NEVADA, Iowa -- 'Made in the U.S.A.' is a phrase the country sees less and less, and “Made in Iowa” is even rarer; however, people like Richard Wilson keep the phrase alive.
Wilson’s store in Nevada, Iowa, is small, disheveled even, and the smell of sawdust hangs in the air. It’s where Wilson does what he’s always done.
“I started building speakers when I was a kid in high school in shop class,” he said.
Both in times of peace and in times of war.
“I was in the Marine Corps and I would build speakers out of ammo boxes, I just love building speakers!” laughed Wilson.
After serving in the Marines, Richard opened a music store in Ames. After going out of business, he went back to doing what always came naturally, building homemade speaker cabinets.
His business, called Audiozone, offers handmade speaker cabinets and guitar amps.
“I really don’t build the same thing that everybody expects, a lot of it comes down to wood,” said Wilson.
In a time when most manufacturers are using imported Baltic birch from Europe, Richard uses pine; harder to manufacture, but distinctly American.
“I’m making an American product with American materials. The American amps I grew up using in the 70s and 80s were made with Douglas fir or pine plywood,” said Wilson.
Richard said the sound of pine is lighter and harder to find in name brand equipment because it’s naturally imperfect.
“The wouldn’t want to deal with lookin’ at the wood and saying, ‘oh there’s a knot there I don’t want to use,’ so they would turn it the other way to cut around that knot. The big manufacturers, the stuff that you see everywhere, it’s made quick; it’s made to have as little labor as possible,” said Wilson.
But Wilson has the time to dedicate to it.
“That’s just the nature of the product I build, this isn’t big business, I don’t have the fancy machines, it’s hand work.”
The amps he builds are also a throwback to the days when amps were made with vacuum tubes instead of transistors.
“I build an amp like something from the 60s. Guitar players in particular want tube amps, they feel that they have a sound and a feel that’s better to them than transistor amps,” said Wilson.
But for an Iowa business owner creating handmade products, oddly enough almost none of his products are sold to Iowans.
“When I do my sales tax it’s interstate commerce, interstate commerce, interstate commerce,” said Wilson.
Richard says 95% of his business is selling to music lovers in California, Miami, or other areas of the country. It leaves him trying to figure out if his home-state struggles come from the location.
“I’m out here in the country in Nevada, there’s not a lot of musicians and music stuff going on out here.”
Getting the word out can also be difficult.
“Advertising is hard in Iowa. I use Craigslist, and don’t get a lot of reaction from it. I use eBay and people from all over the country buy stuff from me, but none from Iowa,” said Wilson.
He believes the nature of the industry may be another part of the problem.
“A lot of guys are playing cover songs, they want an amp that sounds like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or Lynyrd Skynyrd or anyone new, it’s an endorsement-driven business really,” he said.
Richard said he dreams of future success with his business.
“I’d like to have something, a business that someone would want to buy at some point."
But for now, like a good guitar player, Richard will keep pluckin.'
“It’s a skill that I have that I don’t want to give up on,” he said.
Most of Wilson’s unfinished speaker cabinets can be purchased for $50 - $100. He also takes custom orders.