If you’re a gear freak, especially inhabiting the Balkans you probably have come across the DIY guitar pedal alchemists Nomad Artisans.
Based in Romania, Tudor and Razvan have been around for some time, crafting boutique guitar effects that stand out not only for their sound and uniqueness, but for their outstanding design as well. How the duo sees the future of their atelier, do they want to become big and popular, and of course why one may prefer to support the work of a craftsmen over that of a mass manufacturer – you can read in our fine talk with these DIY enthusiasts.
Who are the people behind the DIY collective Nomad Artisans and what are you doing?
Razvan: Nomad Artisans is a rather small project at the moment, but the potential for growth is huge. Right now it’s just Tudor and I and sometimes a few third parties that help us with artwork. Our main interest is knowledge. Nomad Artisans is about pushing us to go into unfamiliar territories and actually learning new things and in the process developing obscure techniques, maybe even making a worthy contribution. The focus right now is on aluminum enclosures, primarily etching them through chemical corrosion. The only way we could get the materials for our experiments without too much of an investment on our part was by making pedal clones and mods for other people. Enclosure engraving is somewhat of an untapped market, thus, we didn’t have any problem finding interested people. In the long run, we wish to broaden our horizons quite a bit.
How come you decided to build your own guitar gear? Some do stuff themselves because they can’t afford to buy it, others like to control the whole process, what were your reasons?
Razvan: In my case, I wanted to know how the gadgets I use and love actually tick. I’m not too much of a scientist, I’m not too big on doing research, but I love learning through practice. And the feeling you get after taking a handful of components and making them do something useful is something else. That feeling of accomplishment…
Tudor: For me there were two reasons. First of all, the idea of applying my accumulated knowledge about chemistry into something practical seemed very attractive (and still does) and second of all, I am a very big fan of the concept of doing it yourself, if you have the tools and the know-how.
Can you illustrate the whole process of building up a custom-made guitar pedal?
Tudor: The process of building a pedal starts with choosing the graphics that will be etched onto the surface of the enclosure. When the appropriate graphics are chosen, we transfer them onto the enclosure, either using a thermal transfer sheet (like the TME Termotransferowa) or using normal acrylic paint markers and a very steady hand .
The next step is preparing the enclosure for etching, which involves a fair amount of cleaning, scotch tape and a water bath. The need for a water bath arises, because the reaction between the enclosure and the etching solution is violent and can quickly ruin everything if the generated heat is not dissipated efficiently. The etching phase takes a couple of hours, depending on how complicated the design of the pedal is. In the case of the presented example, it took a lot longer than that, because of the fine lines which made up the design .
After the etching process is completed and the enclosure is thoroughly washed of the precipitate that covers it, it gets sanded down and a further wet polishing with very fine sandpaper – grade 1000 or 2000, gives it its final form. After this point, a clear varnish is applied in two or three coats, to give the design a greater impression of depth. After the varnish is completely dry, the enclosure is drilled, the circuitry is fitted and the pedal is tested to see if everything is working as it should. Some pedals have different treatments applied to them, before being varnished. In the case of this pedal, I applied a copper “overcoat” on the aluminum enclosure, to make it resemble more the desert from which the Nazca Lines originate .
Again, these treatments can vary, depending on the customer’s needs. The presented pedal is one of our bigger successes.
What part of the process is done by hand?
Tudor: Both the enclosure and the circuit board require a high amount of work done by hand. The etching part alone consists of several cycles of applying the graphics to the enclosure, etching it, washing it, reapplying the graphics, etching again and the final steps of cleaning, polishing and coating. The circuit board also requires a few hours of work followed by some more hours of troubleshooting to see if everything is working properly. All in all, the only things we don’t do ourselves is actually die-cast the enclosures or manufacture the printed circuit boards.
What kind of parts are you using – cheap, normal or boutique stuff?
Razvan: At the moment we buy our parts from a tried-and-tested German distributor. They sell average to boutique quality components and as far as I know, most boutique builders use the same quality components. Some builders, like VFE Pedals for example have started buying components directly from the manufacturers, ordering custom parts and only the cream of the crop, but we don’t have the work volume need to go that far. We sometimes order obscure and rare parts from the dark corners of the Internet or from local shops.
Are your effects fully designed and developed by you (as schemes for example) or your effects are based on already existing guitar pedals?
Tudor: We ask the customer what are his preferences for the graphics that will be etched on the pedal. After we receive them, we usually end up tweaking them so that they will give the best results when used as an etching mask. When it comes to the actual circuit of the pedal, we use clones of famous pedals which sometimes are modified according to the customer’s preference.
Razvan: We are working on a few original schematics (too some extent, as the analog circuit market has been fully developed for quite a few decades, there’s not really anything new to discover), but that’s not a primary focus right now as we don’t have the funds or infrastructure to produce circuits of desired quality standards in-house.
Do you have a standardized line of effects that are caring something significant for Nomad Artisans as DIY “brand” or it all depends on the customer?
Razvan: Everything we do right now depends on the customer’s desire. There have been a few pedal’s we’ve made that were rather similar (a few tubescreamers and delays), but they were all personalized to some extent.
Is it cheaper or more expensive for a musician to score an effect from you?
Razvan: For most pedals we want to build – we don’t go too much in digital territory for a reason – customers get a good price, because we don’t actually charge too much for our efforts right now. Our focus is on building and experimenting and that’s reflected on the price. Our pricing scheme is very transparent: the cost of the components and shipping, plus a meager fee for our effort, which usually goes into buying supplies and tools. You could say our customers are more like sponsors funding some sort of weird science project.
What are your own favorites among the big names in the guitar gear business or among the boutique manufacturers as yourselves?
Razvan: There’s a lot of people we could mention here, but I really like VFE Pedals – for quality, affordability and especially flexibility, Blackout Effectors and Black Arts Toneworks for their focus on specific sounds, Electrofaustus for their insanity, Verellen and Hovercraft amps for beauty, power and resourcefulness, Electric Guitar Company because they rule.
Where are your customers mostly coming from, scene-wise and country-wise of course?
Razvan: Most customers come from word of mouth. We didn’t want to advertise yet, there’s no need. We don’t have the necessary time and resources right now to handle a bigger demand. To some extent you could say we select our own customers. Most of them come from our country, as word travels faster in closer circles.
Do you have a goal to become a big, well-known name among gear collectors and aficionados or it’s more of a hobby?
Tudor: At this point in time it is more of a hobby, but I don’t see why that would be a hindrance for us becoming well-known among aficionados and gearheads. I think doing this just as a hobby would make our gear even more desirable.
Razvan: I totally agree with what Tudor said.
I know Razvan is currently involved in the (mostly) one-man drone project Tauusk, which is not a surprise for a guitar gear fanatic, are there any other musical projects you’ve been involved?
Razvan: I used to play bass in a stoner band, Nomega and in a shoegazy post-punk project, The Bad Days Will End. Fun times.
Besides building DIY guitar effects what else do you do yourself in your lives?
Tudor: I am currently pursuing a PhD in Materials Chemistry as a “day job”, but during my spare time I enjoy snapping the random landscape/wildlife photo now and again. I have a similar passion as Razvan has about effect pedals, but in my case it consists of photographic equipment – especially lenses.
Razvan: There’s not much time left for me after work, but I try to spend it as productively as I can. Thus, I procrastinate a lot. I watch a lot of horror movies, especially the found footage and zombie kind. There’s not much DIY to be had in day-to-day life in this days and age, but I would like to try making furniture at some point or at least play around the idea of carpentry. I would also like to start filming footage and taking photos of textures someday.
The last one is on you, feel free add whatever we may have missed hehe.
Razvan: The only thing I feel the need to add is a big thank you for this interview.
Tudor: Same here!