Mumbai Home Guitar-Maker Samir Karnik's Workshop Is Truly Magical

Mumbai Home Guitar-Maker Samir Karnik's Workshop Is Truly Magical

“Every time you pick up a guitar and strum it, a tree smiles knowing that there is life after death” - Samir Karnik

When I was 10, I’d spend all my free time running around outdoors, playing silly computer games at home, and silly made-up ones outside of it.  Something I had in common with all the other kids I knew, but as I grew up I learned there were a few exceptions. I happened to meet one recently. Samir Karnik, contrary to all the other kids on the block, spent most of his time cooped up in a corner of his room in Grant Road tuning out the world, and tuning into his guitar. And if he happened to put it down for a while, he’d build scale models of ships instead. Nobody could have predicted then that these two isolated passions would come together as they did; nor could they have guessed that the guitar would come to mean much more than just a musical instrument to him. Instead, it was the curved wooden melody-maker that would become a source for his constant self-discovery.

Saturday mornings are usually not the worst in terms of traffic but my Google Maps was trying hard to make it a drive to forget. It led me into a narrow one-way in Dongri where it quickly became obvious that I was the odd one out, driving straight into a trap caused by my trusted digital ally. One traffic ticket, several wrong turns and 30 minutes later, I was greeted by a warm awkward smile on the road. Samir was waiting for me on the busy Grant Road streets to help me park, and I could quickly sense just how kind and passionate he really is even through the few words we exchanged as pleasantries. He led me into an old building, probably from the British era to his parent’s house. Two steps into their apartment and I already felt welcome, it was everything a home should be.

As we walked into his cluttered, sawdust-covered workshop that was Samir’s play pen (our reason for being here, nonetheless) the musky smell of old teak infiltrated my nostrils in the gentlest way possible. A smell I imagine would invoke different feelings for different people who’ve been lucky enough to make memories in it over the years.

In a city where where the unusual is the usual, and our cynicism makes us perpetually unsurprised, this was utterly different. For the entire duration of my time here, the city was stripped away by Samir’s energy and enthusiasm, as he transformed the small space into some musical rendition of Santa’s imaginary workshop.

Samir working on his self-made sander.

Not just daydreams

Having worked for a couple of years in a corporate structure on sustainability projects, the itch to get his hands dirty and try something different was real. He started researching on the side for something to satiate this need, and he looked up everything from converting vegetable oil to biodiesel to creating an online crowd-funding portal. However, none of these ideas inspired him enough to take the leap, until the thought of working on his best friend popped up. The idea of making his own guitars excited every little molecule in him, and it was easy to sense this excitement while he spoke about how he came up to make this decision almost two years later.

Throughout his upbringing, Samir was always taught to express himself creatively through a range of mediums encompassing art, music and building things, but making a guitar from start to finish was the toughest challenge he would face. He would daydream of making his own guitar, but unlike a lot of us he decided to act on his vision and started from scratch by spending time with local carpenters after work. He even got himself a local carpenter’s handbag toolkit, the one with just the basic tools -- a hand saw, planer, right angle, sandpaper, a screwdriver and a chisel. If you were me, you could see too that this experience of starting at the bottom was invaluable to him in his journey to becoming a modern day luthier.“I learnt a lot of jugaadu techniques working with the carpenters”, he explained. And once he felt like he had enough skill with rookie woodworking, Samir signed up for a guitar making course at Jungle Guitars in Goa. Chris Horton, the man behind Jungle Guitars is as old school as they get, “He prohibited the use of power tools, encouraging me to follow a more natural process, to be able to completely build with my hands. After about 15 days, I had made my first acoustic guitar with Chris. For someone who has grown up amongst skyscrapers in an increasingly cyber world with no real experience or exposure to woodcraft, the feeling of crafting an acoustic guitar with my own hands was empowering.”

Sweat and blood are steady ingredients 

I was so engrossed in his story by now, I had forgotten all about the setting sun and proceeded to click photographs of the tiny lumber haven, set to the soundtrack of Samir playing a small Ukulele. Before I had even settled down again, Samir told me something that perfectly describes how he looks at his craft and in the larger picture, Enzo as a whole. He said “To make dead wood breathe life again is an almost alchemical process of transformation, renewal and rebirth. It takes many meticulous hours to build an acoustic guitar and I really do have to put in my blood and sweat into the craft. The process itself can be a form of meditation, as it requires concentration and skill to achieve precision. I’ve learnt to enjoy even the most trivial tasks, like sawing a slice of wood or painstakingly sanding its surface to a shine.”

He went on to tell me more about how empowering using all these heavy tools were for him because he was always labelled a lanky guy. “Sawing away on wood gives me an adrenaline rush like no other.” Like most creators, Samir admitted to getting attached to his creations, but the real joy for him now is to let it go. For his philosophy is that in giving it away, the guitar that once was a dead piece of wood has now found new life, a new meaning and that in letting go there is a lot to be gained. It’s in this statement that one truly understands the philosophy that drives a man like Samir. His approach is far more about unconditionality and selflessness than it is about fame and glory. Another rarity in a city that’s filled with the biggest stars, rising stars, or others inspired by illusions of grandeur. But let’s get back to those guitars and his building process.

The gestation period

Like any life changing experience, Samir’s stint in Goa inspired him in a way that is tough to express. He went on to lay the groundwork for his own project here in Mumbai. While searching for his local source of wood, he finally settled on the ‘lakad bazaar’ at Reay Road and then went about figuring logistics for his workshop, which usually is the toughest nut to crack but as luck would have it, his brother got married and moved out, which left his room pretty vacant. “Before I could begin making guitars, I made a drum sander – which is a machine that is used to alter the thickness of the wood – an indispensable contraption in making a guitar. It was made from wood that was salvaged off an old door frame and a second-hand motor that I got from chor bazaar”, he told me, and at his own pace brought together every needed element to get things rolling.

“I named this adventure – Enzo Handcrafted Guitars. The enzo (Japanese: ensō) is a circle drawn with one uninhibited brush stroke to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. In its form, it represents the principle of controlling the balance of composition through asymmetry and irregularity. To my mind the guitar is a functional canvas or a piece of art that can be played to further express oneself through the music that is made with it. No two guitars that I make are alike, just as no two of us are!”

His workshop is a perfect embodiment of his philosophy, one little window on the far side lets just enough of that hazy soft light in on the (saw)dusty room. It is a beautiful clutter. There are jars full of differently coloured sawdust, a miniature bow and arrow, tiny wooden Peter Pan inspired cutouts, two entire pieces of logs, about 7 guitars, a couple of machines, and what seemed like a hundred slabs of varied wood. Anyone could be inspired to create here. And the positive energy of the space only helps make his solitary process more bearable because one can only imagine the kind of self motivation it takes to spend 5-6 hours everyday sawing away, with no one to share a word with.

“Working with wood is never easy, it is constantly communicating with the environment,” Samir explains.

Each of Enzo’s guitars contain 4 to 5 species of wood, that have to work with each other. His first guitar took him over a month to make and eventually caved in, it was notably disheartening for him. In fact, he had just quit his job to work on this project then. Figuring out which piece of wood works with another was one of his major early learnings and he claims this is an ongoing process for him as he keeps experimenting with new, unorthodox species of wood. This is particularly interesting when you imagine strumming on a guitar made of Mango and Neem wood. “The different colours in an artist’s palette, each piece of wood is unique in thickness, patterns, shades and textures,” he explained before he admits it takes him roughly 2 months of work, 5 hours a day to craft one custom guitar.

A lot of what makes Enzo’s guitars special is on the inside rather than the outside, contrary to what i’d imagined before arriving here. He makes different acoustics for each guitar, giving it an exclusive sound. “The magic is inside” he told me, while looking at his creations with a mystic gaze, just like you’d imagine Geppetto looked at Pinocchio. He wants his customers to cherish his process and understand that unlike assembly line production, Samir puts his heart and soul into each guitar he makes. He wants his customer to dream together and to ‘create’ rather than ‘replicate’.

Samir is a man of processes, he even hand grinds his coffee in his grandfather’s old grinder. Each of Enzo’s guitars starts with a vision of what it would look like, feel like and sound like, making it an almost spiritual journey. He then purchases the necessary pieces lumber and sometimes uses the lumberyard under his house to cut the bigger chunks of lumber. After drawing out the guitar and moulding it, he works on the top and the insides, which is where the essence of Enzo is etched into every creation. Making the sides is a tricky business and requires drenching the wood and bending it with a heat rod. Each piece of wood requires a different amount of water, heat and pressure.

“Getting the symmetry” of either side right is really hard for me”, he mumbles, engrossed in one of his works. “The neck and fretboard are comparatively much easier to craft, it is mostly mathematical and precision work,” he explains.

Once every part is glued together it is ready to be polished and finished to be displayed in his chaotic yet organised workshop, till a buyer comes along continues the journey of what once was a dead piece of wood stacked up in a corner of one of the many shops in a part of the city that has quietly forgotten to change with time. For now, he does not really care about making too much profit from Enzo. Where Enzo is at, is better summed up by his words; “For now I aim to make as many guitars as I can and thereby learn something new from each one by experimenting with my designs – in business management jargon, we call it product development. So far, so good, all I have to do is touch more wood!”


Giving ‘back to the future’

When I asked him where he wanted to go with Enzo, he smiled slowly in a manner only content men do.  “Simply making guitars for those that can afford them does not completely fulfil me. In Enzo’s next avatar, I would like to re-organize this as a community based, skills development project, where I take this craft to the ground level and work with underdeveloped communities that lack decent economic opportunities and are thus impoverished.”

This isn’t surprising coming from somebody with his environmentally conscious background. He’s always thinking of new ways to give back to Mother Earth, and for every guitar he builds, he balances out his carbon footprint by buying 10 trees on Grow Trees. He is also constantly minimising his waste production, and all the necessary waste is repurposed to build by-products like inlays, music boxes and jewellery.

He also uses alternate species of wood for his guitars. He wants to experiment more with fruitwood as it is readily available and is relatively cheaper to acquire and has already played with Neem, Mango, Jackfruit, Mountain Laurel and Tamarind. Apart from Enzo, he also helps out at St. Catherine’s Home in Andheri. He helps young girls with HIV make mosquito traps with yeast and brown sugar, and in the future he hopes to use Litchi, Monkey Pod, Babul, Apple and Ironwood. Samir also aims to reach out to communities with hardly any income generating opportunities and train them in woodworking and to create a sustainable business model for them. He’d also like to build Electric Guitars, Basses and Ukuleles in the future so clearly, the young luthier has a vision for a much larger, more transformative Enzo--one that will develop into a more experimental and collaborative space with time.

At the end of a few hours, it was evident that a Saturday with Samir was entirely different from what I had envisioned it to be. I went there with just a little internet research about him, and left with an aftermath of intellectually stimulating conversations that I knew I would go back to, to draw inspiration and conclusions. Samir was more than a luthier or a wood smith, he gave life to what most of us would assume was dead.

“Perhaps I bring life to the dead piece of lumber. The guitar really begins its journey as a little seed rooted to the forest ground and grew to towering heights with the help of the sun, rain and soil. The tree was then chopped down because of its natural perfection and cut into little pieces. These dead limbs then come into my hands where I must execute a painstaking surgery to re-stitch these dismembered pieces and give them another chance to live. If I am successful, it will live on for decades singing a song for anyone that cares to hear its tune. As a result, in its totality the guitar is an instrument that contains aspects of the sun, moon, stars and the soul.”

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