Renowned luthier Narong Visesnut crafts world-class guitars and guitar cases in his hidden Chinatown workshop
Up a flight of stairs toward the very back of a cavernous auto parts showroom and warehouse in Chinatown, a small dusty room is stacked with fragrant slabs of spruce, cedar, and rosewood. Medieval-looking hand-tools dangle from walls. Power saws and wood forms are mounted on heavy work tables. Half-carved guitar necks and un-lacquered guitar tops await assembly and finishing.
This ramshackle part of Bangkok is the last place you’d expect to find a luthiery specializing in classical guitars, but for Narong Visesnut, owner of Visesnut Guitars, situating his workshop in the family’s home warehouse and offices makes it easy for him to commute between business and passion.
Narong started playing classical guitar as a child and never stopped playing, even when he later developed a successful business supplying injection-moulded plastic components to the automotive and electronics industries. While the business provided a comfortable living for his family, Narong’s passion for the guitar still gathered steam under the surface. It developed a fresh angle when he became interested in guitar-building over 10 years ago.
“I spent a year reading every book on luthiery I could find, and searching the Internet for places where I could order tools and materials,” says Narong. “I wasn’t such a great musician, but I thought I might be able to make nice instruments for other guitarists.”
He built his first classical guitar from a kit in 2007. He still keeps it close at hand as a reminder of how far he has come in the world of crafting these magnificent musical instruments.
In the intervening years, Narongsak has made trips abroad to learn more about the art of building guitars from master luthiers in the USA, Spain, Germany, and Japan.
“I’ve learned along the way that you need a certain boldness to undertake the craft,” he admits. “It’s not for the faint-hearted, as sometimes woods will crack while being cured or shaped, and you have to start over from scratch.”
Narongsak typically uses imported spruce or cedar for the soundboards of his guitars, and Indian rosewood for the back and sides.
“These are the tried and true woods favoured by the masters, so I tend to stick with them,” he notes while showing off chalk-marked samples in his workshop.
“You can get away with using a few Thai woods for interior bracing, even sometimes for the neck. But, in general, tropical woods are too hard and dense. They tend to block sound vibrations.”
For the bridge he chooses Brazilian rosewood. For the fingerboard and headstock faceplate, he uses ultrafine-grained ebony. In addition, he encircles the sound hole of each guitar with an intricate mosaic of tiny, multi-hued pieces of wood.
With such attention to detail, Narongsak is only able to build about five classical guitars each year, which mostly go to customers in Southeast Asia. If you should be interested in ordering one, expect to join a three-year waiting list. Meanwhile, prices starting in and around the 100,000 baht range.
Though a master at crafting the instrument, Narongsak may have found his true calling in a line of premium ultra-light guitar cases he started building a few years ago. His revolutionary design, which he constructs entirely by himself, weighs a mere three kilos empty, far less than most other cases, and is exceptionally strong, easily supporting the weight of a 90-kilo person standing flat on the lid.
As a classical guitarist himself, Narongsak—now in his late 50s—is sensitive to the particular needs of his fellow musicians.
“I started designing prototypes a year and a half ago because I wasn’t happy with classical guitar cases available elsewhere,” he says. “I have scratched guitars on the metal latches when removing them from their cases. The Hokkaido spruce top of my prized Kohno guitar cracked once when the guitar fell from the case because I couldn’t tell whether it was latched or not.”
He goes on to say that his target market is performing artists who travel frequently, whether to and from concerts or between home and conservatory.
“They typically own very expensive, hand-crafted instruments,” he explains, “so they need a case that is extremely protective but also very light. Carrying heavy cases can cramp the hands and fingers and affect performance.”
The light, double-walled urethane body of the case is designed to absorb impact and insulate the contents from extreme temperature changes. With his company’s background in the custom design and manufacturing of high-quality plastic components, Narongsak was uniquely qualified to experiment with the material in a way that most instrument case manufacturers are not.
The velvet interior of the Visesnut case features a thickly cushioned suspension system that fits around the perimeter of the guitar body and, by means of pull-straps and Velcro, can be adjusted for a snug fit. Once the form is adjusted, the guitar doesn’t shift inside the case. It also means the case will fit guitars of varying size. Visesnut guitar cases are the only cases in the world with this unique design feature.
Stainless steel locking latches were custom-made for Visesnut to eliminate protruding parts which might impale or scratch the guitar if the lid were to accidentally close while removing or inserting the instrument.
The exterior of the case includes backpack straps, another feature rarely seen in a hard shell guitar case. Plastic bumpers also ensure stability when the case is standing in either a vertical or horizontal position. Meanwhile, the lid and body meet with a special cushioned gasket seal to ensure humidity control and tighten contact between lid and body for superior case integrity in the event of severe blows to the exterior.
A thick, comfortable leather handle is conveniently placed in the curve between neck and body to achieve a sleek profile. On the company website the prices are in US dollars, but the Premier Series cases are in the neighbourhood of about B26,000, depending on the finish ordered, while the less expensive Active Series cases go for about B18,000.
Narongsak also offers an optional soft case cover for additional thermal insulation and shock resistance. The heavy-duty, rip-stop nylon bag features YKK zippers with leather pulls and enclosed rain flaps to repel water away from the case.
By Joe Cummings/CPA Media