Knives out
Knives out Credit: Gwynedd Stuart

Dan Koentopp’s guitar-making plate is full. Like, until 2015. The professional luthier—that’s the fancy word for a crafter of stringed instruments—only accepts custom orders, and each guitar takes a little over two months to create. He does almost everything by hand—and some of it with tools he made by hand.

The surfaces in his Lincoln Square workshop are strewn with all sorts of files and hand planes and other woodworking implements, but some of his favorites are the knives he made while working as a violin-restoration specialist downtown. (Chicago is, according to Koentopp, a “huge center for violin making”—the Stradivari Society of North America is headquartered on Michigan Avenue.)

“The special tools,” he says, “are the ones I make.”

Each has a different purpose: the flat-edged knives are best for cutting straight across, the curved ones let him approach pieces of wood from different angles, and the skinny ones are good for carving out F-holes (the curvy cutouts in the body of a guitar) and whittling bridge supports. The turn-of-the-century (the last century) hand-cranked grinder he uses to hew the blades, as well as the water stone that keeps them sharp, are hanging around the workshop, too.

Building custom guitars is great—Koentopp admits that getting laid off from violin restoration was the “best thing that ever happened to me”—but he also says it’s gratifying to hear an instrument after a musician has made it his or her own.

“If you gave the same guitar to players of two different styles, and you got them back a couple years later, they would sound completely different,” he says. “The vibrations get built into the guitar. It’s really cool.”