- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) - The smell of cedar and the silky toughness of cherry.

A finely honed plane and the happy sound it makes as it shaves along the grain.

The touch and tone of a finely tuned, well-set violin.

These are things that bring a smile to Paul Hill’s face.

Throughout his lifetime as a craftsman, he’s worked on projects both big and small, from the houses he used to work on with his father in Colorado to a set of cabinets at his workshop in Pullman to the instrument repairs for local music stores that he does in his shop at home.

Paul said he loves having hands-on projects, each with its own unique set of challenges. Whether it’s refurbishing an old piece of furniture or fixing a loose neck on a guitar, the different problems presented by each keeps the work interesting.

At his base of operations in Pullman, Renaissance Fine Woodworking, there are no “products.” Everything is custom-made, created specifically to try to fit the vision of the customer. They may replicate something for a specific job, but they never really do the same thing twice, which is just fine by Hill.

“Customers usually have a picture in their mind,” either from a photo they saw in a magazine or something they got off the Internet, he said. “It’s our job to match that.”

The task of taking someone else’s dream and understanding it, interpreting it and making it a reality can offer a variety of challenges, he said.

“I feel like love plays a part in that,” Hill said. “Love and respect for the person and their vision.”

Hill is co-owner of the business. Tom Rodgers, his partner at the shop, was actually the first person Hill and his wife met when they were visiting Pullman for the first time 14 years ago.

Hill and his wife, Laura - his childhood sweetheart - were just passing through when they discovered the Palouse on part of a drive throughout the Northwest, where they were considering moving to from their home at the time in Nashville, Tenn. They loved the area, though, and before long she found a job at Washington State University and he began working with Rodgers.

After a few years, Hill was given the opportunity to buy in on the business, and he jumped at the opportunity.

They make a lot of cabinets and other furniture at their shop, but the work can vary a great deal, from table lamps with hidden compartments to travel camper makeovers.

Hill said he loves the camaraderie at the shop and being part of a team - they are six in all. Each of them take ownership of certain projects and they all work together to get them done.

What makes Hill a consummate craftsman, though, isn’t just his day job, but how he spends his time at home.

To a soft background of music, usually jazz or bluegrass, he tenders loving care to guitars, violins and other stringed instruments that have either been neglected or abused. The basement luthier shop in his Moscow home holds an array of specialized, often hand-made tools and instrument parts.

A passion that began at a young age through a combination of music, which held a big place in his childhood home, and his curiosity about the way things work - the first instrument he ever took apart was his sister’s violin, unsurprisingly without her permission - Hill said he had a fascination with instruments for as long as he can remember.

He’ll smile and tell you that over the years he’s learned to play most strings well enough to “make you believe I can play them,” but only claims to have any true chops on the violin, guitar and mandolin. He also sings in a local barbershop group, Palouse Harmony Chorus, and plays fiddle and guitar in a local country roots band, Steptoe.

There’s no doubt that a love of music plays an essential part of what he does, he said. You have to be able to play an instrument to know if it’s really set up properly.

As he talks about his craft, though, he reveals a deeper motive, one that gets at the root of why he doesn’t have any interest in making new instruments, just fixing old ones.

“Decent instruments have a soul, and you can really pick up on them,” he said. “I play every instrument that comes through here, and I get to know them.”

Having done professional repair work for instrument shops for nearly four decades, Hill said most instruments aren’t initially set up properly, and there’s a real joy to picking one up that’s just right.

“You can tell immediately, as soon as you touch it,” he said.

At 59, Hill said luthier work is a disappearing craft, and he has recently taken on somewhat of a young apprentice - and talented young musician - with the hope of passing on some of what he’s learned over the years.

“When a musician picks up a guitar that’s set up well it’s just this comfortable, conducive instrument. It wants to be played,” he said. “Turning a garage-sale instrument into that is nirvana to me.”


Information from: The Moscow-Pullman Daily News, https://www.dnews.com

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