As a luthier of high-end custom acoustic guitars since the mid-2000s—working at Froggy Bottom Guitars before founding his own company, Circle Strings—Adam Buchwald has built hundreds of highly detailed instruments that withstand even the most critical scrutiny. That’s why it’s surprising to see seven coolly simple guitars hanging on the front wall of his shop in the artsy South End of Burlington, Vermont. It’s so surprising that it may require some explanation.
“I wanted to make guitars for working musicians, and most musicians—at least the ones I know—can’t afford to spend $4,000 on a custom guitar,” Buchwald, himself a lifelong musician, says.
This seems like a funny thing to hear, as I stand in the shop and take in all of the other instruments surrounding us—my eyes are particularly drawn to a few parlor-style guitars with ornately figured woods that make up the bulk of Buchwald’s work. But the 40-year-old luthier explains how his commitment to the working musician led to the creation of the Iris Guitar Company and its new line of production instruments, which currently includes one model, the OG. He insists that his Iris guitars, priced at two grand each and most made with European spruce tops and mahogany backs and sides, sound just as good as his much costlier Circle Strings instruments.
Buchwald and a colleague, Nick Durkee, build Iris guitars in the same shop as their Circle Strings counterparts, and so this was easy to confirm. Listening to a visitor play a natural-finished Iris, I couldn’t help but notice how loud and rich it sounded. And when I tried a sunburst example myself, I was taken by its responsive midrange—reminiscent of a Gibson LG-3, but with a distinct depth and clarity in the low end—and by its handsome, stripped-down appearance.
Circle Strings/Iris Guitar Company is located in the same building as Creston Electric Instruments, where the guitar maker Creston Lea builds his custom axes. Buchwald ended up there after starting Circle Strings in Brooklyn, New York, where he studied with the luthier Bob Jones and ran the repair department at Retrofret (the same vintage guitar shop where AG’s resident repair expert, Mamie Minch, once worked). He moved to central Vermont to teach guitar building and repair at Vermont Instruments, and later worked as a luthier at Froggy Bottom Guitars.
In 2012, shortly after Buchwald decided to focus solely on Circle Strings, custom orders started pouring in. “A big part of it was Creston’s clientele,” he says. “When I moved to town, he spread the word that I was here and told some of his customers that I was making acoustics and setting up a shop.”
After my visit, Buchwald and I caught up on the phone to discuss the Iris line and talk about just how he does it.
Where did the idea for a more affordable line of guitars come from?
About two years ago, there were many people wanting to buy my instruments but who couldn’t afford a Circle Strings guitar. They were working musicians or young people with not much disposable income. Also, most Circle Strings instruments are available only by custom order. And for a lot of guitar players, it’s hard to justify ordering a guitar that you’ve never played before—because what if you just don’t like it? I totally get it. As a musician, I’d be skeptical about ordering something so expensive, because $4,000—or more—is a ton of money. I told an employee at the time, Pat Melvin, that we really needed to do some cheaper guitars, get them made so people can easily check them out, and figure out ways in the production process to save a few dollars on labor and material costs.
So why make these guitars their own line?
I didn’t think they should be branded as Circle Strings guitars. There’s a lot of competition with very good builders like Collings and Bourgeois and all those big makers who are selling guitars for $4,000–$10,000, the same price range as Circle guitars. I wanted something to differentiate with that brand. And I saw that Collings did Waterloo and Martin did Sigma—cheaper alternatives, but as high-quality as their more expensive instruments.
What’s the difference between Circle Strings and Iris instruments?
They’re essentially the exact same guitars as those in my other line, but are geared specifically to players. The sonic quality is just as good and they play just as well, because they’re built and set up by the same two people. Iris guitars are a lot less decorated, though, and the material selection is not as fancy.
The Iris OG’s body is clearly inspired by Gibson’s LG-1. What is it about the LG style that is appealing to you?
It’s very comfortable for most people, and it’s not big like a standard dreadnought. It has nice curves and it fits in a standard classical guitar case, which is readily available, so you don’t have to get a custom case made. I wanted a little more bass response, so I took an LG tracing and altered the curves a little bit and expanded the body depth about a quarter of an inch at the tail block, just to give it a thicker sound box. It’s kind of like a shrunken down, slope-shouldered dreadnought.
How do you keep costs lower?
It’s been a fun challenge. It’s broadening my view on ways to build, and it’s exciting, because I’m learning a lot. I had a clear idea of what I needed to pay for the materials to go into the guitar to keep it at $2,000. We chose a 25-inch scale length because it’s very easy to play, and it’s also easy to measure. From the nut to the 12th fret is 12-1/2 inches, so it’s easier to compute while manufacturing with a scale length that’s even. We said we weren’t going to do any inlays on the guitar, so we opted for a transfer logo [rubbed-on decal] on the headstock—just little things to save money here and there.
I wanted something that didn’t have any rosewood or pearl on it, because of all the CITES laws that were coming into effect. And I wanted to make something affordable that could be shipped or brought across any border, so I found this wood called katalox that Martin was using on some lower-end guitars, and it’s a nice alternative tonewood, without any shipping restrictions.
The neck construction was another way I came up with to save money. Guitarists tend to think that one-piece necks are superior to two- or three-piece, but there’s a lot of wood wasted when you use a blank of mahogany for a one-piece. If we scarf the headstock and glue up the heel with another block of mahogany, we save a lot of money and wood. At first it added some time to the labor, but we came up with methods to do that operation that are easy and now take basically the same amount of time as cutting the wood from one big block.
Iris guitars have bolt-on necks. Is that part of the cost-cutting strategy?
The bolt-on neck is something that I actually do on Circle Strings guitars as well. I’ve done so many neck resets on Martins and Gibson dovetails, and it’s a known fact that most acoustic guitars are going to need resets at some point. I just think a bolt-on neck that’s well made and structurally sound—and easy to get on and off—is a lot smarter to do than a glued-in dovetail. I personally don’t hear any sonic difference. I know that a lot of people say that glued-in necks sound better, but I just don’t see how you can prove that unless you make the same exact guitar—same wood, same dimensions, same everything, which is nearly impossible to do—and compare the two instruments.
As you were saying, the aesthetics on the Iris are much simpler than on the Circle Strings guitars, too.
Yes—the rosette is just two rings of purfling, where I would normally do something more elaborate, either a pearl or wood mosaic rosette, or a three-ring rosette with pearl . . . just a lot more detail.
But the majority of the time we’re saving on building these instruments is in the finish. On a Circle Strings guitar, we do pore filling and that takes a lot of time. We usually do a high-gloss, super-smoothed-out catalyzed urethane or UV-cured polyester finish. Then we have to let the finish cure for a few weeks before sanding it to 1500/2000 grit and buffing it. When handling and assembling a buffed-out guitar, any sneeze you make you can scratch it. It’s a lot more time-consuming to do that and then get it assembled without any scratches on it, because then you have to go back to the buffing wheel or re-sand or sometimes even re-spray.
For the Iris, we just do a protective, matte nitro finish. We don’t have to do pore filling; we don’t have to fill every little crevice or gap in the wood that we see. We decided to forgo that and do the finish as simply and cleanly as we can without much work. It turned out to be great because we’re not adding a lot of finish onto the wood, so it’s able to vibrate more.
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I love the look of the wood without pore filler.
In the world of high-end acoustics, you look at an instrument in every single light and at every angle to find any pinhole or divot in the finish that you need to attend to. If you leave even a slight gap at the rosette, purfling, or binding joints, a customer who’s spending that kind of money is going to say, “That needs to be fixed,” or you send it to a dealer where they’re like, “I can’t sell this guitar for $10,000 with the pores showing—nobody’s gonna buy it.” On the other hand, for most working musicians I know, if a guitar plays well and sounds good, it’s like, who cares?
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.