Rare Tasmanian timbers are being used to produce custom guitars at Stanley. Reporter BEN WILD and photographer PETER LORD were shown the process. THE plucked string of a guitar vibrates quickly, slipping back and forth through the air with little resistance.
The length, tension and mass of the string determines the frequency of the vibrations, or how many times it moves back and forth in a second.
The slight disturbance the string causes is magnified when the vibration is transferred via the bridge to the soundboard of an acoustic guitar.
The soundboard flexes, pushing the air around it and making the hollow belly of the guitar breathe in and out through the sounding hole.
This makes soundwaves that play on the fine instruments in a human`s ear to create beautiful sounds.
Classical guitarist Chris Wynne loves those sounds and has spent decades plucking and strumming strings in places like the Sydney Opera House and teaching others to do the same.
But 18 years ago he heard for the first time what a guitar sounds like when the vibrations are created by the teeth of a band saw ripping through its timbers.
It wasn`t his guitar. He had borrowed it from his sister (and only revealed its fate after five long years).
"She`s a school teacher and it was one of the ones she used to teach the kids," Mr Wynne said.
"I knew it wasn`t a good one, obviously, so I said, `Can I borrow it?` And she said, `Sure.`
"I literally got it and went ZZZZZZZuuup," he said, grinning as he made a slicing motion with his hand.
It wasn`t about discovering what sort of noise a guitar would make when cut in half or even a test to see if he could destroy a thing he loved. It was about pulling something apart so he could see how it worked.
He examined the thickness of the timbers used for the curved sides, the back, the soundboard, the neck and fretboard. He examined the bracing that strengthened the supple soundboard.
After five or six months of careful study, reading and work, he had built his first guitar. He grew more expert as he made ever more guitars, always from Australian timbers, and sought out Australian luthiers (makers of string instruments) to study under.
Five years ago he opened the Thomas Lloyd Guitars School of Acoustic Guitar Making and has since taught more than 200 people.
For the past two weeks he has been teaching in Tasmania for the first time. Four custom guitars have taken shape in a workshop set up in a bluestone outbuilding at historic Highfield House in Stanley.
He was brought to the North-West by Stanley saw miller Chris Searle, of Tasmanian Tonewood, a man convinced rare Tasmanian timbers could be the base for a guitar making industry in the State.
Mr Searle told The Sunday Examiner reporter Fran Voss in July last year that he planned to bring Mr Wynne to the State to help achieve that goal.
"We believe there`s a good long-term future for Tasmania, as not just a supplier of timber but we`re trying to develop an industry here of building guitars."
The wood warrants such hopes, Mr Wynne said. King billy pine, huon pine, Tasmanian oak, leatherwood, tiger myrtle, sassafras and blackwood were a clear match for the traditional materials like ebony, rosewood and spruce that dominate guitar making in places like Spain and America.
Traditional timbers were becoming harder to find, Mr Wynne said, and even overseas luthiers were beginning to look for alternatives. He thinks Australia ought to be the place they turn to.
Tradition was tough to break, he said, but he was seeing changes among his students, many of whom go on to become custom guitar makers themselves.
When he opened the school, most students wanted to make guitars from ebony, spruces and rosewood.
"Now, 98 per cent of my students use Australian timbers and won`t go near spruces.
"When you hear them, well, why would you use spruce? They sound great - unless I`m tone deaf, which I don`t think I am."
There were three men working on guitars when The Sunday Examiner visited Highfield last Tuesday, sanding and carving the necks of their guitars.
A fourth student, Ben Popowski, was the greyhound of the bunch and was a step ahead of his older classmates. He was at home oiling his creation.
The slowest worker was Adam Anstis, a classical guitarist and joiner/carpenter by trade.
"I`ve used hand tools professionally since I was 16 and yet I`m the slowest," Mr Anstis said.
"But I`m expecting a lot from myself. Even though this is my first guitar, I`ve got fairly high expectations."
He demands a lot from himself because when he returns to Cradoc, in the Huon Valley, he will be making guitars professionally.
Mr Searle’s dream for a Tasmanian guitar making industry using Tasmanian timbers was gaining traction by the day.
The guitar in Mr Anstis’ hands was made from tiger myrtle, blackwood, king billy pine, tassie oak and gidgee, from central Australia.
(No Tasmanian timbers are hard enough to use for fretboards.)
Sitting next to him was Smithton man David Poke who has played the guitar for 40 years. He was using his wood working skills to make an instrument of fiddleback blackwood, huon pine, tiger myrtle, Tasmanian oak and gidgee. The skills he has picked up will be passed on.
‘‘My son will probably play it more than I will,’’ Mr Poke said.
‘‘He’s got an order in that I learn how to build one, then go home and teach him how build one. That’s the idea anyway.’’
Hobart man Brian Lewis said he was a keen amateur guitarist whose playing worked best in newspaper.
The course had immediately appealed to him though, as he had been pondering reawakening his long-dormant wood working skills to build something using Tasmanian timbers.
He said he was stunned he could make such a beautiful instrument in two weeks. He used Huon pine, tiger myrtle and mulga.
‘‘My father died last October. He and I used to do a lot of woodworking together.
‘‘So I though I’d build it out of myrtle as a tribute to him (a favourite timber). He was very patient, to have been doing this sort of thing, with the fine detail, even though he wasn’t into music or guitars, he would have loved it.’’
The four students were due to complete their guitars on Friday, after this story was written.
Mr Wynne said that the moment they first played their instruments would be a cherished memory for them.
‘‘It’s just so beautiful the first time.
‘‘They’ll sit down and play it and, honestly, this whole building could fall down and the student won’t move.’’