There is a song in the wood and we seek to unlock that song and give it form so that each player in their quest for the ‘perfect’ sound can deepen their musical journey. Richard HowellRichard Howell
[My thanks to luthier David Chin for introducing me to Richard Howell and for his helpful suggestions in the writing of this post.]
Richard Howell is an Australian luthier who has been making classical guitars since the 1970s. I met Richard at his home in Mornington, Victoria, where he makes his guitars, one at a time, using traditional hand tools.
Richard’s father was a musical director in London and Richard grew up listening to orchestral music and meeting musicians of the highest standard. His guitars are known particularly for their great note separation and clarity, being even/balanced, and having a full, rich sound, with adequate volume.
Richard’s quite mad, in the nicest way. With mirthful effervescence, he opened a book about guitars made by Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-1892).
“Now, remember that this guitar was made in the 1800s. It’s astonishing! They didn’t have lights, didn’t have electricity, and you won’t find an arrowhead, a dot or dash out of place. Sitting there working under candlelight. I mean, really. Come on!”
Richard showed us a guitar he is making which will be a variation of a Torres design. “See the little diamonds that run up there (in the headstock of the guitar)? It’s not going to be quite as ornate as the one in the book, but the client has asked for a variation of that design.”
These days Richard makes around 10 guitars a year, although there was a time when he made as many as 18.
“They start at $12,500, and work their way up from there. This one here (above) is $18,000. That’s the price of the guitar. Later we have to decide how it’s going to get there.”
Richard’s store of wood takes up one side of his workshop.
“I got this wood from another maker who died, and he got it in 1950. When I die somebody else will get it, and it will be a hundred years old by then. Over the years I’ve bought a lot myself, which isn’t that old. A client might request a guitar made with older wood, especially if it’s going to different parts of the globe.”
Richard explained the importance of humidity control, and said there is a danger to wood in freezing temperatures. “The wood wants to shrink because there’s no moisture in the wood. The moisture’s frozen. The humidity is zero. When it’s confined in a guitar, it can’t shrink. (In a guitar) there’s no where for it to go at the top and the back. So it finds the weakest grain line and splits. It can’t do anything else.
“If I’m selling this guitar to London, over there it’s winter, and we’re summer over here. Therefore the older the wood the more likely it is to withstand that change because it’s dry and has very little moisture. If the wood’s fresh, it will shrink and crack. It can still shrink and crack even if it’s 50 years old, but it’s less likely to occur.”
Richard spoke about the rosette which is the patterned ring around the sound hole of a guitar.
“I make the mosiac. So each line is analysed and made into a block like this, which is sliced. Then they’re placed all the way round. It’s time-consuming madness! That’s why I’m insane!
“The rosette is your signature. I often change it. This part here is a take on an Ignatio Fleta guitar. Basically it’s that little diamond in the middle (in between his fingers). It’s to represent some of my favourite makers of the past.
“This outer thing here is very common on another Spanish maker, and that is on a Hernandez y Aguado. You don’t always see dashes on an Aguado, but they turn up from time to time. Whereas with a Torres, they have a herringbone running round and round, as this one (below) does. That’s the same rosette but with a different inner and outer. So there are variations, but this (below) is what I call my Anniversary model. It was for 40 years. The model’s been around for a while and some people still ask for it.”
“For example, this is my old rosette. When I got this magazine, I knew it was my guitar, because it’s my rosette. It can’t be anyone else’s. Well it could be, but it isn’t. It’s one of mine.
Richard has favourite woods.
“I’ve always liked Cedar. It’s American. Western Red Cedar. I like Indian Rosewood. There’s something about the combination of Cedar and Indian Rosewood which I really like.”
Many woods are incorporated into one guitar.
“The necks are Calantas from the Philippines. Fretboards are Ebony from either Africa, India or Sri Lanka. Spruce – I only use European spruce – anywhere from the Alpine region in Europe: Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy. I’m very particular about this. I’ve been buying spruce off the same supplier, I know him, he knows what I want. So basically, the wood has to come from that sort of altitude, where it’s grown slowly. The tree needs to be in the region of 350-450 years old. No older, no younger. So you’ve got a hundred year variation there. After 450 years it starts to get a bit stringy and a bit tough, good for other instruments, such as pianos, but not much good for guitars. It becomes too dense, it becomes good for structures, housing and masts on ships, things like that!”
“There’s a lot in just the selection of timber. It has to be cut at the right time of the year: in winter, so that the tree’s dormant. So, if it’s alpine timber, three-quarters of the way through winter, it’s frozen. Absolutely frozen. So the moisture content of the tree is extremely low. There’s nothing for it to drink. For all intents and purposes, it’s dead. It’s not, of course, it’s alive! At least it is until you cut it down. So when the tree is felled, the tree has a very low moisture and sap content. Therefore the timber becomes usable a lot more quickly than it otherwise would.
“If the tree was living in my back yard and I cut it down, I wouldn’t be able to use it for donkey’s years, because of the altitude, and when it’s cut and all the rest of it.”
“Still, even with all that, it takes a couple of decades to cure properly. I mean, this hasn’t (taps wood). The wood’s probably 40 years old, it won’t be cured properly until it’s 70 years old. If I purchase wood that’s ready to go, it costs a lot of money. So I bought this years ago. It was maybe 5 or ten years old then, which is much more viable financially. It could have been used then, but you’re better off waiting. Depending on when the tree was cut it takes in the region of 70 years for the resins to leave the timber properly. That’s if it’s cut at the right time of the year. So, as good as that is, it won’t be as good as it’s going to be when it’s seventy years old. I’ll be long gone by then so I wont even know about it! Which is a shame, it would be good to see it at its prime!
“Cedar and Spruce are different sounding and they do different things. But they’re both fantastic, beautiful sounding woods.”
Richard sometimes gets to see guitars which have aged, when they come back for repairs.
“Sometimes I’m critical when I see old work. It depends how old it is. If it’s 30 or 40 years old, I might look at it (with a critical eye). But you never know if you would have made a better guitar or not. The wood would be better now, and you can only assume what you might or might not have done differently.”
Until he has pursued the art no one can imagine the fascination of violin [guitar] making – the thousand pains the player never dreams of, the thousand touches the uninitiated eye never appreciates, the exquisite work of the interior which no eyes, save those of the maker and repairer, ever will be privileged to see. These are the things that make the luthier love the work of his hands, as if it were his own child. Ed Heron-Allen, 1885Ed Heron-Allen, 1885