Work makes music more beautiful
Tom Schotland, of Rochester, is making his mark on the international guitar scene. His inlay materials are in high demand and have been used in guitars made by famous companies including Martin, Paul Reed Smith (PRS) and Fender.
From a young age, Schotland has "been in love with opal," a beautifully iridescent gemstone that ranges from green to magenta.
"Once I found opal, I couldn't stop thinking about it," he said.
This opaline infatuation was put on hold, though, while Schotland worked writing code for image setters in the 1990s, but it resurfaced about 2004 when Schotland, then living in New York, met guitar builder Bill Tippin.
Tippin's guitars, like many, included glimmering mother of pearl patterns set into the wood called inlays. Schotland thought opal could work as an inlay material, so he began experimenting. The process was difficult because unlike the shell usually used for inlays, opal would shatter. Sourcing also was challenging for Schotland.
"I didn't know opal people and had to cold-call Australians in the opal industry," he said.
Schotland developed a "triplet" system, layering paper-thin slices of opal between specialized polymers. The bottom layer improved stability for cutting while the top, transparent layer allowed sanding to fit rounded guitar contours.
The opal triplet was innovative and graced top-notch guitars such as a 2010 PRS guitar featuring blue-opal, eagle-patterned inlays on the fretboard; however, Opal inlay cost $200 per square inch. To make it more affordable, Schotland used synthetic opal, creating OpalLam, which sold for $6.67 per square inch.
Schotland moved to Rochester in 2012, and now, he's developing another synthetic inlay that solves previous difficulties.
Michael Keller, a local guitar builder with an international reputation, raves about Schotland's new inlay.
Keller, a 40-year guitar-building veteran, met Schotland at a high-end guitar show in Florida.
"I had been cutting shell for 20 years before I met Tom," Keller said.
Keller describes how government regulations for threatened species have made it increasingly difficult to ship natural shell inlay internationally.
"Mother of pearl or abalone can't easily ship out of country," he said. Since Keller's clientele includes collectors from places such as Japan, who spend thousands of dollars on guitars, the shipping difficulties are concerning. Schotland's new synthetic inlay solves this problem.
To produce and market the inlay, Schotland works with Chuck Erikson, known as "The Duke of Pearl," an expert on high-quality inlay who Schotland says "deals in so many tons of shell a year it makes your head spin." Schotland also joined forces with John Blazy, an Ohioan who developed a colorfully-patterned optical core material he calls Dichrolam.
The Dichrolam materials have a vibrancy and low-light brilliance that equals or exceeds opal and shell, are significantly less expensive at $2.75 per square inch and are easier to cut. They also are not subject to international shipping restrictions.
Some of Schotland's Dichrolam inlay materials shift eerily from purple to green when moved in the light, and they have exotic names such as Dragon Skin and Deep Matrix. You could say Schotland's work makes music even more beautiful.