Prisma Guitars: Skateboard Lutherie with Nick Pourfard

The cultures surrounding skateboarding, DIY projects, and making music are complementary, often with large margins of overlap. Nick Pourfard decided to capitalize on this overlap when a bad injury left him immobile and unable to skate or walk for six months. To pass the often monotonous healing time, Nick started making guitars from the wood of his old skateboard decks.

Prisma Syndicate 2016 Skate/Alder

Out of this unfortunate injury, Prisma Guitars was born. And now, seven years later, Nick's casual hobby has evolved into a reputable boutique guitar building company with skateboarders of all skill levels donating their used decks to be made into beautiful, extremely resonant, and well-crafted guitars.

How long has Prisma Guitars been around?

I’ve been building since I was 18. I’m 25 now, so I've been at this for seven years. The actual business started in 2014. Before that, I was just selling one-offs here and there. I didn’t have a name. It was just a hobby until I decided it was time to take it to the next level.

You were on your own, but you eventually paired up with Justin Oakley. When did that happen?

He’s been with me since the brand started [in 2014] and handles the finishing end of it all. He’s super talented. He went to lutherie school and has amazing skills, especially an eye for setting everything up. Looking at the nut [of a guitar], he’s sees things I don’t see.

Justin comes in at the end to do things like set-up. I handle everything else. We still build the bodies, necks, and knobs from scratch. I have a finisher now but used to do that myself.

How many people work for Prisma Guitars?

We have three people working full-time: two guitar techs - me and another woodworker - and Justin. Michael actually machines things. We have our own knob that we machine from stainless steel. We have our own tools here.

I noticed that you use CAD [computer-aided design] software when developing the guitars. How much does that play into your process?

I went to school for industrial design, so I use those things. It’s better and easier in some circumstances. You don’t have to use CAD, of course, but I enjoy it. We drew up the new bass shape last night. We usually use Auto CAD for the drawing, then laser-cut the template for feel.

That's an important step before going to production. Does it feel good? Does it sit on your body right?

Do you have a line of standard models or do you mostly take custom requests?

Prisma Toledo 2016 Skate/Alder

I don’t do just anything anyone says because everything requires prototypes and templates. I have my own templates. I have seven shapes right now. The internal stuff can be changed - pickup configuration, set up, neck shapes. That stuff can all be chosen from scratch.

When it comes to pickup choices, you work with David Allen and Tim McNelly?

I think David [Allen] makes some of the best stuff out there. He makes pickups for all the Rock N Roll Relics guitars. That’s where I first heard them. In terms of traditional styles, in the look and sound, he makes the best pickups, in my opinion.

Tim can make his own unique-sounding pickup. It doesn’t sound like anything else. It’s so crisp, so clear - kind of like a ‘Tron mixed with a wide field humbucker in a P-90 shape. I can go to Tim and say, “I really want this. You don’t make it. But this guitar needs this.” He’ll prototype it without hesitation.

[Editor's Note: The whole range of McNelly Pickups is worth checking out.]

When it comes to set ups, we use Mastery bridges all the way. They've really perfected the vibrato architecture on offsets.

What kind of space are you working with right now?

We're in a garage in San Fransisco. It’s equivalent [in footprint] to a lot of woodshops I’ve been to. We usually spend one day a month building out of the shop. We’ve been doing that for years.

Do people donate their own decks, or do you purchase them?

People donate. I have more than I can use, honestly. I’m constantly collecting boards. I can only have as many as I can store. San Fransisco is pretty plentiful when it comes to skateboards.

I must have 500 boards in front of me right now. All used, all donated. I have another garage full of about 1,000.

Do you give people discounts if they donate their own boards for you to build a guitar for them?

Prisma Accardo 2016 Skate/Mahogany

There are no discounts for people who donate their boards, and people don't really expect that. I just have so many boards, and I have a stockpile prepped here already.

I’m more than happy to build with their boards if they request that. It makes it so sentimental and intimate for that person. Knowing that a guitar was made with board from a pro skater, or made with a person's brother's or sister's board - it means something.

How long does the process take from skateboard to guitar?

It takes three days to get a skateboard ready to be a guitar. That’s the most work in the entire process. We build about six or seven a month with a team of three people. We’ve built close to 200 in total so far.

Are skate decks always made of hard rock maple?

Yes, for the most part. It gets crazier occasionally. Sometimes I'll open the deck up and see bamboo or carbon fiber. I usually source those out of my stack.

Skate companies are upgrading their veneers. From the top ply and down now, once in a while, I’ll see crazy bird’s eye or a heavy amount of figuring.

How many decks do you use per guitar?

Anywhere from four to 50. I build them differently every time, depending on the aesthetic I’m going for. I’ll use decks just for the top with a mahogany or alder back sometimes. Just a top is four boards, a whole body is 14 boards, and a neck is 10 boards.

How do you ensure that the decks act as a single resonating body? Is it just glue and compression?

It is essentially glue and compression - a lot of compression. We have a custom press that we use, and it's not exactly a lightweight.

At first, I had no clue if they would resonate or not. It was an experiment. I was 18, and I just did it. It worked. I don’t know why, but the whole body just vibrates the whole way through. The sustain is immensely long. I don’t how I would’ve prototyped it without just going for it.

What we’re doing is not so foreign. You think about the laminated necks on some Martin guitars. Some people say they don’t even need truss rods.

How do you get the color swirls?

We built a specific jig to do that. A retractive process. It’s just one of those things that you have no control over. The bird’s eye is always in the second layer. Each company uses its own colors. Some companies dye their boards the whole way through.

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