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Lutherie in a Fishbowl, or "What's beyond Bed, Bath & Beyond?"
Gibson's Factory at the Mall
© Frank Ford, 7/1/01; Photos by FF, 3/21/01-3/23/01

Not long ago, Gibson consolidated the Gibson and Flatiron mandolin, Gibson banjo and Dobro resonator guitar operations into a division called "Original Acoustic Instruments." Since then the folks who work in the OAI section have been moved around from one factory location to another. Now they have a home that can only be described as unique in the musical manufacturing industry, if not the entire field of manufacturing.

On the former site of the Opryland Theme Park, there stands a huge indoor shopping mall called Opry Mills. Gibson's OAI division occupies about 30,000 square feet at the end of the complex right next Bed Bath and Beyond. Here, all the instrument manufacturing takes place right in front of the public, in a sharp contrast to Gibson's very closed shops in Nashville and elsewhere.

Part One: Opry Mills - Public Area

That's Dan Erlewine standing in out beyond the parking lot entrance to the factory. The giant sign is in keeping with the decor on the outside of other businesses here. Notice the big fake smokestack. It's a replica of the stack on Gibson's original building in Kalamazoo, now occupied by the Heritage Guitar Company.

Walking inside, the first thing I saw was about 1,000 square feet of empty space with some display cabinets, which have been standing empty for about a year, waiting someday to become a museum or some such. Gibson's performance venue, closed during the daytime was off to the left. Looks like they have a bar there and could accommodate quite a crowd.

Following around inside to the mall's common area, you can see the interior presentation is even more flashy than the exterior. Not a typical manufacturing plant, that's for sure.

 The mall itself has the typical high tech looking shopping experience.

 The bass fishing store may be the biggest shop in the mall. Here, I came close to buying a really cool pillow in the shape of a dead fish!

OK, back to Gibson.

 On the mall side, all the manufacturing rooms have full windows so the public can step right up and see what's going on.

 Each area is neatly labeled. I wonder what the "danger" is to the public watching the buffing area. Maybe they mean that if you tap on the glass, somebody will drop a Dobro!

 Outside the manufacturing rooms, right in the main walkway of the mall, are three "kiosks" fitted with workbenches and tools. Additionally, there's this kiosk fitted with a cash register.

 You can play (and buy) every model instrument made here, except for the Master Model F-5 mandolin, which is in extremely limited production.

Here's a Sam Bush model, right on the counter, ready to go.

 You can also buy a variety of Gibson imprinted novelty items, T-shirts, and such.

 Above each kiosk is a giant replica of one of the instruments made here at Opry Mills.

 The technicians working in the kiosks are glad to pass the time talking to the public as they work.

 They're a friendly lot, and they work with the ease and confidence that only comes from experience

 They do the final assembly and setup right here. Occasionally, they have to slap the hand of a picker who reaches in too far to touch an instrument in progress. . .

 Skilled hand work, not elaborate fixtures, are the tools of the trade here.

 In a few display cases there are examples of some of the wild custom work that has been a hallmark of Gibson's style for 100 years.

Fancy carving, pearl, gold, engraving, exotic woods - how can that be enough when there's room for some rhinestones?

 Just look at this banjo resonator.

I couldn't bring myself to photograph the Jesus Christ celebrity model But just look at this fancy number.

Mighty cool illustrations and all.

I took this next bunch of photos right through the glass, just as so many tourists do as they pass by. He's sorting top braces for mandolins, by the way.

Believe it or not, all areas of the shop are completely visible to the public.

A shot of the Dobro area and a stack of resonator "sound wells," the structures that support the vibrating resonator cone.

The workers tell me that they are never distracted by the public looking in.

 Well, hardly ever.

A mandolin body gets a bit of detail work.

These are busy people with lots of work to do.

Some body sanding.

Final sanding a Dobro neck.

Even the spray booths have full glass walls so you can watch all the action. The glass is cloudy because of overspray, of course.

A batch drying.

The buffing area is spacious so there's little chance of workers bumping each other.

A wrong turn would send this Dobro body flying!

After the colored finish is applied, the binding gets scraped to reveal the contrast in color.

A little detail work before this banjo neck goes "into finish."

The man on the left is Charlie Derrington, head of R&D here. He met our group by the employee entrance to take us through the inside where we could really get in on the action.



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