Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: All for the sound and the story

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Guitar maker and repairer Glyn Evans says a good luthier should respect an instrument's story. Photo / Dean Purcell
Guitar maker and repairer Glyn Evans says a good luthier should respect an instrument's story. Photo / Dean Purcell

I see Glyn Evans before I meet him. His head is bobbing slightly in the single window of his Khyber Pass Rd workshop as he methodically hand-sands a thin piece of swamp kauri.

It's destined to become what I learn is called a rosette, the ornamented circle of material around a guitar's sound hole. The customer, an American who has settled here, wants "a bit of Kiwi" in the guitar that immigrated with her.

A native of Swansea in Wales, Evans is a luthier, which is a noble old word for someone who makes and repairs guitars. On a chilly mid-week morning, when the door is closed to customers so he can get some work done, he welcomes me into the warm, roughly carpeted space that he shares with Sammy, his big, black and very placid dog.

Stringed instruments are everywhere. A couple of pot-belly mandolins and a balalaika on high shelves await his attention, but they're his and he's too busy looking after other people's instruments to have time to work on his own.

Evans' sanding is revealing a crack in the kauri, which he repairs even as he exposes it, by adding superglue mixed with the fine sand-dust.

"Superglue is useful stuff, all right," he says, which makes me wonder what luthiers did before it was invented. Evans smiles and opens a jar of what looks like nothing so much as raw sugar, though a bit shinier and more golden.

Made from the hooves and connective tissue of various creatures, this is the stuff that gave rise to the expression about sending a broken down horse "to the glue factory". It's truly ancient technology: records of animal glue go back 4000 years. And Evans says luthiers love the stuff because it sounds so good.

"It's more resonant because it goes brittle-hard," he says. "It's ridiculously strong and you can manipulate it - a bit of heat reverses it so I can warm it up and it will release."

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it smells nice too (Sammy loves the smell). And older readers would remember the taste from when they licked postage stamps: "A little bit of warmth, a little bit of moisture and it goes soft."

It occurs to me that, with the exception of an electric polishing machine, most of the technology in the room would seem familiar to Evans' renaissance predecessors. Shellac, made from a resin secreted by bugs in India and Thailand, is his finish of choice as it was for them. People call it French polish, he explains, but actually French polishing is the act of applying it.

"A lot of modern guitars are sprayed with polyurethane, which is what you paint cars with. It's really hard. It doesn't fade with UV light, but it doesn't sound very good either. You're stifling the vibrations with a thick coating of goo, whereas something thin and hard will enhance the sound."

A Baroque-era luthier would recognise most things in the workshop, Evans says, except the plastic handles on the chisels.

"He could start work tomorrow - and I wouldn't have to pay him much either."

A lifelong passion for tinkering - "Meccano is a wonderful thing," he says - was what got Evans into the craft. "I was always playing about with things when I was a kid and then I started to play a guitar and it seemed like a good idea to stick the things together."

Needless to say, he plays too, quite well, I imagine. When I ask him if he's any good, he hesitates before saying he can "get around a guitar" - the kind of modest comment that only good players make.

"I play in a covers band," he says, "but most luthiers are failed musicians."

Before I go, he shows me a 19th-century instrument that he's in the middle of restoring. He describes it as "fairly well rogered", which is something of an understatement. But a striking feature is a deep crater above the sound hole, made by the propped thumbnail of a finger-picking player.

"That will stay," he says. "Damage is fine as long as there's a story attached. You have to show respect for the instrument.

"The guitars I like are the ones with stories, the ones that granddad used to play and they have been in the cupboard for 50 years. Or the Les Paul that arrived in New Zealand having been sold to fund a Russian bride. They're the ones that have a connection."

- NZ Herald

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