Jack Hall – matchstick luthier

Craft & Design Music
Jack Hall – matchstick luthier

We hit Jack Hall’s 1984 matchstick ukulele back in 2007, but it looks like Jack’s story is a lot bigger than one instrument:

Jack Hall from Brighton, England, couldn’t pick, strum, or draw a bow, but when it came to building stringed instruments, he had an amazing talent. You see, every inch of the instruments he built is made entirely with used matchsticks. Yes, dead matches.

Jack a seaman in the Merchant Navy, conceived the idea out of boredom. In the 1930s, he served as a deck-hand on the American owned tramp steamer Eastwick. Daily routine in those days was monotonous and during the long off-watch hours there was literally nothing to do, as Jack explained, “You had to make your own amusement or you either went mad or melancholy.”

With a natural sense of tidiness, Jack picked up matchsticks from around the ship discarded by his fellow crewmen. Then, sitting at the small mess table, he idly passed the time laying them out into various patterns, when the thought struck him that enough of them, glued together, would make a board that could be put to some useful purpose. He contrived a glue pot (an empty tobacco tin and an oldsaucepan from the ship’s galley) and, with carpenter’s glue and a small collection of used matchsticks, built his first layer of timber. Unfortunately, this attempt proved unsuccessful; it didn’t provide enough strength to work with. Undeterred, he continued to experiment and glued a second layer crosswise. Success! He was rewarded with a sturdy two-ply board, and a new idea was born. Jack began building his matchstick instruments – in response to a challenge from a shipmate, who jokingly said, “Why don’t you make a fiddle and strike up a tune?” “Why not?” thought Jack with a grim determination. An SOS went out to his relatives and friends, pleading with them not to throw away their matchsticks, but to send them to him as, and when, convenient. From then on, whenever the Eastwick arrived in port,he could depend on his mail containing packets of used matchsticks.

Jack had no carpentry skills and no knowledge of instrument making, so while his ship was in port, he would go ashore and check out a pawnshop to study the measurements, weight and feel of a fiddle. Then, back to the ship with his rudimentary pencil sketches and measurements, to begin his self-imposed task. Working five hours a day for six months, he singly glued together more than 20,000 matchsticks (with approximately three pounds of carpenter’s glue) that he whittled down to 14,000 to complete the fiddle, with another 1,000 each forming the chin-rest and bow. Although he was no musician (he couldn’t read or play a note), it was nevertheless a proud moment for him when he walked into the ship’s mess room, tuned up the fiddle, and played a few unorthodox notes to the rousing acclamation of his shipmates. What had started as a challenge now became a compulsion: between 1936 and 1939, he built a Neopolitan mandolin, an acoustic guitar, a larger 12-sided flat back mandolin of his own design, and a tenor banjo.

It goes on, and gets even better: He actually bent many of the matches he used to make the curved sides of his instruments, soaking them in water and bending them individually by hand. He made cases for some of his instruments from the matchboxes left over after he’d made the instruments themselves. And yes, that’s Glen Campbell playing and talking about a Jack Hall instrument in the embedded video. [via Dude Craft]

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

View more articles by Sean Michael Ragan


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