When Eric Marczak was a child, his father called him Mr. Smakosz, a Polish expression that means someone who enjoys tasting everything.
“Did he know me, or what?” said Marczak, whose appetite for life has led him to explore, experience and cultivate interests in playing music, making furniture, creating several styles of wooden and bone flutes, making Native American drums, teaching what he knows to children, restoring vintage guitars, making new guitars and more. Much more.
Marczak — his dark hair pulled back in a pony tail — said he has lived a couple of lives in his 62 years. An accomplished musician and award-winning woodworker, Marczak’s work will be exhibited at the Northeastern Woodworkers Association showcase in Saratoga Springs next month.
Perhaps best known for his exquisitely made tables, guitars and turned bowls, Marczak’s interest in woodworking was fostered by his father, who taught him how to use tools, and later by members of the woodworkers association who taught him “the tricks of the trade.”
Marczak said that as he needed furniture, he made it. “I couldn’t afford it, but I knew I could make it,” he said.
His workshop is in the basement of his home on Beebe Road in Altamont. Wood pieces, chisels and carving tools line the walls and hang from the rafters. Works in progress include a sculpture inspired by his Vietnam service as a Navy hospital corpsman and hand-crafted guitars with carved bridges or intricate inlaid rosettes.
The creation of the rosettes show Marczak’s affinity for detail. Each rosette is painstakingly created using slender sticks of basswood dyed in yellows, blues, browns and greens imported from Germany. It is puzzle-like in its construction.
“First I draw out the design on paper. Then I start to glue it together, stick by stick,” he explained. Once the sticks — which are square with dimensions similar to a matchstick — are assembled, he slices thin layers — “like cutting cookies” — to create the many identical pieces that when laid side-by-side in a circle create the rosette. “Each rosette takes about 6 hours to make,” he said.
Marczak enjoys fine work, not only in the musical instruments he makes but in the unusual tables he creates. For example, one table has two dragonflies on the top, carved from a variety of different woods. A table in his living room, made from California walnut, is reminiscent of master woodworker George Nakashima’s work.
Marczak said that before he begins working with a piece of wood, he examines it, thinking, “what would be the best possible thing I can make [from this]?”
The woods he uses range from exotics from other continents to wood from local trees he felled himself. Some have history to him. “My children once climbed among the branches of the apple tree I used to make this,” he said, holding a guitar. This small guitar is an exact replica of a 1889 Bruno guitar. “I copied every detail,” Marczak said.
In his barn are stored planks of wood collected over the years, including pieces of lilac, plum, a cherry tree from Troy and a blue spruce tree he cut down in Glenville 35 years ago. He is glad he squirreled away many types of wood when he had the opportunity. “You can’t just cut it down and use it. The wood has to dry,” he explained.
Marczak has a few pieces of exotic woods — which were traditionally used in guitars. These woods have become rare and their use widely discouraged for environmental reasons.
A conservationist, Marczak is experimenting with using native species in guitar building. He explained that exotic woods aren’t just desirable because of their incredible appearance but because of their sound: from a musician’s point of view, the imported species are some of the best woods for creating the top of the guitar.
“It is in the way it vibrates,” explained Marczak, a guitarist and keyboardist for more than 40 years. “The top is the most important part of the guitar. You can feel it as you are making it. Every guitar is different.”
Marczak made his wife’s guitar out of mountain ash, and the notes it produces are short and clear. Maple wood produces notes that are warm, and rosewood has a crisp sound. “It’s like voices. There are voices like Pavarotti and then there are voices like Willie Nelson,” he said.
One of his guitars — made from a California myrtle tree — was played in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall by classical guitarist Harry George Pellegrin. “I can die happy now that one of my guitars was played there,” Marczak said.
Another source of satisfaction for him is restoring old Martin guitars. He is currently working on a Martin from the 1950s that a friend’s mother found at a garage sale.
“This little sweetheart is a great sounding guitar,” he said with typical enthusiasm. When it was brought to him it was in pieces with caved-in sides. Marczak reconstructed the old guitar salvaging parts where he could and making new pieces as he needed. “It’s a form of recycling,” he said.
Marczak reuses wood as he can and wastes nothing. Scrap pieces are saved and made into cutting boards that are then sold at craft fairs. Some smaller scraps end up as kindling for the wood stove, but he also has given wood to young people interested in woodworking. “I try to keep their fire lit,” he said. Part of this is his desire to pass along his passion for woodworking to the next generation, he said.
Marczak also has a longtime interest in Native American culture and has embraced teachings regarding caring for the earth. He collects arrowheads and artifacts and teaches what he knows at area schools with his wife of nine years, Dawn, who is of Mohawk descent.
In a buckskin bag, he keeps wooden and bone flutes, some of which he has made. On his wooden flutes he has carved fetishes and held them in place with leather strips.
In addition, he is interested in native plants and the ecology of the Capital Region.
Part of his personal vision was formed while he served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1971. Marczak was assigned to the burn unit. What he saw there has remained with him. “I looked at the big picture and my priorities changed,” he said. “I began to appreciate what I had,” he said.
After the war, he worked for New York state’s Health Department, going after polluters of the Mohawk River. “I felt like I was making a difference,” he said, adding that he had long had a love of the natural world and remembered being outraged as a child that the river’s edge was slimy and the fish dying.
“We are the stewards of the land. We are meant to take care of it,” he said.
When he retired in 2002, he went on a vision quest to determine what direction he would take during the next phase of his life. The result has been highly creative.
“My friends told me that when I retired I would be busier than ever before. They were right,” he said.
This winter, his focus is on making furniture for his home and on getting ready for the woodworkers show which will be held March 27 and 28, at the Saratoga Springs City Center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is $8 for adults; children under 12 are free. For more information, go to www.nwawoodworkingshow.org.