Rauen Guitars: Masters of Restoration

by Peter Schmidtke / photograph by Peter DiAntoni

A handmade guitar can require many hours to craft, especially if one wants it to play as sweetly as its cherry lacquer shines. In the back of his Riverwest shop, Denny Rauen pieces together just such a work-in-progress, an electric guitar contoured and sanded to a shape that would keep any rock-and-roller smiling. The bare wood is silent in Rauen’s grasp, yet soon the only time it will be quiet may be when its new owner puts it back in its case. The pink and blue neon sign adorning the storefront window of Rauen Guitars on the 2400 block of Weil Street is the only indication that this white split-level houses one of the largest facilities in the country specializing in the repair and restoration of stringed instruments. The 5000-square-foot shop space is full of everything from rough-cut lumber to modern electronics and toning meters. And instruments of different eras and styles are in abundance. While Rauen points out a 1930s Lone Ranger cowboy guitar they are refurbishing, his son, Josh, is less than twenty feet away examining the nuanced microchip innards of an electric guitar. Rauen, his son, and fret-specialist Paul Druecke work mainly on new and vintage acoustic and electric guitars, along with electric basses, harpguitars, mandolins, and banjos. At any given point, they are working on 20 to 25 of these instruments. “That’s the bulk of what we get in here. We do some violins, occasionally, and upright bass, but that’s few and far between these days,” says Rauen from a stool in his shop. He would like to make more custom guitars, something he has strayed away from doing over the last ten years. The majority of their work is done with tiny tools at individualized desks where they can take apart and reassemble an instrument without having to worry about mixing the parts. “This is really a 19th century business in the 21st century,” he says. “We’re not a production factory.” When their custom and restoration work requires the use of wood, they typically use Honduras Mahogany, rosewood, spruce, rock maple, and occasionally ebony. “Sometimes you’re shaping it and bending it with heat,” Rauen says, adding that they do also have a number of saws along with planers, sanders, buffers, and a spray booth. Most of Rauen’s customers are professionals who come from the Midwest, however he says that they also get instruments shipped in from California and elsewhere. He emphasizes that customers walk out with what they came in for. “Because I’ve been a player for so many years, we send out guitars that play well.” Rauen’s expertise was rewarded at an Athens, Ohio show in the early ’90s when he and other top builders and designers in the country were invited by Guitar Magazine to display their guitars. But the national publicity should not scare off locals and younger players. Rauen says he takes the same level of care with any instrument, regardless of the player. “We also like to deal with the kids, because if your instrument isn’t playing right, you’re not going to keep playing.” And although the shop isn’t a retail outfit, Rauen points out that they do carry a few emergency items, including strings, for local musicians. While its move to Riverwest was fairly recent, Rauen Guitars has existed in one form or another since 1982. A basement in Park Forest, Illinois and a nearby gas station were two of the early settings for the shop, which Rauen formed in his early 30’s after working at a couple of Chicago-area guitar factories. The first years, he says, were spent endlessly laboring over guitars to win over clients and produce quality instruments. “I was a little naive about what it would take to make a living at this. That’s probably the only reason I’ve succeeded at it.” In 1987, Rauen pulled up stakes and moved to Brady Street in Milwaukee. Two years later he moved to the Enterprise Center on 4th Street, where he maintained the business until he moved it again in 2000 to its current location on Weil. “It was perfect, though we had to peel some dough off of the floor,” he recalls of his decision to move into the building, formerly owned by Nino’s Bakery. Musicians in their own right, the two Rauens and Druecke appear on recordings. Paul Druecke plays guitar with Porch Songs on their self-titled CD, and Josh Rauen’s third CD, “Welcome to the Big Escape” with his band, Josh Rauen & the Big Escape, was recently released. The elder Rauen played solo and lead guitar on a number of the tracks on Friends & Consequences’ “Your Big Night Out” produced by Tom Purdy. He also plays the bagpipes, and was spotted by many Riverwesters piping at Locust Street Festival. Denny Rauen can be reached by appointment at (414) 265-4343. For more information about Rauen Guitars, visit their website at Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 9 – September 2003