The artisans: The Kiwi craftsmen keeping it real (NZ Herald article )
When Trevor Binford realised the guitar he’d spent weeks cutting, gluing and sanding wasn’t up to scratch, he threw it in the ocean.
You wouldn’t expect the same reaction from an employee of the Yamaha guitar factory in Hangzhou, China, where thousands of instruments are made every day.
Automation has become so precise and efficient that products can be created with a perfection that no human hand could replicate, and at a fraction of the time and cost.
So why does Binford keep pouring his blood, sweat and tears into creating his acoustic guitars, ukuleles and basses, spending hours hollowing their tops with miniature planes and gluing finicky pieces of wood to form their complex internal latticework?
The answer, Binford says, will be obvious to guitar aficionados. Some people are willing to pay thousands of dollars for one of his instruments despite being able to pick up a perfectly passable guitar for a couple of hundred bucks at a music store.
Binford, a master luthier who specialises in jazz arch-top acoustics, typically spends a month working on a single instrument, which will fetch about $7000 for a basic model.
“When I’m using the plane, I’m not just looking; I can hear the sound that the plane makes over the timber, which can change with even a few strokes,” he says.
“I can feel how the timber’s moving and whether it’s flexing because if it doesn’t flex then no sound is produced. That’s not something you can really teach anyone and not something a machine can do.”
Binford was brought up in a log cabin in Northern Michigan, from where he still sources some of the timber for his guitars.
After a year-long guitar making course, Binford landed a coveted apprenticeship with American master luthier – stringed instrument maker – Bob Benedetto.
“His instruments, just to give you an idea, go for over US$40,000 because his brand and reputation have earned so much respect.”
Binford worked in just about every department of the luthiery, attaining all the skills necessary to start his own line of instruments.
In his modest Onehunga workshop, the scents of exotic timbers permeate the air and tools which look as though they could be 100 years old are carefully hung from walls.
Obscure glues, resins and polishes line shelves beneath a huge technical guitar poster by his mentor and hero, Benedetto.
When completed and singing sweetly, Binford’s guitars bring him immense satisfaction. But when they fail to meet his high standards, the result can be deep despair.
“When you’ve been working so hard on something and you realise, ‘Nope, this isn’t going to be a quality instrument, I can’t continue with this’, you have no choice but to set them aside as delicately as possible. Well, I’ve thrown them in the ocean before,” he says.
“But when you hear something you’ve built that sounds much better than anything you can get in the shop, and that suits the customer’s desires … that’s what I do it for. The good thing is, you usually don’t have to throw them into the ocean.”
Despite being a young business – and acoustic arch-tops being a relatively little-known style – Binford’s luthiery has a steady customer base, particularly among jazz musicians. He also does repairs and holds increasingly-popular guitar building workshops.
“Obviously there isn’t as high a demand for this instrument as there is for the $300, $400 guitars, but people that play a lot can really hear the difference and know that they can’t go into the music shop and get something that sounds as good.”
Also, every instrument is unique.
“I could use the same timber, from the same tree, to the same measurements and it would sound completely different,” he says
There is also an increasing awareness – sometimes accompanied by disgust – about mass production, with many people willing to pay more rather than supporting a large guitar manufacturer.
So are the luthier’s skills being lost?
“Yes they are, unfortunately. When people get into the business … even if they’ve studied it at school they want to reduce the amount of time they put into building a guitar and in doing that a lot of the hand – that visceral appeal – is lost.”
Onward into the Bronze Age
It’s a process that’s been around for more than 5000 years, but the lost wax bronze casts made by Wellington foundryman Jonathan Campbell are being ordered faster than he can make them.
At a time when an entire car can be created using a 3D printer, you could be forgiven for thinking the ancient craft would be all but redundant.
On the contrary, Campbell is “constantly” casting objects that have been created by 3D printers, transforming them into timeless pieces, often of great complexity and beauty.
Campbell, who is also a sculptor, started his Created and Cast Bronze foundry in 1991as a way to make his own art, but quickly discovered the commercial value of what he was doing.
Campbell’s skills were in hot demand when the Lord of the Rings crew was in town for Sir Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.
He’s also made many life-sized statues of people, countless trophies, statues and also the medals handed out when the America’s Cup was first held in New Zealand in 2000.
The work requires a furnace that heats the metal to, on average, 1100C, as well as a kiln for the ceramic moulds, which must reach some 800C.
“Bronze has got lots of qualities – it’s beautiful to melt, it’s beautiful to weld, it’s really nice to machine and best of all it doesn’t rust. That means if you put a sculpture out it’s probably going to be floating around the stratosphere when the earth explodes,” he says.
Campbell loves his work – never moreso than when he gets to break the ceramic shell to reveal the “present” beneath – but it’s a hard, physically-demanding job which can get uncomfortably hot.
And it can certainly be hazardous.
“In my first few years I was a regular at A&E,” he says. “Usually it’s something really dumb; the worst one I had was when I was welding a sphere that I had in a vice when the phone rang.
“I had a conversation and then put my hand on it to take it out of the vice. It wasn’t until I heard my skin sizzling that I realised what I’d done.”
Although there are only a handful of people in the country who can do what he does, Campbell says the craft could be around another 5000 years yet.
“People always said technology would be the death knell for the industry, but what it’s actually done is opened up different doors for me.
“Like with the 3D printing – they all just bring me things to cast now. But sadly there are people I know in model making industries and things like that where it’s bitten them quite a bit.”
Symmetry is boring: Debra Fallowfield
How does a jeweller working in a tiny studio at the back of her house compete with factories able to churn out thousands of wedding rings in a day?
She doesn’t, and that’s the whole point, says Debra Fallowfield, whose hand-crafted jewellery has gained a niche international following.
Most jewellery labels are now able to make exact replicas of their wares using computer-aided design, pretty much the antithesis of Fallowfield’s approach.
She sees her pieces as being like fingerprints, in that each one is unique.
“Even if I repeat a design it’s always going to look a bit different, and that’s what I tell people: ‘It’s not going to be exactly the same – deal with it’.”
Fallowfield is mainly self-taught but uses fundamental jewellery-making techniques that have existed for time immemorial.
“There’s a lot of forging – heating metal and shaping it with hammer and tongs – lots of filing and a hell of a lot of sanding,” she says.
“It’s tough, dirty work and it’s hard on the body – I’ll go through about 10 different sandpapers before I actually get to that final polishing stage.”
Although it can take just a few hours to make a simple ring, a complex piece can take three or four days.
“It takes maybe 20 to 30 minutes to set a single stone so if you’ve got a ring that’s got 40 stones in it, that’s a lot of time,” she says.
Despite living at the bottom of the world, the internet means she has a global network of clients and rings from Australia to Alaska.
“They know that it’s not off the rack, it’s not mass-produced and so they’re willing to pay that little bit extra,” she says.
But artisans such as Fallowfield need to go that extra mile to justify their higher prices.
“For me and for every craftsperson its about carving that niche, but it’s also about educating the public about what goes into these things,” she says.
“You need to actually tell people, ‘This costs this much because of this – feel it, touch it’. Then people start to understand.”
Since her business found its feet, Fallowfield’s husband has quit his job in construction to join her in the venture.
“My work is quite wobbly and when he started working with me, because of his background in construction, he’d say, ‘Hey, that’s a bit off’, but it’s not. This is a bit of a cliche but it’s about finding beauty in imperfection,” she says.
“Symmetry can be pretty boring. I like fluidity so that it looks hand-made, without being contrived about it.”
Does traditional jewellery have a future?
“On the one hand, I think it doesn’t because so many jewellery labels are using computer-aided design. They’re even using it to make it look hand-made, which irritates me quite a bit,” Fallowfield says.
“But at the same time, the crafting and hand-made movement is gaining quite positive traction here and in Australia, and it’s making its way into the US.
“So there is a bit of a push-back against mass production and I think people like me can feel positive about that.”