CAMDEN — At first glance, the little faces Chris Gray has carved into his handcrafted guitar picks reveal big personalities. Are they pensive? Wincing? Smiling? Hard to tell, but whatever they’re “thinking” they’ve become the signature look of his most recent entrepreneurial venture, Riff Wood Picks.
Riff Wood Picks are upcycled and handmade hardwood picks for guitar, bass guitar, ukelele and mandolin. Gray and his wife are originally from Tennessee, but moved up to Union seven years ago on a part-time basis, making it permanent three years ago. A long-time woodcarver, he just started making these guitar picks as a Christmas gift for his son-in-law, who is a musician.
“Once I figured out what I was doing, I thought, this is something that others might be interested in,” he said.
Since Christmas, he estimates he’s made about 250 of these picks and began a Facebook page. After getting a great response, he just recently built an Etsy site and has said in just a month’s time, he said he’s gotten an appreciable number of sales.
“It’s taken off great guns,” he said.
Gray credits K2 Music in Camden, where some of his picks can currently be found, for help with their design. As Gray isn’t a musician, he needed input from owners Mac Economy and Harvey Curtis, who are.
“When I mentioned to them I was going to make them, I asked Mac and Harvey what were the best pick styles to use for different instruments,” he said. “They were generous enough to critique them and because of their input, I’ve made the picks better.” [See our video where Mac Economy gives a demonstration of how the picks sound.]
Gray makes each pick out of laminated hardwoods, producing a sturdy pick with a triangle shape for guitars and an arrowhead shape for bass guitar. The best part about his craft is that he uses leftover scraps of quality hardwoods he finds at A.E. Sampson & Sons and Mystic Woodworks and upcycles scraps that normally would be thrown out or burned. To make them, he first starts with a glued log of two or three hardwoods, such as maple, cherry and walnut. After he band saws a small chunk from this log, he can work four-to-five picks out of each chunk. It takes him more time to do the sanding and polishing of the pick than it takes to do the carving.
He calls the iconic look to his guitar pick faces as The Riff Master.
“I’ve always enjoyed stylized faces in my carving,” he said, noting that no two faces are alike, but all are “cousins” of the original. The darkened color and shading in the expression of the faces is actually a natural embellishment as the result of working with a dremel, a rotary tool.
“It just takes a minimum of strokes to do each one,” he said. “When the tool is sharp, it won’t scorch, but when it’s dull, the friction of the burr scorches the wood. I love the way it looks so I just do the faces with a dull tool.”
Faces aren’t the only images he carves. He’s recently been branching out with other images, such as a lobster, the Tree of Life, the sun and moon, a sunflower, a dragon fly, and custom requests. Recently a woman asked him to carve the numbers: 143 into a pick. He was happy to oblige and asked her what the numbers meant. She said it was Morse Code for sailors and each number represented certain letters in a word, such as in this case: I LOVE YOU.
Prior to making the picks, Gray also created a natural wood game called Tumblewood.
“It’s like Jenga, but it’s pieces of split wood that are stacked more like a split rail fence.”
So far, he’s sold about 500 of the games and wants to keep the business small and handcrafted.
Between the game, his picks and his part-time living at a sawmill in Union and working for LT Auctions in St. George, he’s making a living here in Maine. He also still manages his family’s gallery in Tennessee. Gray is not ready for a mass production, however.
“It’s a lot of carving and not something I’d want to do 40 hours a week,” he said. “It’s hard on your fingers.”
Still, it’s enjoyable and gives musicians something to smile about when they put one of those funny little faces between their thumb and finger. Riff Wood Picks can be found at K2 Music and Once A Tree in Camden as well as on Etsy.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org