Combining original designs with an ethical outlook, woods indigenous to Ireland, and some bog oak that’s thousands of years old, Dr John Catherwood is building guitars, mandolas, bouzoukis, and mandolins from his Northern Ireland workshop.
Tell us a little bit about your background as a luthier of stringed instruments? What made you want to build instruments, and how long have you now been building?
I love guitars, to play and listen to, and I have always loved working with wood – it was a natural progression. I started out doing set-ups and repairs on my friends’ instruments as a teenager, and kept that as a hobby all the time I was working as an academic, but I only took the plunge and built my first instrument in 1999. It was a dulcimer, because I wanted one, and I thought only having three strings and half the frets it would be easier to make…
As a maker, where do you draw your inspiration from?
I like the aesthetics of Celtic art, and the interpretation of it through art nouveau and art deco. I also have an ethical commitment to the environment – I was a university lecturer, teaching and doing research in environmental ethics for many years – and of course I admire the work of great luthiers; Lacote, Panormo, Macaferri, and Loar, as well as modern makers, especially the emerging tradition of simply decorated Celtic/Irish guitars.
How did you come to make your very first guitar?
After restoring and repairing many old guitars and other instruments (which is a great way to learn how they fail, and how to make them better) I wanted to build one for myself. I hesitated for a few years until I discovered Sam Irwin, (now the Lagan Lutherie School) was teaching in Belfast. Sam gave me the encouragement I needed, and he has been a great mentor over the years. It was through him that I met Stephen McClenaghan and Gerald O’Neill who joined with me to form Catherwood Guitars in 2011.
You build guitars, mandolins, bouzoukis, mandolas – what’s your favourite instrument to make?
I like building all of them, and I like building new things, and experimenting. I started with guitars, designing a jumbo, because I didn’t have one myself, (hence the model number CG01) The CG02 is a concert size, the next design was for a bouzouki, and then a mandola (because I liked the Zouk, and wanted to compare it with the shorter scale length and a different bracing pattern) and then the mandolins (because I had a horrible cheap one and had a few ideas about different bracing and canted tops…) then the Parlour CG03, and I am now working on a travel guitar based on a bouzouki body – strangely enough, I haven’t got one of those!
What is your preferred style of guitar?
I like wide necks (our standard size is 44mm nut to 56mm string spread at the saddle, but I like 46 to 59) because I have wide fingers. Mostly I play my own steel string flat-tops, but I have a couple of archtop and Selmer style jazz guitars as well, and I have a small classical (my first ever guitar). Of course one day I will have to build some of those too.
Tell us a little about your body sizes – your parlour and your cutaways aren’t the conventional shape/style you’d expect. What influenced these styles?
I think that instruments should have soft, organic curves, and I am lucky that my partner Lisa is an artist and designer – so she refines my engineering sketches to give them the aesthetic lines that makes them so distinctive. A curved, drop-shoulder cutaway was a natural choice. The large upper bout on my parlours was aimed at increasing the air capacity of the body, to improve middle and bass response without increasing the body length or thickness.
Your guitars are (generally) free from any mother-of-pearl and superfluous aesthetics. I guess you like to let the woods speak for themselves and not ‘dress them up’?
If I could get ethically sourced shell I would use it a little more, but it also helps ensure we have no issues about exporting our guitars to the USA – no Lacey Act problems. And in any case, I love the look of wood – and we have such beautiful timbers to choose from, that it is a shame to stain them or ‘gild the lily.’ But beauty is in the eye – and we have done a (requested) tobacco burst on a cherry guitar in the past. That was against my taste, but it turned out to be surprisingly attractive – the customer was right!
Any plans to build other body shapes?
Of course! Apart from the travel guitar (which we might try to run a Kickstarter campaign for – I would like to try four prototypes with different bridge and bracing and timber choices) there is a plan for a nylon strung guitar with a new bracing pattern, (a sort of cutaway flamenca negra/jazz hybrid) and possibly a harp guitar in the next year.
You use native Irish timbers for your instruments. I’m guessing this is down to an ethical and ecological perspective, as well as the beautiful aesthetics of using such wood?
I felt that luthiers cannot morally justify carrying on using rainforest timber and that there must be sustainable alternatives – so I experimented with locally grown woods. Some didn’t work, some turned out to be superb. Not only stunning to look at, but most importantly they make great sounding instruments, and I am glad to use them. It would have been difficult if I hadn’t found good tonewoods, because of course, in building, musicality is paramount. Which is why I import tops from sustainable sources – nothing compares to cold climate grown spruce and cedar – Ireland is too warm and wet to produce tight-grained softwoods.
Do you have a preference for a particular tonewood, or wood combination, for your instruments?
I enjoy trying new things, and I think each has its own charm – for my own taste it is hard to beat a European spruce top with a yew or walnut body, but I built an ash concert size guitar with a red cedar top that was so rich it was hard to let it go. For the parlour size the oak body was superb, but I also built a cherry one that was very light and clearly voiced with really clean harmonics. I have had great results with sycamore and I am experimenting with elm now.
Do you ever use any woods that aren’t native to Ireland?
I already mentioned the tops, but I have also made a couple of guitars recently as a special commission from the Feckin Irish Whiskey company – using American white oak for the bodies. That wood had spent some years as a barrel, maturing American bourbon and then Irish whiskey. The workshop smelled great for months, every time you cut or sanded it. In keeping with the repurposed theme of the bodies we used part of an old church pew and a bookshelf (both mahogany) for the necks. We thought it would be an interesting marriage. They sing well together. Feckin have agreed to give me barrels to make another 10, so it will be a limited edition of 12 – a case of whiskey!
You use an Oak that’s thousands of years old… tell us a little about this? For example, the wood which featured on the headstock of the parlour model.
Peat bogs often contain ancient trees preserved by the acid environment and semi fossilised. I use a piece of bog oak that has been carbon dated to about 4000 BC as an inlay on the top of all my guitars. It is halfway to being coal, so it is incredibly hard and it blunts tools instantly, but it polishes up beautifully, and I am on the look out for larger pieces that I could use as fretboards. To me it is the most native Irish wood I could imagine, it predates the arrival of human beings on the island – I find that humbling and inspiring.
How do you source such wood?
I trawl the timber yards and talk to tree surgeons all over Ireland. My local sawmills now know that if anything interesting comes in they can call me – so I have recently been offered maple, holly and crab-apple that are all currently drying in my sheds.
You’re one of the first luthiers building exclusively with native Irish woods in this way, so you’re completely leading the way. How did you decide which woods would work together well, tonally?
Historical research, asking around and, mostly, experimentation. I contacted other luthiers who were using non-rainforest wood in Australia, South Africa and California, and I asked advice from local makers and other woodworkers, but there was not much information available, so in the end I just went ahead and did it. I think there are a lot of myths out there about lutherie wood, and I would encourage every maker to explore their own sustainable local timber. Imagine all the different instruments with their own voices. I find it interesting and inspiring to know the history of the wood and its provenance, and its place in our culture – not just Irish mythology but Celtic British and European, too. I thought the people who buy the instruments would like to know as well, so we include a full description of the source of all the wood used with each guitar.
What are the challenges when making other stringed instruments, compared to building a guitar? Are there any specific hurdles with making other instruments on your roster?
The headblocks on mandolin family instruments are more complex than guitars, but the rest of the build on flat-top instruments is quite similar. The canted top mandolins are tricky – the top has to be bent and then braced and carefully clamped to form an arch on the upper side of the bend, or it will collapse when strung up. But it is worth the effort – the sound is immense, approaching a carved-top style bark yet keeping the flat-top richness in the bass and mids. I am thinking of trying a canted top Zouk and maybe a guitar.
What construction methods and techniques do you favour?
We build by hand, using moulds in the early stages to hold the hand-bent sides, but we use solid linings (not kerfed) which are also hand-bent. Once those go in the sides are like a drum shell – super stiff, to minimise the wicking away of energy from the top, and maximise sound reflection. I prefer multi-piece necks for stability and stiffness. We use Dovetail mortise and tenon heel joints – solid, time tested, elegant, with excellent sound quality.
Tell us a little bit about the bracing pattern that you use for your guitars?
We use a modified X brace, with braces running down from the neck and reinforcing all around the sound hole – which makes it look like our tops are really thick, but that helps to stop the top warping. Each size has a different arrangement of other braces, which we have developed through experimentation. I aim for a responsive top, with a good balance across all the strings.
You use a zero fret on your guitars – the use of one still seems to split luthiers down the middle. Why do you employ a zero fret, and what are the benefits of doing so?
Better intonation, consistent sound between open and fretted strings, less chance of nut wear/string sticking and tuning problems, and it allows me to have a straighter line for the string to the tuners (which is why our headstock is pointed, rather than flaring out). That gives a more relaxed feel to the strings, and is less stress on the neck – it really is a better engineering and musical solution.
Are all of your instruments completely made by hand, or are some parts made by CNC or mechanical elements?
The only digital thing in the workshop is the humidity gauge! We use handheld routers for a few tasks, and powered saws and sanders, to do the rough work, but everything else is hand-carved, planed, scraped or cut. It gives us more control, finesse and more personal satisfaction. It is good to be able to look at a guitar and think: “I made that” rather than: “I operated a machine that made that.”
What’s the most enjoyable part of constructing a
For me it is a toss-up between carving necks and bending sides: both are precise jobs requiring time, skill and judgment, with the potential to go badly wrong, but they are satisfying to do and to complete well. Also, that moment when you put strings on for the first time and hear the instrument is very fulfilling.
Do you offer the customer a fitted pickup – which kind/style of pickup do you recommend for the best amplified
We will fit on demand, and of course customers often have their own preference. I like the blended or microphonic systems – (LR Baggs Anthem, or the Fishman Infinity Blend, K&K Trinity) but I recently fitted a Fishman Aura and thought it was quite impressive.
What’s on the bench at the moment? What’s next on the agenda?
On the bench is a Lefty CG02 (with gorgeous Keith Robson handmade tuners) in yew, destined for Sandarac’s Connoisseur Collection; a mandola commissioned from Australia; and an ash CG02 (which will have Robson designed Gotoh tuners), which is going to Wisconson; as well as the travel guitar prototype. Next will be a CG01 in sycamore for local fingerstylist Gavin Ferris. We are discussing scratch plates and tapping zones and string spacing at the moment.
You welcome commissions – how long does it take for you to fulfill a custom build order?
Three to four months at the moment. Longer for the Feckin Whiskey barrel guitars, because the barrel wood is difficult to work with – we have to make seven piece backs as the staves are so narrow.