There can be a definite feeling of ‘possibilities’ when buying a new set of strings. Perhaps for some it is new inspiration in playing or song writing, however for Bruce buying mandolin strings was a crossroads in his life. He’d picked up a flat top Flatiron mandolin right before moving to Bozeman, Montana. Soon after arriving he went to the local music store for strings, they were out, but directed him to a little red shop. It was the Flatiron Mandolin Shop. He got the strings he needed and, in addition, was almost immediately hooked on learning to build mandolins.
This was not surprising as Bruce had always been a builder, helping put up the family garage and shop at age 12, constructing a laminated recurve bow in high school shop class, creating wheel thrown pottery and carving wood sculpture. He loved tweaking his own instruments and was hired by Flatiron in 1987 where he began learning everything he could about what went into creating fine acoustic instruments.
Gibson Guitar bought Flatiron in 1987 and now Gibson mandolins were his playground. The new Gibson factory, Gibson/Montana Division, was built in 1991 where Bruce continued working on mandolins and managing their production at the same time overseeing the machine shop where he did the tooling for the reissue of the Advanced Jumbo and J180 guitars.
The two pursuits in one factory just didn’t seem to be working for Gibson so the mandolins were separated becoming the Gibson/Flatiron Division in 1993. and Bruce went with them. His only desire was to be in the custom shop designing and building custom mandolin family instruments, and he did have a lot fun with projects. He built his own F-style just the way he wanted it, many other fine instruments, and met many great people and performers. Also, a highlight was when Bill Monroe visited in honor of the Limited Bill Monroe model mandolin with the design approved and the labels signed by Bill himself. Bruce had been at the Opry when Bill was playing a few years earlier. He came off stage, shoved his mandolin in Bruce’s hands, and said, “Here, take care of this damn thing”. Bill wasn’t feeling well and was having problems with the fret board, and Bruce having no tools with him, just stood there and examined it until Bill went on again. During Bill’s visit to Montana, he asked Bruce to refret it before he played later that day. The thought was nerve wracking enough but when he started the job the fingerboard was so dry it started crumbling away, sometimes in pieces the size of his thumbnail. Bruce was really sweating by then and had to lock the door of the room he was working in because everyone was coming in to touch Bill’s mando while he was trying to get the work done. The fret and sweat job was accomplished and, of course, Bruce kept the frets that Bill had played for so long.
General Managers came and went and Bruce spent more and more of his time supervising general production. Out of necessity he finally gave in and answered the call to become General Manager. His main goals were to not compromise quality and craftsmanship for numbers, and to train luthiers, not production workers. A class was set up in the evenings to train employees to build their own mandolin, which also enabled him to start instituting some ideas he’d had for a long time. He got started by introducing the F5G (a more affordable Gibson F) and continuing the line in a reissue of the H5 F style mandola and adding the M5 A style mandola. The Flatiron instruments would be more experimental and innovative. He built prototypes of some of them including precursors of the Weber Gallatin and Hyalite mandolins.
Bruce, during this time, set up cells of 3-6 builders who built certain models of instruments from start to finish instead of each person having a particular area of expertise. There wasn’t an opportunity to really get a feel for how this was working before Gibson Flatiron was shut down in 1996 and moved to Nashville to create the OMI division combining mandolins with dobros and banjos.
One of Bruce’s personal long term dreams was to build full families of different models, each including a mandolin, mandola, octave and mandocello. Unknown to him at that time, these goals and dreams would not be realized under the Gibson banner, but his own company.
In 1997 he made the decision to not move to Nashville with the Flatiron division, but start his own company, Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments, otherwise known as Sound To Earth. These were extremely busy years culminating in: 9 standard F style models,10 standard A style models, and 9 standard two point models, each of which you could get in mandolin, mandola, octave mandolin, and mandocello. Adding in the flat top instruments makes a total of approximately 120 standard models of mandolin family instruments- the ‘one of kind’ customs were always in the build. In 2007, five archtop guitar models, and 4 models each of resonator guitars- square neck, round neck and biscuit cone were added. All built with a commitment to quality and integrity in fit, finish, playability, and above all- sound. Innovation was part of the package.
One of the great joys of everyone in the shop was building customized instruments as each of the models listed above could be customized to make what Weber called the Player’s Dream Instrument for fit, finish and tonal distinction: soundholes/Fholes, color, finish, binding, inlay, bracing, wood types, scale length, tuning/strings, neck widths, on and on and on. In fact, odds are the Weber mandolin you see somebody playing has been customized in some way. What fun! In 1997 one notable instrument expert declared that the somewhat non-traditional Weber instruments would never be accepted. However Bruce, and his co-workers, have been gratified to see mandolin builders of all levels now imitating their colors and branching out away from the standard mandolin. Bruce considered all of his Weber Players ‘endorsees’ and appreciates each one.
Bruce and Mary sold Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments in 2012. Bruce states, “While I tremendously enjoyed the Weber Mandolin years with all the great instruments, innovations, and customizations, I never seemed to have enough time at the bench or time to talk to players individually. There was always too much administration, leaving less time for building and working directly with the instruments.”
In 2017, Montana Lutherie is sort of Mandolins 5.0 where, for the time being, he is a bit constrained by a no-compete contract and therefor concentrating on repairs, rehabilitation, add-ons and customization, plus building tooling and fixtures for new instruments. Bruce likes the challenge of repair work, always fitting it into his schedule over the years and, as a bonus, has reconnected with many fine people.
The future includes a small shop with family and a few old friends working on instruments whether building or repairing.
Bruce affirms, “We were together for a long time and look forward to the day we are sitting at our old benches together again.
New ideas have been percolating and it’s about time to build prototypes.”