Construction & Design
I build my instruments in the Old School, Whitley Chapel, a small village in the North of England. Whitley Chapel is in the hills above the market town of Hexham, just below open moorland. It’s about fifty miles south of the Scottish border and a dozen miles or so from Hadrian’s Wall.
The school makes a great workshop; big windows giving lots of light looking onto a country road and green fields.
I’ve divided it up into two handwork rooms with a machine room in between. With wood stacked all around, and jigs and moulds hanging on the walls, it’s a battle to find room for everything. It’s hard to believe how spacious it seemed when I moved here in 1979.
Over the years I have found which woods best suit my designs, as discussed here.
The handwork room at the north end of the building has windows on two sides giving plenty of natural light. There are work benches around the walls and a free standing bench in the centre of the room.
Good work requires good light, so all work areas are brightly illuminated by spotlamps or adjustable bench lights.
Jigs and tools hang on racks and wood for the next few instruments is stored on shelves near the ceiling. This is replaced from my main store above the machine room as it is used.
A stove heats the room (and wood) twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, ensuring the wood is absolutely dry before use.
This is the machine room, containing a table saw, two planers, a band saw, a flat-bed sander, a router table, a drill press and two dust extractors. Also a variety of draws, cupboards and shelves containing power tools and general clutter. Such as the nuts and bolts that have no value but are always urgently needed just after the shops close.
Most of the time the machines stand unused, but they are in fact invaluable. The table saw and planer mostly cut the larger boards into useable sizes, daunting jobs to do by hand, while the band-saw and flat-bed sander are used more in actual instrument construction.
As with the handwork room, it is well lit with both natural and (when needed) artificial light.
Handwork and factory building
Computer controlled machinery can be wonderfully useful, speeding up and standardising production. But skilled men with hand tools have for centuries been performing the same tasks with equal accuracy and more flexibility.
Computer programs can’t adjust for the characteristics of different pieces of wood; this requires decisions that only a man (or woman) can make. The best of today’s luthiers combine the skill of traditional craftsmen with power tools and custom made jigs.
Factories using computer controlled machinery and production line techniques can build much faster, but without the ability to match each process and each piece of wood to the preceding one that is so important to the sound of the finished instrument.
Time and Tools
Hand building enables me to build to designs that give the best sound and appearance; I make no compromises to suit machine construction or to speed up building.
I don’t work to deadlines, building each instrument takes as long as it takes. From design features such as carved soundboards and minimum stress construction, to cosmetic details like wood bindings and mitred purfling joints, I take whatever time is required.
Good hand work requires good tools. I love chisels and have a collection of Swiss and Japanese chisels. These take a better edge than most modern tools, and keep it longer. I sharpen them with a slow turning water cooled Tormek system that gives the best edge ever.
Along with choice of materials, the design of any instrument is fundamental to both its sound and appearance. I want a bass sound that’s deep but stays clear and doesn’t break up and become indistinct when played hard, and a treble that springs out with life and energy. All my designs and developments have been aimed at achieving this sound.
My instruments are not ornate; beauty is achieved by the use of handsome materials and harmonious design rather than heavy ornamentation.
Over the years, I’ve looked at and questioned traditional construction and design, using those aspects that work well but developing my own techniques when these make better instruments. My instruments have both a unique construction and a unique sound.