PRO­DUC­ING GUI­TARS FROM RE­CY­CLED NA­TIVE TIM­BER

A SHED­DIE’S LOVE OF MU­SIC AND WOOD FUSE IN THE CREATION OF BE­SPOKE GUI­TARS FROM RE­CY­CLED TIM­BER

The Shed - - Front Page - By Sue Al­li­son Pho­to­graphs: Juliet Ni­cholas

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’s shed

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.”

Solid start

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.”

Sim­ple so­lu­tions

“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.

Pure sound

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.

Per­fect har­mony

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. 

Gloss­ing

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

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