William Kelday Guitars. | 2010 | Luthier Interview
TT: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Bill. Maybe you could share with us how you started as a luthier and what took you down to London for the course?
BK: Hi Terence. In the late ’70s I was playing in a folk group and seemed to be the only person willing to adjust and repair our instruments. From that I developed an interest in the construction of all the instruments we played and continued to repair on an amateur basis for several years.
In the ’80s I started making electric instruments and having sold a couple decided to pursue a career in making acoustic instruments. I managed to buy the complete contents of the workshop of a luthier giving up the business. I discovered the course in guitar making at the London College of Furniture, got accepted and moved to London in 1986. I constructed 12 instruments in 2 years in London and sold most of them. This convinced me that there was a future for me in instrument making. My training in classical guitar construction gave me insight into the tonal requirements of a good instrument. When I started making steel string I endeavoured to capture the sweetness of the classical guitar and have specialised in finger-style guitar most of my career.
TT: It seems like a lot of folks like David Anthony Reid and Jack Spira have come through that course- do you think it helped you develop as a luthier?
BK: Yes, It was a great course in those days, a very creative atmosphere! So many good makers came through the LCF as it was then, I believe the course has become more theory based now which I think is a mistake. Instrument making is about using your hands with intelligence!
David started as a student of mine in Glasgow, where I have been teaching part time for over 20 years now at Anniesland College. It is really worthwhile for any aspiring maker to take advantage of every opportunity in education, especially if practically based with experienced tutors.
TT: So there is really no substitute for doing it yourself…. with an expert by your side?
BK: It really cuts down on learning time to use the experience of others, things that take years to discover on your own are compressed into a short time span when shared and discussed with experienced makers! Whenever I find new ways of working I share it with my students, often they come up with alternative solutions to a problem because they are coming at it from a fresh perspective, no one has all the answers.
Instrument making is an all consuming passion for me. For me there are four main elements to the instrument, in order of importance, they are:
I have seen a lot of beautifully made instruments that sound average, average isn’t good enough any more. There are wonderful players out there who look for that little bit extra in the sound and playability and of course it has to have structural integrity.
TT: I see, how about your own experiences out of the class room?
BK: I’ve always made Classical Guitars, but around the early ’90s I started to make Steel Strings, really from doing a lot of restoration work on pre-war Martins and other high quality instruments. I liked the sound of most of them, but there was always a weakness in the tonality that I wanted to redress. My first two were promising and as I made more I refined the process until I achieved what I considered a good sound. The OOO that I made for Tony McManus was the first Guitar that I was wholly pleased with.
From OOOs I made OM Style Guitars that had a different dimension to the sound, then Baritone and Terz models, the Baritone has everything I like soundwise but with a more challenging stretch; the Terz I just love, sweet, loud, singing and easy to play.
I’ve always used old wood, made instruments entirely by hand and tried many timbers for the back and sides. My favourites are Brazilian Rosewood, cocobolo and Indian Rosewood. Brazilian is always a bit special, just that extra edge to the sound!
Birds Eye Maple and Yew have worked well for me too, a bit more Harpsicordal in nature, sweeter, softer. Much of the decision making in Timber choice depends on what the customer is looking for tonally and visually, some players want aggression and lots of definition, others a more vintage sweetness.
Exhibiting at Healdsburg was a great experience for me, the world’s top makers in one place and the chance to sample some beautiful work! Peter Finger kindly agreed to play my instruments in the auditorium and did them more than justice. I will return to the US at the next opportunity!
TT: Interesting you should say that Yew has a sweeter tone- I have always felt that way about the English Yew guitars I’ve played too. But if I remember correctly you have to careful with the the fumes right?
BK: There is an issue with Yew being a poisonous wood, but that applies to almost all of the exotic timbers used in Guitar making, especially the rosewoods and Brazilian Cedar used in Clasical Guitar Necks. This is, of course only a concern for the maker, applying heat to bend the sides or scraping and sanding to size. I like to scrape and plane as much as possible rather than sand,this cuts down on dust and leaves a better finish.
I’ve been an asthmatic for about 15 years now, due, the doctors say, to inhalation of dust and fumes. So obviously it is important to maintain a clean shop and keep dust to a minimum. Every job has its hazards and carcinogens are a major one for Luthiers, just being aware of the health implications and addressing them, especially when starting out, is a major step to maintaining good health.
TT: Not to mention the dangers of certain finishes- speaking of finishes, which do you prefer?
BK: Ah! Finishing, really it’s the part of the process that drives us all mad! The finish must be durable enough to withstand use, flexible enough to let the instrument breathe, not too thick and it must look good. For the one-man operation this is difficult as most of us don’t have the super duper facilities of a factory, so it takes a lot longer to achieve a perfect result.
My favourite finish is French Polish, I use this process on my Classical Guitars or if the customer specifies it. I used Acid Catalyst Lacquer for many years on my Steel Strings, a great finish but not good health wise. I’ve also used Cellulose Lacquer of various types but again there are serious health issues, I still use these finishes if requested but over the last few years I’ve been using Water Based Lacquers, they are reasonably easy to apply especially with HVLP, wear well and look good. The health implications are not as severe and environmentally they are much better than Cellulose.
TT: Given the relative fragility of the thin wood in guitars and finishes, what tips would you have for maintaining and keep guitars in optimal shape?
BK: Over the 20 odd years that I have been making and repairing instruments, most of the serious faults and damage I have had to repair have been caused by keeping the Guitar in an environment that is too dry, this is a major issue concerning the care of an instrument. Maintaining a safe level of Relative Humidity is essential, I would urge all owners of fine instruments to buy a Hygrometer, a reasonable digital one can be bought for about 20 dollars (15 UK Pounds).If the instrument is kept in an environment of about 50% RH it will be fine! My safe limits are about 30% to 80% provided there is a period of acclimatisation, this is a little conservative but I like to play safe!
Obviously Guitars travel, but a little care goes a long way to keeping the Guitar in good shape. Opening the case a little (just open the lid about an inch) a few hours before the gig, allows the instrument to adapt slowly to the new environment. Keep the Guitar in its case as much as possible, no matter how good it looks :). Do NOT keep it in the back of a car on a hot day, it will cook in its case!
I have customers who travel the world from Nova Scotia to the Bahamas in one week, its very hard on the Guitar, but they have survived ok. Always bear in mind that a new instrument is more prone to movement in the structure as it has not been around long enough to have settled, therefore a little care early in its life will pay off later. If you treat your Guitar like the friend that it is, like something that you love, then all should be well!
TT: How about cases? Many folks look at Caltons are the definite protection for guitars…
BK: Calton are great cases and I use them when the customer wants them, most of the time I use Hiscox cases, they are robust and protect the instrument very well. Ok they look second hand pretty quickly if used a lot, but really if you want the case to protect the instrument they are hard to beat. I’ve had Hiscox cases dropped from the aeroplane, punctured by sharp objects and destroyed by baggage handlers and still the instrument is unharmed. This is because the case is light so when it falls it absorbs the impact leaving the instrument undamaged. Other hard cases which are heavy transmit the impact to the instrument often with consequent damage! If I were using a case only overland I would go for the Calton, if flying Hiscox would be my choice! The Hiscox case is half the cost of a Calton and has to be worth considering if you fly a lot. Pegasus Cases are good too, I’ve dealt with all these manufacturers and they all provide good service. I first met Keith Calton in the mid eighties and really like his product so it’s hard for me to say this is better than that, but my experience with customers who fly everywhere really favours Hiscox!
TT: I see. Have you been to Healdsburg guitar festival? I was wondering how that experience was for you?
BK: Healdsburg was very good for me. I took five Guitars over and sold them all, had a great time, met some wonderful people and had Peter Finger play my Guitars. What more could I ask!!
I want to come over again with some new instruments and to hear the great playing that happens there!
Ed from Fine Acoustics was a big help in promoting my instruments, as was Paul at Dream Guitars. I had been selling to the US for some years but only to individual customers, to have two prestige shops stocking my Guitars was good for me! I will be back!
TT: So you’ve been exposed to many international luthiers work- I was wondering if you have noticed any consistent differences between the european and american instruments?
BK: I would say that the biggest difference between UK and US makers is that most of us in the UK are small one man operations, working independently with limited machinery and a lot of hand work. The use of CNC routers, etc., is the preserve of only the larger volume makers.
In the US the culture appears to be more machine based, with a large support of technology and knowledge, makers in the US are very willing to share their methods and this creates a “family” atmosphere amongst makers. Of course this is a generalisation and there are makers who work in a similar manner in both countries!
TT: And are there any differences that you notice between the European and American customer?
BK: I don’t really notice any major differences between international customers. As each instrument is a one off I have a lot of contact with the customer and establish a relationship quite quickly. Each player that I work with comes across as an individual with their own requirements and desires. One of the things that strikes me about US customers in particular is their open and friendly attitude. Attending Healdsburg gave me an insight into the phenomenal standard of musicianship in the US.
TT: Thanks a lot for taking the time to speak to us, Bill. Maybe before we go I could ask you if you had any words of advice for folks looking at ordering handmade instruments?
BK: The advantage in buying a handmade instrument is that everything that the maker does is in pursuit of a better instrument. I don’t know a single maker who is more concerned with the bottom line costs than with the quality of what he or she produces!
When you order an instrument you are buying a part of the person who made it, the Luthier wants you to love what he or she does and will usually go much further to ensure customer satisfaction than a Factory. Bear in mind that for most of us the volume of instruments produced is very small, in my case about 12 a year – each a “one off,” for the bigger operations probably a few hundred, (although my knowledge is limited to only those makers that I personally know).
There is also, in most cases, the option of customising the instrument. In my own workshop I make only to order and discuss every detail with the customer, fix a price then email the full spec to the client with an approximated completion date. Anyone considering buying from a Luthier should remember that one person is building their Guitar, running the business and living their life, so sometimes it’s hard to specify an exact completion time. For me it is always of prime importance to keep the client informed on progress, even just a few lines or photos on email keeps everyone in touch.
©2009 Terence Tan.
Pictures & MP3s courtesy of Bill Kelday © individuals 2010
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