Strontian’s Mike hitting the top note with his hand-crafted instruments

Mike Vanden in his workshop at Strontian. NO F43 luthier Mike 01

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There are plenty of high-end exports from the Highlands that make it around the world – tartan and tweed, whisky and water…the list goes on, writes Nic Goddard.

Also on the list is music, and Strontian-based luthier* Mike Vanden has been sending his beautifully made guitars and mandolins across the world from his workshop here for more than 30 years.

I met up with Mike in his home and workshop, a converted old school house, where the old classroom is now the heart of a career spanning more than four decades of instrument making.

The workshop is a contrasting blend of low and high tech, with a CNC milling machine and temperature- and humidity-controlled storage area for Mike’s stash of wood sitting alongside planers and sanders and Mike’s most used tools of all – his own ears, eyes and hands.

Mike's workshop. NO F43 luthier Mike 02
Mike’s workshop.

Mike explained how he got started as an instrument maker, telling me: ‘I started out as a player, but quickly realised that while I can strum a tune I’d gone as far with that as I could, so I turned to making instead.’

Even as a child Mike had the sort of brain that wanted to explore how things
worked and with an early career in design and as a draftsman behind him, working out how instruments were made was the next logical step.

Mike was working in boat building, which he tells me has parallels with instrument making and an understanding of the wood, and how it behaves is clearly an integral part of the craft.

Back in the 1970s there were no books or courses in making the arch top guitars which were Mike’s big passion. He did attend the first day of a violin-making course as the closest thing available, but realised that was not for him and set about teaching himself instead.

Long before the days of the internet and YouTube tutorials, trial and error coupled with an inquiring mind was how Mike served his apprenticeship.

And it was a fairly rapid learning curve as he sold the second instrument he ever made and has been selling ever since.

I had fully expected to be surrounded by a showroom crammed with instruments, but Mike told me he has been trying to make a mandolin for himself for years but everything he makes sells.

Mike works on just one instrument at a time, from start to finish completing an instrument entirely before moving on to the next one.

Far from a production line, this is an art, with full focus on one piece at a time. He explained: ‘I’m totally involved with it while I am making it and if at any stage it’s not right I would discard it.

‘I sell by reputation so I don’t even set it up until it’s finished, but once it’s sprayed it sits for a couple of weeks before adding the bridge and the strings and by then I am on to the next one.’

Mike shows me a couple of pieces which have indeed been discarded at various points, sometimes with 40 or 50 hours work already done on them.

We look at the stock of wood sourced from all over the world ready for Mike to be inspired by a piece and begin the craft. From the way he handles the wood, stroking the grain, tapping to hear the resonance created from each piece it is clear to see that each individual instrument is a piece of art, with the design, finish and sound of each one unique.

I ask if he has a list of his creations and he replied: ‘I don’t keep a tally, I’m not very good at keeping records of numbers made. I don’t have serial numbers although I usually sign them and often leave a little
message inside too which someone may find one day. I also keep a note of what did and didn’t work, and the lessons I learned along the way with each one.’

Owners of Vanden instruments range from world famous musicians – Martin Tyler, Dave Pegg, Mike Oldfield – to wealthy collectors.

And Mike added: ‘I know that some of my instruments are hanging on walls as pieces of art rather than working instruments. Which is great, but I do love to hear them played and I’ve been lucky enough to hear some of the very best players using my instruments, including Martin Tyler on guitars and Simon Mayor on mandolins.’

*A luthier is someone who builds or repairs string instruments generally consisting of a neck and a sound box. The word ‘luthier’ comes from the French word ‘luth’, which means lute.