|I am basically a musician turned Luthier. After 16 years
of making mandolins after work and on weekends, we finally moved into
the new house and workshop and I have become a full
time Luthier. Computing used to pay the bills, but now after being
downsized by my employer, the mandolins are playing a much larger
role. 6 years later and it is the best thing we ever did.
I started playing music at the age of 7, and played the piano for over 13 years. In the intervening period I have played guitar, recorder, piano accordion, button accordion, violin (complete failure) and mandolin, and am presently trying to learn how to play the hammered dulcimer. The hammered dulcimer is going very slowly because I spend so much time making mandolins, there is no time left for practice. Actually, to be honest, I have pretty much given up on the hammered dulcimer. Gillian Alcock is one of my best friends, and she has made a wonderful sounding dulcimer for me.
I started playing the mandolin around 30 years ago on a factory bowlback I bought in Germany, but eventually it was obvious the instrument was somewhat limiting and my better half was complaining about the sound. Fortunately, a musician friend visited the USA about this time and he brought back a vintage 1918 Gibson A1 for me. I played this instrument for over 8 years in various dance bands and loved it to death. It is one of the better vintage Gibsons and is somewhat battered, but structurally sound and stills sounds great. In all that time I only came across one other mandolin that came close to the Gibson in tone and playability.
Around 1993, a number of people who had seen my old Gibson started asking me where they could get a good mandolin for a reasonable price. After doing a bit of research, I came up with the answer - no idea. All the music shops had Korean imports that looked OK, but were absolutely dead tonally and difficult to play. Anything decent, e.g. vintage Gibsons, on the second hand market were outrageously expensive; about 4 times what mine had cost. Now this situation from a musician's point of view is not good (where are all the mandolin players?) and got me thinking that maybe I could do something about it. At the time I was building high quality Hi Fi loudspeakers and was getting rather sick of working with MDF and chipboard.
From the age of 13 I have always loved to work with wood. I used to spend countless hours as a teenager in the backyard shed hacking at a bit of wood with a chisel or plane. Apart from the loudspeakers, I had built furniture and various other smaller things from wood. Thus I already had all the basic woodworking skills, the ability to listen to subtle sound changes, and had a long standing ambition to build a musical instrument. Why not build a mandolin? It was an instrument I was very familiar with and I already had a good specimen to copy. What followed was about a year of research and preparatory work. Things such as what timber to use, specialised tools, suppliers of timbers, tools, parts etc. all had to be worked out. Fortunately, my friend Gillian Alcock was very encouraging and helpful. Finally, the first mandolin emerged amid much excitement.
This is where my perfectionist tendency kicked in. The first instrument sounded very promising, almost as good as the Gibson (not bad for my first effort) and didn't fall apart, but I knew I could do much better. Soon a second instrument emerged, then a third and a fourth and so on. Each one better than the previous. One year later, much to my surprise and delight, I was making mandolins that were sounding consistently better than the old Gibson. The Gibson was confined to the cupboard: dragged out occasionally for comparison purposes and measurements.
Since that time, steady improvements in build quality, bracing, finish, playability etc, have been incorporated. I learned the skill of tap tuning, which resulted in a 'quantum leap' improvement in the tone of the instruments. I gained the respect of some of the best mandolin players in the country (and overseas countries as well); some of whom have bought my instruments. I also have the great pleasure of playing the best sounding mandolins that have ever been through my hands, and have as friends some of the best known Luthiers in Australia and the USA. However, as a musician, I still believe that the average mandolin player should be able to purchase a good quality instrument without having to take out a second mortgage. Without that, there will be no mandolin players. So, I have confined my mandolin building to A model mandolins not just because I like the elegant simplicity of the A models, but also because they are far less work than a F5 mandolin to make, so I can offer outstanding quality that most people can afford.
Not so long ago I was completely swamped with orders so the waiting list blew out to an uncomfortable 2 years with some people waiting over 3 years. That is a stressful situation for a Luthier and I must admit to struggling to cope with the full time job and a long waiting list. However, I have finally managed to work through the backlog and now that I am a full time maker, customers will get their instruments relatively quickly, hopefully in just a few months. I also hope to be able to offer a lot more mandolins and mandolas as finished instruments available for immediate delivery. Soon after moving to Bega I needed some new challenges so started work on making a guitar. The same thing happened. One guitar, then a second that was better, then a third that was better again and so on and so forth. The guitar are sounding damn good now.
Awards and Prizes:
Woodcrafts Guild of the ACT exhibition 1994, Best in the Show - pair of mandolins.
Woodcrafts Guild of the ACT exhibition 1995, First Prize Musical Instruments - mandolin.
Woodcrafts Guild of the ACT exhibition 1996, First Prize General Section - mandolin.