In late summer this year I took a trip up to the charming town of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire to visit two well known people in the ukulele world - Rob Collins, Luthier at Tinguitar and his partner Mary Agnes Krell, director of the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival. We had a terrific day and I was keen to see Rob's new workshop in the town. (Rob had previously been building from home but had made the step to take on new premises to help him in building his much sought after instruments.)
We had a good chat and Rob explained his roots in instrument building that went back to 2004 when he was 'tinkering with musical instrument projects, building electric guitars from off the peg components (necks and bodies) and when I got a bit more ambitious making my own necks and fingerboards.'
The workshop has various bits and pieces hanging around that hark back to his roots. His first ukulele build was actually a solid body. 'It was going to be an electric, but by the time I had it strung up and playable, I had already started on a nicer one, so it never got electrified'.
|Rob in the workshop|
Rob explained that it ended up being a garden ornament which he still has! (See below)
|That first ukulele! (Picture Rob Collins)|
Then, following an article on MIMF.Com by Deb Suran, he turned his hand to making biscuit tin and cigar box instruments, at first promoted through the Alternative Technology Centre in Hebden Bridge, and then on his own website. For some time, this was what Rob specialised in.
Today, the workshop is clearly geared up for the building of solid wooden instruments, with a large rack of tone woods facing you on the right as you go in sourced from all over the place. Let me tell you - the smell of the workshop is just sublime! Rob explains that today, whilst he also makes instruments such as stick dulcimers, travel mandolins and short scale guitars, his instrument builds are about 95% uke related though.
Yet that 'Tinguitar' name does hark back to where he started, and in 2006 when searching for a website domain name with his workmate Trystan Davies, they found the Tinguitar name and it fitted perfectly. From 2006, Rob continued on the tin instrument path as a sideline to his day job. 'I worked for 3 days a week as a Process Engineer in the chemicals industry and 2 days making a range of weird and wonderful stringed instruments, including mandolins made from Bertie Bassett tins to cigar box lap steel guitars'.
'The money I made from instrument sales I spent on new machines, new tools, getting more ambitious as time progressed. At the time I was focussing more and more on ukulele building until by 2009 I had amassed everything I needed to build traditional ukes in solid woods.'
A trip to the workshop also comes with another treat as you get to take a look at some of his ongoing build projects waiting to be finished. I got to take a look at a beautiful concert model in solid walnut that I wanted to take away myself - sadly, it was a commission of course and has since gone to its rightful owner.
|That delicious walnut concert (picture - Rob Collins)|
Hand making ukuleles of this quality is not a quick business of course, though Rob advises that over 2014 he will be averaging one uke per week, but tells me, 'I am hoping this will increase next year as I have just invested in a new thickness sanding machine that will make the task of preparing woods for uke bodies quicker and easier'.
And with all that gorgeous wood going through his hands he surely must have favourite builds?
'I have to be careful not to get too attached to the ukes I build. They all have to go to their rightful owners in the end.
'I am particularly fond of the tarpopatch uke I made for Phil Doleman though. It's a very humble looking instrument in plain Khaya wood, and it's now one of his main stage instruments - it sounds great mic'd up through a big PA! Phil has been a great supporter of my work for some time and I am very grateful.'
|New build taking shape|
One topic that will spring to mind to anyone interested in the bespoke uke building world is the sustainability of the raw materials. I asked Rob about this and found his comments refreshing.
'I find it is best to have lots of different sources of supply. Mahogany, Sapele and poplar come from local timber yards. Typically I buy offcuts and short pieces which are left over from door and window manufacture.
British-grown timbers I generally get from Paul Goulden at Goulden Hardwoods in Hampsire. I’ve been buying from him for nearly a decade now. I also buy wood from the specialist instrument woods supplier, Madinter in Spain – they are a good source for ebony fretboards. (I buy violin fingerboard blanks, then slice them on the bandsaw to make three uke fretboards from one blank).
I am committed to working with non-traditional woods for ukuleles. When the remaining stocks of Brazilian mahogany are used-up, there is no more to replace it, so it makes no sense to rely on the ever-dwindling supplies of traditional timbers. Koa is unique to the tiny islands of Hawaii – there will never be enough to go around all the instument makers in the world, so the price is astronomical and the “grey market” that exists makes importing small quantities a very risky business. I have a small stock of soprano and concert-sized sets in plain non-figured koa. I do not plan on purchasing any more in the future.
I have found great-sounding timbers growing on our doorstep – Cherry, London plane, walnut. All man-made and cultivated, so there is no question of depleting natural forests. All sound different and they all have distinctive looks.
I still occasionally find useful pieces in skips and salvage. In fact if you’ve had a meranti soprano uke from me in the past two years, the chances are the headstock veneer is an offcut from the refurbished staircase at the Old Gate pub in Hebden Bridge.'
|Rob with a range of workshop machines.|
I'd strongly recommend you taking a look at his ukes if you want something unique. Rob makes off the peg soprano ukes that start at under £200 (so if you are in the market for any sort of serious uke, no real reason not to consider one at that price). But of course the fun comes in working with Rob in specifying your ideal mix of design and woods. Even then though I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the costs involved. And if you do decide to go down the Tinguitar route, whilst Rob will do mail order, I would argue that you are missing a real treat if you don't head up and make an appointment with him. His knowledge is impeccable and he can advise and let you have a close up look and feel of the woods he has available.
In fact, I did just that and am now on the waiting list for completion of a solid body electro tenor. It's going to be made with a Brazilian Mahogany body and an Indian Rosewood drop top finished by french polishing. In fact Rob has just sent me some very early pictures (below) of the basic blanks being cut out and I hope to have some more to let you see as it develops to completion.
|Rosewood top pieces (picture Rob Collins)|
|Blanks being cut for mahogany back (picture - Rob Collins)|
If you want to see some more examples of his work, do take a visit to the website at http://tinguitar.com or his Facebook page where he regularly posts pictures of completed builds at https://www.facebook.com/tinguitar.bespoke.luthiery. They are well worth drooling over. And who wouldn't want a uke that was totally personal to them?
Thanks for your time Rob!