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“Specimen”: a guitar repair shop, guitar-making school, and vacuum tube oasis

The interior of the "Specimen" school of guitar making, it's workshop space, and the various vacuum-tube based amplifiers constructed and design by Ian Schneller, proprietor of the school.
The interior of the "Specimen" school of guitar making, it's workshop space, and the various vacuum-tube based amplifiers constructed and design by Ian Schneller, proprietor of the school.
Coleman Gailloreto

Walking into Specimen, the guitar/acoustic workshop located on 1240 North Homan Avenue, is like walking into a alternate present, a 21st century that could have been if the transistor didn't replace the vacuum tube, and acoustics still used wooden horns to amplify noise.

Interior of "Specimen" guitar-making school and workshop
Interior of "Specimen" guitar-making school and workshop
Coleman Gailloreto

The first thing you see once you walk into the workshop through it's iron doorway is a table filled with row after row of gramophone-type horn speakers, compact, beautiful devices that wouldn't look out of place next to a vase or marble bust.

Beyond this display, you then see a large workshop space, filled with hexagonal work tables, necks and sound boxes for guitars under construction. Next to them are large amplifiers, sound projectors, and sub-woofers, nearly all of them made with carved wooden horn speakers and vacuum-tube based circuits.

It's an aesthetic that hearkens back to the electronic designs of amplifiers from the 1930 and 40s. But Ian Schneller, owner of this workshop, takes strong exception to anyone who says that his vacuum-tube based designs are old-fashioned or obsolete.

“The 1930s, in many ways, was the apex of electronic development.” he said as he showed people through the workshop and presented his many interesting amplifier designs to them. “These amps, properly handed, will never wear out. This?” He remarked, fishing out his iPhone. “This won't last for even three years.”

Ian's artistic love of old-style gramophone-type devices and pre-transistor technology is tempered by a fair bit of utilitarianism: he likes to use old electronics and wood-working techniques with distinct advantages over conventional modern ones.

For instance, while pointing out the bulb-like vacuum tubes that sprout from the top of many of his devices, he explained how he ordered many of them from antique store stock and factories in Russia and China.

He drew particular attention to a vacuum tube with a red bottom rim. This model, he said, is the 65L7 vacuum-tube, a tube that was used in the Saturn 5 lunar rocket's onboard calculators.

As he showed off some gramophone-type horns that group of interns from the Art Institute are carving out, he explained that they use recycled newsprint and dryer lint (“The most wasted resource on the planet”, he remarks) to coat the outside of the horns. To seal this outer layer, they then coat the coating with a glue made from the excretions of the wood-eating 'Lao' beetle–a classic 'liquid wood' varnish that Stradivarius applied to his violins.

Schneller has lots of larger-scale projects in the works. Among them are twin-horned amplifiers mounted on a spinning motor, broadcasting rhythm and blues strains in a Dopplerized form of stereo, and aerodynamic wood horn sculptures that spin in the breeze like wind turbines, delivering music from a large, carnival ride-like mobile.

At the same time he's running a series of workshop events that stretch far into the new year, teaching college students and curious hobbyists how to build guitars, ukuleles, frets, Hi-Fi stereo tubes, and other marvelous musical contraptions.

In short, Specimen is a school and workshop where people can learn a lot about old style electronics and the basics of guitar and amp making. Just don't call Ian's amps 'steampunk': he doesn't like that.