PRODUCING GUITARS FROM RECYCLED NATIVE TIMBER
A SHEDDIE’S LOVE OF MUSIC AND WOOD FUSE IN THE CREATION OF BESPOKE GUITARS FROM RECYCLED TIMBER
For Dave Pauling, making guitars is the natural fusion of two passions — music and wood. Dave, who has been playing the guitar since he was 13, also knew the pleasure of pottering in sheds from a young age. His father is a sheddie from way back, who, among other things, still spends many hours restoring vintage vehicles.
“I grew up helping him with his Model Ts, making bows and arrows, or working on a model railway we had in the loft,” Dave says.
While Dave himself has spent a fair few hours restoring a 1965 Mustang imported from San Francisco, he prefers working with wood. There’s something about the malleability and smell of wood, as well as its provenance, he says. Wood, especially the recycled timber he uses to construct his guitars, has had a previous life: “Every guitar [that] I make comes with a prehistory.”
Inspiration from a catalogue
Dave built his first guitar in a woodwork class as a 15-year-old schoolboy, but it wasn’t until another 15 years had passed that the Blenheim-based school principal started making musical instruments in earnest. “My inspiration came from a Stewart MacDonald parts catalogue that was in a pile of guitar magazines a friend gave me in 2009,” he says. “It looked doable so I thought I’d give it a go.”
He started with acoustic guitars and flat-top Telecaster-style instruments before moving into carved-top electric guitars, and now he makes semi-hollow carved-top guitars and basses.
Dave has built more than 25 guitars over the past 10 years, mostly for friends and family, under his brandname ‘Solace’. Each one is given a name and goes to its owner with a small book telling the story of its construction. The guitars are given evocative names like the syrupy ‘Brown Sugar’, or ‘Taonga’ with its pounamu-effect finish. “I also have my own shape called the ‘Marlbarian’, acknowledging the fact that the body is made entirely from Marlborough timber,” he says.
Time to go home
After 25 years in Auckland, Dave was drawn home to Marlborough eight years ago. Part of the lure was a much-loved beach house in Queen Charlotte Sound’s Sunshine Bay, which had been in the family since the 1930s. He wanted his own three children and wife Danielle to enjoy it as much as he had as a child. A year or two after the family’s arrival in Blenheim, Dave was appointed principal of a Marlborough primary school, which now has a strong music academy.
Dave, who never counts his hours, says making guitars involves a lot of thought as well as trial and error. “There’s a lot of hand-sanding and feeling with your hands to get it right,” he explains. It’s a relaxing and tactile process, much like playing the finished products.
Dave adapted an existing shack behind the house into a two-room workshop that he describes as a “one-man-andtwo-boy” shed, as he shares the space with his sons Olly, 11, and Toby, 9. “I put a proper floor in and insulated it as it was freezing in winter,” he says.
The back room houses heavier duty machinery as well as jigs for different shaped guitars. Dave has installed a vacuum system to keep the air clean although he says that he has “probably inhaled a four-by-two beam over my life”.
The front workshop is a clean space for finer work, with shelves containing labelled project boxes for each guitar. The pin-prick holes in the wall and ceiling are not borer, he explains, indicating a dartboard that is the focus of some serious if not always accurate father–son tournaments between projects.
Locally grown, recycled timber
Behind Dave’s shed is a stack of old timber waiting to be repurposed as fine musical instruments. He mainly uses locally grown recycled woods like rimu, matai, and rewarewa. “Most of it has come out of buildings,” he says. “Timber that has sat inside as beam or door is very dry and stable.”
The rimu back of a walnut-topped guitar on his workbench spent the first 100 years of its milled life as a door in the family’s villa, which Dave is slowly renovating: “The door was in the house for a hundred years so the wood must be 300 or 400 years old.”
When the front window of the family bach was replaced with a sliding door, Dave used the old rimu to make three guitars for family members, including his teenage daughter, Caitlin. “You can still see the latch mark on one,” he says.
Marlborough Sounds rimu is a bit darker than other varieties. “It’s lovely alongside matai and walnut,” says Dave. Walnut, while beautiful, tends to be a little heavy for guitar construction, but Tasmanian blackwood is a highly regarded timber for making both electric and acoustic guitars from, and Dave was lucky enough to get a supply from an old tree near the old Koromiko cheese factory.
He has also made two guitars from the struts from an old water tower in
It’s a relaxing and tactile process, much like playing the finished products
the area. “It was heavy, sappy stuff but made for a beautiful-sounding guitar,” he says. Mahogany makes for attractive decorative strips and Dave is still slicing his way through a neighbour’s discarded bedside table.
He uses North American spruce for the guitar tops: “You really wouldn’t want to go with anything else. Because it grows slowly in freezing temperatures, it’s a very tight-grained wood but light. The closest thing we have to it in New Zealand is cedar but the grain pattern is too far apart, making it weak.”
Dave recommends that novices start out building Telecaster-style instruments with their solid bodies and bolt-on necks. “Making acoustic and electric guitars are very different processes,” he says. “Electric ones are relatively quick to make, while building an acoustic guitar is more akin to boatbuilding with all the braces and steaming to bend the sides. They can take up to six months to make. I could fill a small novel describing how to make one of those.”
“Not making mistakes is all about having the right tools,” he says. Some of the best are the simplest: “One of my favourite tools is a little oval scraper [that] I use to finish off the edges.” Sharpened with a burr, it efficiently shaves off any of the stain or sealer coat that has leached into the sides. But his router gets the most use: “As well as speeding up the carving process, you can do a lot with a good router.”
The Italian connection
Dave had been building guitars for eight years when he discovered that crafting musical instruments was in his DNA. He learned from his aunt that his forebear was Louis Panormo, a guitarmaker in the Spanish style, who had a shop in London’s Soho before following his children to New Zealand in the late 19th century. “His father was quite a famous Italian violin-maker, who had immigrated to England from Sicily,” says Dave.
Dave is a purist when it comes to music. “I love the sound of tubes and valves and anything analogue,” he says. He
“It’s good to have the shed gene passed on”
also makes stomp boxes, basses, and retrospective amps, which he fits out with seven-valve electronics and “old-school wiring”. His ‘Tube-O-Licious’ has the wiring of a 1964 Fender Princeton reverb built into a 1959-style Fender Deluxe box that he built from scratch, complete with dovetail joints, out of South Island pine.
Since returning to Blenheim, Dave has enjoyed the camaraderie of provincial life. His guitars have input from all over the community, from the friends and local businesses who give him wood to the spray painter who does the glossing, and the badge-maker who made his ‘Solace’ logo stamp. Inlaid paua on his guitars was caught by a friend, and a guitar pick was crafted by a local bone carver, Peter Mitchell, who also made one for Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
Chips off the block
Dave’s sons Olly and Toby spend as much time as they can in the workshop when school is out. “It’s good to have the shed gene passed on,” says Dave. “They build some cool stuff. They’re pushing for a 3D printer, and I may well oblige one day.” Both list the scroll saw as their favourite machine, closely followed by Dremel tools. They are busy modifying cricket bats and building models, while their latest project has been constructing a miniature tree house complete with panelled door and furniture.
Olly plays an electric SG guitar made for him by his father, while Toby, whose guitar is still under construction, plays the ukulele.
Dave sends his finished-but unadorned electric guitars away to get glossed. “It’s a two-pot polyurethane, the same as they use for cars,” he says. For acoustic guitars he uses a very thin layer of lacquer or French polish. “If you apply a heavy finish it affects the wood’s ability to resonate and changes the tone,” he says. “The pores in wood open and change the more you play the guitar over time, and you don’t want to stifle that by coating it with a heavy lacquer.”
Fitting them out
Once the guitar comes back from glossing, Dave screws the neck on and puts the instrument together. “There’s a fair bit of work fitting them out. It takes a good half-day,” says Dave, who purchases good-quality metal hardware such as the frets and keys from the UK or US, and mostly uses gold-coloured trimmings.
For further info, check out Dave’s website: solaceinstruments.co.nz.
“It was heavy, sappy stuff but made for a beautiful-sounding guitar”
Left: Routing the channel for the binding with a finishing router and a wheel attachment
Inspecting a piece of book-matched Marlborough rimu for a carved-top electric guitar
Dave’s ‘other’ work bench
A piece of locally grown Tasmanian blackwood ready to become a carved top
Left: Scraping the binding to take off stain before final glossingBelow: Louis Panormo’s guitar logo above the Solace Instruments logo
The handmade Tube-O-Licious all-valve guitar amp
Bottom right: A line-up of some of Olly and Toby’s finished projects below a range of electric-guitar shapes, some Dave’s own and some well-known brands
Right: Olly plays his ‘SG’ made from recycled rimu
Bottom left: Toby and Olly work on a model tree house project for school
Above: Setting up the tailpiece and bridge on a four-string semi-hollow bassBelow: Playing a black and gold LP (“I call it the ‘Les Pauling’”)–style guitar made for a family member from a beam salvaged from his great-grandfather’s old drapery in Blenheim