the strings go over to send the vibration to the head of the banjo – is floating. It’s not glued to the instrument like a guitar. The guitar has a bridge that is attached to that top and doesn’t want to move. Whereas with a banjo, you can move and shift where the bridge sits in relation to the diameter of the head, and change the tone of the instrument in a very drastic way by doing so. If you have a small eight-inch head on a banjo versus a twelve or thirteen-inch head, it’s going to create a very different sound. I find the mechanics of banjos absolutely fascinating. You can make it sound completely different from how it did when you started working on it by just changing out different elements. I think that’s one of the most alluring things about the banjo – it’s incredibly customizable.”
Mosheim puts a great deal of effort into each step of his banjo construction process. In order to create the rounded rims for his banjos, he primarily uses the method of steam bending. “It’s very similar to how drums are made. There are different layers of wood glued into a circle. When I make rims, I take long, straight pieces of wood and then soak them, steam them, bend them around a form and then glue them all together.
Then to finish the rim, I take the rough product and put it on a lathe to round it out perfectly into the diameter, thickness and size I need for the project that I’m working on.”
Mosheim says that he devotes a good portion of time towards helping novice builders improve their banjo-building techniques, and is happy to share the finer points of his processes with newcomers to the craft. “There’s very little I won’t share with people. I have no secrets. I’m also thinking about writing a book dedicated to the process of building a banjo from scratch, as well as some building techniques.”
In addition to building a wide range of string instruments, Mosheim says that he also offers restoration and repair services to his clients. “I learned a lot about restoration and repair from the furniture work that I did with my father. In that sense, I have learned to undo and fix things that other luthiers wouldn’t normally be able to fix. People don’t usually think it’s possible to backtrack in a lot of complicated situations, but it is sometimes feasible to take apart things that you’ve glued together safely in a way that retains the integrity and beauty of the instrument. I like to put a large amount of time and energy into perfecting my repair techniques, because it allows me to be more flexible with my work process when I’m building my instruments. If I’m confident in my abilities as a repairman, I’ll be able to step back and look at a project objectively when something goes wrong, and then take the necessary measures to bring the project back on track. It also teaches you a lot about what not to do when building a new instrument so you don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”
As Mosheim continues to move forward and expand his operation, he remains firmly grounded by holding fast to the humble and wise words that were imparted to him by his father. “The way I look at instrument making and furniture making, there’s always going to be mistakes. My father gave me some really good advice that’s sometimes hard to internalize and embrace, but in my better moments, it has helped me greatly: ‘It’s not about never making mistakes – it’s about how you recover from those mistakes.’ The way I see it, the best craftspeople are the ones that know how to just keep moving, go with the flow, and not let mistakes devastate the trajectory of a project or their emotional well-being. I try my best to live that philosophy every day and apply it to the work that I do. Sometimes mistakes even help me take my work in exciting new directions. Not too long ago, I was working on three nearly-identical banjos. I made a big mistake on one. Originally, I wasn’t happy with how the banjo turned out, but my mistake turned into this extra design element that really caught a client’s eye. I like to think that the process of building instruments is actually a lot like playing music – sometimes our mistakes can help us make an even more beautiful artistic imprint on the world.”
Mosheim says the most rewarding thing about his work is being able to watch talented musicians use his completed instruments. He elaborates: “It’s incredibly fulfilling to hear people use my instruments to create amazing music. There’s nothing better than listening to someone bring their artistic vision to life with one of my banjos or guitars. Allison DeGroot and Carling Berkhout are fantastic clawhammer banjo players who have used my instruments. Allison’s technical skills are absolutely out of this world, and Carling brings a wonderful modern sensibility to her songwriting. Jake Blount is a phenomenal GRAMMY®-nominated musician who has a deep knowledge of the roots of the music that he plays and performs. It’s a joy to hear him play. Eli West has an incredibly graceful and precise voice, playing style, and songwriting style, and Rachel Baiman is able to intertwine her own unique creative voice with the traditional styles and conventions of early country and bluegrass music. Grace van’t Hof is another one of my favorites. She is a powerful force within the traditional music community, and has done some great work with bands such as Della Mae, Bill and the Belles, her duo Sinner and Friends, and the prominent bluegrass band Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. It brings a smile to my face to know that my instruments are in the hands of such talented creatives, and it motivates me to work even harder to make sure that each instrument that I make is perfectly crafted and enjoyable to play.”
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