‘I’m busy all the time building.’ Central Pa. luthier shares his craft with local musicians

John Mannino was in his 40s when he got the idea to start building guitars. Today, his Mifflin County shop is frequented by local musicians, two of whom came together to make a nine-minute video highlighting Mannino’s craft.

The video about Mannino and Lumber City Guitars was orchestrated by Chris Younken and Andy Tolins. It signifies how deeply Mannino is being embraced by some of the region’s most accomplished working musicians, notably Tolins and Steve Buckalew, two acoustic music aficionados who have been staples of the Centre County music scene for decades.

“This last year he brought me a 12-string and it just blew me away,” Tolins said. “I just thought, this is phenomenal. He just voices the things and they play great and it’s like, ‘Johnny, you’re there. You need to get out there and show people what you’re doin’.”

Mannino’s busy shop is in the basement of his home in Lumber City. Couple that with Mannino’s propensity for passionately telling you everything he can about what he’s working on, why he’s working on it, how long he’s been doing it, and whatever else there is to say about his various guitar construction and repair projects, and what you have is a musical vortex situated directly in the heart of a person who is living his dharma.

“I was in my forties and I got this idea,” Mannino said. “I thought, ‘I’d like to build a guitar.’ So, I started on a journey.”

It wasn’t always easy for Mannino, who began his journey of building artisan guitars as a simple curiosity while he was still holding down a day job. But, through trial and error and a mountain of independent study, he has emerged as one of the premier acoustic guitar luthiers in Pennsylvania, having built upward of 40 guitars, made numerous difficult repairs, and gained the confidence of some of skilled and discriminating players like Tolins and Buckalew.

“Everything was trial and error and I just didn’t give up,” Mannino said. “I started making pretty nice guitars but I still was at the point I’d call myself a beginning luthier. Now I call myself a luthier. I’m busy all the time building. Constantly.”

For someone like Tolins, who performs numerous times per week and owns more than one acoustic guitar, a place like Mannino’s Lumber City Guitars is a godsend, a true necessity for a working musician. It’s not just a place to keep the guitars in playable shape, but in optimal condition.

“(The video) is a good concept,” Tolins said, “because (Younken and I) love guitars. John’s at a point where this will really be great for him.”

When you are as deep in the scene as Tolins is, you have connections everywhere, which is how Tolins and Younken teamed up to create the video. Tolins provides the musical soundtrack and Younken spearheaded the video production side of things.

“I jumped at the chance to make this video,” Younken wrote in an email. “I hadn’t met John yet but I sensed that I was about to meet someone very special because I could tell that the person who made these guitars had a very musical and organic process and extreme attention to detail.”

It’s rare to find a luthier so skilled, and we’re lucky to have someone like Mannino as a way to keep our musicians outfitted with the best gear possible, whether it’s using one of Mannino’s artisan guitars, or having Mannino give our guitars the care they inevitably need.

“I just want to keep improving,” Mannino said.

Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.