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Bruce J. Kunkel is the son of Wallace M. Kunkel, author, educator and fine woodworker. His father instilled in him at an early age a love of music and art and involved Bruce in the creation of his 18th century furniture masterpieces. Recognizing his eye for design and drawing skills the elder Kunkel encouraged his son in the direction of the fine arts. As a young child, Bruce would collect the odd shaped scraps of hardwood from around the base of his dad’s band saw and carve them into animals and birds. He became an accomplished woodcarver before his teens.

Bruce J. Kunkel discusses his building methods

The Kunkel name has long been synonymous with uncompromising quality and the pursuit of excellence in design and workmanship. The family traces its ancestry to the Black Forest of Germany, which no doubt accounts for their strong woodworking and woodcarving traditions. Bruce is one of six sons; five of which are professional woodworkers; the sixth and youngest is a graphic artist and printer. His only sister, Mary is an author and publisher who makes available Wallace Kunkel’s seminal work “How to Master the Radial Arm Saw”.

Bruce and his father established a woodworking school in Chester, New Jersey in 1976 that they ran for ten years. Wallace taught power tool techniques classes and fine furniture making while Bruce taught hand tool joinery and woodcarving. Together with brothers Marc and Wally, they taught the art of fine woodworking to over eight hundred people, many of them became professional woodworkers.
His interst in music combined with his fine arts and woodworking background naturally led him to instrument making. He became intrigued by the sound and visual appearance of the 5-string banjo. At age 12 he built his first banjo from plans he found in a magazine. Growing up in rural New Jersey, banjo players were practically non-existent so Bruce taught himself to play from Pete Seeger’s book, “How to play the 5-String Banjo”. As a high school student, he took banjo lessons from Roger Siminoff. Years later he would build his first F5 mandolin with the aid of Siminoff’s book, “Constructing a Bluegrass Mandolin”. Bruce worked after school at National Music, a Gibson dealer in Montclair, NJ at age 15. In his early 20’s, he worked as a 5-string banjo instructor at Tom Barth’s Music Box in Ledgewood, NJ. The store was a mecca for great professional guitarists. Bob Benedetto was the repairman at that time.

Bruce studied fine arts and art history with Vernon Maxim and Art McCluskey at Montclair High School. He received a scholarship to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts Honors program under the direction of Chapman Kelley. He attended North Texas State University where he studied music and the school of Visual Arts in New York majoring in painting and sculpture.
"These pieces are my legacy. They are far better than a tombstone."

After struggling for a few years as a painter, Bruce began a fine furniture shop with his father. He found that woodworking satisfied his creative needs as well as being a medium the public would more readily pay for. They received commissions for 18th century furniture reproductions and developed a reputation for quality and authenticity. Wallace Kunkel was a wonderful teacher and mentored his son in the trade he loved so much. Bruce brought to the fore his talent for hand tool joinery and wood carving that raised the level of artistry in the pieces they created. They challenged each other to become their personal best and together spent some pleasurable years learning from each other. The elder Kunkel was a man of great integrity and persistence and would accept nothing less from his son. He believed a piece was not complete until all surfaces, visible or not, or polished and then, when all the work was done it should be signed and dated. How else in years to come would anyone know who did it? “These pieces are my legacy,” he would say, “they are far better than a tombstone”.

Guitar making is a trade to which Bruce is eminently well suited. It involves disciplines that he has spent a lifetime developing; fine woodworking, joinery, woodcarving, design, inlay and musicianship all come into play.

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In 1981 Bruce married and relocated to rural Eastern Pennsylvania where he ran his own woodworking business producing high-end furniture and one of a kind instruments. Being located near C. F. Martin Co., he was able to buy wood and parts at their company store.

Being a prolific songwriter, Bruce and his family relocated to Nashville, TN in 1992 to pursue his music and instrument making. He put in a resume with the Gibson Guitar Co. and was interviewed by company president, Dave Berryman, who was impressed by several handmade instruments Bruce brought to the meeting. He was hired to produce one of a kind art pieces for Gibson’s Custom Shop. Bruce reproduced the Florentine, Bella Voce, and All American banjos for Gibson’s Centennial Celebration in 1994. These instruments as well as several “Tribute” guitars, and one of a kind art pieces, have been retained by the company in a permanent collection. The “Celebration of Christmas 2000” and the “Tribute to the 20th Century” Super 400s are commonly referred to as million dollar guitars because of the intensity of their artwork and their uniqueness. Gibson has declined offers of up to $600,000.00 for the “Tribute to the 20th Century”. Bruce spent six months designing and creating the piece which is a veritable pictorial history book displaying 135 separate images of people and events. General Manager, Rick Gembar, was a great promoter of Bruce’s work and encouraged him to pursue intense, thematic projects such as the “Tribute to Elvis” and the “Art Deco” series.

During his tenure at Gibson, Bruce was also key in the design and creation of several limited production runs of instruments most notably the Corvette, the Slash, and the Old Hickory Les Pauls to name a few. The Old Hickorys were created out of trees from the estate of Andrew Jackson that were toppled in a tornado in 1998. The first three guitars were hand made by Bruce and were inlayed with a hand cut mother of pearl banner, engraved with the lifeline of Jackson from birth through his military career, his presidency and through his death. These guitars are owned by the Hermitage, Gibson, and the Smithsonian Institution where they are prominently displayed. In all, 175 Old Hickorys were produced and a portion of the profits went toward the replanting of the 1200 trees lost at the Hermitage in the storm. The art pieces produced by Kunkel while at Gibson are still viewable on the company’s website where images of Bruce working on projects can be seen.
Midway through his Gibson years, Bruce had the good fortune to work with DR Auten, who was hired as a designer at the Custom Shop. Auten, a talented luthier, guitarist and computer wizard teamed up with Kunkel and collaborated on some amazing projects. The two became good friends and their interest spilled over into areas outside of work. Bruce often refers to this period as his “Golden Age” at Gibson. Auten’s computer and design skills perfectly complimented Bruce’s low tech, old world approach to the creation of art guitars, greatly enhancing his ability to do awesome things. Auten, who is a great photographer, copiously documented Bruce at work on these pieces. DR’s time at Gibson was all too short ending in only three years. He has since relocated to his home state; California, but the two have continued their collaboration on a variety of projects. DR is also a clinician for Kunkel Guitars and has his own model, “The Heart of the Pacific”. Many innovative design ideas have been implemented in this model, which will be discussed in the “Features” section.

Because of his great knowledge of guitar making and his excellent skills, Gibson entrusted Bruce with the restoration of priceless, historic instruments such as Chet Atkins’ DeAngelico Excel that Chet played on all his early recordings and Vince Gill’s 1942 D28 Martin. Spending a great deal of time with these important guitars has given him a deeper understanding of what makes them great and this knowledge he has brought to his own guitar making.

Bruce left the employ of the Gibson Company in January 2003, to pursue his own guitar designs and to have greater control over his total product. He left the company on friendly terms and continues to do art pieces for them on a contract basis. Bruce considers his time at Gibson to have been a unique opportunity to dedicate himself to exploring all aspects of “The Art Guitar”. It gave him a huge insight into fine guitar making as a designer, maker, artist and research historian and he has been privileged to have worked with the most diverse, innovative and historic line in the music industry.
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