"Inventor" of Snowboarding Crafts Mandolins
Steve Weill works at musical business in Cocolalla Workshop
The road to Steve Weill’s instrument making shop was rutted and in spots, still covered with snow. Azure skies sifted through a thin layer of clouds and I sang along with Merle Haggard on the radio.
Because I wasn’t sure where I was going, it seemed like a long drive. But really, it only took 15 minutes from the freeway. I have no sense of direction, but Steve had given me visuals to find my way: the open field, the two curves, the Y and the sign announcing his place.
Steve Weill, 58, instrument maker, and his wife of almost 40 years, Mariam Weill, live a bit off the beaten path and totally off the grid.
“I like to live close to the land,” Steve said, “to work with natural resources and be self-sufficient.”
The Weill’s own 80 acres in Cocolalla and built their house and shop.
Steve grew up in Southern California near the edge of the Pacific Ocean. He boated, surfed, and was one of the original snowboarders.
“I invented snowboarding,” Steve said with a smile. “The first time I snowboarded was in 1959.”
Steve’s dad had a shop and built furniture and several small boats. Steve said he always loved wood and working with his hands. He moved to a small farm in Kentucky in 1967, where he had his first experience in the timber industry.
In the late 70s, Steve moved to Idaho and started building 16’ Whitehall rowing boats. He also built snowboards and spent plenty of time carving up Schweitzer Mountain on his handcrafted boards.
“I wanted my son to carry on with Weill snowboards,” Steve said, “but they have gotten pretty high tech. Troy (one of his sons) still builds 16’ rowing boats.”
Steve started playing guitar at 16 and said he has always loved music. He met Bob Givens at a bar in Sandpoint. Bob also built boats, and the two became friends.
“Robert Lee Givens, or ‘Bob’ to his friends, was a friend, mentor and employer in the building of absolutely great mandolins,” Steve said. “He was a mechanical genius and built some of the finest mandolins and guitars this world has ever seen. I worked for him and built about 15 percent of his mandolins, and today I carry on his legacy.”
Steve builds A, F and octave mandolins, and electric, dreadnaught and acoustic guitars. Steve has also built violins and his latest creation, a 3/4 sized guitar made from Hawaii wood.
“I mainly build mandolins,” Steve said,
“about 12-30 units a year. I still find passion in building a great sounding instrument. Some of the would is phenomenal. I think it’s like giving birth because it’s an act of creation. Somewhere along the line, I start disliking it (the new instrument), but a personality develops and in the end, I have something I love.”
Steve showed me how he builds his instruments, starting with a piece of wood that would fit into my fireplace. All the wood is air dried for twenty years or more, which maintains the elasticity. Steve cuts the wood into matching wedges and uses water and heat to bend them into shape. He said it takes between 80-120 hours to build a mandolin over a period of six weeks.
Although the back of the instrument can be made from a variety of wood, such as maple or mahogany, the top is usually made from spruce. Instrument makers worldwide have discovered that spruce produces the best sound.
After the instrument is put together, Steve adds several layers of hot lacquer, sanding and polishing between each addition.
The end instrument looks nothing like the original block of wood. Indeed, it looks like a piece of art and the mandolins I played sounded stunning.
Steve’s grandson, Decker, 8, has already begun to make his own instruments in the shop. Decker has a rare type of cancer, has undergone two bone marrow transplants and received chemo and radiation therapy.
“He’s a pretty amazing guy,” Steve said. “They just found another spot and his parents are going to Seattle for a powwow. Decker understands what’s going on, and says he wants to fight it. He knows about heaven and god and is very accepting of his condition.”
Steve said he finds his inspiration in nature and the wood itself.
“Perfection doesn’t occur on planet earth,” Steve said. “What I get is different than perfection. Each instrument I create has a personality and a unique sound.”