I’ll Pack a Guitar: Meet the Makers of the Alpaca Guitar
Looking for the ultimate travel guitar? The carbon fiber guitar from Alpaca Guitar is an excellent choice for the adventurer.
Chris Duncan, the founder and designer of the Alpaca Guitar, was inspired to create the guitar after a year-long, cross country trip with his family in a 40’ converted bus. The instruments brought on that journey deteriorated due to humidity, temperatures, and the general abuses of travel. The Alpaca Guitar is a purpose-built weather and water resistant instrument, specifically created to withstand the elements that would disintegrate normal wooden instruments. The guitar is composed of carbon fiber, flax fabric and bio-derived resins; the result is a rugged yet lightweight instrument capable of beautiful, resonant sound.
There are several features unique to the Alpaca Guitar: tuners that are placed at the guitar’s base instead of on the traditional but vulnerable head of the guitar; a sound hole that is moved from behind the strings to a more accessible place, for water drainage and possible storage; and a carbon fiber “daisy chain” strap on the back of the guitar which allows for easy attachment to outdoor gear.
In 2012, the Alpaca Guitar was conceived and a Kickstarter campaign was created for crowdfunding the business. The goal was met in five days and pre-sold over 140 guitars, which showed a strong demand and market for the guitar. The campaign received close to $70,000 – far more than the original goal of $40,000. Funds were used to set up the production shop and manufacturing systems.
In the beginning, the company consisted of three founding partners and has since evolved into a seven-person team (five full-time employees). The team currently manufactures in the small-town of Bethel, Vermont, a community known for manufacturing companies like Vermont Castings and the organic feed company, Green Mountain Feeds. Re-establishing manufacturing and creating sustainable jobs in small-town America, with an emphasis on using domestic materials and businesses, is one of the goals of Alpaca Guitar.
Alpaca Guitar’s current shop was once the Richardson General Store on Main Street. Barely any evidence remains of the previous business, except for a row of glass cooler doors, which now functions as a partition wall. The interior is utilitarian and segmented into several different work areas. Starting from one end of the shop, carbon fiber pieces are cut and trimmed by a CNC machine, an open-plan workspace has several craftsmen finishing the guitars, and, beyond a wall of recycled windows, is the finishing and packing/shipping area. Upstairs is the home for the machine responsible for infusing the fabric with glue/epoxy. The separate spaces work well for each part of the process, and help contain the dust from the finishing space.
The guitars are all handmade in Vermont, with no outsourcing of the manufacturing process. Almost all the materials are sourced domestically, including bio-derived materials like flax fabrics, resins and solvents. The process includes several different steps, with a different team member responsible for each part of the manufacturing. The process starts with production member Bobbie cutting the fabric, both flax and carbon fiber, into shapes. Those fabric shapes are laid into a mold, and will become the body of the guitar. A film is attached to the mold and glue/epoxy is infused with the fabric through a vacuum process. The result is an air-free, bubble-free product. The pieces are cut and trimmed on a CNC machine by John, the production manager, and then the face and body are assembled and glued together by team member Tony. Another team member, Paul, polishes and adds a carbon fiber “daisy chain” strap to the guitar’s back. After Paul, it arrives to the head luthier, Jay, where the guitar is strung and tuned. The entire process takes approximately eight hours, roughly 1 hour in each person’s hands. About 20 guitars are made every month, with one guitar finished every day. The current build time is 60-90 days. About half of the finished guitars stay domestically, while the rest are shipped internationally. Alpaca Guitars can be found on every continent, including one at a South Pole research station.
Instead of assigning a number, each guitar is given an actual name and a birthday (the birthdate is the day the face is glued to the body). There is a theme for every cycle of the alphabet, A to Z. On the particular week I visited the shop, the theme was “ladies of American history.” Instruments, like boats, are normally referred to as “she” and given a woman’s name. Recent names included “Lady Bird” after former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Memorable names include “Yolanda” and “Quimby.” The names add a unique and personal touch to every guitar.
In the future, the company plans to expand due to the high demand for its product. With expansion, the company anticipates creating more offerings, including mandolins and ukuleles made from carbon fiber. Other travel sturdy items will be offered, like a jute Alpaca Dirt Bag and other paraphernalia.
Alpaca Guitars cost $899 + shipping. Customized models are available. There is a lengthy waitlist and the build time is 60-90 days. A 50% deposit is required to start any order http://alpacaguitar.com/