The Beachcomber

Refinement Defines PA Designs

Adams Built Custom Guitar for Friend, ‘The Voice’ Star Matt McAndrew
By VICTORIA FORD | Jul 14, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill Philip Adams owner of PA Designs in his workshop.

Philip Adams of PA Designs, based in Manahawkin and Tuckerton, doesn’t fit neatly into one category of maker. He’s a woodworker, blacksmith, bladesmith, leatherworker, artist, musician, songwriter and, perhaps most important, a self-described “vacuum” with regard to learning.

Add to his CV “luthier,” subheading “custom guitar maker to the stars.” A few years back, he built a custom electric through-neck for Barnegat Light’s Matt McAndrew, Season 7 runner-up on NBC’s “The Voice.” Complete with McAndrew’s now-famous check mark insignia, the guitar is a treasured addition to his collection. “There’s something fun about having something one-of-a-kind, that reflects your style,” McAndrew said. He’s played it in most of the shows he’s done since the show ended, he said – namely Philly’s World Café and New York City’s Cutting Room.

The two had met through a mutual friend years earlier. McAndrew recalled he was drawn to Adams for his choices in body modification – dudes with neck tattoos tend to flock together – and they were fast friends. McAndrew describes Adams as a creative and enterprising fellow.

Apparently they share more in common than a penchant for ink. Both are musicians, with similar taste in guitar styles, and both are dedicated to the relentless pursuit of their passions.

Adams’ philosophy: “It’s not about being the best at what you do, but about doing your best every time you do it.”

McAndrew, who is currently living with his aunt and uncle in Bel Air (à la the Fresh Prince), said he has enjoyed watching Adams develop his craft over the years and admires the way he applies his woodworking talent to various projects, including knife making, furniture building and more.

The guitar’s neck-through-body construction gives it strong resonance, McAndrew explained. Fashioned from one solid piece of wood, the neck extends through the length, serving as the core, to which the strings, fretboard, pickups and bridge are all mounted. He also loves it for its striking look and its uniqueness, styled specifically to his preference for a beefier neck. It wouldn’t be for a player who is used to a delicate instrument. Adams confirmed the through-neck is preferable for sustain and tone. He combines different types of hard woods, laminate-style. Purpleheart is nice to work with, for its density, he added.

The whole thing has a very custom feel, McAndrew said. It’s also a conversation piece.

Side note: Though contractually bound to secrecy, McAndrew said he is currently working on something exciting – “a pretty sick opportunity,” as he described it – that will come to light early next year. Meanwhile, this summer he plans to release four or five new songs and is getting ready to shoot a music video on LBI with his side project, Bes Phrenz, for the band’s single “Undertow,” featuring Yardley, Pa.-based rapper Asher Roth.

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Adams used to work in his father’s shed until he had the good fortune a few years back to score a cabinet job that turned into an opportunity to take over a well-stocked woodshop/ garage in Tuckerton at the home of an elderly man who was no longer using it. To that shop he has added a few tools of his own, including a forge, and contributed some sizable logs from trees he cut down and milled. He had never worked with metal before but decided to experiment with some steel that was left in the shop. As a result, he has learned to make beautiful and functional knives and other tools.

A recent visit to his shop revealed several works in progress, one of which will become, after a heavy epoxy finish, a live-edge bar top at the MakeShift Union’s new coffeehouse and gallery space at Tuckerton Seaport. It’s made of longleaf yellow pine that’s been air-drying for 35 years. Another is the flat-bottom rowboat he’s figuring out how to build as he goes along. He’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy, he explained.

His grandfather was boat builder Ken Adams, who built the Conquest Marine catamaran Jesse James, a world speed-record-holding powerboat and the first ocean racer to appear on the cover of Wooden Boat magazine. His dad, Ken Jr., introduced him to woodworking and cabinetry.

What’s the youngest Adams’ favorite type of wood? Probably walnut, he said. Smells good, cuts nice, shapes easily, doesn’t fight him. Somehow soft and hard at the same time. But really he loves all types, even the ornery ones. Different woods behave differently – he has one kind, for example, that is surprisingly tough and temperamental, a Brazilian hardwood called paloupe, far heavier than it looks, dense, toxic. A splinter will quickly fester, he said.

Woodworking is just a matter of learning the characteristics of each kind and how to work with it.

“If you know how the tools work and you know how the wood works, everything is pretty simple.”

Full-time, Adams works for Harvey Cedars-based custom homebuilder John Spark, frame to finish. PA Designs started about five years ago strictly as hand-drawn work and graphic design for Jetty and grew into a side business specializing in anything he can make, build or create with his hands – on his website, padesigns.co, his menu includes all forms of custom woodwork, cutlery and blacksmithing, built-in cabinets and shelving, furniture, guitars, hand tools, kitchen/hunting/outdoor/EDC (everyday carry) knives and cutting boards. When it comes to custom orders, he prefers the projects that allow him some creative flexibility because they tend to turn out better.

“I’m like a vacuum,” he said. “I take it all in. If I’m going to learn something, I’m going to be aggressive about it.” By asking questions and being unafraid to fail, he reasons, he can only improve, the better to hone his various crafts.

Everything is mental, he said, self-esteem-based.

In Adams’ experience, becoming good at anything takes the courage to try; the willingness to fail; and a certain vulnerability, an openness to new knowledge and experience. “I urge everybody to fail every day at least once,” he said. “Otherwise there’s no progress. And if you’re not progressing, what’s the point?” He pushes himself and tests his own limits daily.

Adams participates in some local art festivals, such as Makers Fest in September, but for the most part, he said, “I’m terrible with the marketing. I just want to make stuff.”

Lately he’s been in a bit of a “funk,” he said, as current trends are more along the lines of rustic-chic, pallet furniture and barnwood-everything, with which he takes no issue whatsoever (“I love seeing people make stuff, regardless,” he said), but that’s just not his thing. His pieces are more refined, even painstakingly so. He believes in building items that are made to last, that have character and timeless appeal.

So, what’s the best way to get the average person to appreciate the value of artisanship? Adams has an idea: “Start over with society. Take away the technology and give people hammers.”

To learn more about Adams, visit padesigns.co and view examples of his work as well as a short video shot by Oak Leaf Media for the “entrepreneur series.”

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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