Time-lapse St Helena: The Guitar Maker
TREVOR MAGELLAN, 85, BRIARS | Sharon Henry
Time-Lapse is a series of short story features on the blog designed to capture segments of time, life and culture through stories told by the people of St Helena.
“It took me about two weeks to make my first guitar.
“I was always interested in music. I played the piano, the guitar, the mandolin and the accordion.
“When I was a boy about 16-17 (1948-49), one of my closest friends Herman Anderson was given a nice Brazilian guitar. I felt a wee bit envious because I liked playing guitar and I didn’t have one.
“In those days it was a time of improvisation, today you can go into the shop and buy a guitar. But at the time we weren’t able to do that, plus I had no money. So, I wanted a guitar too and I said to myself, surely there must be a way I can get one? I thought okay, let’s see if I can make one. I’ve always liked a challenge and also had a flair for carpentry.”
You Need A Plan To Be A Guitar Maker
“So, first of all I knew I didn’t want it to be too heavy, where would I get the wood? Well, those days tea came loose in 3-ply, three foot square cases and the shops used to sell the empty cases off quite cheaply.
“So I planned it all out. If I bought a case, 3-ply would be a wee bit thick, if I experimented and sheared off one ply, 2-ply would be thinner and lighter. I steamed it off, that turned out alright then cut out the top and bottom of the body.
“I had a good look at Herman’s guitar and could see through the hole, posts going across inside. Those were sound posts which help to give a little more resonance.
“Then I wondered to myself, how to make the sides to keep the thing in place? I couldn’t bend the wood into position.
“So when I made the top and bottom of the guitar I also made little blocks of soft wood and glued them all the way around the inside edge.”
“All I had to do now was put the sides against these little blocks. I made wedges so when I put the sides on I pressed it in place and drove the wedges in. When all that was done, I painted on glue and left it for a while.
“The neck was made from a block of wood cut to shape with a saw which I topped with planed down iroko, a hard wood. I made the string pegs from iroko as well.
“Next I wanted something hard for the strings to run over from the pegs at the top of the guitar. So improvising again, I used an old toothbrush, filed it down and grooved in little slots for the strings.
“Yes man, this was proper recycling!”
Throwing The Spirits For A Better Sound
“For the fret wire I beat a round copper wire flat, made it slightly sharp on the bottom and banged them into the slots on the neck, levelled it off, and I had my fret.
“Now for the shaft. Improvising again, I drilled holes and got some old pearl buttons!
“To anchor the strings, my old mate, Bert Nicholls gave me some ebony wood he used to use for inlay work. Strings you could buy down Andy Corker’s shop so there wasn’t no problem getting strings.
“Someone told me, to gain a little bit more resonance with the sound throw some spirits inside, rinse it around and let it dry. I used methylated spirits, it dried quickly into the wood.
“Then I sanded it down and put a clear varnish on the face which brought up the glow in the ply, put slightly darker varnish on the back and sides.
“And there it was, I got my guitar!
“The sound was pretty good. I wouldn’t say it was comparable with the proper guitars but I’ll tell you people were prepared to pay for them. Word got around and people in the outlying places came with their orders. How many do I reckon I made? Well, let’s be modest, around about half a dozen or more.
“I can’t play guitar nowadays; my fingers are too stiff to form the chords but can I still play piano.”
Unfortunately, Trevor doesn’t have any of the guitars he made or even a photograph. In 1948 he took up employment and moved to Ascension Island and he also stopped making guitars.