Meet the man who has filled guitars and other stringed instruments full of pearl inlay work since the 60's  - Story and photos by Jeff Primeau                             

The legend, equipped with his homemade guitars and inlay work. 


FALL 2002

     Dave Nichols has always had a knack for woodwork.   Raised by a father who always had a woodshop for boat building and woodcarving, Nichols became crafty at a young age.    In his high school shop class, Nichols did the necessary research and built his first guitar.  "I surprised my teacher and myself when the guitar was done," Nichols says.     Nichols says the guitar he made in high school was "playable" and the catalyst for building more stringed instruments down the road.   (Today he has built his 50th year model - 2009)

     Today, Nichols works out of his shop in Malone as a custom pearl inlayer for Martin Guitars and local musicians.  He still rebuilds and repairs stringed instruments, known as a Luthier, and he plays in a bluegrass outfit called Three's Company every weekend in the summer.  (Today he tours under the band name, David Nichols & Spare Change - see our band link)

     Someone who wants custom pearl inlay done to their guitar probably has a keen eye for art.  Custom pearl inlay is a long and intricate process of designing patterns and cutting pearls to be inlaid into the fingerboards, bodies and peg heads of stringed instruments.

Pearl scraps

from the inlay


      After receiving degrees from Canton, Oswego State, and Syracuse University, Nichols bought a house in Waddington, New York where he set up his first Luthier/inlay shop.    This is where he began scouring sources and shops for pearls and seashells—the necessary components for pearl inlay.  "I became pretty proficient at inlaying.  It was my hobby that pretty much paid for itself.  I enjoyed it and had a good time," Nichols explains.

How it all started

       In the late sixties, Nichols asserts, there weren't many people doing inlay.  He saw an ad in a folk music magazine and eventually met up with Mike Longworth, who was doing some inlay work down in Tennessee.       "I called him up, and we became friends because we were looking at the same things," Nichols says.    During this time, Martin Guitars was looking to reintroduce their D-45, a pearl-bound bodied guitar with pearl inlay on the fingerboard and headstock, which had not been on the market since the 1940s.      Longworth made the decision that he was going to be Martin's man.  He got himself appointed as organizer of the inlay department by the people at Martin.   He called Nichols and told him he could do all the work and Longworth would do the organizing.    "He (Longworth) was better at organizing than inlay, and I was better at inlay [than organizing Martin's pearl department].  I didn't have any desire in organizing Martin's pearl department," Nichols says with conviction.

       For the next several years, even though he was working part-time, Nichols and a few helpers did all the custom pearl inlay for Martin guitars.   Martin would send him fingerboards, pick-guards, bridges, headstocks, and other essential components to a guitar, and Nichols would then inlay the pearls and mail the worked pieces back to Martin.     After the 1960s, Nichols affirms most of the inlay work coming out of Martin was done right in his Waddington shop.

   Nichols continues to do inlay work for Martin Guitar, as well as musicians who bring their guitars to their Martin dealers or directly to his shop.  The dealers call Martin, and Martin calls Nichols.    Nichols likes working in the North Country because he says Adirondack spruce is the premium wood for the tops of guitars.  "I'm trying to be more environmentally conscious.  Since we live in the Adirondacks, this wood will always be available," Nichols says.

Typical day for Dave

     Each morning, Nichols gets in the shop around 6:45 and checks his email to see what his orders are for the day.  He will then begin cutting pearl shapes for inlays and work on jobs that require more attention.  He tries to finish up his work that he doesn't necessarily want to do and make his money by noon.  This enables him to get away from the business end in the other half of the day.     "In the afternoon, I like to do a fun repair or an inlay that takes my fancy," Nichols admits.  He usually works until 5:30.

        Some fun jobs he does? Nichols explains that something like a tree of life inlay may look really beautiful, but when someone has done thousands of them, like he has, the job loses its glamour.  "It's like if someone was to paint fifty Mona Lisa's.  By the fiftieth one, she probably wouldn't be smiling," he confesses.       The day is long, Nichols says, but it is where he wants to be.  "The shop is comfortable.  It's warm.  And if I don't feel like working too hard or need a change of pace for my eyes, I go play solitaire on the computer."

Inlay stipulations

        There are some inlay jobs Nichols simply refuses.  For example, some customers would want to have a brand name inlaid into their guitar.  This would be like putting the name Martin into an acoustic Samick guitar.  Nichols will always turn that work away because he maintains Martin's and his own integrity.     "You have to have some ethical standards in the business, not just artistic taste—I am not doing forgeries," he says.      Another type of inlay he will avoid is when someone wants to "have different segments of the human anatomy inlaid into their guitar," as he euphemistically put it.

Serving country to rock stars

     Nichols has done work for a variety of musicians ranging from country artists to 80s rockers.   Examples include Del McCoury, David Grisman, Johnny Cash, Aerosmith, and even ZZ Top.     "I still treasure a letter Johnny Cash sent to me saying how proud he was to own his fancy Martin guitar," Nichols says with a big smile.  The guitar was painted black with a tree of life inlaid on the fingerboard and his signature in the peg-head.     Nichols reinforces his pride for that letter by citing that Cash has stayed in the limelight for the last fifty years.   Of the eighties rockers, Nichols built a series of guitars for ZZ Top and an Aerosmith guitar which had Spiderman inlaid in it and was used in the movie of the same name.

     This year, Martin put out a series of Merle Haggard signature models that Nichols inlaid.  Haggard bought fifteen of them and gave them to his friends—the likes of Willie Nelson and Norm Hamlett.    "All the people who were special to Haggard got to have their signatures inlaid into the guitars," Nichols says.

     A comical inlay job for Nichols arose when a customer wanted to have pearl rendition of his girlfriend inlaid into his guitar.  "When I was getting ready to make the cuts of his girlfriend, he called me and told me they just broke up … He wanted me to make her look fat," Nichols laughs.

It's a good life

   Nichols enjoys what he does.  This is what gets him to roll out of bed in the morning.  "I keep alive at it by playing music all summer, hanging out with musicians and flaunting my work,"   In the winter months, he keeps busy doing the inlay bit, so he can go out the following summer and flaunt his work some more.   Each winter, he also builds himself a new mandolin.   During the summer, he then tours with the new mandolin and sells it at the end of the season.  "I keep building and selling new, fancier mandolins every year," Nichols smiles.

      Why hasn't anyone heard of this man? Well, that's simple.   He doesn't have a listed phone number, and he doesn't advertise.   But he "still has all the work he can handle," he assures.     A big part of his business is the mystique he explains.   He says people who want some inlaying work done have to find him first.

      "By the time they find me, they pretty much know what they want and who they want to do it.  I don't necessarily want a high profile.   The mystique of the business is worth as much as a good advertising campaign."