Building your Own Instruments

Just because a guitar is home made, or built with “backwoods” or D.I.Y. ethics it doesn’t mean it cannot embody desirable aesthetics, strong personality, as well as great tonal qualities and playability.

We spoke to New Zealand guitar builder Marten Ten Broek about some of the instruments he has built. If you would like to build your own stringed instruments but have no idea where to start, Marten’s unique methods and philosophy will help inspire you to begin building guitars and ukuleles. His guitars and ukuleles use recycled timbers and woods – they embody the “down home” simplicity of the old time, self build tradition.

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RSG: Marten what lead you into building your own guitars and instruments?

After a number of years of playing guitars and being a left handed player who had begun using a right handed classical guitar upside down, three right handed guitars strung left handed, and finally
a purpose built lefty I came to the conclusion that IT IS A RIGHT HANDED WORLD.

I was tired of walking into music shops to see 400-500 guitars knowing that there might be 20 left handed guitars and that 15-30% more is charged for the left handed models. Being financially challenged, left handed, as well as handy enough in my own fashion – as well as curious, I figured out that I wanted to have a go at building my own.

RSG: So how do you choose your materials for guitar building?

Well, some people regard guitar building, and luthiery in particular, as some kind of mystical procedure requiring all manner of arcane tools and skills, but basically, it all depends on where you want to position yourself in terms of your personal approach to perfection.

In New Zealand we are a long way from the hallowed forests of the ‘right’ tonewoods, so the ‘right’ tonewoods are often scarce and expensive. It occurred in my mind that there is plenty of wood worth using that is tied up in other objects. I began to hunt for timber bound up in furniture, etc. Sometimes this means it might take longer to build an instrument, but also ensures that no trees are harmed – the carbon footprint extends only as far as driving to your local recycle centre.

RSG: So do you prefer working with old, second hand and found materials?

Yes, because these dated and potentially ugly cast-offs can be transformed into beautiful acoustic instruments – this is of course an aesthetically subjective notion, but I definitely prefer to build an instrument, and create a music from salvaged timber…an old colonial wardrobe, a dusty desk or an unwanted chest of drawers.

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RSG: So Marten how do actually begin the guitar, and instrument making process?

Quite simply, my start is this: I stock pile wood that I think might be suitable, whether I assemble or not. Each instrument begins its life as a collection of wood that I will slowly create. I place parts next to each other: often I will sound them out acoustically, and peer intently at them periodically – adding and removing from the collection until the right combination materialises. Then, when a certain combination begins to “make sense” enough I begin by drawing lines on the pieces.

RSG: So you prefer an organic creative process to build your guitars. What other influences make their way into your instruments?

Ha ha ha, my current construction methods are governed heavily by my working conditions and tools – ie, cramped, poorly lit and motley. I built my first two guitars on the floor of a 114 year old shack in a back paddock –  I  lived there for 3 years. The doors and windows didn’t work, neither did the lights and only 1 or 2 power points. It was regularly less than 10 degrees indoors. The last few I’ve made have been done in a 3 x 3m dirt floor shed – I chased the rats out but it leaked like a sieve so I had to fill the old tin roof with silicone.

RSG: Thank god for the bluesy romance of bad weather. So what tools do you use?

My tools are as follows – a handsaw, a skillsaw – a recent gift from my brother was a small  bandsaw – my advice? Dont bother unless you can afford a big one.  A large manual plane, a tiny plane, a curved spokeshave, a drill with a wobbling chuck. Add to that a knife, a small pile of f clamps and borrowed sash clamps, a razor saw (for fret slots) a hammer, a linbide paint scraper, 2 bits of box section aluminium for sanding things flat, a dremel tool with a diamond cutter for fret dots and a few needle files.

 

Part two of our interview about building guitars and instruments with Marten click here