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Music, Money & Mojo

Trees logged in Northwest BC have typically been made into lumber but the potential for our resources to be so much more has motivated a handful of creative entrepreneurs to start businesses that contribute to the region’s economy - and the world music scene.

In the early 1990s, when Damian Jones and his wife bought and renovated a guest house in Canmore, Alberta, they ran out of money before they could furnish the place. With a bit of woodworking experience under his belt, Jones decided to build some of the furniture himself using old wood. A friend of his was tearing down a barn and Jones used the scraps to make unique beds and end tables.

What started out as necessity became a hobby and then a business when guests started asking if they could buy the refurbished furniture.

Jones soon started selling his work at a local interior design store, Stonewaters Home Elements and his pieces were so popular he struggled to keep up with the orders.
HD buffet and hutch

When Jones and his wife relocated to Smithers in 2001, he started his company Harvest Designs, and furniture building from refurbished wood became his full-time gig.

“I love working with the wood. It’s so beautiful and full of stories,” he says. “And there’s something so enjoyable about putting something to use that would get burned or end up in the landfill.”

Jones now sells his furniture at Heartstrings in Smithers as well.

Most pieces sell for more than a thousand dollars each, many to repeat customers. Jones has a waiting list of about four months for custom orders and his customers may start having to wait even longer.

While the entrepreneur will continue to make furniture, he’s now putting his woodworking skills to another use – working for Rayco Resophonics, building guitars three days a week.

Jones - who plays banjo, mandalin and guitar - has taken a couple guitar-making courses in the past and wants to fine tune those skills.

“The guitar work is so much more challenging,” Jones says. “I find it so much more rewarding. With furniture, there is more leeway. With musical instruments, you’re down to one thousandth of an inch.”

Rayco Resophonics in Smithers handbuilds resophonic guitars and banjos, acoustic and electric guitars and Hawaiian guitars. The company also makes custom guitars, which have a wait time of approximately 18 months. The guitars are made out of different woods, including some local birch, and are sold all over the world.

“There was a need, so we started building those instruments,” says company founder Mark Thibeault.

Almost 330 guitars have been built and sold since the company started 11 years ago, selling for thousands of dollars each.

“There’s lots of bulletin boards and chat groups (on the internet) that perpetuate sales and support,” says Thibeault, a guitar player who has toured with various bands over the years.

“It’s a lifestyle choice,” he continues. “Noone’s making it rich but I get to go to all these great festivals (to sell guitars) and meet really cool people. I get to talk to them, hear their stories.”

In addition to building the instruments themselves, Thibeault and his coworkers teach others how to build guitars. One three-month program they ran taught youth at risk how to build their own electric guitars.

“They didn’t want to take a break. They just wanted to keep going with it,” Thibeault says. “It was incredible.”

Rayco logoThat’s not surprising considering how satisfying Thibeault says it is to make a guitar from scratch.

“Just hearing the music that comes from it when it’s finished, knowing that the little things you are doing along the way are going to make a difference to the way it sounds,” he explains.

Rayco will never be a huge guitar factory. Yet the rich mentorship and training experiences the company offers through its workshops and to its employees, which include some local youth, are invaluable.

“We provide opportunities for people to learn different skills. I see how it can affect people coming into a place like this and building instruments. They learn woodworking skills, math, marketing, organization and life skills - like just showing up for work on time.”

One regional resident who benefits directly from Rayco is co-entrepreneur and guitar-player Shane Neifer, who runs High Mountain Tonewood from his home in Terrace.

High Mountain Tonewood processes specially selected wood from the Terrace area for different parts of acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments, such as the tops (soundboards), backs and sides.  These products are sold to guitar makers around the world, including Rayco.

“The Terrace area is known for its high quality spruce,” Neifer says. “A special Sitka and white Spruce hybrid grows in a small area along valleys that slice through the Cascade Mountain range around here. It’s spectacular wood.”

Totally self-taught, Neifer never planned to start a business. But in 2002, unhappy with the guitar he had bought, he asked a friend about building one. His friend said, “You could do it.” So Neifer did.

“We have 45 acres of land,” Neifer says. “First I took a chunk out of a blow down. Then I got a forest license to harvest green trees that met the specifications required for this wood. Now, although I still harvest from time to time, I also try and buy logs from local companies.”

After experimenting and learning about which woods work best, Neifer now sells guitar tops to many of the best guitar makers in the world.shane neifer 350 x 233

“Almost everyone who’s written a book about guitar making is my customer. I can’t respond fast enough to the market demand,” says Neifer. “There’s great opportunity and huge potential.”

Similar to Jones and Thibeault though, Neifer doesn’t want to run a big company and manage lots of employees. Also similar to the other two musicians and business owners, he wants a profit but a big reason he does the work is for the satisfaction of creating something beautiful with his hands out of wood. 

While Neifer’s always had an entrepreneurial streak, he wants to keep his day job for the stability it provides because High Mountain Tonewood Company doesn’t come without its challenges. The work is labour intensive. Access to raw logs is limited, which makes the wood supply and the quality of that wood intermittent and unreliable. Also, log prices fluctuate often.

“If we could remove some of the barriers, the business could be much more stable,” he says.

Damian Jones, Mark Thibeault and Shane Neifer are just three examples of Northwest BC residents who saw the potential in the natural resources around them, seized an opportunity and started businesses. Take a look around you and just imagine the possibilities.