Twenty years ago, if someone had told Brad Simon he would be building and selling ukuleles and guitars, he might not have believed you.
But these days, when he’s not practicing technology and digital media law, Simon is designing and hand-building stringed instruments out of his Richmond-based workshop, Undermountain Ukuleles & Guitars.
Simon, a native of Wellesley who now lives in Richmond, is a Berkeley Law (JD) and Harvard Law (LLM) trained attorney and has previously worked as an executive level attorney at such companies as MTV Networks, IAC Applications, About.com, PlayFirst, and Take-Two Interactive. He’s worked as both external as well as in-house counsel in San Francisco, Boston and New York City.
While working in New York, he and his husband Michael Simon purchased a weekend house in 2013 in Sheffield.
Upon visits to their home in the Berkshires — which Simon says grew more frequent over time — Simon began to dabble more into woodworking.
That impulse led Simon to attend the Whetstone School of Lutherie in Brattleboro, Vermont.
“I did it on a whim,” said Simon. “After that, I read everything I could and totally got hooked on it and rapidly built out the shop. I just loved it.”
After the class was over, he set out to keep learning.
“It’s one thing to make something in a class, but it’s another thing entirely to look at a pile of wood and think: ‘how do I create something?’ he said.
Over the years, he says he’s studied with several notable luthiers, including Sergei De Jonge in a six-week intensive course, to further develop his craft. He’s also studied with master guitar-makers Robert O’Brien and Charles Fox.
Between their two professions — Simon practicing law and Michael, a brand strategy consultant — Simon says they were punching in some especially long hours in Manhattan. And when their daughter Isabella came into the picture three years ago, the Simons shifted their lives to the Berkshires full-time.
Last year, the couple purchased a home in Richmond that had a much larger garage that Simon has partially converted into a workshop. He’s also a member of the Guild of American Luthiers, the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans, the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii and the Berkshire Woodworkers Guild.
Inside his workshop at Undermountain Ukuleles & Guitars, Simon meticulously produces handcrafted ukuleles and guitars in both exotic and locally sourced tonewoods, including East Indian Rosewood, Sitka Spruce, Quilted and Birdseye Maple, Koa, Mahogany, Walnut, Zebrawood, Granadillo and Cedar.
From soprano to baritone, he makes ukuleles, a four-stringed instrument, of all sizes. For guitars, Simon says he focuses on smaller styles, including parlor and orchestra model styles.
After deciding which instrument he wants to create, Simon says he’ll decide the wood or decorate elements he’d like to use.
Usually, he’s working on two projects at once, he said.
“I’ve always liked doing things with my hands. Law is very cerebral and involves a lot of problem-solving, but it’s a totally different modality,” he said. “Woodworking can be frustrating. Things can go wrong and you can’t just hit delete or redo. It’s a very different way of being and doing – it’s meditative and you can lose track of time … when it’s done and you string it up, and you’ve brought a stack of dead material to life.”
Each instrument is hand-voiced to accentuate individual characteristics and tonal qualities of the wood, and is finished using the French polish method.
The process, he said, is very labor intensive. It involves grinding shellac flakes and applying several thin coats with a rubbing pad with a variety of oils.
Simon also uses an all-natural finish that’s a combination of beeswax and linseed oil.
And now he’s putting the love of his craft toward helping those impacted by COVID-19.
He recently completed a concert-sized ukulele that took roughly four months to complete and will be donating 100 percent of the sale price to a Berkshires-based nonprofit of the buyer’s choosing.
The instrument features a cherry wood back, sides and binding; western red cedar top; East Indian rosewood fingerboard, bridge, rosette, and peghead; blue and white purfling and abalone logo and fret dots; one-piece mahogany neck; bone nut and saddle; cherry “tap plate” protectors; Gotoh planetary tuners; finished in French polish shellac method.
The ukulele includes a hard case and would be typically sold for $1,400.
“I would ordinarily sell this for $1,400. Last year I donated ukuleles to the Berkshire Woodworkers Guild auction and the Art Omi auction and I’d like to do anything I can to help the local nonprofits that are suffering because of the pandemic,” he said.
For more information about this instrument or to view Simon’s work, visit undermountaininstruments.com or instagram.com/undermountain_ukuleles_guitars.
This story has been updated to clarify that Simon’s six-week intensive was with Sergei De Jonge rather than Robert O’Brien.