Woodworker Steve Marquisee’s magnificent musical instruments

‘Half of the fun of building these things is hearing what they sound like’

String instrument maker Steve Marquisee and one of his classic mandolins handmade in Keyser Run. By John McCaslin

Sawdust tinged melodies rise above the rustic woodshop of musical instrument maker Steve Marquisee a good way up Keyser Run.

“Mandolins, banjos, guitars, resonators — we’ve got the whole band set up here,” Steve quips of the displayed instruments he’s been handcrafting for 15 years, ever since a catastrophic fall crushed his back and put an immediate end to his carpentry and cabinetmaking business.

“I fell 24 feet and broke my back,” the 68-year-old woodworker recalls of the debilitating 2001 accident. “My buddy sent me a mandolin so I could lay on my back and play it. And then in doing that Forrest wanted to learn, so that’s where it all began.”

Slowly recovering from his injury Steve set out to make a mandolin for his youngest son, and not just any ordinary mandolin. First, he had no blueprints, so he had to wing it. And if that wasn’t enough, Forrest was left-handed.

Rappahannock musician Forrest Marquisee strums the mandolin his father made for him from scraps in 2003, the first instrument built by the woodworker. By John McCaslin
Handmade guitars, banjos, mandolins, and resonators are displayed at Steve’s Keyser Run woodshop. By John McCaslin
By John McCaslin

“It was made from shop scraps,” Steve says of the first mandolin completed in 2003. “It has knots in it, made of some cherry I had laying around. It was the first one, and it was a learning curve because Forrest wasn’t right-handed. Since I’m right-handed it was hard for me to tune it up and play it. I even put the strings on backwards. It’s gone from there. I’ve gotten better.”

Since carving the first mandolin from scratch, followed by another for his eldest son (laughs Jonathan, now 34, “This one was mine for a brief period of time, and I got to take it to college with me, where I never learned to play it, so it got repossessed”), the self-taught luthier hasn’t looked back.

Painstakingly designed and hand-built for his musically inclined friends, or musicians who hear word of mouth about his unique woodworking skills, Steve’s stringed instruments have been making music on stages from Tula’s to Telluride to DAR Constitution Hall.

“Construction varies, mandolins take a long time,” he educates. “Guitars are more straightforward because it’s flat wood. A mandolin probably takes two or three months to build and almost that long to finish. This year particularly has been brutal for finishing because of the humidity.”

The type of wood depends on the instrument, its required strength, and sound, and every sanded and finished wood grain is nothing short of stunning: Dark Indian rosewood, eastern black walnut, Cuban mahogany, western red cedar, Sitka spruce, red tamarin, cherry and more.

“This maple is actually from a farm my mom grew up on, so it was milled a long time ago,” observes Forrest, who recently kick-started a sawmill to supply wood for his father’s instruments.

“I’ve got a big sassafras log I’m going to try to make a twelve-string acoustic out of, back and sides,” he says.

Jonathan, who like Forrest is a highly-skilled musician, similarly has gotten into the instrument-making act, albeit more on the electronics side.

“I’m getting into the woodworking with solid body electric guitars,” Jonathan explains. “And I went down this amplifier rabbit hole, making amplifiers. This is my electric corner over here.”

Jonathan Marquisee with the mandolin his father crafted for him. By John McCaslin
A handwritten description of its Florentine style. By John McCaslin

Says Forrest of following in their dad’s footsteps: “We’ve been exposed to it throughout life, and now we’re taking more of an interest in it.”

Unlike his sons, though, you won’t find the soft-spoken Steve on stage playing his own instruments.

“I’ve played guitar since I was 9, but not really. I don’t play with anybody to speak of,” the luthier states. “Half of the fun of building these things is hearing what they sound like. What I end up doing before I put the finish on them — it’s called being in the white — I’ll string them up and start playing them and see how they sound.”

Besides building instruments, Steve repairs them, including violins. Yet in all these years, he’s never once advertised his business. Only recently has he even considered a website.

The “Marquisee Musical Instruments” label, guaranteeing it’s “hand-built” by Steve Marquisee in Washington, Virginia. By John McCaslin

“My kids are the benefactors of all this practice. And they are my ambassadors. I get into the community and sell things that way, it’s mostly word of mouth, that’s pretty much how it works. But I would like people to talk a little bit more!” he adds with a wink.

“Maybe somebody’s not looking for an instrument right now, but the seed gets planted that somebody out here is making them. And I make them to play.”

Marquisee Musical Instruments and repairs is reached at 540-987-9381 or email stevemarquisee@gmail.com

About John McCaslin 420 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.