Resounding Resonance: Iris Guitar Company Blends Depression-era Influence with Cutting-Edge CraftsmanshipWhile Iris Guitar Company is relatively new on the acoustic guitar scene, the team is built of industry vets combining decades of experience into a truly incredible vision for top-quality boutique acoustic guitars. These unique instruments caught our eye at Russo Music earlier this year, and we couldn't be more excited to introduce them to our lineup of top-shelf instrument offerings. We sat down with Adam Buchwald, the mastermind behind Iris, to learn about the company's origins, understand what sets their guitars apart, and get a sneak peek at what's coming next for this innovative Vermont-based brand.
RM: Introduce yourself and tell us what role you play at Iris Guitar Company.
AB: Adam Buchwald. Founder and Owner at Iris Guitar Company and Circle Strings Guitars, help manage and run Fairbanks Guitars. I also own and operate Allied Lutherie. I manage and run the business and have a crew of highly skilled and focused builders. I do help with any process in production when it is necessary since I used to do all of it myself, but most of my time is spent running the show.
RM: The origin story is king. (Just ask Marvel.) Give us the genesis on the Iris Guitar Company. No detail too small!
AB: After many years of producing high end custom guitars, most of my repair clients were priced out of the guitars we were making. I was asked time and time again to build a modern guitar that looked vintage and would hold up to tour but look cool/old…..The main thing we wanted was to keep the price under $3000. I wanted to brand the new project differently than the higher end guitars we were making like Collings did with Waterloo. Iris was an easy name to pronounce, spell, and only had four letters which made branding easier. It was also a favorite name that my wife and I had if we had another baby. The guitar business turned into the new baby!
The Iris Guitar Company Collection at Russo Music Asbury Park
RM: What’s special about the Iris build process?
AB: We use modern machinery, CNC/Laser, to cut out the parts to our exact specs so we can put them together in a faster and more efficient process. We still hand carve the necks off the CNC and Shape and tune all the braces so we can create the sound we want. Owning Allied Lutherie also gives us the finest tone woods around to work with. Our finish process hardly impacts the sound of the guitar. We use 3 thin coats of lacquer which is sanded before we put on the matte finish. No pore filler us used. This lets the wood breathe and vibrate more freely creating a better sound. We are all trained and passionate luthiers!
RM: Can you talk about the neck joint you all use at Iris and why?
AB: After years of doing neck sets on Martin and Gibson Dovetails we decided to use the Bolt on Mortise and Tenon joint. These are machined so are very tight fitting and can be unbolted to repair or reset in the future. It also gives a lot more freedom in building a new neck for a guitar if it needs to be replaced if it breaks. I don’t see any benefits from having a glued in neck joint, it’s all a myth to me.
RM: Tonewood talk time. Things seem to be rooted in the traditional mahogany/rosewood world, but we notice that the options menu stretches its wings a bit. What is the general tonewood philosophy over at Iris?
AB: Love a good stiff top and mahogany back and sides. Sounds great right out of the gate! I feel Rosewood needs time to develop. I hope to start using more Native Woods like Cherry, Maple, Black Locust, and Walnut because the traditional woods are getting harder to get and more expensive. Black Locust is an amazing sounding wood but doesn’t look fancy. It’s easy to finish and work with and will take stain and paint fine. I hope people can realize you don’t need the traditional stuff to make guitars with. It’ll take time but hopefully we can get some dealers to trust us on this! Ahem…..I love using Cedar with Maple, a great full rich sharp sound. Redwood is also a great top wood that we like to use!! We are also pushing our dealers to order guitars with 4 piece tops and 3 or 4 piece backs to show people that it can work and you can be more creative. We do try and push using mismatched Brazilian rosewood sets so you can get a great Brazilian guitar at less than half of the cost if the wood was perfectly book matched. It still has the same grain and color, and most of all sound, but doesn’t look perfect! The resources are dwindling, and we need to make use of what we have! I don’t want to keep cutting trees down to make these guitars.
RM: Can you speak to where your materials come from?
AB: Owning Allied Lutherie provides us with all the materials we could ever ask for. Sometimes we wish we could use the fanciest woods we have but we need to stick to the affordable aspect of this line. Most of the fancier high grade woods are used on the CIRCLE STRINGS and FAIRBANKS guitars we make as well. We do have dealers for Fairbanks but haven’t really dived into a shop we want to work with for Circles. Most of the orders have been custom ordered but we are looking for the right dealer to work with on the higher end models. Having a wood business in house gives us many options to choose from and we are picking the best sounding woods we have for the Iris guitars. Some might not be perfect for or high grade because of grain etc…but we feel those woods should be used as well and this is what we really care about in the materials we choose for these guitars.
RM: Tell us about the finish process? What is the inspiration and what are some techniques/details that make Iris special?
AB: We stain the wood directly, no color is put into the lacquer, maybe in the black finishes, but it’s mostly stained into wood which gives it a more natural look and not just a thick coat of paint. We also do not use grain filler or multiple coats to fill all the pores into the wood. We stain, seal, a few coats of lacquer, scuff back and apply the satin coats for the overall matte finish. It looks more natural, feels soft and smooth, doesn’t squeak, and most importantly sounds open and alive immediately. Our distressed finishes are finished off with a special semi-gloss lacquer which has no plasticizer in it so we can crack it and make it look old.
RM: So you’ve got a blend of old-world craftsmanship and modern techniques. How do you balance these seemingly opposing elements in your build process?
AB: It’s tricky, because we want to do everything the best way possible, but also make sure we are using our time most efficiently. I think there are more things we can do to speed it up, but we don’t want to lose the handmade feel of the guitars. It’s taken many years of hard work to develop our skill set to build at this level and speed. I’m very fortunate to have employees that have worked for Collings, Santa Cruz, Galloup, and my experience at Froggy Bottom, along with Dale's experience building Fairbanks, have given us ideas and techniques from some of the best manufacturers around. I feel this gives us an advantage to others in this industry. I’m so lucky to have such a talented crew.
RM: What's one of the biggest challenges you've faced in the guitar-making process and how did it improve the Iris brand?
AB: Honestly, the hardest part of making guitars is selling them. We can make them all day long but getting the public to accept a new brand has been the trickiest part. I can remember you telling me that you haven’t stocked a new [guitar] brand in years, and honestly, some stores its even longer. Getting people to trust us and believe in us has been the biggest hurdle to get over. I’ve been telling shops, that these guitars need to be seen, held, played, compared, and most of all seen in shops that carry the major brands. I feel like we have more to offer than the major companies because we are all passionate and dedicated guitar makers, not just factory workers doing a job.
RM: From your perspective, what makes an Iris guitar stand out in a room full of other high-end acoustic brands?
AB: First and foremost, the sound. They just have this open, woody, warm, and natural sound. We build very light and use little finish so the wood can really shine in its tonal properties. Secondly, the look, they look vintage and have a unique style. Most guitars all look the same, but these have a vibe….A new headstock that’s branded so you can see it at the back of the stage. Most guitars don’t have logos that are visible from far away. We wanted people to know what the musician was playing. The feel of the finish is another major selling point. They feel soft and inviting, don’t make noise when rubbed, and don’t get fingerprints all over them.
RM: What else can you tell us about Iris Guitar Company’s artist relationships? Who can’t get enough of your stuff? Who would you like to work with that you haven’t yet?
AB: We have worked with Margo Price, Leo Kottke, and may other notable players. But honestly, it’s the emails I get from players who have said, I’ve been waiting for a guitar like this my whole life, something that’s different, cool, inviting, and sounds old and warm immediately. Most of those customers end up buying 2-3 more Iris and upgrade to a Circle or Fairbanks. This was part of my business plan and its working.
I hope to work with Sierra Ferrel on a custom Iris build very soon as well as Ryan Adams.
The Circle Strings guitars are being used by Trey Anastasio, Rick Mitarotoda, Neko Case, Marc Ribot, and many others….
RM: What’s the most popular model right now from Iris?
AB: The DF, everyone loves the slope shoulder dread
RM: What’s your favorite Iris Model and why?
AB: I love the CH and the JB, because they are original shapes and hope they catch on more. We are also about to unveil the BB, a ¾ size travel guitar. I think this might become my favorite. We have made 3 of them so far and they sound incredible. They are also small and compact, and the woods can be amazing because they are a lot smaller and more to chose from.
RM: If you could do just ONE upgrade from the options menu, what would you do and why?
AB: Use the old Sitka from Guild or Old Stock Mahogany. The old woods are amazing.
RM: What is the team like at Iris? Who really keeps it together over there?
AB: Highly focused, talented, mature, and amazing people. I am so lucky to have such a great crew. We have two managers, Christian McAdams, and Jay Brown, who keep the ship sailing. I am so grateful for the work they do. Check them out on the site and see their history and bio.
RM: Any sneak peaks into new things coming from Iris Guitar Company?
AB: The BB, the ¾ model. And Electrics……
RM: You came to visit us last week in our Asbury Park, New Jersey shop. Did we live up to your Jersey Shore expectations? Can you help dispel the rumors some middle and left coasters might have heard about New Jersey?
AB: The Shop is incredible. The layout, vibe, people are top notch. I really enjoyed getting to know you all and look forward to what we can do. I feel like shops like you are what we need right now. The collectors and guitar nuts know about us, we need the public to believe in us and trust we are a legitimate new brand. Most of the best people I know are from Jersey. I like the honesty and hard work they give to everything they do.
RM: To wrap things up, what message would you like to share with our Russo Music community who are discovering or considering an Iris Guitar for the first time?
AB: First and foremost, we love what we do, and it shows in the guitars. We are luthiers, not factory workers. Please support and believe in a new guitar brand. Just try it, and I’m confident you will fall in love.
We can't thank Adam enough for taking the time to answer our questions. Russo Music is beyond excited to be partnered with Iris Guitar Company. Cheers to new friendships, new guitars, and many more to come!
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