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Guitar Workshop Front
Written by Lars Mullen

Glasgow has more Victorian tenement buildings than any other city in Scotland. Constructed from red, grey and beige sandstone, these traditional characteristic buildings are popular today for their large rooms, high ceilings and original features.

Back in the day, many had shop fronts selling goods to the passing trade, one in particular at 936 Argyle Road, was indeed a fishmongers, selling all sorts of fish food from winkles to whelks, sand eels to salmon.

Ian Dickinson at WorkBack to today, replace any traces of fishy odours for the aroma of beautiful tonewoods, swap the image of a fishmonger in a tatty apron for a cool, fit Ian Dickinson, one of most skilful guitar repairers in Britain and owner of The Guitar Workshop Ltd. Glasgow.

“Argyle Street is a busy commuter route to the city. People walk to work and back with their coffee in hand and cast a casual, curious gaze in the window to see what I’m working on which in itself, is an advert for the business. People love a workshop, the tools, sawdust and guitars in for repairs that I actually get crowds gathering to take a look, especially tourists who have walked in taken a photo and just walked out,” remarks Ian.

“It’s also a shop of emotions,” he laughs, “It can be stressful, overwhelming, terrifying and more to the point, massively satisfying…..all in the space of one hour.”

Apart from the shop window entertainment, this must surely breed confidence for potential customers who could possibly be anxious about approaching with an instrument in need of repair, be it a valuable, vintage classic requiring restoration or an everyday guitar in for a basic set up?

“Yes, without a doubt, you just can’t mistake the shop for anything else, all you can see are workbenches tools, sawdust and broken guitars being repaired, all of which evokes confidence when people bring in their prized possession which they might have had since they were a kid. They can see it isn’t going to disappear into a back room, it’s just me here repairing guitars since the shop was established in 2015.

I studied the art of guitar making on a two year course with master luthiers Paul Hyland, William C Kelday and Michael Ritchie at Anniesland College between 2005 and 2007. This was a life changing course which I loved so much, I would have finished it and done it all over again if I could have. I was taught how to make and repair guitars in the traditional way which was a great help when I later worked for Freshman guitars. I was working in the back of a warehouse taking guitars out of shipping containers and setting up at least 30 a day, making sure they were fit for the shops after travelling from the Far East. We had to get them ready as quickly as possible to get the orders out. I did that for about 7 years.

For the repair side of the business I’m in now, working at Freshman was invaluable, and after years spent repairing and restoring instruments for various shops and private customers, I could now handle any repair that came through the door. I decided it was time to go bigger or go home, so I took a gamble and opened the shop in 2015, which is what I had wanted to do for the last 10 years, and I’ve never looked back.”

You focus on acoustic, electric and bass guitars, banjos and ukuleles, anything from the orchestra pit? 

“Guitars primarily, but I’ll replace violin string posts and the odd new back on a cello for example, but I wouldn’t like to think I was taking work away from other dedicated instrument repairers, there’s a violin repair shop down the road and I’ll send a customer there if needs be, so we look after each other.”

The old tenement building is way over 100 years old now, have you had to undertake any major modifications, I’m thinking about humidity for the guitars? 

“I’m lucky, as the building remains at a steady 45-50% humidity throughout the year, which is ideal, so without having to install humidity systems, it’s right where I want it to be all year round. I’m not sure if the window helps or the original, ornate wall tiles from the fishmonger days that have glazed images of fish on them, who knows? I’m just happy I don’t have to spend a fortune controlling the humidity.”

I‘m interested in how you match replacement timbers for damaged acoustic guitar soundboards and plastics, like the body binding on a Les Paul for example.

“Plastics fade on their own accord, some quicker and darker than others”, says Ian, “But new plastic can be aged of course for a perfect visual blend. Soundboard repairs are always delicate, I’ve had some acoustics arrive with the top completely smashed. These are probably the worst repairs as there are many procedures during the process that could change the sound, like applying glues, adding cleats and strengthening braces and you’re not going to know that, until it’s finished.

I’ll work with what wood we have left on the guitar, it may be in splinters but it’s better to use what we have left rather than replace the complete top. In extreme cases it’s about jig sawing the guitar back together to not only look good, but to sound and play as it should. It wouldn’t be the same if the whole top was replaced. It can also be very personal, I had a player bring in a Takemine acoustic with accidental damage to the top, but he insisted that I didn’t repair the holes he’d worn right through the top over the years just by heavy handed strumming.

A repair to the sides and backs of acoustic guitars is a different story. If a customer wants it to look like it never happened, I’ll go to the extent of finding timber that’s as close to the original, while several players just want a repair so the guitar body is back in one piece and safe.

Feature of Damage before and AfterFeature if Damage repair in progressTo the other extreme, I’ve actually made a feature of the damage to a £2500 Santa Cruz acoustic. It was six days old and the owner dropped it down his stairs and smashed a hole on the top side of the lower bout, you can imagine what state he was in. I cut around the damage, replaced it with matching tonewood and added intricate purfling, it looked perfect, like it was part of the body design.” (Photo: Santa Cruz split photo before and after) (Photo: Santa Cruz work in progress)

With so many repairs arriving with different levels of restoring how do you prioritise your work?

“I’m going flat out so I have to assess and put the repairs within a time scale of how long each one will take. I have a queue for basic set ups which I handle at weekends, it’s about a month’s wait for neck breaks, cracks and refrets, whilst the queue for longer restoration work is about 7 months. I have to give priority to the working musician though, as it’s their livelihood and they can’t afford to be out of work. A lot of the players from the trad-jazz scene come here which is great for business, some may have ten guitars so they have a choice, whilst other have just one or two. They may have a USA tour about to happen, so naturally I’ll jump the queue for them.

Before and After Neck BreakThe folk scene here in Scotland is huge, far bigger than I imagined before I opened the shop. These players seem to break guitars extensively, especially neck breaks, although most are not their fault, just bad luck when touring around the world on aeroplanes. Luckily they have a trust with me and we’ve formed a relationship, but there are so many bad stories when it comes to flying with an instrument. I had a guy come in with a 6 grand guitar that had a neck break after a flight, even though it was in a really robust flight case. The repair went well, you couldn’t see the break and I was really pleased for him, until he came back off another flight not long after and it happened again in a different place. Two flights, two neck breaks in such a short time, how tough going is that?”

Situated in the tenement building on a main street, what are the limitations when it comes to spraying and refinishing? 

“There’s far too much involved with health and safety to have spraying facilities here in the middle of the city, so I have people who do that for me. I handle French polishing, that’s one of the finishes I will do, I love everything about it, it’s non toxic and I don’t need a lot of equipment. We hold a stock of all the necessary tonewoods, whilst tools and hardware are a weekly order from Bill Quinn at Tonetech Luthiers Supplies. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Bill, I can say that hand on heart. I sometimes think Tonetech sponsors this shop!”

I’ve photographed thousands of guitars myself, but have never come across a vintage Strat that’s been routed out inside to fit a humbucker. It was all the rage in the early 70’s. Have you ever refused a modification or installation that you feel would rob the guitar of its soul or character?

“Saying no to a repair is the hardest thing but if someone came in with a classic rarity and asked for a mod that was so out of character, like fitting humbuckers on a vintage archtop for example, I’ll say no. That’s something I wouldn’t do, they can go somewhere else. That would just detract the value and integrity of a fine instrument.

People often ask me what guitars I’m working on and if I say a Martin from the 1920s or an early 60’s Strat or a Les Paul from the 50’s they want to know all about it, they’re amazed. I have every respect for old, vintage, collectable instruments, although sometimes I’m nose-blind and get used to the vintage waft when I first open a 50 year old guitar case. My normal reality is so abnormal for a lot of people. It doesn’t affect my work of course, but I often have to step back and appreciate what I’m doing and relish the moment.”

It’s often been said that rock n roll wasn’t supposed to last, hence some of the glues used on 50 year old guitars are now drying up; is this a big problem within guitar repairing?

“The binding comes off on a lot of new guitar as well,” laughs Ian, “But I have adhesives here for every situation. Epoxy can limit sonic vibrations and string transmission, so I would carefully assess the guitar I would use it on. For gap filling duties I’ll use Titebond, whist  animal glues are great as they clean up really well and can be heated up to reverse the process if need be. If repairing a really old instrument, I’ll use animal glue as that’s probably what was used in the first place, but it does depend on the nature of the repair and the damage.”

If you have a guitar in for extensive repair work that’s going to take several months, do you keep the customer updated on the progress, or at least keep in touch?

“Yes, certainly, some customers want to be updated with the work in progress, it’s reassuring for them and they know their instrument isn’t sat in the corner for weeks on end waiting to be looked at. There can be 40 guitars in here at one time varying from a string change to a complete re-build, so I have to be aware of who to keep in the loop.

I also have a booking system where a customer can book in maybe a month in advance, so I’ll know the instrument will be in on a certain date allowing me to get straight on it and they’ll get it back a week later. I have to keep an eye on the diary, or they’ll all arrive at the same time.”

Your repair skills are well respected by customers and the music industry, can it sometimes reach fever pitch so much so that you would like to have trained staff to help or an apprentice?

“To be honest and without sounding too conceited, what I feel sets this shop apart, is how I offer quality repair work and build relationships with regular and new customers. I do feel sometimes that I need an extra pair of hands, but I’d still be evaluating and diagnosing the repairs and handling the major part of the work, and it would take ages to train someone to the level that I would want.

There probably wouldn’t be enough room in the shop either, it would certainly keep passing commuters entertained, although I’ve managed solo so far. Today, I’ve just completed the 1,525th repair that’s come through the door in 5 years.”

Lars Mullen.

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Lars Mullen

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