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Acoustic Box LLC is the acoustic guitar and banjo repair and restoration shop of Richie Dotson. While there are many musical instrument repair and restoration shops around the country, there aren’t many left that specialize in vintage-to-modern banjo neck conversions. Even fewer incorporate the precision and speed of CNC machines. So how does one person with a part time apprentice find success creating intricate and small parts on an industrial quality CNC machine? I visited the shop of Richie Dotson and Acoustic Box to find out.
I pulled up to what looked like a modest airplane hangar on a main road in Hopewell, VA, about 15 minutes outside of Richmond, VA. Shop cat Maggie greeted me with a stern meow that sounded like “Hey! Look at me! Now move along.” I later discovered shop cat number two, Meowcome Pulley, sleeping in the corner of a workbench. Both super cute and worth mentioning. Richie was finishing up a phone call with a customer while apprentice Will Maddox showed me around a bit. It was great to see all the tools of the trade in various rooms. The wall of vintage banjo necks in the front room is hard to miss and mesmerizing to study. Various 4-string necks from the 1920’s and 1930’s in varying levels of condition intrigue me so much that I just have to know the reason for such a special collection. Richie is one of the country’s leading banjo neck conversion artists. He studies the fine details of 1920’s and 30’s era banjos and recreates them with a modern arrangement of 5-strings and inlay work that matches their vintage counterpart. To achieve this, Richie uses his ShopBot Desktop CNC machine to make quick and accurate parts for his clients’ prized instruments.
Richie’s fascination with banjos started at the tender age of 9. He grew up in a rural Kentucky community where there wasn’t much in the way of formal information about how a banjo is constructed. As a small child, Richie would continuously take apart his banjo to learn everything he could about what made it work. “I began to figure things out by trial and error. Lots and lots of errors! But that’s how I started.”
Richie enlisted and completed a four-year commitment with the United States Navy in 1989. While stationed in Norfolk, VA, Richie would visit music shops. But there was one shop that resonated with Richie most – Isle of Wight Instrument Company. It was there that Richie was able to observe acoustic instrument repair work and hand inlay work up close. “I loved visiting that shop. That was the spark that ignited what would become Acoustic Box many years later.”
History of Acoustic Box:
Acoustic Box LLC has been around since 2012, officially, however Richie had been working on banjos professionally for many years prior to the start date of this brand name. For many years Richie had been cutting pearl inlay, and the corresponding cavities on banjo fretboards, by hand. While satisfied with his progress and the high level of accuracy he achieved after putting in countless hours to master his craft, Richie admits being “happily burdened” by more work than he could accomplish if he wanted to keep up and turn a profit. After incorporating various tools, methods, and even outsourcing some of the work to save time, he knew he would need to find a way to keep up with the most lucrative aspect of his growing business – creating 5-string conversion necks based on golden-era vintage Gibson 4-string banjos. He realized a CNC machine would provide the speed and repeatable accuracy he needed to truly set himself apart. Richie chose the ShopBot Desktop CNC machine, resulting in repeatable precision, shorter lead times on completing jobs, and ultimately, turning a profit and growing his business.
The ShopBot and what’s next with CNC:
The ShopBot Desktop CNC machine at Richie’s shop is well loved! In addition to creating many custom vacuum jigs for several parts they make in-house; the pearl inlay cutting is probably the most fascinating. Using extremely small bits allows for fine details on lettering, logos, fret markers, and more.
Richie tells us, “Moving forward, I am teaching myself 3D programming, specifically using Rhinoceros 3D so the back of the necks can be carved to my satisfaction. I plan to have enough working knowledge of that program to provide variations to satisfy customers who want their own shape and size neck. I could purchase a 3D file from some of the people I know, but teach a man to fish... The only thing limiting us with our ShopBot Desktop is the workbed size, but we’ve certainly maximized its existing capacity. My goal is to add a larger ShopBot unit to our machine room. We find that they have superior accuracy, they are very reliable and more intuitive to operate and maintain compared to our other machines. ShopBot customer service is outstanding."
Richie's trusty ShopBot Desktop CNC machine with custom vacuum jig.
"We really look forward to seeing what the future holds in the world of CNC as a professional luthier. The more I work with these machines, the more I think of new ways to use them. It starts to become intuitive. The time I save on tasks using the ShopBot has opened-up more opportunities for my shop than any other hand or power tool I have ever owned.”
Pearl inlay pieces made by Richie Dotson. Produced with the help of his ShopBot Desktop CNC machine.
If you’re looking for a truly special instrument or need an acoustic guitar or banjo serviced, repaired, or restored, now you know who to go to. For more information about services and products from Acoustic Box LLC, please visit the links below.
Photos by Ross Gruet and Richie Dotson
Video produced by ShopBot Tools with footage courtesy of Richie Dotson
Toll Free: 1-888-680-4466
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3333-B Industrial Drive
Durham, NC 27704
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