Step into Wes Urbaniak’s Knotty Wood Guitar shop in downtown Billings and it feels like you’ve entered the Mad Hatter’s lair.
A rusted metal cutout is a picture frame, a guitar has seven strings, and the proprietor is sitting barefoot strumming a ukulele, wearing a pair of homemade overalls.
It's a topsy-turvy world that Urbaniak has created for himself.
He added a seventh string to a six-string guitar to give it more range, and put his innovative brain into re-purposing every scrap he carts home or to his studio.
In his workshop, Urbaniak shows off a contraption he built with a microwave step-up transformer that allows him to send 2,200 volts of electricity into a strip of wood, burning an image into it that resembles roots or lightning. He can't predict what design will emerge or whether the device will start something on fire, but that's what Urbaniak likes about it - the unpredictability.
Urbaniak sees magic in what others consider junk. He is an inventor, a musician, composer and music producer. Call him the Renaissance Man of Billings.
He has a gift for envisioning a dusty redwood burl in a garage as something to make music with. In fact, he turned that burl into two of his favorite instruments, one of which is a standup bass played by his bandmate Bryant Mettler.
He calls his instruments "perfectly imperfect."
Part of that came out of Urbaniak’s humble beginnings.
“I grew up poor, so poor.”
Urbaniak, 34, arrived in Billings at 13, dealing with the death of his father. He stayed summers with his uncle, Tim Urbaniak, a bluegrass musician and longtime professor at Montana State University Billings, until Wes eventually moved to Billings and graduated from West High.
“My uncle Tim is an everything kind of guy. If he encounters a problem, he’ll work through the solution. That’s how I learned how to do any of this stuff. I have no training at all, other than experiential training.”
Urbaniak said he’s been taking things apart to see how they work for as long as he can remember. He started building instruments as a teenager and began in earnest about 10 years ago. He would come home from national tours depressed and looking for a way to cheer himself up. So he started building instruments to give away at his shows; that kept him busy during the off-season.
Urbaniak has always struggled with charging for his work.
He has been building instruments professionally for two years, yet he still gives some away.
“I’ve made close to 100 instruments by now. I barely remember making some of them. People will send me photos and I’ll say, ‘That looks like something I built.’”
Three years ago Urbaniak launched his Letter Writing Guitar project. Tired of the digital age of texting and posting to social media, Urbaniak put out the call for letters, the old-fashioned kind where you use a pen to write on paper.
“When I was on tour, I noticed that everybody was on their phones all the time. I told them that anybody willing to write me a one-page letter every month for a year could have a guitar."
So far, 13 fans have fulfilled that challenge and Urbaniak has made them each a guitar, hand delivering most of them.
“Last February, I drove to New York City to hand deliver one,” he said.
In 2016, Urbaniak opened his downtown shop at 2913 Third Ave. N., and built 23 ukuleles. He also started a series of live shows he calls the Light Box Music Sessions, hosting Billings musicians including John Roberts Y Pan Blanco and Drew McManus of Satsang. He is also filming videos for the bands, finishing 13 in 2016.
The purpose of the Light Box series is to introduce the audience and the musicians to a different kind of concert, where the audience doesn't talk but listens. Urbaniak created what he believes to be the most pure sound possible by strategically placing more than a dozen speakers around the space. Seating is tight and the place always fills up quickly the night of a show.
He also founded a new band, Wesley and the Revolving, or WatR.
Bandmate Jarret Kostrba often performs using Urbaniak’s first hand-made mandolin, an instrument so striking that people look at it in awe, Kostrba said.
“I have a lot of friends who are mandolin players in Butte and here in town, and nobody knows what to make of it. It’s Wes’s take on a mando.”
Urbaniak worries that it is too heavy, but Kostrba said it is a work of art with an earthy sound.
“That mando has a really distinct tone because of the wood and the shape of it. It’s a more subtle tone,” Kostrba said.
Urbaniak’s youngest son, a kindergartener who Urbaniak nicknamed Sherpa because that was the joyful sound he made as a baby, spends many afternoons in the shop and is a constant source of inspiration for Urbaniak.
“Sherpa breaks more stuff, but he is a bright light. He has an aptitude for remembering lyrics and can adlib. He can take a melody and make a joke out of it.”
Urbaniak married artist and third grade teacher Whitney Urbaniak in June 2016. The two inspire one another and, because they are both artists, they celebrate each other’s quirks and need to create.
A typical evening for them might be framing one of Whitney's paintings or recording a video of a touring musician like Jalan Crossland when he came to Billings last fall.
Urbaniak once described his sound as "a musical love child of Tracy Chapman and Jason Mraz who was given guitar lessons by John Mayer," or simply, "Indie folk-grass."
With his positive lyrics, creative instrumentation and the help of his five bandmates, Urbaniak is building WatR into one of the most innovative bands in Montana, the perfect outreach for Knotty Wood Guitar Co.