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

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Walking into Specimen, the guitar/acoustic workshop located on 1240 North Homan Avenue, is like walking into a potential alternate future, a 21st century that could have been if the transistor had not replaced the vacuum tube, and acoustics had continued to use wooden horns to amplify noise.

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The first thing you see when walking into the workshop, after going through a wrought iron door, is a table filled with row after row of gramophone-type horn speakers, compact, beautiful devices that wouldn't look out of place text to a vase or marble bust.

Then, looking beyond this display, you see a large workshop space, filled with hexagonal work tables, necks and sound boxes for guitars under construction, and 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, would take strong exception to anyone saying that his vacuum-tube based designs are old-fashioned or obsolete.

“The 1930s, in many ways, was the apex of electronic development.” he says as he show people through the workshop and presents his many interesting musical amplifier designs. “These amps, properly handed, will never wear out. This?” He remarks, fishing out his iPhone. “This will not last for even three years.”

Ian's artistic love of old-style gramophone-type devices and pre-transistor technologies 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 gesturing towards the bulb-like vacuum tubes that sprout from the top of many of his devices, he mentions how he purchases many of them from antique store stock and factories in Russia and China.

He draws particular attention to a vacuum tube with a red bottom rim. This model, he says, is the 65L7 vacuum-tube, of the same design that was used in the onboard calculators for the Saturn 5 lunar rocket.

And as he shows off some gramophone-type horns in the process of being carved by a group of interns from the Art Institute, he explains that they use recycled newsprint and dryer lint (“The most wasted resource on the planet” he says) to coat the outside of the horns. To seal this outer layer, they then coat the coating with a glue made from the excretion of the wood-eating 'Lao' beetle–the '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, to deliver 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.

And at the same time he's running a series of workshop events that stretch far into the new year, teaching colleges 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 what Ian's amps 'steampunk': he doesn't like that.

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