Lute maker Weldon Gray on research, losing track of time and joining the circus.
Q & A with Weldon Gray
How long have you been building instruments?
What sort of instruments do you specialize in?
Ancient, medieval and Renaissance musical instruments. These include the organistrum, hurdy gurdys, psalteries, wire strung harp, oud, various lutes, balalaikas and the vihuela.
Tell us a couple of interesting things about your personal life.
I worked at a Hanna-Barbera theme park called Flintstones Park sculpturing dinosaurs. Now I demonstrate and perform with the instruments I make.
If you were not a luthier what would you be?
A circus performer.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Solid wood or veneer?
Figured wood or straight grain?
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Roasted curly maple.
Least favourite wood?
Gray finds the hurdy gurdy to be the most difficult instrument to make. With many moving parts it’s easy to understand why. Gray says that, with a little imagination, it looks like one of the warships in Star Wars.
This harp is a replica of the Lady Lamont Harp; the original is in the Museum of Scotland. The 32 string shoes that the strings go through are made of silica bronze, and were the hardest part of the build.
Quotes from Weldon Gray
I have a 24 ft. x 32 ft. heated shop in my attached garage. It’s like a second home.
Sometimes I lose track of time and wonder how the day went by so fast.
I have a large television, which is on all the time. I watch sitcoms, documentaries and movies while I work.
I love my Dremel tools and chisels. I also love carving.
To come up with the designs I make I research ancient instruments, some of which are extinct, on the internet. I also use books that my wife buys for me.
I had wonderful art and woodshop teachers in high school who helped me get started.
I make a few instruments a year for customers.
I started in woodshop classes in high school. After high school, I worked in construction framing houses and as a carpenter.
My work as a luthier has been mainly self-taught.
I joined the medieval group here in Saskatoon and heard a local group of musicians “Troubadour du Bois” play at a concert. I wanted to buy a lute, but soon realized that they were not easy to find. So, having made a guitar in high school, I thought I would try to make a lute.
The very first musical instrument I made was a double-neck solid-body electric guitar in 1965. My first medieval instrument was a lute. I learn something with every instrument I build. I would like to think they are getting better.
I allow six months to make an instrument. That gives me lots of time and I am under no pressure.
I like to find a piece in my research that moves me; a piece that I don’t see commonly anymore. I find as many pictures and writings about it as I can and draw pictures and plans, to figure out the size and scale of the instrument. I then find the wood that I would like to use and away I go.
Some of the most common woods I use are different kinds of maple for bracing and foundational pieces, and spruce for the soundboards.
Common questions are “How long did it take to make it?”, and “What is it worth?” I don’t consider the time when I make an instrument. I enjoy every minute, figuring out how to do things and solving problems. Each instrument is a challenge for me. This is a hobby that I love. If I had to worry about what it is worth, I probably wouldn’t be interested in doing it.