timber strings

There are many artistic folk here in the northwest of our island and last weekend saw the opportunity for local luthiers to showcase their creations. Fourteen music makers presented their unique musical instruments at the Tasmanian Timber Strings exhibition at Wynyard.

The drawcard for me, even though I can admire them at any time, were the two gorgeous guitars made by my talented husband. Michael attended his first guitar-making course at Highfield House, Stanley, in October 2012, led by Chris Wynne of Thomas Lloyd guitars. Benjamin is named after the last captive thylacine who died at Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart on 7th September 1936.

The 7-string dreadnaught has a magnificent tiger myrtle backboard, sides & headstock along with celery top pine soundboard, blackwood double-rosette & body bindings, Tasmanian oak neck and Queensland gidgee fretboard & bridge .

In May 2014, a second guitar-making course in Italy, again with Chris Wynne, produced the beautiful 6-string dreadnaught, Corinna.

This time, the soundboard is Huon pine with a musk rosette, figured blackwood backboard & sides, gidgee fretboard, bridge & bindings and Tasmanian oak neck. The musk headstock is inlaid with a blackwood thylacine graphic, designed by Michael to reflect the name of the instrument, the Aboriginal word for a young thylacine.

Michael O’Donnell also started making guitars after attending a workshop in Italy under the tutelage of Chris Wynne and took over the business Woodtone Guitars in Penguin in early 2018. As well as creating customised acoustic and electric guitars, he conducts guitar making courses, sourcing specialty timbers for you to build your own.

The gifted Kille family of Tarkine Strings are best known for their beautiful string ensemble music. Murray has another string to his bow (pardon the pun), making a striking guitar with sassafras back & sides under the guidance of Michael O’Donnell in 2018. The soundboard & neck are Huon pine and the fretboard is figured Tasmanian blackwood with a myrtle headstock.

Alongside was an elegant violin made by luthier Cecil Bynon in 1983 with King Billy pine top, Tasmanian blackwood back, sides & neck and ebony fingerboard.

Murray also repairs classical string instruments including violins, violas and cellos, though I think this one is beyond redemption.

The Australian Ukelele Company specialise in unique Tasmanian timber and offer the choice of a custom made instrument or a kit to make your own.

Gary Fleming has always been fascinated with making things since spending many hours in his Dad’s shed when he was growing up. He made his first guitar as a challenge, to see if he could do it and went on to make electric guitars from locally sourced material. On his two most recent guitars, he has experimented with custom bridge and tail pieces as well as asymmetrical neck carve and scalloped fretboards.

Already a talented fine furniture maker, Stephen Oram added harp making to his repertoire in 2002. It started when a friend of his partner needed an extra pair of hands. Now furniture has taken a back seat as he creates seven or eight harps a year.

Michael Tharme couldn’t be present on the day but his cigar box guitars, branded Mikhail, offered a very different and colourful alternative. Michael has been building instruments since 2016 based on the original Cuban cigar box guitar but uses all kinds of material such as biscuit tins, number plates and anything else he might find in an old shed or antique shop. They are one of a kind, hand made in Tasmania from local and reclaimed timbers whenever possible.

Local luthier, Peter Sutcliffe, had a diverse display of his handmade instruments.

The delicate inlay in the neck of this guitar is exquisite.

There were fine examples of handcrafted guitars and mandolins from another local, Gary Radcliffe, including an unfinished soundboard with an intricate rosette.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, I discovered a very unusual violin made from kelp. Yes, kelp! Chris Henderson has been working tirelessly to perfect the process of turning giant kelp, gathered from the west coast near Marrawah, into a musical instrument. It is not an easy material to work with. Kelp shrinks about ¼ to ½ in size and about ¾ by weight. Because it doesn’t shrink evenly and curls up, it is dried for four days sandwiched in a metal grid. The cured kelp is more like hard plastic than wood and will not stick with any glues or take varnishes. It can be bent and cut after 15 minutes in a 50°C oven but, if it were not clamped in a fibreglass mould, it would slowly reform its original shape. If it weren’t for carbon fibre tubes and wooden blocks, the seaweed would sink at the bridge under the load of strings and distort with changes in humidity. So, why make a musical instrument from kelp? Michael summed it up in one word – bonkers!

Later in the afternoon, we were entertained by the various exhibitors. Peter Sutcliffe and his associates opened the session with an upbeat jazz number, followed by ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, a little optimistic considering the deluge outside that was predicted to continue for the next few days.

Philip Nicholas has been teaching strings and performing since 1980, he shared his rendition of three works by Bach on a guitar he made in 1984.

The afternoon concluded with a number of pieces from Tarkine Strings along with guest musicians.

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