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Guitars fill man's free time

LAKE PARK, Minn. -- Polished guitars and violins hang by their necks above workbenches, buffing machines and electric saws in Lewy Ronken's workshop.

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LAKE PARK, Minn. -- Polished guitars and violins hang by their necks above workbenches, buffing machines and electric saws in Lewy Ronken's workshop.

At about 5 a.m. most winter mornings, the instruments bear witness to Ronken as he molds thin strips of maple into curves and carves thin, arched surfaces out of thick slabs of bass wood.

This has been Ronken's routine for almost 20 years, during which he has constructed about 40 guitars.

"It takes so long to do," he said. "It's 99 percent patience."

He works about an hour a day in the winter, when the humidity is lower. He then heads to work as a technology coordinator for the Lake-Park Audubon School District.

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Ronken, 55, said he hopes to retire in about two years and spend more time in his shop.

"I don't want it to be a 'business', but I'd like to do six, eight, 10 guitars a year," he said.

Ronken's zeal for instrument building was spawned in part by a trip to what he described as an unheated chicken coup, where a poor, rural man had left hundreds of string instruments and parts.

Ronken didn't get a chance to meet the man who had died, but bought the many violin and cello pieces the man left behind.

Once home, Ronken said he had to do something with all the violin pieces lying around his garage.

"I was forced to put them together," he said.

The trip to the defunct instrument-building shack wasn't Ronken's first exposure to the craft.

He had dabbled with constructing guitars before then and had a history as both a musician and a builder.

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"I have been a musician all of my life," Ronken said.

When he was 10 years old, his parents moved from their Minnesota farm and next door to a guitar teacher in Bemidji.

The music teacher took Ronken under his wing and taught him music theory and how to play. He also organized Ronken and a group of local kids into a band that played at PTA meetings and other community events.

Now Ronken plays weekly at church services and an occasional gig, but he's never been a full-time musician because he didn't like the lifestyle, he said.

As for his drive to build, said Ronken: "It's a family thing."

Ronken almost single-handedly built his Lake Park house and many of the cars that fill his self-built garages, he said. The back door of Ronken's shop opens to a garden of rusted out jalopies that Ronken reconstructs in the summer.

He also made several of his tools, such as the wooden pieces that measure guitar-top curves and the carved forms he uses to set the shape of guitar sides.

Ronken started his instrument building with violins and flat-top and electric guitars, but has recently focused on arch top jazz guitars.

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"There are very few arch-top builders," he explained. Those instruments are more difficult to construct because of the instrument's specialized curved front, he said.

By hitting a guitar's recently carved surface, Ronken said he can hear and, if necessary, adjust its pitch.

The guitars are quite an investment, both in time and money.

Just the materials for one costs Ronken $400 to $500, he said.

Ronken uses dozens of tools to fine-tune his creations, from sanding down the sides of finger-placement wires to placing pearl inlays in the guitar's neck.

Listening to other people play his guitars is very rewarding, said Ronken, who has sold several of his instruments.

While he said he enjoys the guitar-building process, his favorite part is "when I can string it up and play it," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Lisa Schneider at (701) 241-5529

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