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Engineer sculpts playable musical instruments out of wood

Posted Jan. 15, 2012, at 4:48 p.m.
Rob Jones, 37, of Thomaston talks about the instrument he made out of wood over the past 10 years. Jones eventually made some that are completely functional.
Rob Jones, 37, of Thomaston talks about the instrument he made out of wood over the past 10 years. Jones eventually made some that are completely functional. Buy Photo

THOMASTON, Maine — Rob Jones has bought a pair of knee-high women’s boots he’ll never wear. He bought a tiny “pocket” trumpet even though he has no idea how to play it and doesn’t intend to learn. All for his art. By day, Jones is an electronic technician. By night he is an award-winning woodworker who meticulously measures, cuts, sands and pieces together tiny bits of tubing to construct working, pitch-perfect “brass” instruments out of wood.

His instruments have been played by music professors and bugle enthusiasts. He has been commissioned for three bugles so far in addition to building a French horn, trombones, a trumpet and several banjos. He carved a bird, a shoe and a boot, a lobster and shells. He even made an exact Smith & Wesson .44 magnum replica out of wood — perfect to one-five-thousandth of an inch as a gift to his dad. Of course, if his dad shot the gun, it would explode into splinters, but it’s so precise Jones could take pieces of the wood gun and fit them perfectly into a real, metal gun.

Jones, 37, of Thomaston, developed his hobby when he was at his day job and saw his coworker building a mandolin on a lunch break one day.

“I thought, ‘that looks cool.’ So with his guidance I built my first banjo out of scrap wood,” Jones said.

He still has the instrument, which is made entirely of wood and some metal pieces he gathered when he tore an old banjo apart. That’s how Jones works — he takes a real instrument, or in the gun’s case a real object, and then measures each piece of it, graphs it out and then reconstructs it in wood.

In a year he taught himself 10 songs on the banjo. So he built another. He’s now on his fourth. The banjos are the only replicas he can play. Playing isn’t the point for him, it’s the process and looking at the aesthetics of the end piece.

“I love it. I absolutely love doing this,” Jones said. “It just comes down to what motivates you. My motivation may be a hint of OCD — I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “But I love the reaction I see from people when they see something seemingly impossible. I love challenging myself and trying to conceive of something impossible and make it possible.”

He never went to art school, or college for that matter. His education started and ended in the Navy, where he spent his free time on his other passion: drawing.

When he builds an instrument, Jones sits in the entryway of his house at a desk with one of his nine cats, Lily, who follows him everywhere. There he munches on Lemonheads and chugs Mountain Dew while measuring and drawing out the plans. He moves to another room dedicated to his woodworking to cut and sand the pieces. Sometimes the clock strikes 2 a.m. during his carving sessions before he realizes how late it is and that he will have to wake up in four hours.

“I’m so into it I don’t feel tired. I’ll skip meals and not know it,” he said.

The first time he tried a brass instrument was around 2001. He’d seen a French horn and it caught his interest. He wondered if he could replicate it. By this time he’d made a banjo and some intricate bowls. The bowl shape intrigued him and it didn’t seem too different from the horn of a brass instrument. So, what the heck? He rented a real horn for $60 a month, “that was real motivation to finish quickly” and returned it two months later. By then he’d made a near-perfect replica. On the outside it was flawless (to one-five-thousandth of an inch, that is).

“But the first question everyone asks is, ‘is it playable?’”

Disappointingly, no. Not that one.

Although all the tubes were hollow and a musician could blow air through it, Jones discovered that the real French horn — as all brass instruments — have consistent, smooth holes that run from the mouth piece through the bell of the horn. The tunnel on the inside of his French horn wasn’t the right smoothness or size. The wood was too thick.

So he tried again, this time on a trombone. Still not pitch perfect, but it’s beautiful, made of smooth, yellow wood.

“The thickness isn’t right, so it sounds muffled,” Jones said before managing to sound a few low notes from the horn. “But the slide works.”

Third try: another trombone. This time he says he eschewed aesthetics and just attempted to get the sound right. He made it out of scrap wood. Although Jones seems not to think much of the scrap-made instrument, its Frankenstein’s monsterlike appearance makes it beautiful, like a patchwork horn.

The horn is as playable as the brass one he shaped it after.

“I’ve learned from each one,” he said.

Jones is picky. He times each part of each project. His millimeter-by-millimeter drawing of a trumpet took 1.5 hours, according to his notes. He has very specific tools for each task to make sure everything is just right — a carve that’s literally a hair’s-width inaccurate would drive him nuts. But he doesn’t seem to care what wood he works with. Currently, he’s carving a bugle from movingui — a very hard, dense wood that looks brass-colored when slathered in polyurethane (inside and out, for protection from spit). A tuba he’s making will be all mahogany — and, as luck would have it, all from donated wood.

But soon, Jones is going to take a break from his wood-instrument specialty. His short-term goal is to make woodworking his full-time job. To do this, he’s going to spend the next year making intricate wood bowls. The bowls are made from one very thin piece of wood. He cuts out concentric pieces and then twists and stacks the thin pieces and glues them together to make the bowl look like a spiral basket piece. They retail for $420 at 15 stores from Rockland to New Jersey. His bugles sell for closer to $1,200 but take longer to make.

“I just need time and money,” Jones said. “It’s difficult to have a full-time job and try to create a job.”

He hopes by selling enough bowls he can fund a wood-instrument-making business out of his three-bedroom home in Thomaston — a home he shares with his wife and two daughters.

His long-term goal is to create an entire museum of his wooden instruments in the midcoast, as his hero Ernest “Mooney” Warther did in Ohio with wood trains.

“I saw his entire family was benefiting from his legacy. How cool would it be if I could do that?”

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