A luthier’s low-tech high

Chris Wynne holds a guitar built in Italy from Australian timbers. Photo by Joshua Resnick.
Chris Wynne can teach anyone how to build their own guitar. The therapy is a bonus, writes Joshua Resnick.

There are no chairs in the converted mudbrick stable in Eltham’s historic Montsalvat artist commune, only stools. Seated on one, Chris Wynne reveals how he did what so many dream of – make a life that’s fulfilling and self-funding.

Wynne can teach anyone who wants to know how to handcraft their own guitar. He is a master luthier, and founder of Thomas Lloyd Guitars.

Wynne warms his hands around a mug of green tea. Nestled among wood saws, vice grips and stacks of quarter-sawn timbers and piny smell of sawdust, he recalls how he earned the coarse hands of a woodworker, “I hated woodwork at school, wouldn’t go near it. It was always the same thing, make mum the cheese board.”

Wynne didn’t effortlessly fall into his profession, nor did he first pursue a life full of guitars and freedom, a common dream of other teenagers in the 1970s. “I used to cut raspberry canes. Slashed my arms up,” he says while miming bloody streaks over the sleeves of his loose black fleece.

Wynne did his time, but eventually the clarity and ambition he now easily possesses, forced its way through when he was working for Melbourne Water. “All due respect to people who do their jobs, no matter what they do, but I was basically leaning on a shovel…I thought, ‘I can always come back to this’.”

Wynne was determined to be a professional guitarist. “I just dropped everything. I remember my mum, she was in tears when I did it because it was a job I could have retired on. But after the first year she couldn’t have been happier because I just studied so hard.” After a stint in hospitality, Wynne eventually became a music teacher, operating out of his home in the Yarra Valley.

Wynne once needed to escape the valley, but is now more conscience of his home’s allure. He compares its beauty to Tuscany, where he periodically ran guitar making workshops. He would lug Australian tonewoods half way across the world to his friend’s villa, followed closely by his students. Lush surrounds and an intimate atmosphere seem a prerequisite for his courses. Several months of the year he is overseas teaching, yet the spirit of the valley remains a foundation of Wynne. “Everything has a beauty you just have to be able to see it, “he says.

It took four years of tinkering before Wynne was confident he made a quality guitar. His sister had complained her guitar wasn’t working for her, so he borrowed it to see what he could do. “I literally cut it up and it was four years till I told her. Every Christmas she used to say, ‘where’s my guitar?’ and I’d go – ahhh.” Wynne used his sister’s guitar as a template, eventually teaching himself how to construct a quality replacement. “Here’s your guitar on the floor in a pile of mess, but here’s one I made for you,” he said proudly after years of trial and error.

From the fractured remains of a tolerant sister’s guitar, over 700 of Wynne’s students have learnt how to build their own. “You can’t just drop your day job and say, ‘I’m going to be a guitar maker,’ because you have to build up a reputation,” says Wynne, who did exactly that. His small four-to-five person workshops are now constantly full. A typical course runs for about a month. They’re mostly run from his stable-turned-workshop at Montsalvat, but also from temporary workshops overseas.

Luthier Chris Wynne in his Montsalvat workshop. Photo by Joshua Resnick.

Wynne has earned his reputation, not just for his craftsmanship, but from the bonds he forms with his students. The courses quickly become intimate and ethereal, according to Wynne’s former pupil, Greg Wight. Speaking over Skype from his own lakeside home-workshop in Port Stanley, Canada. “It’s 50 per cent build a guitar, and 50 per cent, or more actually, spend time with Chris Wynne,” he says.

“Everybody’s looking for a change of pace, and these guitars are like mystical beings, they’re like unicorns, everybody sits and looks at them, you hear them all over the pace,” says Wight.

In 2010, Wight, a former machinist, was 25 and looking for his change of pace. He contacted Wynne. A few emails later, Wight flew to Melbourne, after selling his house and nearly everything he owned. He would eventually help Wynne run his courses for over a year.  “When I left Australia I was having real difficulties disconnecting from it. There was just this real light within the workshop, I just couldn’t let go of it. It was the people and the tools, the refinements of the instruments, the sounds.”

Wight wanted to keep the new lifestyle he found, but was apprehensive about teaching his own students. Wight says Wynne convinced him otherwise, “He said, ‘You gotta do this, you’re having a course on this date and I’m bringing the students’.” Wight isn’t alone. Wynne says several of his former students are now teaching their own courses.

Wynne sees this flow on effect as his legacy. After working 6 day weeks for the last 14 years, he says he might restructure and eventually teach one-on-one courses instead, but has no plans to retire. “As long as I’m fit mentally and physically, I’ll keep going. People do this as a retirement, I do this as a job.

“I’ll keep doing this until they put a tree on top of me.”

Wynne’s journey was arduous, but not uncommon in Australia.  Roger Lewis began working in the family run Russell Street, Lewis Music Store, shortly after it opened in 1962. Wynne was born in 1961, so Lewis has been selling and repairing guitars for nearly as long as Wynne has been alive. Lewis says there has always been, and will always be, lone luthiers in Australia. He cites Esperance’s Greg Smallman, as one of Australia’s most innovative luthiers. Smallman made guitars favoured by the famous Australian classical guitarist, John Williams; who took lessons at Monstalvat at an early age. “He (Smallman) said he’ll be dead before he finishes the orders he’s got,” says Lewis.

Lewis says quality Australian lutherie started with Bill May, who founded Box Hill’s, Maton Guitars in 1946. The family owned business was one of the first to use Australian woods and now employs over 60 people. He is quick to defend the quality of some commercially made guitars. “Every guitar is handmade, it’s not made by robots, somebody physically makes it but they don’t make them from start to finish.” But he also says guitars made by individual luthiers are, “Generally much higher end.” According to Lewis, most commercial made guitars are constructed from pre-fabricated pieces, not hand-carved from scratch.

“A good guitar maker, if they turn out 15 guitars a year, they’re doing very well,” says Lewis.