By Patrick Sullivan
Eric Meyer’s pegs and tailpieces have graced fine modern instruments and million-dollar Strads like the “General Kyd” violin and “Archinto” viola. Yet they have a humble origin: Every one of the Oregon artisan’s fittings is handmade in the basement of his Portland home, in a workshop across from the washer and dryer.
A versatile craftsman with an irreverent sense of humor, the 68-year-old Meyer has done a little of everything, from helping to repair George Washington’s guitar at the Smithsonian to working as a machinist at Vinton Studios, where once he made a miniature bicycle for a hamster to ride in a Michael Jackson video.
But for the past 25 years, Meyer has painstakingly crafted fine fittings for luthiers and musicians. It’s a one-man operation, and he likes it that way. “My boss is a jerk, but I know him really intimately,” he says with a laugh.
“Since the wood is turning very fast and the tools are sharp, mishaps can be exciting and explosive.”
San Francisco violin maker Francis Kuttner says Meyer’s creations stand out in a world of mass-produced pegs. “When you open a box of his pegs, you can see immediately how distinctive they are,” Kuttner says. “The care he has for his fittings matches the care I put into my instruments. He’s trained as a guitar maker and bow maker, and it’s obvious that he has a certain aesthetic ingrained in him.”
Meyer works closely with his customers to match his creations to their instruments. “Dealing with me is a very personal business,” Meyer says. “The thing I enjoy the most is envisioning the person or the instrument that I’m making the pegs or tailpieces for. We’ve usually talked on the phone or by email. So while I’m making them, I can visualize where they’re going.”
From the beginning, Meyer has used the same key tool: a machinist lathe with the vertical field disconnected so that he can push the carriage freely against the wood and a template. “I don’t know if the lathe will outlast me or I’ll outlast it,” he says. It has developed a little wobble over the years, but that’s OK with Meyer. “I want a little bit of slop in my stuff,” he says. “Not too much, but a little. If it’s too precise, it looks like a machine made it.”
After all, he points out, his pegs are typically partnered with a hand-carved violin scroll that has its own variations. “You want those subtle irregularities that your eye doesn’t pick up but your brain does,” he says. “That’s what makes it look friendly, as a friend of mine says.”
But while the product is friendly, the work itself can be tough. Near Meyer’s lathe sit dozens of pegs that didn’t make the cut because they had a knot or a flaw. Just one in five survives the process. Tailpieces aren’t much better: “You can spend a day and half on a tailpiece and suddenly there’s a crack that you never saw,” he says ruefully.
Peg making can even be a bit dangerous. The lathe cutter can only work on one axis, as Meyer points out, so other work must be done by hand—which can be tricky. “I am cutting at an oblique axis inside the turning, oversized head of the peg,” he notes. “Since the wood is turning very fast and the tools are sharp, mishaps can be exciting and explosive.”
The challenge is compounded by Meyer’s preference for mountain mahogany, a slow-growing tree in the rose family that produces famously dense, heavy wood. “It’s the greatest wood for pegs and tailpieces, but it’s
not uniform,” Meyer says. “It’s very difficult wood to mill, and there are surprises all the time.”
But surprises have apparently never much bothered Meyer. Indeed, he first plunged into instrument-making as a young man, completely by happenstance. Not long after enrolling in law school, Meyer stopped by the shop of famous Portland guitar maker Jeff Elliott. “On a whim, I asked if he ever took apprentices,” Meyer recalls. “He said, ‘Yes, and I’m looking for some right now.’ So I called up my mom and told her I wasn’t going to law school.”
Later, Meyer opened his own shop and even helped restore a 200-year-old guitar belonging to America’s first president. He crafted his first pegs for baroque guitars he’d made himself. Meyer began making pegs for violins in 1990, and then plunged into tailpieces.
Word spread that he truly tried to understand what a maker or musician was looking for. How much time does he spend talking to customers? “That depends on whether I’m in the hot tub or not,” he says with a laugh.
Meyer has done plenty of custom work, and he’s frequently able to duplicate a peg or tailpiece—modern or baroque—that can’t be found commercially. “I’ve done stuff with opals, inlaid ivory butterflies on a tailpiece, and all kinds of things,” he says. “But if I get really ornate requests, I tend to talk people out of it. I’ve lost a lot of money doing interesting projects.”
He sometimes prepares pegs for a professional woodcarver. “I can envision what my turning is going to be like for them to carve,” he says. “To leave the collar thick enough so they can carve a fleur-de-lis there—that’s bloody tough to do.”
But even after a quarter-century of mastering tough projects, Meyer still sounds bemused by his success. “How it happened in the beginning, I can’t quite answer that,” he says. “But I think people just got the sense that they could really talk to me and explain what they want. I think that got around.”