Last week, the PBS News Hour ran a story on Detroit luthier Gary Zimnicki’s ongoing project of building ukuleles and guitars from the wood reclaimed from the Motor City’s abandoned homes.
It stood for a century in the heart of Motor City. Built in 1910, the snug two-story home on Detroit’s Trumbull Street was a six-minute walk from Motown’s legendary Hitsville U.S.A. recording studio and less than a mile from General Motors’ longtime headquarters.
Today, the house is gone, replaced by an empty lot on a block full of boarded-up buildings in a fiscally bankrupt city. But the structure’s venerable bones aren’t buried in a landfill, rather they are singing out as a unique musical instrument.
Crafted from reclaimed wood harvested from the Trumbull Street house, this unique uke, with strips of birdseye maple down the back, recently attracted major buzz at the 2013 Healdsburg Guitar Festival, held in the San Francisco Bay Area. Zimnicki, a well-known guitar maker who recently began crafting ukuleles and mandolins, used maple floor boards from the deconstructed dwelling to fashion the back, sides, and neck of the instrument. The top is made of Douglas fir that once helped support the house’s ceilings.
The 56-year-old Zimnicki, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Allen Park, got the idea from a friend. “He said to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be a cool thing to make a uke out of an abandoned house?’” Zimnicki recalls. “But I had no idea how to go about it. I wasn’t about to grab a flashlight and a crowbar and just start taking a house apart.”
Then the luthier stumbled upon Reclaim Detroit, a nonprofit organization that dismantles vacant structures to recover materials for re-use. In the Great Recession’s wake, Detroit has struggled to cope with thousands of abandoned buildings, and Reclaim Detroit offers an eco-friendly, job-providing alternative to the wrecking ball.
The project required Zimnicki to sort carefully through piles of maple floorboards, looking for sound pieces. And he had to clean the wood he found, which required gloves and a mask. “There was a hundred years of filth on this wood,” he says with a laugh. “I couldn’t really tell the quality until I got it back to the shop and sanded it down and got past the surface disgustingness.”
Zimnicki was careful to avoid cracks, which were common. “I don’t mind nail holes though, because they can be filled and they serve as a reminder of where the wood originated,” he explains. And diligent cleaning revealed pieces with an interesting birdseye figure he used for the instrument’s back.
For a soprano uke, Zimnicki typically uses a big piece of koa to make a one-piece top and a one-piece back. But the floor boards from Trumbull Street were only about two inches wide, requiring a multi-piece approach. The dark strips between the maple on the back and sides are from a locally harvested black walnut tree.
“I don’t typically put a seven-piece back on a uke,” Zimnicki says with a chuckle. “But there was no getting around the seams, so I decided to make them as visible as possible.”
The soundboard and braces, meanwhile, are made from Douglas fir taken from the home’s ceiling joists. “I had to dig through quite a few planks, since the grain orientation was often 90 degrees away from what I wanted,” he explains.
Given the challenges, Zimnicki didn’t have high hopes for the sound.
“I was really excited when I finally strung it up because it sounded way, way better than I expected,” he says. “That was something I kept hearing from people at the Healdsburg show— that it was one of the better ukes they’d played.” The wood deserves substantial credit, Zimnicki adds. “The house was built in 1910, so the wood was likely cut even before that,” he says. “And there’s no substitute for age when it comes to high-quality wood.”
Reclaim Detroit has also furnished the luthier with material for two other ukes and a mandolin, and he plans to make others.
Why would Zimnicki, a well-respected luthier with a 30-year career under his belt, take a chance on a pile of dirty wood from a torn-down house? He cites the desire for a unique instrument and the good feeling that comes from keeping material out of landfills.
But there’s more at work. Zimnicki has lived in the Detroit area his entire life, and his wife teaches at Wayne State University, blocks from Trumbull Street. “Detroit really takes a beating in the press lately,” he says. “Like a lot of people around here, I kind of resent the exposure we get in the national media. Of course, there are some bad things going on. But this is my way of letting people know there are some really great things happening here also.”
Learn more about Zimicki’s instruments.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue.