As you can imagine, orchestrating extensive remodels and building high-end custom homes can be a challenge. With the work comes a sense of accomplishment, of course, but the team-building distillation of various players — moneymen, architects, subcontractors, laborers, inspectors, and many others — into a finished product pleasing to the client can also get a bit stressful.
That’s why Giffin & Crane Superintendent Chris Leonard builds guitars.
Leonard, 56, who grew up on live music — from Aretha Franklin and Cream to Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead (and his father’s accordion polkas) — built his first guitar a few years back, not long after deciding to teach himself how to play.
“Playing guitar is all-encompassing,” he says, referring to that state of hyper-focused creativity musicians slip into during a good jam session. He gets the same escape in his garage workshop, where he fabricates his own jigs and clamps, and has a spray booth for applying topcoats to his custom instruments. “While I’m playing or building guitars, everything else goes away,” he says.
In terms of his long history at Giffin & Crane, Leonard laid a foundation as a carpenter in his native Canada, where he completed an intensive four-year apprenticeship program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. That training and follow-up work went a long way toward landing a job at Giffin & Crane more than 25 years ago, when he dropped anchor in the warmer climes of Santa Barbara. He stared out as a finish carpenter before setting his sights higher.
“My goal was to move my way up through the ranks,” Leonard says. “You can only swing a hammer for so long.”
His past experience on the ground floor helps him oversee project quality, he says, but the true key to the realm is being able to communicate effectively with a spectrum of skill sets and personalities. Whether he’s working with tradesmen just learning to speak English or playing the middleman between architects and building-code bureaucrats, “there’s a lot of tact to it,” he says.
Leonard also makes an effort to recognize and appreciate advancements in training and technology. “Those kids straight out of college with degrees in construction management, they’re on the cutting edge, and I’m all for hearing expert opinion. A job is always a team effort.”
And when a job is done, Leonard (pictured, below) heads back to his guitar workshop to clear his head.
(By Keith Hamm, with photos courtesy of Chris Leonard)
For the past two decades, Giffin & Crane has maintained a steady working relationship with one of Santa Barbara’s finest cabinetmakers. Starbuck Minikin, headed up by Charlie Starbuck, specializes in custom, one-of-a-kind projects (such as the kitchen cabinetry, pictured).
“I like building something nobody’s ever done before,” Starbuck says. To achieve that, especially for the region’s high-end market and its discerning clientele, Starbuck draws from nearly 40 years of experience.
“I bought the shop (pictured, below) from Bill Minikin in 1978,” he says. “That’s when my career in cabinetry began. I trained for five years with Bill’s partner, Wes Butler.”
Before that, after earning an advanced degree from the University of Colorado, Starbuck worked as an accountant in San Francisco, a job that provided considerable monetary compensation but not much else. So the Santa Barbara native moved back home to revisit the creative impulses from his younger years, namely woodworking skills he picked up at Laguna Blanca School, under the guidance of shop teacher Charles Chester Cash, a retired carpenter.
“If Mr. Cash were still alive, I’d take him by the hand and show him my shop and my projects and tell him that this is what he inspired.”
“Wood shop was the only class I got an A in when I was a kid,” Starbuck says about those days of crafting cutting boards, skim boards, and paddle boards, among other early assignments. “I’ve always been building something since then.”
One of his favorite personal pieces — which he built in his college apartment — is a walnut ping-pong table with cherrywood inlays. His kids grew up playing on it.
Once in the cabinetry business, Starbuck started out refinishing furniture before taking on remodels and new homes, and “as our shop grew and Giffin & Crane grew, our paths crossed,” he says. “It was a normal business eventuality” that’s going on 20 years.
“Our longstanding relationship is based on a mutual interest in quality, integrity, and professionalism,” Starbuck says. “And we both know that the most important thing in business is having a happy client.”
Over the years, Starbuck, who’s now 66, has adapted to a changing industry and marketplace, from learning computer-aided design and automation to sourcing specialty hardware and responding to a demand for sustainably harvested hardwoods. His seven-man crew operates out of a 4,000-square-foot shop, next door to his office in downtown Santa Barbara.
“I consider myself an artist, to an extent,” says Starbuck (pictured, below). “As an artist, if you’re in it for the money, forget it. You have to love what you do and have the passion to dedicate yourself to making sure clients are happy and be proud of your work.”
(Story and photos by Keith Hamm, except lead photo, by Jim Bartsch).