High Note

A former chef turns his passion for music into a craft and, ultimately, a successful business

From all outward appearances it looks like a typical mid-century home in a well-kept West Boise neighborhood.

But enter through the side gate to a door that opens to the home’s garage-turned-workshop, and you immediately realize that nothing about this is typical.

Industrial sander at the Clark Mandolin wood shop

Clothes pins surrounding a work-in-progress Clark Mandolin

Beautiful, richly stained mandolins hang from a drying rack in the ceiling. And the walls, papered with jigs, close in on a compact but neatly organized workbench surrounded by every manner of woodworking tool.

This is where Austin Clark spends his days (and often nights) producing some of the world’s most sought-after mandolins. Amateurs and professionals across the globe play and revere his instruments, which sell for $4,000 to $9,000.

Not bad for a guy whose previous job had nothing to do with music or woodworking.

“My career had been spent as a professional chef,” says Austin, founder and sole employee of Clark Mandolins. “But really, building mandolins is not that different than cooking. You have a recipe, you put together the ingredients, and you create something completely original.”

“Just like two chefs will make two different dishes from the same recipe, every mandolin maker’s instruments are unique.”

Thankfully, he points out, musicians seem to like both his recipe and the result. So much, in fact, that Clark Mandolins regularly maintains a waiting list more than six months long.

Austin Clark, found of Clark MandolinsBut if it weren’t for a change in his culinary career about 15 years ago, there’s a good chance Clark Mandolins would never have existed.

After going to culinary school in the 1980s, Austin steadily rose through the ranks of the food world, first in restaurants and then the hospitality industry. But with the birth of his son, the crazy hours and long days were wearing on him. He wanted to spend more time with his family.

Austin’s solution? Accept a position as executive chef for St. Luke’s, a large Boise-based hospital.

“I got to work reasonable hours, Monday through Friday, instead of the typical restaurant fare where you work all the time, any time of day.”

Downshifting to a more stable job with a lighter schedule gave Austin the time to rediscover a hobby that had been on the backburner for years — music.

A longtime amateur musician, Austin began spending more time playing mandolin. He wasn’t — and still today isn’t — a great player, he says, but it was something that brought him a lot of joy.

I wanted a nicer instrument than I could afford to buy,” Austin says. “I built a couple of instruments and I got kind of hooked.”

Starting with a pretty modest tool set-up, Austin taught himself the ins and outs of being a luthier, a craftsman who makes stringed instruments such as mandolins, violins or guitars (he builds them all, though mandolins are his bread and butter).

“I started to collect instruments because I was building them, but not selling them. I was a bit obsessed.”

Though he wasn’t yet considering making luthiery his career, he wanted to know if the instruments he was making were as good as he thought.

Austin decided he would send one of his instruments to a well-known mandolin website to be reviewed. To give himself the best shot at a good review, he diligently read every review ever published on the site to try to recognize patterns in what the reviewer liked and disliked.

Closeup of mandolin strings

Clark Mandolin logo

Austin then made small tweaks, and tailored an instrument that he thought the reviewer would respond positively to. When the article came out, his efforts had paid off. The review was positive, and suddenly mandolin enthusiasts were contacting Austin to custom build their mandolins.

(The reviewer has since ordered three Clark Mandolins for his personal collection.)

While not huge, the demand kept Austin busy. After all, each handcrafted instrument requires between 100 and 200 hours of intensive work.

“There’s as much head in it as hands,” Austin explains. “Each one takes a lot of thinking. There’s a lot of geometry.”

Clark Mandolins is one of only a handful of full-time boutique mandolin makers in the world. Most instruments are made in large factories where, for efficiency’s sake, each instrument goes through a standardized production process.

“In the factory all the instruments are treated the same,” Austin says. “There’s no way they’re going to live up to their potential.”

Austin makes sure that his instruments do, taking the time to understand the dynamics of each piece of wood and, when necessary, scrapping some parts and starting over when something’s not up to his exacting standards. Every instrument is warrantied for life — not the life of the instrument, Austin’s life.

“I know some of these instruments are going to be handed down from parent to kid. They’ll last a lot longer than me.”

Eventually demand grew to a point that Austin simply couldn’t keep up. He was working all the time. He and his wife discussed it and decided it was time to turn this side business into a full-time venture.

“It was scary, but also exciting.”

As the years have gone by, Austin says he has improved at his craft. He has even gone as far as buying back many of his early instruments from customers so that he could build them something representative of his current standards.

Austin Clark putting the final touches on a mandolin

“I would hate for someone to play one of my early instruments and be like ‘This isn’t what I’d expect from a Clark Mandolin.’”

These days, Austin spends most of his work life in his shop, though he does travel several times a year to major music festivals to introduce himself to potential customers and meet with existing customers.

When he’s not building instruments, he also runs a burgeoning repair business, The Better Fret, to give himself a break from the physical and mental redundancy that comes from hand-crafting instruments.

“I expect I’ll still be doing this as long as I can use my hands, so I have to protect them.”

While Austin has created an enviable business as a craftsman, he is able to make a living pursuing his passion still seems to surprise him.

“I’m stunned that I’m doing this,” Austin grins. “I feel like I’ve tripped and fallen on my feet.”

Note: Learn more about Austin, his process and mandolins at clarkmandolins.com.

Photography by Nick Groff