[Written in 1998, before my two trips to WA as Artist is Residence at the Perth Woodshow in 2003 and 2010]
I have made 2 trips to Australia, one in May1997 and one in 1998. Both were in my alter-ego as a flute player playing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Most of what follows was written during the first trip and shortly afterwards – the result was originally planned for an article for Good Woodworking Magazine, but it didn’t get finished in time for it to be really current. the latter part is an appraisal of three fine craftsmen that it was my pleasure to meet during my trip.
It was the first time I had ever been upside down and for it to feel entirely natural. It is different there, they have double decker tube trains, you stand on the left on escalators and the KitKats taste different [really! ~ and they’re more expensive ~ I read an article once about how KitKats tasted different depending on where you were in the world and didn’t believe it, but it’s definitely true!].
It was always going to be a multi-purpose trip. After being based in Sydney for the first 10 days for rehearsals we were going to be travelling around a lot and I wanted to spend as much of the actual travelling time tapping away on my trusty Mac Powerbook. I was working at the time on my second box making book, ‘Fine Decorative Boxes’.
The PowerBook was not-so-trusty as it turned out ~ a small portion at the top right hand corner of the screen turned bright yellow [a bit disconcerting since it was only a mono screen] and for a short time it even refused to smile at me and say ‘Welcome to Macintosh’. As my camera had also completely jammed almost immediately on arrival I despaired of getting anything woodwork related work done at all. As it turned out, my PowerBook soon pepped up [jet lag probably] and I survived being without my camera for a few days while it was fixed.
As well as the playing and writing the trip also seemed to be an ideal chance to visit a few Aussie woodworkers and write an article about them.
My first woodwork encounter was entirely unplanned, however. I was waiting for some friends on Circular Quay in Sydney [well known for being not even slightly circular] and happened on a model boat builder. Not that ‘model’ actually, with a bit of practice a small child could have had a great a time sailing one of these apparently fully-functioning galleons around Sydney harbour. I learnt that the maker’s name was Sam ~ and, as it turned out, that was about all I learnt.
Because my camera was still being repaired I had bought myself a couple of disposables in readiness for my sight-seeing trip around Sydney Harbour. So, it was with one of these that I took the shots you see here. I’m not a good photographer, but I liked my camera and was used to it and anyone who does any halfway serious photography will know the feeling of not being able to use the camera you’re used to. My camera then was an SLR with a short zoom lens so that I could keep my distance from subjects and still get quite close up shots without intimidating them. In this case, as I was using a camera that was designed to take panoramic shots of the whole of Sydney harbour I had to be so close to get a decently proportioned picture as to be positively intrusive – so from the start this did not endear me to Sam.
Not being a good journalist, either, I was not armed with pencil and paper so I nipped off to a local souvenir shop and bought a small notebook with a kangaroo on the front. I went back, introduced myself and explained that I would like to take some photos and ask him a few questions for a British Wooworking magazine. He seemed completely disinterested and under-awed by this suggestion and continued to glue a spar onto a mast with most of a tube of SuperGlue.
The ships are magnificent, however, as these shots hopefully show, and with a far better attention to detail than some other similar pieces I’ve seen. IÕm quite sure they did, as the sign claimed, take him around 2000 hours each to make. It being quite clear to me that I wasnÕt going to get an interview of any sort, I asked whether he might like to give me his full name so that at least I could write something on my new pad. He directed me to a typed out A4 sheet of paper on a chair in front of him which contained some information about him, including his name, and why and how he built the boats. I stuffed my newly purchased but already redundant note book away and decided to take a photo of the sheet and read it later.
Apparently, the whole point of his making and showing the boats was to raise money for something or other ~ at least I would know what when I developed my film. When I finally met my friends and departed for the ferry trip I realised that I had not even left him any money. When we returned later that evening, he was gone ~ so he didnÕt even get any money from me! Unfortunately, taking a photo of his information sheet using a fixed focus, [fixed everything] disposable camera was a mistake ~ I was unable to decipher even his full name when I finally had the film processed.
So, whoever you are ~ nice boats!
At the beginning of the tour we had been in Sydney for around 10 days and the weather was glorious ~ but now we were seemingly well stuck into Autumn, and the weather was truly dreadful the day I went to meet Ben Hall, as interesting a woodworker as you will ever come across.
A woodworker is often the more interesting when he/she is NOT just a woodworker. As most musicians will testify, the most creative and interesting musicians are often the ones who are also interested in wrought iron work, zebra breeding or Saxon poetry and who’s heroes are sculptors or, if actually musicians, at the very least musicians who play entirely different instruments, and in a different idiom, to their own.
Ben Hall is one such woodworker ~ he is also an artist, an architect [his original day job, and sadly most woodworkers have to admit to knowing all about them] and a musician ~ a guitarist. He studied with Oliver Hunt in London in the 60’s.
For a classical guitar maker and player he doesn’t like classical guitars much. He has always found them to be unsatisfying instruments, too quiet and difficult to play to be really rewarding [which is why he never pursued a career as a player] but it has led him to experiment with the fundamental construction. He had two finished guitars in his workshop when I visited him, both very much the same design ~ shown here.
The three distinguishing features of these instruments are:
1] The top is sloped just underneath the top end of the neck facilitating access to the top few frets, much as a cutaway does on a steel-strung guitar. Strange, says Ben how a traditional classical guitar never has a cutaway, despite the fact that the repertoire often demands use of the top frets, and a steel strung guitar always does ~ but the top frets are seldom if ever used! I agree.
2] The necks are detachable ~ this is to facilitate repairs should they become necessary.
3] The sound hole is square ~ he just likes them that way – and why not.
As an instrument maker there seems to be some confusion over his name ~ the elegant labels in his instruments say ‘John Hall’ but I ~ and apparently most others ~ know him as Ben. He actually doesn’t like having two one syllable names and would far rather have been called David Rubio.
He favours quite a low level of decoration on his instruments, choosing to concentrate more on the choice of appropriate timber and the function of the instrument. The level of decoration on the one and only surviving Stradivarius guitar is far closer to that of his violins than to the majority of other contemporary lutes and guitars ~ this backs up Ben’s contention, and I wholeheartedly agree, that most of the finest instruments from the past are relatively plain in their appearance with the very ornate, and often less musically satisfying instruments being reserved for less competent ~ but wealthier ~ amateurs.
As we fly out of Sydney on our way to Adelaide, I get one last glimpse of the Harbour Bridge, surely one of the most beautiful and spectacular bridges in the world ~ and it occurs to me in a rare moment of … something … that in a sense this bridge is like a really good musical instrument ~ a near perfect marriage of form and function.
BRYAN DE GRUCHY:
Bryan makes steel strung guitars – really fine quality, good looking, unquirky guitars. He has also made pedal steel guitars and mandolins which he loves, but generally doesn’t have the time ~ in any case these different instruments all require different tools and machinery settings and the demand for his guitars alone is such that he doesn’t get much time to indulge. He reckons that classical guitars are easier to build than steel strung.
He often inlays ‘paua’ shell around his sound holes and as part of the purfling. This is a shell similar to abalone, but more consistently colourful ~ he buys whole shells and cuts it to size using a small diamond saw, using water as a lubricant/coolant. He has a common sense approach to guitar construction and design ~ but says that you can go too far with modern technology and testing. He related one story about an American team that had decided, by extensive analysis and experimentation, to produce the perfect guitar. Sadly this instrument sounded dreadful.
He makes mistakes, too – while I was there at his workshop he was working on a left-handed guitar and was just gluing the bridge in place on the sound board. He had just successfully slotted the bridge to take the saddle, sloping the opposite way as it was a left-handed instrument, on the third attempt. Both his first two attempts had resulted in the slot sloping the wrong way ~ ‘it’s amazing how strong habits can be!’ he said – and I know this well myself!
I asked him if he had ever had to write off an instrument and he said that the closest he had ever come was one day when he picked up a heavy chisel while he was looking for something on the crowded bench where there was an almost completed guitar. With a broad, sweeping gesture which he demonstrated to me with the self-same chisel [several times as, in retrospect, it amused him as much as it did me] he lost hold of it. It apparently had spun through the air describing an elegant arc [he didnÕt demonstrate this bit] and embedded itself in the guitar’s sound board. Nevertheless, he did manage to patch up even this and sell it, although at a reduced price. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that Bryan spends his time patching up guitars that he has thrown chisels at – with nearly 500 guitars under his belt he is allowed the occasional cock-up, and it must be to his credit that it has never resulted in having to ditch an instrument.
Bryan de Gruchy is not the most famous guitar maker in Australia but his instruments are undoubtedly of the highest quality and his commitment to producing instruments that sound as good as possible and last is obvious. He says that he can, in fact, make instruments that will sound even better than they do already by thinning the sound boards further, but he says that these would probably self-destruct in 6 months. As always in musical instrument making, a compromise must be struck between many factors: quality of sound, volume, stability, ease of playing, cost, and many other competing requirements that escape me at the moment.
Greg Smallman, who leapt to fame when the world famous John Williams decided to use his guitars exclusively, uses a revolutionary bracing system called Ôlattice’ bracing. His classical guitars feature ultra-thin tops braced all over for strength, and unusually thick, rigid sides and a thick, slightly arched back. This increases the overall volume, and particularly the projection at the top end which is often so lacking on classical instruments, particularly in a live concert environment. Bryan has experimented with a steel strung version of this but says that with a steel guitar projection at the top end is never a problem anyway and the sound of this instrument was far too strident- so he now sticks to his usual bracing method.
He started out by reading all that he could lay his hands on, not just to do with guitar making, but to do with making other instruments and almost anything to do with wood generally. He has experimented extensively with all aspects of the manufacturing process in the quest to produce the perfect guitar – but he says that many of his experiments could be summarised in the saying: ” É the operation was successful but the patient died!” The final product is always the most important thing and he has always held common sense to be his most important guide.
On the left is guitar Bryan keeps on show, appropriately undusted, to remind him how not to make one.
One successful experiment resulted in his novel approach to seasoning the Sitka spruce he uses exclusively for his tops. It involves baking the rough cut pairs of pieces in the hot Australian sun through a whole summer ~ with temperatures up to 37° in the shade! It’s not quite as simple as that and he has a strict regime to keep them from going too far.
He uses a few Australian timbers, particularly Australian Blackwood which he finds very good for backs and sides. King William Pine is the only possible Australian substitute for the various spruces usually used for the sound boards, but Bryan does not believe that ‘King Billy’ pine has anywhere near the stiffness required particularly along the grain, to make a good guitar.
Interestingly, both Ben Hall and Tim Guster [see subsequent pages] use King Billy pine for sound boards – Ben has used it for guitars and Tim for mandolins for the sweetness of tone it produces. Instrument makers have their own ideas based on their own experience of what works for them and on the feed back they get from their customers.
He has now made approaching 500 guitars but reckons he didn’t start to build the guitars he really wanted to build until around number 200. This speaks volumes of his high standards – but I’m quite sure that the owners of guitars numbered 1 to 199 have no complaints whatever.
Visit Bryan’s website at:
Amongst the instruments Tim makes are Hurdy-Gurdys, an instrument designed by a committee if ever there was one. I must be very careful what I say here as someone who has done some work for me, Claire, is a Hurdy-gurdy maker! Tim told me an undoubtedly very old Hurdy gurdy joke:
Q: how long does it take to tune a hurdy-gurdy?
A: no-one knows yet.
Very cruel. They do make a great sound and it was fun for me to see some up close and to hear Tim play.
A few of his that I photographed while I was there are shown here, I’m sure they are all distinct and different but I haven’t captioned any because I wouldn’t know which was which.
For some reason I didn’t take many notes while I was there and it is a while ago so I haven’t written very much text here – but I do remember that he also makes very beautiful lutes and mandolins and that his work is of a very high standard.
He also makes a speciality of a certain sort of harp, a moderately priced ‘classical’ [non-ethnic] instrument. He had been in partnership with a friend of his doing this but had just recently taken it over on his own. He now offers a good quality and very reasonably priced ‘starter’ harp and most of his time is now [or certainly was then in 1998] taken up meeting the demand for these instruments.
Tim was then the chair of an organisation with as elegant an acronym as I have come across: MIMOSA – Musical Instrument Makers of South Australia. Unfortunately, though, Mimosa is considered a weed by some, but they donÕt let that worry them, its too good a name to be wasted!
These are just a couple of images from the first trip I was pleased with – a bird – somewhere in Sydney, and a time-lapse shot of Perth taken from Jacob’s Ladder.
I do intend to go back to Australia when I get a chance – maybe this coming summer, 2001 [our summer, their winter – am I bonkers?]. Actually, it will have to coincide with a gamelan festival in Java that a group I am involved with [the gamelan MetalWorks] have an open invitation to perform at.