Celia's Story by Colin Chettle
I have been taking guitar lessons for a number of years now and, recently, my teacher suggested (very gently) that my old, cheap and cheerful guitar should be retired. I felt a great attachment to the instrument, which had got me up to Grade 7 but I had to agree with my teacher’s judgement, particularly as I am left- handed and the guitar was simply a right-hander which had been re-strung. I therefore started to look on the internet and spent hours reading the various luthier’s websites.
I can’t remember how I came across Rik Middleton’s website but it struck me as a lot less daunting than some I had read. I was particularly struck by his invitation to discuss an individual’s requirements in making a guitar and so, after taking a deep breath, I sent off the e-mail. Thus, in the depths of an autumn evening, I found myself heading along the M69 from my home in Leicester to visit Rik in Coventry and discuss guitars. I received a very warm welcome and, once the embarrassment of showing my old guitar was over, we moved into the workshop. This was completely different from what I had expected: much smaller but a fascinating place to look around. Several guitars, in various stages of completion, were hanging on pegs and there was a wonderful smell of wood shavings and varnish to the place.
Most fascinating of all were the pieces of wood which Rik, with irresistible enthusiasm, kept fetching off racks for us to view. The various woods with their own particular grains were beautiful and (something of which I knew nothing) actually rang rather like slate when tapped. Amazing! I settled on a spruce top for my guitar and also selected the rosette but couldn’t make up my mind about the wood for the back and sides. Then two pieces of Honduras rosewood were produced with the comment, “I was saving these and thought that I might use them in the future.” They were the ones! So I risked asking if they could be used for my guitar and the decision was made. Because of the pattern of the sapwood, I requested that the two halves be put together without emphasising the join (the photos show this). I lost track of what time I left for home, thinking as I did so, “What have I done?” but nonetheless feeling very excited.
Work progressed steadily over the next few months until, in January 2004, I made a return visit to the workshop to see the guitar in her early stages. At this point the spruce top was assembled as were the sides, back and the first stages of the neck. Apparently the rosewood had put up stiff resistance to being bent into shape and so extra bracing had been required on the sides. Rik had carried out some lovely work on both the back and head of the guitar and I came away very pleased with the results.
Within a couple of weeks I was calling in again (the benefits of only being a few miles away) to see the guitar assembled but still lacking a bridge and frets. She was starting to take shape and Rik demonstrated what the final varnished effect would look like by applying a small amount of turps to the rosewood. The colour came up wonderfully and I was instantly hooked on the smell of turps. Futher visits were made to view the guitar with the ebony fingerboard and frets completed and to select machine heads. We eventually decided on Alessi Hauser type machine heads with mother of pearl buttons. I thought that Celia was worth it! Yes, by this time I had decided to name the guitar. I think that this came about subconsciously because, when I had originally been looking on the internet, I had noticed that a number of guitars had names (and some rather glamorous ones, too). I decided on Celia because, to me, it is an elegant and understated name and represented very well the instrument into which Rik had put so much care and skill.
So, finally, in April 2004 after much grain-filling and a final coat of varnish, Celia was finished and I received the long awaited e-mail saying that my guitar was ready to be collected. Armed with two bottles of wine and a cheque I hurried over to Coventry and opened up the Hiscox case to view the completed Celia. Wonderful! The instrument was all that I could have wanted and more, so luthier and proud owner opened a bottle of wine and toasted her. It would be good to say that I took the instrument out of her case and played her beautifully but I didn’t ~ nerves got the better of me! It was only over the next few weeks, as I played Celia, that I started to realise what a lovely instrument I had received. The care and attention which Rik had put into the guitar were humbling and I decided to put together a photographic record of Celia’s construction and give him a copy.
We had both been engaged in an unusual project. I don’t have a guitar made every day and it isn’t every potential owner who visits Rik during the construction of their instrument, a fact for which he is, probably, profoundly grateful. (Rik says: 'Not so, I find it much the most rewarding way of working.') The photographic record was made and received very graciously (albeit without a picture of proud new owner included at that time, which has been remedied here!) and the reader of this article has a chance to view the pictures for themselves.
As for Grade 8, I am continuing to aim for the exam in the midst of a busy life. However, the motivation to play is there whenever I open the case and look at Celia since, “Much is expected of those to whom much is given.”
Colin Chettle [November 2005]