Anderwood Guitars have been synonymous with Weissenborns for as long as this site has existed. Their Weissenborns have been a ‘go to’ place for beginners and intermediate players alike for many years. Offering great value for money they had a guitar to suit nearly all pockets. But three years ago CEO Ed Greenfield embarked on an ambitious project to complete the companies product range. A range of high end premium authentically built Weissenborns that could stand alongside the worlds best builders and instruments and be as close to an original vintage Hermann Weissenborninstrument as could be physically possible to build. His ambitions could only to be met if he could find the right luthier capable and willing to follow his dream. That’s where luthier Tom Buchanan comes into the Anderwood story. Fast approaching their 50th ‘Authentic Original’ build together I finally caught up with Tom to ask him to tell us his story and to talk about how he started ‘Making History’.
Interview By Aron Radford
Hi Tom, it’s so good to finally catch up and make this interview happen. I have so many questions for you about your Anderwood Authentic Range of Weissenborns. So lets waste no time and get stuck in…..
Tell us about Tom Buchanan before Anderwood. What’s your history of building musical instruments and how you become a luthier in the first place.
I have a workshop in West Yorkshire making small runs of stringed instruments for shops and wholesalers. I build instruments under my own name and also for others in the trade. Working with some of the largest wholesalers and retail companies in the UK including Gremlins, Soar valley Music, Acoustica and Eagle Music as well as quite a few independent music shops around the UK and now of course Anderwood Guitars.
I have been building instruments for around 30 years and first got interested as a teenager living in the Highlands of Scotland. I loved music, but felt that I had neither, the dedication or talent to be a performer. I had seen a few hand built instruments at that time and I was totally impressed with just about every aspect of this trade, I decided that this was what I would like to do. I trained in carpentry and joinery. Working for some time in the building trade, then cabinet making, I was doing a bit of repair work on instruments in my free time but, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I started to build complete instruments. I had an accident and broke my back and whilst I was recuperating at home. I constructed a few steel string acoustic guitars. I also picked up some work in the trade from Tim Hoborough, Hobgoblin and Freshwater, building a variety of historical instruments including Harps, Dulcimers and Hurdy Gurdys.
I was finding it difficult to make any kind of living. So when I came back to fitness, I went back on the tools working for a German toy maker who had moved into the area, and then back to cabinet making. It was at this time my employer had run out of work for me, and rather than lay me off, said I could work on any project I wanted to keep me going, until things picked up. I called around the people I had previously worked on instruments with. This led to a visit from Dave Ledsam owner of Soar Valley Music. Dave asked if I could build a Mandolin, he was also happy for me to design it myself. After building a prototype he came back and ordered 10, then another 10, and this kept going until the owner of the workshop felt that I was taking up too much of his space, and had to send me on my way. I set up my own workshop and went into production expanding further into Citterns, Bouzoukis, Mandolas, and Tenor Guitars etc.
I moved to West Yorkshire in 2006, and since then I have established the Thomas Buchanan brand in shops all over the UK, and sales all over the world. Working with some of the largest retailers and distributors and clocking up over 1000 instruments in the process. My Mandolin family instruments are now well known in that world particularly for its distinctive fixed bridge design.
Before you meet Ed Greenfield had you ever heard of Anderwood Guitars or even seen or played a Weissenborn guitar?
Yes, I was previously approached by The Music Room in Cleckheaton, asking if I was interested in building some for them. I knew what they were, and I had a friend who played one. The music room also had a top player with them, but at this time I was thoroughly flooded with requests for Mandolin family Instruments and had to decline.
So how exactly did you and Ed hook up at the very beginning?
I was starting to feel that the Mandolin market was becoming a bit crowded as more Luthiers were moving into it. Instruments started to show up from the Far East with a striking resemblance to my own and I had been building these for over 20 years now and felt that a change would be good for a while. I had no idea in which direction I wanted to go, so was just keeping an eye open for an opportunity to arrive.
It was at this time, a fellow Luthier, posted on FaceBook that an agent was looking for a Luthier to build Weissenborns. I got the details and called Anderwood. Ed was up within a week and I was started on the first build within a fortnight.
I believe Ed had already started work on some authentic prototypes some 12 months before with another Luthier prior to meeting you. Was this any help to you or was it a case of “lets start at the beginning�??
Yes, there was enough to give me a bit of a start as far as getting the basic idea of what Ed wanted. There was a few original Hermann Weissenborns which I could take sizes, and get accurate dimensions from the instrument. Ed was also able to fill me in on some of the techniques used by Weissenborn, and point me in the right direction. Beyond that, I did start the build from scratch, making all my own formers etc.
What is it like working with Ed (Ed Greenfield CEO of Anderwood Guitars). I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him quite a few times now and he is a very affable, focused, driven and a passionate individual. Ed has clear and defined business goals and ambitions, and this authentic range was it seems, the pinnacle of his ambitions. Tell me about Ed and how well you two work together.
It’s great working with someone who is passionate about the instrument. Ed is focused on making it the best in the market. Although a tall order, it’s a real breath of fresh air. When you work with mainstream wholesalers and retailers, you often find that you might be constrained by cost, and they have no vision for the instruments you are building, as long as it works and fits into the price structure they are usually happy.
How ‘hands on’ and involved is Ed with each batch of Weissenborn builds?
I build the instruments In my shop in West Yorkshire and source a few of the common materials, brace wood, maple and lacquer etc, Ed does everything else from his shop in Dorset where Anderwood is based. Getting the hardware sorted, all the marketing, sourcing cases, dealing with customers and on and on. There is a ton of this kind of work. It’s great for me, as I can focus totally on the build. He also works with another luthier there assembling the solid electric instruments.
Talk us through the microscopic dissection, deconstruction and analysis you had to do on the original Hermann Weissenborns examples you had at your disposal in order to get these builds anatomically correct?
I was fortunate to have a few original instruments to compare with each other, and get an average in some dimensions and spot on in others. Taking these, and getting the right shape and size of all the parts and components down was fairly easy. It’s the putting them together is when it gets tricky.
Did you hit any problems with Hermann’s originals being all slightly different to one another, was there any time when you had to just take an average measurement of a particular aspect of the build? And what little things did you discover about their construction which highlighted these small hardly noticeable discrepancies occurring from the fact that in 1927 there were many people working on each build in the factory and thus introducing unique anomalies to each build
No. As I said before, you can simply take an average, they are not that far away from each other that you cannot tell what any particular size should be and where things have been obviously worked by hand and eye, then ,we do the same. Ed wanted to preserve this type of hand crafted feel, and after all each instrument is still handmade.
So let’s talk about the building process through the first prototypes you and Ed built. Was there any eureka moments when you finally worked out how Hermann did a certain aspect of the build that was baffling you, or was it all pretty straight forward when you put your thinking caps on?
Getting the shape of the top took a little working out. What you have is a radius arch with a flat plateau where the bridge sits. Understanding just how the bracing works, and why the bridge plate is the shape it is, was quite a satisfying moment. It’s a nice little piece of geometry is that.
Which begs the question, how difficult is it exactly to make an exact Weissenborn replica. Let’s take for granted you can build guitars to a high professional level and you have some vintage Weissenborns to study on demand, is it really that hard?
As my old carpentry teacher used to say “If it’s difficult, you’re not doing it right.�? I reckon, any professional who can work to a high standard matched with the right information could handle just about anything. It’s what most Luthiers do.
So exactly how authentic are these builds, Now I’ve seen 100’s of original Hermann Weissenborns on the internet and physically I’ve played maybe 7 or 8 vintage Weissenborns and I have say the wood Hermann was using was quite boring and regular grained. Some say that’s the best sounding wood, some say Hermann just used what he could get the best deal on back in the day. But I’ve noticed a common trait in your new authentic Weissenborns i.e. they are all highly figured wood is this not a non authentic original trait?
I can maybe cut it down to a short sentence “The Real Thing�? !
There are lots of instruments out there with the label ‘Weissenborn’. I have seen them with flat tops in different shapes and timbers. There is a whole world of acoustic lap steel which might resemble a Weissenborn but that’s where it ends. There are very few instruments available which are actually true to the original design. I found this quite surprising and it seemed clear that there was a huge gap in the market there.
The authenticity lies in the design and method including materials. If you are building a replica you may choose to go down several roads. You may choose to take one instrument and clone every other after exactly like the first. You may also choose to age and distress, or, you may choose to build an instrument, the way you would believe it was on the day it left the factory. We chose to build instruments this way.
The issue with Weissenborn however is that his quality control wasn’t as high as you might expect from an instrument builder today. If we were to build in the same way now I don’t think our customers would be very impressed, and might well think, it’s not good as “the real thing�? or having “the real thing�? is a better option. What we do is try to make it better and keep things like the cases etc made with a vintage authentic feel maybe not exactly as the real thing was, but you could say maybe more real, than the real thing, Hyper-real. So by focusing on each part, and making it to a better standard than �?the Real thing�? we can produce an instrument that stands up more to your expectations of “the real thing�?. Only by being better, can we become just as good in peoples minds. This is why we are happy to build with the best materials we can find.
It needs to be a bit better in order to be just as good… Hope that’s given some clarity.
Who searches, chooses and purchases the Koa wood used in your builds. Are you guys looking for specific types of Koa wood, specific and contrasting colouring, graining or patterning? Or are you just buying the best quality koa you can and seeing what comes out?.
Ed sources all the timber and we do aim to give the best quality we can find. We use reputable timber merchants, who are expert in cutting and grading timber for high end musical instruments. I have been building instruments long enough to be able to know what type of tone you are likely to get from a certain piece of timber, by its weight , closeness of grain etc, there are not many surprises in it for me when it comes out in the end.
Tell us about the ‘1927 date specific’ model you are currently using as a building template. Some people might not realise that these instruments you are currently making are from an ever evolving building process that Hermann was constantly tweaking throughout the instruments lifetime, bridge sizes, pin configurations and bracing adjustments etc etc . Also near the end of his factory production the company was trying to compete with the emergence of the extremely loud by comparison Dobro and so changes were made to the design to make the instrument louder. So, why chose this specific model from this period in Hermann’s original production timeline.
I have a pre 1927 model in the shop and have been able to compare. It is my opinion that the later 1927 model is the better for a few reasons. First and most obvious is the bridge plate. The bracing works around 4 triangles with the cross bracing creating the curve on the top. The larger bridge plate makes this more stable and allows heavier gauge strings, which is always better for acoustic instruments, in both tone and volume. Also with a slide guitar you work a lot with the resistance of the string to the bar, so a higher tension may have a better action on the lower string height we have on the Weissenborn. However, 1927 is a starting point for us we may produce earlier models at a later date.
Some experts say that this particular ‘1927 date specific’ model you are using as your template wasn’t the best sounding instrument Hermann Weissenborn ever made. They say this model is designed to be loud at the expense of other qualities (sustain being one such quality) in an attempt to make the instrument compete with the introduction of the Dobro post 1927. The same experts often say the pre 1927 models were better sounding due to their lower and smaller bridges and pin configurations and lighter weight bracing.
Mmmm. The only experts I pay very much attention to are the players. I mean, I have looked into the history and listened to opinions of enthusiasts, but as the builder I see a musical instrument as a tool, which in the hands of great players should inspire and produce great music. My main focus is producing such instruments, so I try not to get bogged down in too many purist ideals and instead keep a close ear on the musicians who play them.
So another question I would like to put to you. Where’s the added value in these ‘exact’ vintage style builds to the general buying public? I mean, what do you get extra for your money that other quality builders and instruments in a similar price range can’t offer?
The price tag reflects the cost of the build. I have seen non authentic instruments using same or similar materials with a higher price tag. There is nothing extra to pay beyond that.
How do you rate your own achievements in pursuing this ‘vintage authentic’ goal when you judge your own creations alongside other market leaders in the ‘authentic’ field?
I’d rather leave those kinds of judgements to others. But I can say, I am delighted with the feedback I’m getting so far.
Do you ever feel restricted and frustrated by the ‘authentic’ mantra? Do you ever find yourself saying “that’s not really the best way to do this” but still have to stay on point and do it the ‘Hermann’ way regardless?
No, because after coming this far I am convinced that Hermann had it nailed with his design and this is the best way. I have seen attempts by others, to make it better, but to me, they just don’t . I’m open to any suggestions and happy to discuss the point with anyone.
Originals vintage Hermann Weissenborns have wood that in some cases must be near 200 years old today. When the instrument was made nearly 100 years ago the wood used at the time was probably 60-100 years old already. So fast forwarding to 2016 that wood is well over 150 years old now. Put this together with the magical and unquantifiable “ageing and crystallisation of the wood molecules through repeated playing theory�? doesn’t that make any sound comparisons between your Weissenborns and originals completely unfair?
I have worked building historical instruments in the past and have been told by players, that the idea is, not to produce an instrument that sounds like its 100yrs old, but to build one that sounds like a 100 year old instrument would have sounded, when it was new. As that is how music written then, would have sounded then. Of course stringed instruments will “open up�? with regular playing and improve over time, but they can also degrade if left unplayed. So any comparison is a bit unfair at that point.
Is this repeat process of making batch after batch of Weissenborns something that will keep you happy, creatively and professionally in the long term? How many Weissenborns have you made to date?
I’m just about to start the next batch which should take us toward 50 or so instruments. So far, there is just me in the shop. I am building in groups of eight, and, around three runs per year and things are going very well so far.
Tell us about the ‘Weissenborn Lap Steel’ you designed with Willie from Willie And The Bandits.
Ed arrives at the workshop, and says, that he has been talking to Willie about his dream instrument. Ed already had a shaped template, and has worked out what hardware is going on, and things like the authentic bridge, have already been agreed. All I had to do was figure out how to make it work. We are not really in production of this model, though, we are building to order at the moment. You can speak to Ed about custom options for this build.
Do you play lap steel yourself?
Yes I’m having a go. I have Julian Socha, a great slide player and tutor giving me lessons at the moment. I am really enjoying it.
I understand you have some great Weissenborn playing musicians that own and endorse one of your Weissenborns. (John Wilde & Martin Harley)
It’s great confirmation that you’re doing it right. When musicians of that calibre are playing and gigging your stuff. It’s a real thrill for me.
So with all this vintage Weissenborn expertise you now have at your finger tips are you in a position to offer a specialised repair service to people with damaged original vintage Weissenborns?
Well, I may have the expertise, but not the time to be in the position to do so. I still have orders for Mandolins and Bouzoukis and I’ve been finding it difficult to juggle my time for a while now.
I would just like to say thank you Tom for all your time and wish you all the best in the future and say on behalf of The Weissenborn Information Exchange what a tremendous contribution you have made to this wonderful instrument through your dedication and hard work in bringing these amazing authentic instruments to market.
Thanks Aron. It’s my pleasure.