Mark Mattos’ custom electric guitar shop has had two homes in Portland, and in both cases, the quarters have been both close and enclosed. That, along with a longtime interest in recycling and repurposing, led him to make his guitars from repurposed woods and to swap out toxic chemicals for sustainable materials, like milk paint and a finishing material derived in part from whey. We called him up to find out how that works.

SICK OF SCREEN TIME: He got into making guitars in 2011, having noticed that it “had become something of a cottage industry.” Some of the replicas he was seeing on the market were going for as much as $5,000. “Typically a good electric guitar will be $1,000 to $2,000.” He had experience with fine carpentry, having made furniture and clocks, and thought he could make and sell beautiful replicas for less than $5,000. And at that point, he was ready for a change. He’d been doing a lot of web-based work, both in photography and graphic design. “I decided I needed to get away from screens.”

FENDER BENDER: His guitars are inspired by the electric guitars of the 1950s and 1960s, the kind Leo Fender was known for. “Big fat necks, as opposed to the modern style, which are thinner, faster.” The Fender guitars are beautiful, but if Mattos wanted to make straight replicas of those, he said he’d be exposing himself to chemicals like the nitrocellulose that was standard in that era. Come again? “It’s a lacquer and very much a heavily solvent-based finish.” Meaning, not good to be applying in small spaces. “It is really tremendously toxic. Dangerous. Explosive. You need to have all sorts of fancy spray rooms to use it, and full Hazmat kind of suits. It is really nasty stuff.”

GOT MILK? Mattos was building guitars in his apartments, first in the West End and then on Munjoy Hill. His wife works at home as well, and she’s got some chemical sensitivities. He didn’t want to expose either of them to intense chemicals in a small space. So he looked for materials that could create the same look as those old Fender guitars, but without the nasty stuff full of VOCs (shorthand for volatile organic compounds). “I settled on milk paint for doing the colors, and an amber stain for some of the others.” Does milk paint, also known as casein paint, actually include dairy? “It does have milk in it!” Namely, a dried powder made of milk protein. He’d used it before in furniture making so was familiar with it. While you might think of milk paint as the pastel hues of shabby chic furniture, it works for bright red guitars too. “I have done some reds and pinks and greens. You can get pretty vibrant colors.”

SOUND MATTERS: For that glossy finish one associates with electric guitars, Mattos turned to a polyurethane developed by scientists at the University of Vermont. Called PolyWhey, it incorporates whey, a byproduct of cheese making and yogurt. It wipes on and is very thin. Thin is a good thing, he says, because coatings that are too thick can “deaden the tone.” But lately Mattos has been wooed by another sort of transparent finish. “I have started to us an oil-based finished called Odie’s Oil.” It’s solvent free and food safe – “recommended for use on tables and cutting boards” – and looks good. The oil might bump the whey off the work table.

BACKGROUND NOISE: Mattos played his first guitar when he was about nine years old. “I never advanced beyond advanced beginner, but I play well enough to make a good guitar.” (He points out that Leo Fender “didn’t play a note.”) He made his first guitars as a teenager and then didn’t pick up the craft again until he started Mattos Custom Guitars. You might say he was sustainably inclined, having also worked in the recycling field in Massachusetts before moving to Maine 15 years ago, including one business based on recycling tires and another on breaking down appliances.

IS YOUR REFRIGERATOR RUNNING? Meaning getting cast-off stoves up and working again? Kind of. He helped up set up a receiving facility for everything from old stoves to defunct refrigerators. “We would get 50-foot-long trailers filled with used appliances. You know when you get a new stove and Sears comes to deliver it and takes away your old one?” They have to take them somewhere, and Mattos worked on recycling a “staggering” number of them. His company would pull out pieces and parts that had potential to be reused (in say, a repair), or needed to be recycled carefully (like Freon in the fridges), and then they’d disassemble the rest. “We found markets for everything but the fiberglass insulation for refrigerators.”

HOUSE OF PIZZA SOUND: The recycling instinct continues today, and indeed, helped inspire his latest business. He’d read about guitar maker Rick Kelly using old wood recovered from renovations in the Bowery in New York. Kelly was milling the wood and making instruments using low-impact finishes. “I read about him and I was like, ‘that is great. That is what I want to do!’ ” Mattos might not have any wood from the Bowery, but he has made guitars from pieces of pine from old barn being torn down in Acton (he made a deal with the owner, a hand-built guitar for a pallet of the wood) and the former House of Pizza in Wells. “It was being demolished for a Cumberland Farms.” Some research revealed that the building had been the original stagecoach spot in Wells. A lot of the wood went to interior designers, but Mattos got some good “shortish” pieces, 14 to 20 inches wide “and a couple of inches thick.” He’s been happily working through that and will be in the market for a new stash of wood soon.

CUSTOMER BASE: He’s made guitars for musicians all over the world, in Finland, Denmark, England and Australia. How does word spread? “Mostly they find me,” he said. “Sometimes it is sort of connect the dots.” Like the guitar tech who knew the guitarist for the Leon Russell band, and told that guitarist he had to check out the Mattos custom made. Mattos brought one of his instruments up to a 2014 show in Waterville, the guitarist gave it a try and that was the road to a sale. “There is this weird sort of serendipity in how people connect.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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