Monday, 15 June 2009

Maton Factory tour

On the Thursday morning of 4 June, while passing through Melbourne, I had a chance to take a little excursion out to the Maton Factory in the eastern suburb of Box Hill and attend one of their fortnightly tours. While Maton build both quality acoustic and electric guitars, it’s their acoustic guitars that they are mainly known for. The tours last for 90 minutes though unfortunately I was half-an-hour late to my tour, my lateness being due to my inability to recognise the distance from Fitzroy to Box Hill on the map. I thought it might only take me five minutes to get there, instead it was a 40 minute drive! The eastern suburbs of Melbourne are a little reminiscent of Sydney’s north shore although the streets seem to be gridded in squares and it’s all relatively flat.

I hadn’t missed much of the tour. I found out subsequently that the first 30 minutes consisted of a tour of the de-humidifier room and the loading in of the woods. I appeared at the point in the tour where we were shown into Andy Allen’s custom shop. Andy Allen is the chief luthier at Maton and he builds superb quality custom guitars according to customers’ exact specifications. Many music shops carry Andy’s custom guitars, such as Billy Hydes in Camperdown who stock the “Sands of Time” guitar made of some very rare and exotic woods. These guitars are usually priced upward of $7,000 and tend to settle around that price range. These are the kind of guitars that you buy with spare change from an inheritance, or, if you are very keen to own something incredible, a lifetime’s treasure.

Andy is incredibly likable. He’s a real salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, naturally intelligent without any vestiges of unnecessary intellectualism. You can gauge by looking at this big guy that he loves his craft, and he loves wood (I mean, he looks like a tree!!). He’s met many musical legends over the course of his work and gave the example of Jimmy Page calling him up whenever he’s in town. He’s also made a guitar for Bob Taylor, head of Taylor guitars in America. Andy name-dropped ‘You really got me’ (Kinks) and ‘Midnight Rambler’ (Rolling Stones) as two examples of Matons being used in the recording of these songs. George Harrison used one around 1964. “People been using Matons since Jesus was born” says Andy with a cherubic innocence that is most endearing. He’s a great fellow.

The floor of the Maton factory was incredible. It was huge, and full of workers designated to particular tasks related to the process of building the guitar. These guitars are definitely hand-made, and I was there to witness the entire process. Our tour guide was Sue (May?), the daughter of Bill May who founded Maton guitars in 1946, interestingly being the year that Fender was born. Sue sometimes didn’t quite know all her specs when demonstrating the materials. On a couple of instances I corrected her although after that I decided to just bite my tongue...this topic is the one thing in life I hold in my memory to exact specifications!

On the racks there were many of the shapes and models of acoustic guitar I recognised, despite their being half-finished. The entry-level models held the lion’s share of space although I spied out some of the upper-level models on the racks, including the Messiah and the Tommy Emmanuel Series. One guy was working on my favourite model, the EST65C, which is the thinline instrument made of solid American Rock Maple. I even spied about three of them on the processing rack. Rock Maple is a lovely wood and the sound is shimmery and exquisite. These guitars had yet to be glossed.

I never got a chance to utter the “C” word, or to ask about the “C” word, in fact it should be the “double C” word. That is Cole Clark. What does Maton think of Cole Clark guitars, and of Brad Clark. Do they cut into Maton’s business unfairly?? I surmise that Maton are competing with Cole Clark by upholding their quality control and by striving to make as good a quality guitar as ever.

The main point to relay is that all Maton guitars are meticulously crafted, including the entry model, the M225. This guitar has a solid Spruce top and a 3-ply laminate Queensland Maple back and sides. When you buy Maton – and this is equally true for other makers including Cole Clark – you are buying quality. Maton’s two entry-level models, the 225 and 325, use laminate back and sides, yet this is a 3-ply laminate which in some countries is regarded as “solid”. The difference being is that 3-ply has a strip of solid wood as its centrepiece with the inner and outer piece being a peeled strip of either Queensland Maple (225) or Queensland Walnut (325). To my ears, while a 3-ply or general laminate back & sides acoustic guitar doesn’t usually carry the drama and resonance of an all-solid guitar, the tone of the 3-ply or laminate is often more focused and pleasing, particularly if the instrument has a good solid top on it.

I liked watching the spray-person in action spraying the guitars in an enclosed room. I was watching him through a window. He was wearing a face mask during the spraying process. We were shown the repair room, and then onto the boardroom to view some of a video on the making of Maton guitars. The wall to the right of the entrance carried a wide-range of standard & custom lines. These guitars are not for sale but instead, are available for visitors to play to accustom themselves to the sound they’re after, away from the noise and distractions of a shop environment.

All up it was a wonderful experience to be able to witness first-hand the building of quality acoustic guitars by dedicated and skilled staff. These guitars are handmade and exude warmth and soul and naturally, a totally Australian aesthetic. One day I do hope to visit the Cole Clark factory too, but only when I’m next in Melbourne, and only if Cole Clark start conducting tours to their factory.

Wall of guitars. Notice the acoustic dreadnought made with a maple fingerboard and bridge. It sounded lush just with me running my fingers through it!

Finishing and stringing a custom EM225C made with Australian Bunya Pine top, a herringbone inner banding, and an AP5 pickup.

Sue shows us the TE1 (Tommy Emmanuel series), made of solid Indian Rosewood back and sides.

Spray room.

The EST65C in production. Thinline Rock Maple back and sides. Notice how smooth it is? The finished product is glossy.

A rack of rock maple thinlines (4 on the right), in process.

Baker's dozen (and counting..)

Sides. A bit like pickled eels.

In production. Looks like 325s to the left (Qld Walnut), and 225s to the right (Qld Maple).

A top, insider's view. Solid spruce.

The building of a guitar requires many hands.

Chicken necks. I notice there are a few mahogany necks here (the darker necks). These must be for customised optioned orders as Maton don't use mahogany on any of their standard lines.

Andy demonstrates dovetailing and fitment.

Andy Allen, caretaker of the Custom Shop.


timholt7 said...

Hey redgrevillea,

Fantastic Blog!

I, luckily, had the experience of a tour of the Maton factory only yesterday! My guitar teacher has a few connections, so he organised it for a couple of students and I. It is an absolutely fantastic factory!

Being a huge Maton fan myself, and owning a couple, it really is a special experience to see the origins of the greatest guitars in the world.

We met the daughter of Bill, Sue Kitchen (and Neville Kitchen, her husband), they were lovely, and also Andy Allen! I'd hear a lot about Andy, so it was absolutely fantastic to meet him.

As you stated in your blog, my eye was INSTANTLY drawn the the dreadnought, made out of what I thought was all solid Rock Maple. But after questioning them about it, they revealed it's made out of "Satin Box", a rare and exotic wood located sparsely throughout the Blackwood trees. I had a short play, it sounded fantastic.

And wasn't the Maton Museum something fantastic, if you had the time to have a proper look around. There's a fantastic photo of Tommy as a young boy with his first Maton, his MS500. And there it hangs, opposite the photo! I was in awe.

But thank you for the blog, it's great.

redgrevillea said...

Thank you, great comment!! I look forward to visiting the factory again someday - it's an AMAZING place!!

Anonymous said...

I've done the tour a few years ago
Very enjoyable

one point about the custom room, hanging on the wall is a Martin D28 ( i think)
I joked to Andy that that is the blue print for him, he sheepishly agreed

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