From his Wisconsin workshop, artisan Joe Nelson divides his time between pipes and stringed instruments
by H. Lee Murphy
The best craftsmen, it is said, are singularly focused on their work, often to the point of obsession. The furniture maker will search lumber yards all over for just the right piece of maple for the table he intends to make, then labor intensely to get the bevels around the edges just so. The restaurant chef will source the freshest eggs from local farms for his hollandaise sauce, then spend long hours at the stove getting the recipe just right.
Then there is Joe Nelson. He’s too busy with myriad interests around his base in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to get too wrapped up in any one thing. He’s an avid gardener, a fisherman and hunter, a home brewer, a guitarist in a local band, and a maker of both guitars and furniture. He loves to take long walks. Oh, and he also makes pipes—some of the best briars to be found anywhere—when he can squeeze them into his schedule.
Fortunately, Nelson, 58, has been retired for the past few years from his career with the Fond du Lac water department, where he monitored plant chemicals and repaired water meters and so on for nearly 30 years. From his workshop behind his rural home south of town, fashioned from a former two-car garage, he spends much of his time evenly split between his work as pipemaker and luthier—builder and repairman of all manner of stringed instruments, from mandolins to banjos.
A visitor recently found him hard at work restoring a prized 1952 Fender Telecaster with a potential auction value of $25,000 or more. The guitars he makes himself, perhaps three or four a year, are priced at an average of about $5,000, though exotic rosewoods and fancy inlays can boost the value past $12,000 for some instruments.
In his pipemaking, Nelson has gone his own way for years. For one, he rarely looks at any other pipemakers’ creations. “I don’t want to be influenced by what I see elsewhere,” he says. “I don’t want other pipemakers’ styles to come out inadvertently
in my own work.”
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