From the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY KATE KOENIG
If you met Steve Uhrik, the founder of Retrofret Vintage Guitars in Brooklyn, New York, out of the context of his shop, you would likely have no idea he was “somebody” in the vintage guitar industry. In fact, he would probably reject that description entirely and turn the conversation towards the topic of someone who mentored him—or better yet, someone who works for him today.
Opened in 1983, Retrofret itself is not as unassuming as its founder. Its location on the periphery of Carroll Gardens, between the highway and a serene neighborhood of brownstones, chartreuse greenery, and inviting restaurants, is just accessible and secluded enough that every visit feels both deliberate and special. I stepped into the showroom early on a Thursday morning and took in the vast inventory of carefully displayed instruments, set before white brick walls, an empty fireplace, and exposed wooden ceiling beams that evoke a fittingly classic era. Even in great quantities, their guitars have strong personalities likely enhanced with age, including a ca. 1925 Stahl Artist Special Style 9 made by the Larson Brothers and a 1952 Gibson SJ-200 owned and played by Dave Dudley. Also on display are a few banjos dating back to the 19th century— a ca. 1890 pony banjo and a ca. 1870 seven-string minstrel banjo—along with a modest collection of mandolins and ukuleles, a dulcimer, and a few harp guitars.
Uhrik, 64, has been in the industry for 45 years, making him a valuable resource—he’s helped supply vintage guitars and instruments to museum collections at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix as well as the Martin Guitar Museum in Pennsylvania. When a former teacher, violin repairman Sam Eisenstein, passed away and his shop was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Met gave Uhrik Eisenstein’s antique display cases. One now holds a 1952 Fender Esquire on Retrofret’s showroom floor. The other, in the downstairs offices, contains an antique dulcimer from 1910 with Bible verses on the inside and Messianic symbols carved into it, Uhrik says.
The shop’s inclusion of those kinds of idiosyncratic folk instruments—a 1937 Wilkanowski archtop that resembles a giant violin, and a ca. 1905 Luigi Mozzani lyre harp guitar among them—reflects how Uhrik, a Brooklyn native, got into the trade. “My dad used to take me to the Met, and I was enthralled with the antiquity of musical technology. The dead ends, the sax horns with eight bells, things that looked like cellos that had frets—the arpeggione—that stuff just had me.” He continues, “My dad was a tinkerer. As a teenager, I got into playing street hockey. He took the old rubber blankets they used in giant industrial lithography drums, and he’d cut them up and make them into knee pads. At the time it was an embarrassment, but looking back, it was totally badass.”
Uhrik went on to study at Brooklyn Tech, one of that borough’s specialized high schools, and graduated in the school’s last all-male class in 1973. That year, he opened his first shop, Uhrik Luthiers, on Mercer Street in Manhattan, with pipe organ builder Larry Trupiano and another friend, Bob Jones. After a few years there as well as a brief stint at New Jersey’s Guitar Trader, where Uhrik saw “every kind of prewar Martin, pre-CBS Strat, Tele, Gibson, and 1959 Les Paul Burst,” he and Trupiano bought the old ASPCA headquarters at 233 Butler Street in Brooklyn, where they stayed until 2017—roughly 35 years—before moving to their new location at 87 Luquer Street. The official reopening was in September of last year.
The Tools of the Trade
The two-floor space is divided between their downstairs offices and the showroom upstairs, adjacent to which is the shop, where repairs are done and newly acquired inventory is fixed up as needed. (Every instrument passes through the shop before being put on display.) These days, Uhrik concentrates more on the back-end, administrative side of the business, only working on specific guitars he might have more of a specialty in than his staff members. He’s quick to praise the people he works with, emphasizing the importance of his team. “Repairs are done more by collective problem solving. I’m a real believer that sometimes the collective answer is better than one expert’s.”He elaborates, “One of our technicians, Jason Marshall, not only worked for Gibson and Jerry Jones, but also worked in the furniture trade. Another technician, Amy Mills, uses our wood lathe for her own artistic endeavors. What she transfers in terms of her skill set there to guitar repair is phenomenal.”
Uhrik comes alive as he walks me through the shop and points to various tools he’s collected over the years. “I came around at a time when we were altering and appropriating tools from other industries. Now you go to StewMac—if you want something that chops the tang off frets, they have it.”He shows me a cobbler’s hammer he found at a flea market and modified for fretwork, a pair of flat cutters that he’s had for 40 years—reshaped to sit flush on the fingerboard for fret-pulling—and an old set of pliers he ground down to get a “very duck bill grab on things.” Among other tools in the workshop are tiny table saws designed for making model train parts, a “super thin, super sharp” Japanese draw saw (“great for making really fine cuts”), and his favorite new tool—an eyeglass warmer that allows him to warm flammable materials to exact temperatures.
Chemistry and Camaraderie
Our conversation is the most fun when Uhrik shares his fascination with chemistry as it relates to guitar repair. Over the course of the morning, he explains to me the chemical properties of cyanoacrylate (superglue) and how it bonds with wood due to moisture and its microscopically rough, locking surface; how aniline dye—originally developed for garments—can cause discoloration on certain vintage guitars due to photoreactivity; and how celluloid nitrate emits vinegar fumes that decay other parts of the instrument.
Uhrik says he loves all glues equally but speculates about the drawbacks of yellow glue: “Aliphatic resin glue, or yellow glue, creates a barrier between the two pieces of wood you’re gluing. I’m not a scientist, but it’s got to have a mechanical effect in decoupling vibration, whereas hide glue basically creates a much tighter molecular bond—it’s almost a suction process that brings the wood together.”
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When Uhrik’s right-hand guy, archivist Peter Kohman, arrives, the two don’t miss a beat in launching into a lengthy discussion of historic luthiers, their students, and everything in between. Uhrik turns to me and wryly says, “We do fix and sell guitars.” Retrofret definitely seems to be run with an air of enthusiasm and genuine camaraderie, further validated by Uhrik’s mild ambitions: “My goal is to retain what we’re doing as one of the only shops
in New York that deals just with vintage instruments. It sounds overly simplistic but, more of the same. I’m content with that.
“My goal is to keep this a big adventure. There’s a reason I come to work at five o’clock in the morning. I find this an absolute joy to be around.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.