Hand made or factory built? There’s more to hand making a beautiful guitar than meets the eye. A unique blending of science, knowledge and woodworking skill allow local Luthier John Buckham to create instruments of superior quality…
How long have you been making guitars, and where is your business located?
I moved to the area 11 years ago, and I’m located about 7 km outside of Wauchope. I’ve been building guitars since 2006. I do other work as well, but for the last couple of years, I’ve been building guitars more on a full-time basis.
What was the inspiration behind building your own guitars?
I’ve been a woodworker for a long time – making furniture. I started to play guitar, and I realised that really nice instruments were worth quite a bit of money.
I was in the UK in 2006, and I went into a guitar shop that had mostly factory made instruments, but they also had a small listening booth with about half a dozen hand made instruments by an English Luthier named Andy Manson. When I played them and discovered how beautiful they are, I just wanted to make them. That was my inspiration.
So, how long does it actually take you to craft a guitar from start to finish?
Several months. There are certain processes involved that require time to pass – particularly curing the finish before it’s rubbed back. There are also periods of time where the moisture content of the timber must be stabilised.
The critical stages of the guitar being built must be done in a controlled atmosphere, where the relative humidity is around 40 – 45%. This is very important, as the finished guitar must be able to cope with the climatic conditions of its new home.
Why does the humidity have to be controlled in such a way? Does atmospheric moisture warp the timber?
It’s a critical thing, because timber is hygroscopic [i.e. readily absorbs moisture from the atmosphere]. When people talk about timber being ‘dry’, they’re referring to when it has reached its equilibrium moisture content, about 8 – 13%, depending on the local conditions.
An instrument must be built in such a way that it will survive the conditions where it will live, because there’s no allowance in an instrument for movement – like there would be with other wooden items such as the bottom of a drawer, or the panels in a door, for example, which expand and contract according to the relative humidity.
Once a guitar is made, the only way it survives these fluctuations in humidity is because the pieces of timber are thin, and they are able to flex. The top of a guitar will rise in high RH, but at low RH it will sink with the possibility that it will crack if exposed to such low moisture levels for extended periods of time.
Building the guitar at 40 – 45% RH means that it can cope with seasonal variations; the caveat being that extreme conditions must be avoided – for instance, never leave a guitar in a hot car, as disaster (for the guitar) will be the likely result.
I use both hardwoods and softwoods, depending on what part of the guitar it will be. Softwoods are generally used for soundboards. These woods include Spruce, Western Red Cedar and Redwood.
I use hardwoods for the backs and sides. These can either be Australian or imported, like Mahoganies and Rosewoods, for instance. Australian Blackwood (acacia melonoxylon) is a lovely wood for back and sides. It grows all along Australia’s east coast. I have used locally grown Blackwood (Sally Wattle) for many guitars. I have felled and milled my own wood at times, when the material presents itself. I dry it in stages and saw it into back and side material on my bandsaw.
I also keep an eye out for furniture that sometimes yields instrument grade wood. I have reclaimed Mahogany from bedheads and tabletops. Recently I obtained an antique Victorian Whatnot that was made from Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra), that I plan to make into a one of a kind guitar. Brazilian Rosewood is considered by many to be the holy grail of tone woods.
Other woods I have used include Queensland Maple and Walnut, Tasmanian Native Olive, Western Australian Sheoak, Australian Red Cedar and Gidgee. We have some unique and beautiful woods in Australia and many are usable for instrument making – especially guitars.
Do different types of timber all have their own unique tonal quality?
Yes, they do. But, mostly the tone of a guitar comes from what the top is made from and the way it is braced.
What are the different model guitars you make?
In my Journeyman guitar range is an OM – or Orchestra Model, which is based on Martin’s OM and has become one of the most popular shapes, and a Dreadnought. The aim of the Journeyman guitars is to offer great sound and playability at a more affordable price.
I also make premium model guitars, which have more decoration, a high gloss finish and use rarer tone woods.
What sets your instruments apart from others people would find on the market?
The interesting thing about instrument making is that everyone makes a different instrument. I’ve displayed a couple of times at the National Folk Festival in Canberra, and the great thing is that makers don’t feel they are in competition with each other, because we all make something completely different – they look, feel and sound different.
Hand made instruments don’t have that bland, factory-made look. They are a reflection of the person who made them.
A lot of people have never played a hand made instrument before, and they are so surprised when they try one for the first time. Some people like the idea of having a personalised instrument made especially for them.
The main difference between my instruments and what you’d see in a guitar store is what they sound like. I acoustically test the wood used to determine its properties, and those results lead me to decide on the thickness of each individual piece of timber I use – rather than every piece of timber being put through a machine in a production situation and coming out all at the same thickness, as it would in a factory built guitar.
It’s important to work with the acoustic properties of the timber at hand and design an instrument with those properties in mind. It’s this attention to detail that results in an instrument that is harmonically rich and that sings to you when it’s played.
There is a difference in an instrument that is made by one person instead of being the result of a production line.
How would I go about commissioning you to build a guitar?
My website is http://buckhamguitars.com
I can be contacted on 6585 3626 or 0419 498 484.
Interview by Jo Atkins.