Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ed Stilley, guitar maker

I have been reading Craftsman of the Cumberlands: Tradition and Creativity by Michael Owen Jones about chairmaker, Chester Cornett. I've been finding some similarity between Chester Cornett our local guitar maker Ed Stilley. Both are somewhat enigmatic individuals. Ed Stilley was recorded as a folk musician as early as the 1950's by anthologists collecting the music of the Ozarks, and Ed makes his own guitars which he gives to children to encourage their play. The guitars are made in a wide range of styles, often made with unusual materials, and no two are ever alike. The designs break most of the rules about guitar making, and most constitute some new exploration of concepts more conventional guitar makers would immediately discard as impractical. In this way his craft is similar to the creative, outlandish and impractical chair designs by Chester Cornett. Almost all of Stilley's guitars are hand lettered with Christian quotations. Through this link you can hear Ed Stilley Play "in the Pines", a folk classic.

The photo below is of Chester Cornett's interesting way of measuring. With his thumbs overlapped, the full spread of his hands equals 1 foot.I doubt that many viewing the photo at left would understand the skill involved in creating an octagonal shape with such precision using a draw knife. Nor would they understand the level of effort required, nor the emotionally settling qualities of such work. As a test, take a piece of rough wood and a piece of fine sand paper. Sand it awhile and feel its transition from coarse and scratchy to soft and engaging. The tactile and visual transformations that take place in the making of real objects are a form of nourishment.
Chester Cornett lived a tumultuous life, disturbed by abject poverty, a failed marriage, and children with severe mental retardation. If some of his work seems strange, like the eight legged book case chair at left, remember that for some craftsmen, their work is a form of refuge from difficult circumstances completely beyond their means to understand or control.


  1. Anonymous11:31 AM

    Doug check out Still on the hill on youtube for a Ed stilley tune and a guitar played bur made by Ed.

    Scrapwood Bob

  2. Anonymous5:53 AM

    What an amazing vision that man had.