Thursday, October 4, 2012

Matchstickology - Jack Hall's Matchstick Guitar

Jack Hall the Matchstick Man
A special thanks to reader Tony Hall for sending me this wonderful story about his father, Jack Hall and the amazing musical instruments Mr. Hall created using only a knife, an extremely sharp razor, a bit of glue and thousands and thousands of burnt matches.

Tony Hall
This is a most unique guitar story. I am gratifed that Tony Hall gave me permission to use pictures and information about of his father's extraordiany collection.

Jack Hall was born in 1906 in Brighton, England. He never had any musical talent, but as a seaman in the Merchant Navy, he had a lot of time.

Jack started serving on an American tramp stearmer, the Eastwick, which was owned by the Anglo-American Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil.

The daily routine was monotonous, so to quell the boredom Jack needed to find something to do with the time.

He began by picking up discarded matchsticks from the ships deck that were routinely tossed away by his fellow crew members. He got the notion to glue them together an make something.

Using an empty tobacco tin and an old saucepan he made a glue pot and attempted to piece together matches to create a layer of timber. His first attempt was unsuccessful. Undetered, he tried again, this time using a second layer crosswise, in effect making a two ply board of matchsticks.

A crew member jokingly suggested he make something useful, like a fiddle. Somehow one of those "ah-ha" moments went of in Mr. Hall's mind. He was on to something. He began askng all of his friends to not throw away their used matches, but to send them to him. Friends and family would mail them to him and when he arrived in port he always received letters containing used matches.

Hall had no carpentry or luthery skills.

Whenever his ship was in port he would go ashore to pawnshops to exam musical instruments and study the measurement, shape and feel of a fiddle. Onboard ship, he transferred these to pencil sketches, determined to make a fiddle out of glue and matchsticks.

His task took five hours a day over a six month period. Hall used more than 18,000 matchsticks and aproximately 3 pounds of glue. He eventually whittled matchsticks down to around 14.000 and used another 1,000 for the chin rest. Please consider, this was no easy task to do aboard a small tramp steamer, with the crowd of shipmates and the rolling of the waves.

Match Stick Fiddle and Match Stick Bow
Jack completed his fiddle in 1936 and went into the mess room to belt out a few notes for his amazed mates. Between 1936 and 1939, Hall had created a Neopolitan (bowl-back) mandolin, an acoustic guitar, a larger 12 sided mandolin and a tenor banjo.

Perhaps the most difficult process presented to him was how to make curved surfaces.

He soaked matchsticks in water until they softened and became plyable. Once glued together Hall used flat irons, firebrcks and pans of water to aid in shaping the sticks. He had no idea that professional luthiers utilized the same process to bend wood.

Jack Hall states, " Carving was done with a knife, a file, and a cut-throat razor; finishing touches were accomplished with sandpaper, before the varnish seal was applied."

Perhaps the most striking (I made a's matches folks) feature of Mr. Hall's work is the beautiful designs derived from his placement of the sets match sticks. Each had to be cut down individually to varied lengths to fit into what seems to be a puzzle as much as a guitar.

Tony Hall with Dad's Collection
Apart from the amazing guitar, violin, banjo, and mandolins, one of the other extraordinary features are the cases that Mr. Hall built by utilizing the matchboxes. He stated that he regreted painting the outside of the case black because this did hide some of the artwork.

Opening the cases reveals the extrordiary graphics, art and logos manufacturers used to sell their products during the 1930's and 1940's.

In the 1940's, the breakout of WWII interrupted Jack Hall's "Matchstickology" as he volunteered to serve aboard a deep sea rescue tug boat. After his discharge from the services in 1945, Mr. Hall quietly gave up is hobby and stored his treasures away in the attic of his home until 1951 when it was put on display at the Festival of Great Britain.

In 1976 a Radio Brighton reporter did a story on Jack Hall and visited his home to see the instruments for himself.

In 1984, Mr. Hall revived interest in his hobby by building a ukulele out of 10,000 matches.

It was not until 1991 when a group of four musicians played Jack's instruments on BBC Television, astonishing viewers and the musicians.

Jack Hall passed away at age 86. He had no idea of the sensation his collection had created. The instruments have been loaned out for various displays and even more Television shows. Notable players, such as world renown concert violinist Yehudi Menuhin, guitarist and singer Glen Campbell and guitarist Albert Lee have all played Mr. Hall's instruments.

Jack Hall was a most extaordinary and unique fellow.


Tony Hall said...

Hi Marc,

I am thrilled with your presentation of the story about my late father and his unique guitar and other playable matchstick instruments.

I hope it strikes the right note with members and to those who visit The Unique Guitar Blog.

Thank you.

Marc said...

Thank you Tony for calling him to my attention. He was an amazing man.

MDF Board said...

I just really like working with wood made and am always looking for new things made by wood.

Fiber board | MDF with Veneers

Alan Matthews said...

After watching a bulletin on Scottish Television news back in 2000 I believe on your fathers instruments, I was so impressed by this story that I was inspired to make a matchstick guitar of my own. I'm still working on it, but I'm happy to say that the incomplete instrument does in fact play. May your fathers instruments continue to amaze and inspire for many years to come, he was a true artist.

zachariah adams said...

I'm an artist and student at UTA doing some research on tramp art. I would love any information that has been passed down in the tramp culture more specifically involving music. If you have any knowledge passed down by these artists I would love to pick your brain.

zachariah adams said...

I'm an artist and student at UTA doing some research on tramp art. I would love any information that has been passed down in the tramp culture more specifically involving music. If you have any knowledge passed down by these artists I would love to pick your brain.

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