Guitar, ukulele maker crafts with a song in his heart
by Marsha Kay Seff
Jun 20, 2012 | 4314 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Robert Hein demonstrates how he tests a soundboard.        Photo by Marsha Kay Seff I Beach & Bay Press
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He describes himself as a “luthier” — a builder of guitars and ukuleles — though he can barely play a chord on either instrument.

Back in the 10th grade, Crown Point’s Robert Hein assembled his first guitar — from a kit.

“It was very crude, a throwaway,” the 71-year-old said.

But the long-time woodworker, whose grandpa was a cabinet maker, never lost interest in creating musical instruments. Fifteen years ago, he tried again. And ever since, he’s been building classical and flamenco guitars, as well as bass, tenor, concert and soprano ukuleles in his garage-workshop.

“If you’re a good woodworker and craftsman, you can build good, playable guitars,” Hein said.

After reading everything he could on the subject, “I got to the point where I couldn’t learn any more from books. The only thing I could do was work with a master.”

So he headed to Spain to study with Jose Romanillos. Though “I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish,” Hein said he was lucky the guitar maker taught in English.

Three years later, the Pacific Beach native was ready to return to the beach and pursue what he said is neither a job nor a hobby — but rather, a “passion.”

“From the selection and feel of the woods to the smell of the sawdust as I work, the creative process of taking several pieces of rough wood and crafting them in to an instrument that makes a beautiful sound has become my passion,” he reveals on his website.

Retired from his supervisory job at the Point Loma Waste Water Treatment Plant, Hein equipped his workshop “cave” with all the tools he needs to build instruments. The father of two said he used the cash he’d saved to buy a “new used car,” opting to hang onto his old one.

Hein said he has pursued all his dreams with equal zest. He started surfing at 13 and, later, built several surfboards, a craft he picked up from his father. Longtime residents might remember his dad, William “Hadji” Hein, a pioneer PB surfer and an aficionado until he died at the age of nearly 92.

Robert Hein joined the memorial paddle out for his father and said that’s the last time he went in the water.

Now with his legs planted on terra ferma, he spends long hours in his workshop, inspired by guitar music on his CD player.

“I shape, feel, carve and listen to the wood to create the best, bright flamenco sound or to create a classical sound that is well-balanced with excellent sustain and volume,” he said.

The most important piece of a guitar, he pointed out, is the soundboard.

“You have to learn how to listen to the wood ...You want it to vibrate like a bell,” he said.

Hein held one of his soundboards up to his ear and tapped across it to demonstrate.

“I have one good ear; I use that,” he said. “Everything is done from scratch.”

He builds his own templates and jigs, as well as the decorative rosettes around the sound hole.

Hein uses “traditional” woods to build his guitars, including cypress, spruce and rosewood. He mills the koa wood for the ukuleles himself. Incidentally, he said, the instrument has made “a tremendous comeback” in the last five to seven years. Instead of the once-popular Hawaiian tunes, ukulele players are into pop and rock.

Hein figured he’s made about 50 guitars and 25 ukuleles over the years. He sells them on his Internet site (www.robertheinguitars.com) and at Blue Guitar on Mission Gorge Road. He said his guitars sell for between $2,500 and $4,000 and his ukuleles from $1,500 to $2,500.

“If you attached an hourly rate to them, I’m probably in the hole,” Hein said.

But he said it’s worth all the effort when he gets the chance to listen to a musician playing a Robert Hein guitar.

“It gets me weepy-eyed,” he said.

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