Meeting world class ukulele maker Toby Chennell
- Credit: Archant
He can’t play a note and has even carved up the furniture in his Bournemouth workshop to make an instrument. Meet world class ukulele maker Toby Chennell
Climbing through the door in the floor that marks the entrance to Toby Chennell’s Bournemouth workshop you realise this is not going to be an ordinary encounter. Toby, a cheery 40-year-old who by his own admission failed at school and spent years applying himself to nothing in particular, is fast becoming a seriously sought-after ukulele maker with clients across the world.
The horizontal door, purchased from a local DIY store, neatly shuts off the steps to his work-space from the outside world. “It fitted perfectly,” he explains. With a packed order book Toby’s knocking out the instruments as fast as his exacting standards will allow. Much to his astonishment he’s got so many clients that he doesn’t need to advertise. Some of the world’s top professionals are already doing that for him. He’s hiked his prices but still the customers beat a path to his door.
Not bad for an instrument maker who until three years ago tended to concentrate on making occasional if rather splendid stand-up basses. “I’d never even considered making a ukulele but then a friend suggested I give it a try and I thought ‘why not?’ I’m rather glad I did.” He admits this is not quite how he saw his future. Mainly because he didn’t actually think about what was round the corner. He left Poole Grammar School after flunking his A levels and “completely by accident” ended up studying how to make acoustic instruments.
Years followed when, although he made some highly prized basses and guitars, he really didn’t make much money. “Once I discovered that I enjoyed this kind of thing I absolutely refused to do anything else,” he explains. But now that he and his wife Denise have a baby daughter – one-year-old Eloise – Toby has found the incentive to make a real go of the ukulele business.
Toby, who used to supplement his income by working as a school woodwork technician, has now made more than 75 hand-crafted arch-top ukuleles, customised to client’s specifications, and he’s grown to love the little instruments along the way. “A few years ago I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near a uke but now I feel a real affinity with them. They make people smile which is great, whereas bass players tend to be very serious individuals.”
Toby’s is in no doubt that his success as a maker has been boosted by the soaring international popularity of the ukulele which for years was seen as a novelty instrument –a plinkety-plink mini-guitar.
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The curious little ‘bonsai guitars’ was first imported from Hawaii, to the States back in the late 19th century having been introduced to the Pacific islands by immigrant Portuguese cabinet makers.
The ukulele, which means jumping flea in Hawaiian, hit the British variety circuit big-time in the 1930s and 40s when comedian George Formby had huge hits with songs like Leaning on a Lamp-Post and When I’m Cleaning Windows.
Purists will tell you that Formby actually played a banjolele - a half banjo/half ukulele hybrid - but the distinctive sound was effectively lodged in the national psyche. Ironically, while the rise of the electric guitar in the mid 20th century is generally credited with temporarily killing interest in the ukulele, its fans have included Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton (who actually played one on a 1960s Bonzo Dog Dooh Dah Band album) and George Harrison, who was a huge Formby fan.
Toby says he would love to have made a uke for the late-lamented former Beatle who wrote many of his songs on the instrument.
Despite the vagaries of fashion, the ukulele has now gone mainstream with sales continuing to soar. From being considered a novelty, it is now the favoured starter instrument in many of Britain’s primary schools.
For Toby the downside of such ubiquity is an order book so packed he has little room to experiment on new ideas. “Every couple of months I have to make sure that, however many commissions I have, I make a ukulele just for me. I need to continue to do research and development.” He also needs to find constant new supplies of suitable wood. He points to a ukulele in the making. “This is actually made from a table which had been knocking around the workshop for years. I’d been struggling to find some decent, really dry mahogany and then I noticed this – its 60 years old and Cuban - so I’m afraid I’ve started carving up the furniture!”
Though he keeps his very first ukulele in the workshop as a reminder of how far he has come, Toby says he has never personally owned one. Even more surprising perhaps is the fact that doesn’t play.
“I have no musical ability whatsoever. I have one tune with four chords that I use to check that the instruments are working properly. Other than that I can’t play a note,” he smiles.
“There was a saying I learnt in college that’s stuck with me - ‘He who chases two rabbits catches neither.’ I figure there’s not much point in trying to learn to play. I’m better off sticking to making. For me a tune on one of my instruments from other people’s hands is the reward.”
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