Western Morning News
Instrument maker has unusual string to his bow
MEET the UK’s only dedicated maker of a rare ancient Swedish harp fiddle – who handcrafts each one from nearly 100 intricate wooden pieces.
Ian McMaster, 67, cannot even play the unusual-looking nyckelharpa, but learned to make them 13 years ago after his partner heard one at a music festival.
Each one is made in a workshop at the bottom of his back garden in the Westcountry using 80 tiny hand-cut wooden pieces, fitted together in a precise millimetre-by-millimetre way to make the perfect sound.
A single instrument takes at least 280 hours and seven or eight months to make, and he sells them for up to £2,500 – despite his time being worth much more.
The grandfather is believed to be the UK’s only dedicated maker of the traditional folk string instrument. It sounds similar to the violin and has four main strings played using a bow, as well as keys which can be pressed to change pitch.
Among the most intricate instruments to create, the nyckelharpa is thought to date back to 1350.
Ian, a retired youth worker and Waitrose shelf-stacker from Wellington, Somerset, said: “A lot of affection goes into making these. I don’t do it for the money.
“Every time I make them, I think ‘that’s a beautiful one’ – and they always are. The only reason I sell them is because I can’t have 23 hanging on the wall, and I want to make another one, so I have to sell them on.”
Ian’s partner, Sue Rhys, a legal secretary, fell in love with the nyckelharpa when they were helping on a friend’s stall at an instrument maker’s festival in St Chartier, France, in 2007.
He had recently made himself a hurdy-gurdy, and a guitar years before, so, undaunted, he decided to make her one when he saw how expensive they were to buy.
Sue’s nyckelharpa – and the second one he made for a friend – were made from pre-cut pieces sold by a Swedish nyckelharpa maker, Soren Ahker. After he got the knack of it, he started making them from scratch to sell, and has made 23 to date.
He said: “Sue had a go on one and loved it. I was very taken, too. They are very expensive so I decided to make her one. She loved it. I got a big hug. I am most proud of the one that Sue has now, number seven. It’s a really good one because it has this beautiful loud, strong voice. She calls it the Uberharpa. She was sad to let the first one go, but this one is so much better.
“If you mass produced them, you’d get an accurate machine, but you’d lose the heart of the instrument.”