Alchemy of an artisan

Model maker and luthier Paul Fisher refines youthful obsessions into a cottage industry beneath the pines of Paradise

GUITAR MAN Fisher gives a test strum to a not-quite-finished jazz guitar.

GUITAR MAN Fisher gives a test strum to a not-quite-finished jazz guitar.

Photo By Stephanie Bird

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The first time I encountered Paul Fisher—back in the paisley-shrouded recesses of mid-'70s Chico—he was a dour and taciturn silhouette hunched beneath a high-intensity lamp in an otherwise dark corner of a house on Elmer Street occupied by a bunch of Los Angeles refugees who called their avant-garde rock band Mistress Quickly. Glancing up from his labors amid a scattering of drawing paper and plastic model kit parts, Fisher may have muttered a dismissive, “Hi,” when we were introduced by a mutual friend. It was hard to tell over the prog-rock soundtrack that blared into the room from an outsized stereo.

Twenty-odd years later, a very different Paul Fisher greeted me from inside his spacious but cluttered workshop at the end of a pleasantly secluded dead-end road on the sun-dappled outskirts of Paradise. The “very angry young man” who created the authority-figure-taunting cartoon strip “Captain Smegma” for the Chico State Wildcat newspaper in the mid-'70s had metamorphosed into a mellow and industrious craftsman, the proprietor of Fisher Model and Pattern, a very successful and highly reputed manufacturer of upscale cast-resin model kits of rare automobiles and vintage jet aircraft.

Fisher says, “Shaping and bending the wood is probably the most satisfying part of the process of building instruments.” Stephanie Bird

Photo By Stephanie Bird

Motivated by curiosity about the process of manufacturing and marketing such a labor-intensive specialty item, I’d driven up the hill intending to do an interview about Fisher’s model-making business, but things took a turn in a different direction once I was embroiled in the reality of the situation at hand. Hanging from the wall, leaning on stands, and lying on work tables in various stages of completion in a segregated corner of the shop were some of the most beautiful hollow-bodied guitars I’d ever seen. Marvels of gleaming wood and metal.

When Fisher asked, “So, do you want to talk about the models or the guitars?” it was obvious my original intent had been sidetracked.

Four years ago I’d seen Fisher’s first hand-wrought electric guitar: a gorgeous example of meticulous craftsmanship with a top carved from Australian lacewood, a material so delicate that Fisher was forced to manufacture his own woodworking tools out of glass to get an edge keen enough to shape the fragile wood without marring it. “I’ve still got that guitar over in the house,” Fisher said, nodding toward the modest ranch-style home he shares with wife Susy and kids Allison and James. “It turned out to be a great playing guitar.”

Fisher displays the symetrical woodgrain pattern of the guitar’s back, produced by a process called “bookmatching” two pieces of wood.

Photo By Stephanie Bird

What had started out as a hobby meant to relieve the demanding routine of model manufacturing didn’t take long to become a sideline business after Fisher accepted his first commission two years ago to build a custom electric jazz guitar for local legend Charlie Robinson’s 68th birthday. “That’s like being asked to build a hammer for Thor,” Fisher said with a laugh. “You don’t fuck it up.”

Seeing Robinson’s eyes light up when he unwrapped the guitar and proceeded to “play it all night” at the celebration following the presentation probably provided the impetus to transform Fisher from skilled dilettante to committed practitioner of the luthier’s art.

“I had the skill set from years of working with wood and metal in model-making,” Fisher reflected. “In 1973 I started working as a modeler for a bunch of old codgers in the wind tunnel at Northrup Aircraft [in Southern California], making 3-D models to test the aerodynamics of aircraft designs. That was a great job.”

MODEL CITIZEN, Fisher holds the finished version one of his most successful model kits, a one-of-a-kind 1953 Alfa Romeo.

From the wind tunnel of Northrup, Fisher moved on to the design and development department at Mattel Toys, where he worked as “the 3-D guy, rendering people’s ideas into an actual object that a kid could hold and play with.”

With money earned from his modeling expertise and, later, model manufacturing, Fisher had amassed a collection of some 20 rare and vintage guitars. “But none of them really played that great,” he said. So, encouraged by famed Paradise guitar builder Wayne Charvel, who basically told him to “stop bitching about ’em and build one of my own,” Fisher did just that with amazingly successful results. He eventually sold off the guitar collection and used the proceeds to purchase the wood and tools necessary to get into guitar building at a much more serious, professional level.

At this point the modeling business—which includes creating “patterns,” the basic pieces from which molds are copied and finished models manufactured—still provides the bread and butter of Fisher’s operation. But as he sees it, the hardcore modeling fanatics that support his business are “aging themselves out of the market; the real serious guys are in their seventies now.” And new generations have not caught the model-building fever of their predecessors.

The work bench where model parts, vacuum-cast from polyurethane resin using molds handcrafted by Fisher, are prepared for shipping to modeling enthusiasts around the world.

But the market for handcrafted guitars is stable and perhaps even growing, not to mention that succeeding generations are peppered with young musicians who someday will attain the skills and desire that justify purchasing or commissioning a custom instrument. And from his stock of exotic imported woods and select local hardwoods Fisher is just the guy to provide those instruments.

Starting at around $3,000 and requiring around 150-175 hours of very intense labor, plus six months to a year of aging as the materials stabilize to provide optimal acoustic responsiveness, Fisher’s guitars are just starting to build a reputation in the custom instrument field. Becoming an exhibitor at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival last August was Fisher’s first major venture into the field of custom guitar marketing. And it worked.

“That’s how you’ve got to do it,” Fisher told me. “Get eight or 10 instruments out there where people can see and hear them and go from there.” From that single show he met 10 or 12 people who are interested in purchasing one of his guitars.

Watching Fisher move comfortably about his workspace brandishing a homemade sandpaper holder that’s “perfect for sanding curves” or picking up a still-seasoning guitar-in-progress to strum out a bluesy progression, one gets the dual impression of being in the presence of a master craftsman and a kid who’s having the time of his life.

As we were escorted to the barnyard gate by Fisher’s affectionately barking old pug dog Ricardo, followed closely by Tallulah the inquisitive goose, I reflected on something Fisher said early in our conversation, “I’m really lucky in that I just make everything I liked when I was a kid,” said Fisher, “I’m just not a business person. I’m amazed I’ve gotten away with it as long as I have, but that just shows you the power of being pig-headed. If you’re only good at one thing, that’s what you’ve got to do. This is what I do. I get excited about making things with wood.”

It’s somehow comforting to know that wholeheartedly pursuing one’s youthful enthusiasms can lead to a cottage industry thriving on the outskirts of Paradise.