PRS guitars are something to see as well as to hear

Stevensville factory is humming with activity

Trips: Road trips, Regional events

August 26, 2004|By Melanie Reinhold | Melanie Reinhold,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The whole place is an acoustic phenomenon -- literally and figuratively.

Besides being the birthplace of world-renowned instruments, the Paul Reed Smith Guitars factory in Stevensville is home to a variety of sounds during the guitar-making process. The shrieks of saws answer indefinable squeaks. A radio fights to be heard. To keep from injuring their ears, most workers wear earplugs or headphones.

"It takes about 10 weeks for a guitar to be made," says Sam Barnes, the neck team manager. It all starts with a piece of wood, but not just any kind. Some guitars are made of rare Brazilian rosewood, others of maple or South American mahogany. Most pieces of wood are too wet to be used when they arrive at the factory. So, the process begins in one of the "hot rooms." The air in these chambers is kept at a cozy 100 to 110 degrees. The process of drying is crucial for the emerging instrument. "We are dead serious about dry times. We never skip one," Barnes says.

Once the wood is dry enough, the gluing and cutting starts. Some guitars are made of different types of wood, so the pieces are paired up and glued. A robot with about 30 different pieces of drilling equipment carefully hollows out the body afterward. The lump of wood starts to look like a guitar, even though the neck is yet to be attached.

That is the responsibility of the neck team department. A man with long, curly hair and a full dark beard rolls an almost-finished fingerboard back and forth on his workbench. He is transfixed as he concentrates on shaping the back of the fingerboard. The finished neck is assembled later.

One specialty of PRS Guitars is its many inlay options. Moons, dots and other shapes are options, but Smith comes from a family of bird watchers, so there are many bird-shaped inlays available, as well.

A naked, milky-looking guitar waits to receive its coat. Many colors and designs are available, and the unique private-stock models are particularly stunning. But even the more affordable guitars turn into beautiful pieces.

All in all, 185 people are employed making guitars in the 25,000-square-foot factory; about 45 are produced each day, making PRS Guitars the third largest U.S. manufacturer of electric guitars.

Smith's success story began in 1975 when he built his first guitar as an independent study project at St. Mary's College. He built and peddled guitars at a small shop in Annapolis -- drawing such stars as Carlos Santana and Howard Leese as fans in the meantime -- until he had filled enough orders to open a factory in 1985. Smith's fan base grew, and his business outgrew the small facility. The Stevensville factory opened in 1996.

It is not surprising that a factory charged with building world-class guitars is staffed by people who are passionate about the instrument. About 40 of the 185 workers play the guitar ("Ten to 15 are even supreme players," Barnes says), and production often slows when the most famous fans of PRS guitars -- or Smith himself -- show up at the factory.

Tour information

The Paul Reed Smith Guitar Factory is at 380 Log Canoe Circle, 410-643-9970. Tours are offered Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 p.m. -- except for holidays and the last week of each month. Tours are free and last about an hour. A maximum of four people are allowed per tour. Call 410-643-9970 for reservations. Visitors can also check out the accessory shop after the tour.

More to see and do

After so much rock 'n' roll, step back in time by visiting the Kent Island Heritage Society. Stevensville's attractions include the Train Depot (Cockey's Lane, 410-604-2100), which was built in 1902 when the village became part of the Queen Anne's Railroad Co., and the Old Stevensville Post Office (Love Point Road, 410-604-2100).

Where to eat and drink

How about combining your rock 'n' roll experience with sports at the Big Bats Cafe (216 Saint Claire Place, 410-604-1120). This sports bar offers a variety of pizza, pasta, and fajitas, as well as desserts.

Stop at Babe's Saloon (Thompson Creek Mall, 410-643-7365) for a game of pool and a beer. You can bring a pizza from Dominos next door and watch a NASCAR race on one of the many TVs.

The Love Point Cafe (410 Love Point Road, 410-604-3278) consists of a restaurant and an adjacent pub. The bar offers cozy couches and games.

Stop for an ice cream at Ritas Italian Ice (210 Kent Landing, 410-604-6350).

Getting there

Stevensville is less than an hour from Baltimore by car. Take Interstate 97 south to U.S. 50 east and cross the Bay Bridge ($2.50). Stevensville is just across the bridge (Exit 37). Merge onto Route 8 north. Continue onto Route 18 west, and turn left onto Schooner Parkway. Log Canoe Circle with the guitar factory will be in front of you. Approximate driving time from the bridge to the factory is 10 minutes. Parking is available.

More information

More information about the tour, the factory and the guitars is at

For more regional trips, see Page 36.

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