Ruby Deluxe, a soon-to-open nightspot on Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street, seems like a pretty standard downtown watering hole. Until you walk up to the bar and look down to see a startlingly cool piece of art-installation decor.
Under the bar top’s clear surface is a series of seemingly real guitars and ukuleles, all mounted with bridges and strings. They’re not actual instruments, but the details are realistic enough to draw how’d-they-do-that doubletakes from almost everyone who sees them.
“The first thing people do,” says managing partner Van Alston, “is look under the bar to see how thick it is, and if the bottoms of the guitars are down there.”
These highly convincing illusions are the work of James “Ringo” Ringelspaugh, a local luthier. And even though this was a pro bono project, he put as much (and possibly even more) effort into it as the acoustic guitars he custom-builds.
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“It was a lot of the same stuff as guitar-building, hammering in the bridges and tightening the strings, making all the angles work out,” Ringelspaugh says. “Everything’s anatomically correct, so to speak, and I wanted to design these so they’d look real. In a lot of ways, they are. The strings aren’t really tuned, but they are under tension. Although …”
He pauses to laugh before continuing.
“As far as you know, they’re perfectly in tune. So let’s say they are.”
‘It’s a living’
Ruby Deluxe’s bar top runs parallel to Davie Street outside, and it has patterns of six Fender electric guitars and four smaller ukuleles. Ringelspaugh custom-labeled the neck of one of the Fender patterns as a “Ruby Deluxe Barcaster.”
“That one is made of birdseye maple, which is probably the only local wood in here,” Ringelspaugh says, identifying some of the other exotic woods he used – Mexican ziricote, sipo mahogany from Africa, macassar ebony from Indonesia. In addition to building instruments, Ringelspaugh also sells wood.
“Selling wood is actually what pays the bills, pretty much,” he says. “Everything else I do is just gravy. Sort of like the only way for an artist to make a living is to sell paints and brushes, I sell wood. Put all the pieces together and it’s a living.”
Making the Ruby Deluxe guitars was a painstaking process that took about four months. Ringelspaugh cut guitar-shaped templates and used those and a router to gouge out matching gaps in the bar-top wood. Then he mounted the pieces and strings. Multiple resin coats encased the whole thing in a half-inch clear layer.
But what launched the whole thing was a more modest idea. Ringelspaugh was a regular at one of Alston’s other bars, Slim’s, and Alston had commissioned him to custom build a few guitars over the years – paid for one 12-ounce bottle at a time.
“We’ve never exchanged a dime of actual money,” Alston says. “We do it in trade and whenever we get to where Ringo is level on beer, he’ll let me know: ‘It’s time for you to come up with another project for me to do.’”
That next project came up this past spring, when Alston was starting up Ruby Deluxe with majority owner Timothy Lemuel. Alston was at Ringelspaugh’s house, saw a pile of scrap-guitar parts and asked if they could use them for bar-top decoration.
Ringelspaugh agreed and set to tinkering and pondering. There was no deadline and he kept at it until deciding to try a grand experiment.
“Basically, I had too much time to think about it,” he says. “Very seldom do I go nuts, do something way over the top. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this was a rare opportunity to have something really big and ambitious in a public space.”
The first one took about three weeks. When summoned to Ringelspaugh’s workshop for a look, Alston and Lemuel were astonished at what he’d come up with.
“It was so far beyond anything I’d imagined, I was tickled pink with actual goosebumps,” Alston says. “I thought, ‘Damn, we are gonna be the coolest-looking bar top in town.’ So I gave him a deadline and he finished two weeks early.”
$1,000 a foot
Once the bar-top sections were on the Ruby Deluxe premises, local industrial artist Nate Sheaffer (who also did the bicycle-themed artwork for Raleigh’s Crank Arm Brewery) poured the resin to seal up each piece.
“You don’t want to pour resin too deep at a time because you have an exothermic reaction,” says Sheaffer. “It puts out a fair amount of heat. We did it slowly so as not to warp or crack any of the material.”
It took four one-eighth-inch pourings over two days, followed by several more days of curing, before the work was ready for display.
“They’re amazing,” says Lemuel. “A good thing to stare at while having a drink.”
As usual, no money changed hands. But Ringelspaugh has a hefty credit at Ruby Deluxe.
“There’s absolutely no telling how much this would have cost if he’d charged us,” says Alston. “My guess would be 25 to $30,000. I don’t see $1,000 a foot as being too far off, given how much time and effort it took.”
Ringelspaugh plans to do some hanging around the bar to see people’s reactions (“without being too creepy about it”). And even he will probably stare at them a bit himself. They are kind of mesmerizing.
“I hope I’ve raised the bar a little bit,” he says. “I never paid much attention to the actual bars in bars. But I have a feeling it will be tough to ignore this one.”
If you go
Ruby Deluxe is at 414 Fayetteville St., right below Common 414, in downtown Raleigh. You can enter from Fayetteville Street, or through the Salisbury Street 414 Building parking lot (just south of Davie Street).
For more, see facebook.com/RubyDeluxeRaleigh.