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Craftsman combines engineering skill with passion for music

April 1, 2018

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — It was probably inevitable that Tim Yoder would build guitars one day. He’s worked with wood since his mid-teens, holds a mechanical engineering degree from Mississippi State and can flatpick, fingerstyle or rock out at the drop of a hat. With the skills of a master craftsman and the heart of an incurable musician, he was destined to eventually see if he could do it himself. That happened in 2003.

“I built my first guitar when I couldn’t afford a nice Tele Thinline,” he says, meaning a Fender Telecaster model. “I’ve been building them part-time ever since.” Archtops, electrics, basses, flat tops, he’s challenged himself to make them all -- about 15 instruments to date.

By day, the 46-year-old works with his elder brother Kevin at Yoder Woodworks in southwest Lowndes County, primarily crafting high-end architectural millwork. Night usually finds him in his home workshop, or playing guitar in his dining-room-turned-studio, sometimes alone, often with friends.

Yoder only started learning guitar at age 20, but he’s no stranger to having an audience. He played in various band configurations in earlier years and frequently performed with bands while living for a time in Nashville, Tennessee, where he also worked as a mechanical engineer.

Most recently, he’s begun collaborating with Alan Fitzek, who moved to the Golden Triangle last fall. The duo debuts some of their original contemporary folk on singer-songwriter nights at Dave’s Dark Horse in Starkville.

Yoder began falling for guitars while coming of age in Noxubee County, listening to musicians like his brother-in-law play in the Mennonite church the woodworker’s father pastored.

“And my big brother Randy played bass guitar and was in a band when I was little,” Yoder says. “Of course, I thought that was pretty cool.”

Yoder’s brother Kevin, who taught Tim his woodworking skills, watched his younger sibling come into his own musically, watched him apply his work ethic and craftsmanship to building his own guitars.

“He really got interested and started making some on the side,” says Kevin Yoder. “He’s got quite a portfolio now.”

In the workshop

In the smaller of two neatly organized workshops at his home, Tim Yoder is surrounded by tools, specs, guitar forms and a couple of custom acoustic instruments in different stages of completion. He typically puts 200 to 300 hours in each one he makes.

“I just love the creativity,” he says. “I love coming up with the designs, figuring out the shapes, the inlay ... ”

His respect and passion for the craft seeps through as he talks about steps such as steam-bending, bracing, kerfing, lacquering and setting up strings. He uses traditional guitar “tone woods” like rosewood and mahogany but also likes using others such as oak, poplar, maple or walnut. One handsome guitar he’s working on is made from a massive oak that came down in his own backyard.

Yoder’s guitars often feature hand-carving on the neck heels and discreet inlays of abalone and mother-of-pearl on the curved back of the neck.

“It just adds a bit of eye candy and exclusivity to a fine handcrafted instrument,” he says.

Some of Yoder’s work can be seen -- and heard via video -- at tlyguitars.com, the site he’s set up to offer his services as a luthier. Creating an instrument for someone else is a collaboration. Variables may entail using a particular piece of wood that means something to the customer, tweaking neck dimensions or customizing an inlay.

“I feel like a custom guitar is an heirloom to be handed down to future generations,” says Yoder. He designs with longevity in mind.

Alan Fitzek admires the high quality he sees in Tim’s work.

“He really contributes himself to his craft ... you go into his shop, it’s very clean, very meticulous,” Fitzek says. “And he has his guitars hanging there (at home); I’ve picked them up and played them and they sound beautiful.”

When a new instrument finally graduates from Yoder’s workshop, he sets about really getting to know it musically.

“I’ll bring it out, spend a week or two playing it, maybe tweaking something on the set up,” he says. When satisfied, he calls it finished. “And then you kind of don’t know what to do for a couple of days,” he laughs. That’s often solved by a little backpacking break with Boo, Yoder’s 11-year-old dog. Before long, the artisan is ready to get started on the next TLY guitar.

“Every one is a new challenge, and I enjoy that as well as the creativity,” he says. “I think of each one as a little piece of artwork.”

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Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com

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