Bruce Petros has been building unique, handmade acoustic guitars for discriminating guitar players and collectors since 1972. Based in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Petros instruments are meticulously constructed from the finest master-grade woods and display a unique and timeless artistic flair inspired by the likes of William Morris and ancient Celtic art.
The story of how Petros became a guitar builder is an unusual one. After quitting college and taking a job on a Colorado dude ranch, Petros happened upon a $15 guitar-making kit. It was crude, but after completing it, he knew he had found his calling. Petros was 19 at the time.
Today, Petros and his son Matt build limited heirloom-quality works of art, worthy of investment and deserving of pride of ownership.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Bruce Petros to discuss guitar building, the special tonewoods he sources and more.
You worked on tracker-action pipe organs earlier in your career. How did this work prepare you for guitar building?
Pipe organ building is very precise and on a very large scale. I had to hand plane a 5’x9’ wind chest dead flat with a Number 8 Stanley plane. I also had to make hundreds of parts very precisely. So when I began building guitars, taking large and precise down to small and precise seemed like a piece of cake. Reproducing parts by way of making jigs entitled me to the name “Jig Master” in the shop. Making jigs in guitar building is very beneficial.
I also learned a lot about tuning and temperament, which helped me understand the physical interval problems with fixed interval instruments—which is what the guitar is. I spend a lot of time explaining to guitar players why they can’t play all chords in tune at all times.
Tell us about how your son, Matt, became involved in the company.
Since I worked at home I was able to be involved with my kids on a daily basis. In turn, Matthew was able to be involved with my life “at work.” So he spent hours and hours hanging out in my shop from very early on. He was always eager to help, and I was eager to let him. I never had a plan for him to get involved, but it just turned out that way.
Just like me, he was not all that keen on college but loved to work with his hands and be creative. He was always very artistic and things came easily to him. In 2000 I decided to put him to work officially, and the orders just came in. Today he does way more than half of the building, which gives me more time to come up with new stuff and create one-of-a-kind pieces. His creative side blends with mine seamlessly.
Tell us about some of the woods you source for your instruments.
One of the most special and unique woods I have is the Tunnel 13 Redwood. This is Redwood that was once part of the support beams in Tunnel 13, a railroad tunnel in Southern Oregon in the Siskiyou mountains. These tunnels were built in the 1880s using local virgin redwood for the support beams.
In 1926 the DeAutremont brothers held up Train 13, which was traveling through Tunnel 13 and pulling 13 cars. They blew up the mail car—killing the mailman—and then killed three other railroad men. It is considered the last great American train robbery.
In 2003 someone set a fire in the tunnel and it caved in. I was able to obtain some of the salvaged timbers and managed to get numerous pieces good enough to saw guitar tops. The 2,000-year-old wood that had been air drying in that tunnel for 123 years is some of the stiffest, close-grained tone wood I have ever held.
I also managed to discover some of the most beautiful curly African rosewood I have ever seen. It came from one spectacular tree and I managed to buy as much as I could get. I have never seen anything like it. The color and depth of the figure is so intense it is unbelievable. This is from a common species of tree that grows in Africa, but most of the wood is relatively plain.
It does exhibit several different figures at times, but I have never seen anything as spectacular as this. I am lucky to have a nice stash of it. I save it for very special guitars. I also use some of the smaller pieces for ukuleles.
I also have a great stash of highly figured Claro Walnut that I cut up myself. Getting wood in lumber form usually yields the best stock, and it’s fun to boot! As a guitar builder, finding wood is one of the time consuming but highly pleasurable things we get to do.
What is something you want a potential customer to know about Petros Guitars?
Petros Guitars is a father-and-son enterprise. We have a lucky and special bond that makes work fun. I think working with someone creates an atmosphere that is much different than working alone. It is certainly more than a boss and employee situation. There is a dynamic that makes our creations special. I think the joy and creativity shows and is felt by the customers that acquire our one of a kind collectible pieces. It’s nice to know that the Petros line will continue on.
Hear—and see—a rare Tunnel 13 Petros guitar: