Steve Evans of Beltona Resonator Instruments
by Joe Mendel
Beltona Resonator Instruments began as a project between Steve Evans and Bill Johnson, luthier and engineer respectively, building resonator instruments for themselves using traditional styles with modern improvements. These prototype instruments were so successful that a business partnership was formed at a time when there was little other commercial activity building resonator instruments. Guitars, ukuleles and mandolins were made to order from individually designed brass bodies, aluminum cones and handcrafted wooden necks. After eight years, this partnership dissolved after Steve had moved from the UK to his native New Zealand and Beltona started trading from there. This coincided with many more metal bodied resonator instruments being available in the market place and so, in typical Beltona fashion, resonator instruments using carbon and glass fiber for the bodies were developed which made for much lighter and stronger instruments whilst still maintaining all the qualities customers want in resonator instruments. This successful development means that Beltona now only produces instruments handcrafted from wood and carbon and glass fiber.
JM: Hi Steve, Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed. How did you first get interested in music and luthierie?
SE: I started playing uke at school in NZ . A very adventurous nun at the Catholic primary school I went to started teaching kids the uke. About the age of 12, I moved on to guitar.
JM: How did your interest in resonator instruments come about?
SE: I bought a 60’s Dobro guitar back in the 1970’s and then later, while living in the UK, I came into contact with the original National resonator guitars, it was then I became really interested. I was working in guitar repair and through a series of fortuitous events, ended up being “the resonator fixer” just as the renaissance of the resonator guitar took place.
JM: How did your partnership with Bill Johnson come about?
SE: Again, fortuitous events led Bill and I to meet through a mutual friend. He was a seriously talented engineer who didn’t play music particularly but was very interested in how these instruments worked and how you coaxed musical sounds from sheets of metal.
JM: Did you guys plan on starting a business or did you just have a common interest in resonator instruments and decide to build your own?
SE: No. We had very modest intentions. We were mainly wanting to build for ourselves but then we got our first order for a left handed tricone guitar which up until then didn’t exist as far as we knew. The business grew fairly organically from there. I guess the time was just right for it. There wasn’t much competition at that time. National Resophonic in the US were only making single cone wooden bodied instruments and the Chinese instruments hadn’t even been thought of yet.
JM: Did you have much experience working with metal and resonators before deciding to build your own?
SE: I had experience at fixing them as I said, and I also had access to quite a few, so Bill and I were able to paw over them and measure things we needed to know. Bill would work away at his workshop in Warrington, Lancashire and I would work away in my workshop in Leeds, Yorkshire. We had different strengths and responsibilities and so Bill produced the bodies and I made the wooden necks, organized the electro plating and engraving and also the assembly of the finished instruments and customer relations, etc.
JM: How long did it take before you were making instruments you were really happy with?
SE: A couple of years of trial and error. We concentrated on the tricone guitar first. This is the hardest instrument to make well so after that everything else was relatively easy – just a case of making all the new tools needed for each new guitar model. The next thing was the ukulele. We used a shape that was a compromise between the soprano shape that National made and a normal concert size ukulele – one that would serve both scale lengths. Incidentally, this is the shape that all Chinese made metal bodied ukes now selling use. They basically copied from internet photos the size and proportion, headstock shape and string attachment from our first ukes. What they couldn’t see from the photos, of course, was the inside of the instruments and that is why the sound of these Chinese made ukes suffers so much.
JM: What about Beltona instruments today?
SE: Making metal instruments in a cottage industry kind of way like we were was always going to make for an expensive instrument. I was well aware that there were many people who would really enjoy our instruments but couldn’t afford them. So I started casting around for new possibilities for a less expensive instrument. Carbon fibre came into mind and I did make a few guitars completely from carbon fibre. It was very complex and difficult without major investment.
Then I tried Polyester resin and fiberglass and found no discernible sound difference between the two systems. This is a much easier material to use with normal moulds and hand lay up only. I still use carbon fibre for guitar and mandolin coverplates because of it’s strength and rigidity and the natural resonance of the material adds a sympathetic amplification of the aluminum cone underneath.
JM: Were/are you laying up the weave for the carbon fiber yourself, or buying sheets of it? I understand it’s pretty nasty stuff to work with, the splinters certainly hurt like heck. What is involved in working with Polyester resin & what makes it easier than CF?
SE: I lay up by hand both the carbon-fibre and the polyester. In the quantities I work with it’s no big deal. I wouldn’t want to be working in a boat yard where there are vast areas being sanded all the time and lots of dust and fumes. I tend to lay up a batch at a time and then I don’t go near it for a few weeks. With both CF and Polyester the idea is the same – a medium suspended in a resin. Polyester is the resin base and glass-fibre is the medium. This is the easiest way to layup and easy to form into complicated shapes. With carbon-fibre it’s a graphite medium suspended in either an epoxy resin or a vinylester. These resins are much tougher but with epoxy you need to vacuum form it to extract the air and cure it at a controlled temperature. It’s very strong after all this but not very easy for a small workshop. I layup carbon fibre coverplates with vinylester resin. This a compromise but it’s easier to lay up and is strong enough for my purpose.
JM: . I am continually amazed how much we tend to “hear with our eyes”, what is the reaction when people find out it’s not a metal bodied instrument?
SE:. You are right about preconceptions of materials. People who don’t know what the material is are very surprised. The weight difference would have been the first giveaway I would have thought.
JM: How tooled up is your shop and do you use a lot of jigs and fixtures? We’d love to hear about them, as well.
SE: I have a lot of jigs and contrivances in my workshop that you wouldn’t find in a wooden instrument builder’s workshop because of the materials I use and because of the way I make the bodies. I make two different shapes of soprano ukulele and two concert (using the same bodies for both); two different shapes of tenor and baritones that use either the tenor shape for a short scale or a shrunk down version of the electro guitar shape for a long scale one so eight different ukes in total. All these require a set of moulds and cradles and jigs that are specific to each one – about 6 in total for each different instrument. It’s very time consuming making a new model and I think carefully about how each shape can be adapted to something new to make the effort of making them worthwhile. For example, recently I was asked to make an 8 string (metal) baritone uke with a certain scale length. So I came up with the idea of using the shrunk down guitar size knowing this would work for this particular instrument, any other baritone and also it would work as a travel guitar and a tenor guitar. It can take either the large guitar cone or the smaller mandolin cone. I’m still working on the travel guitar and the tenor guitar so I am interested to see how they work out and have high hopes for both.
Aside from the body jigs I have the usual neck making jigs, router templates, fret cutting templates – nothing out of the ordinary. My favourite one is a jig that a friend made for me for cutting slots into the wooden biscuit for the bridge saddle. It’s adjustable so you can make slight compensations in the scale length of the instruments. It saves time and makes a neat job of the operation. Tools for making the resonator cones are the most expensive thing I have. I have them made from steel to spin on a low revving electric motor and their female shape determines the finished male shape of the cone. It’s a tricky process the way I make them but I think the results are better than spinning them over a male shape.
JM: How long does it take you to build one ukulele, roughly? Do you batches or one at time?
SE: Hard to say. I’m rarely making anything in one go. I work in batches and try and make stock instruments alongside orders. It’s more efficient making a batch rather than single instruments – six is a good number.
JM: Would you walk us through the steps in building a Beltona ukulele?
SE: First step in making the body is to prepare the moulds. This is usually only dusting out and recoating with a release wax. Next I apply the first layer of gel coat. This is a harder version of the polyester resin that forms the outer surface. It gets sanded and painted in the end. Essentially you are working from the outside inwards. Then after letting the gel coat dry, the inner layers of fiberglass cloth and resin are layered in and allowed to dry. For a uke, there are two moulds – one forms the back and sides and the other the front with the inset sound well. When they are hard, I remove them from the moulds and trim them to fit together. I epoxy them together with an inner lining around the top edge just like a wooden uke. Next is the coverplate and in the case of the uke, it is a premade aluminum disc with drilled sound holes and a dome shape that protects the fragile cone inside. That’s basically the body finished apart from the paint job. This is where the customer has a free choice of colours and/or effects. I sub contract the paint finishing to a talented airbrush artist and mural painter. The neck is cut from a stock block of sapele mahogany and shaped to size for length and headstock. I then mortise in a piece of NZ Radiata pine into the end of the neck. This acts like a banjo perchpole and passes through the body right to the end of the instrument. Headstock veneers, if they are to be used, are then glued on and sanded flat. Next, I cut out the headstock shape with a router guided by a pattern bolted through the machine head holes. The rest of the neck is roughed out to shape and then the rosewood or ebony fingerboard is glued on. The fingerboards are cut on a saw table indexed with the fret positions. I then fit the neck to the body. The pole I described passes through a slot at the neck joint and is cut to size and shape allowing for the correct neck angle and alignment. I then finally level the fingerboard while it is in place and cut the neck heel to fit the body. After roughly shaping the neck, I fret the fingerboard and glue in the frets. After this messy process, I finally sand and scrape the neck ready for varnishing. This I do with multiple coats of a brush on lacquer. After this is dry, I cut and polish it and then set about cleaning up the fingerboard and leveling and polishing the frets. Machine heads are added and the neck is finally mated up to the body with a final neck heel fit. All that remains is stringing and setting up. Sounds pretty quick when you say it like that!
JM What qualities should a good sounding uke have?
SE: I guess that a resonator uke is a different animal to a wooden uke but, in some ways, you are after the same sounds – a sharp, punchy and clear note but a mellow overall sound. For a resonator uke, I’m trying not to have a sharp piecing sound that metal instruments can have and this is one the main ways that the fiberglass material beats metal – the other is its’ weight advantage. It’s plunky and sweet like a wooden one but with added cut-through and volume.
JM: Do you have any new instruments or designs in the works ?
SE: As I mentioned I’m working on a multipurpose shape for baritone uke, tenor guitar and travel guitar. I’ve also recently made my first Celtic instrument, an octave mandola or short necked bouzouki. It’s actually tuned an octave below a mandolin so more correctly it’s an octave mandolin – the world of mandolin family nomenclature is very mysterious! It’s a teardrop shape with a full guitar size cone. This sounds great and will be a solution for the Celtic bouzouki player who can’t be heard in big sessions. The most interesting new thing I’ve been doing has been taking the fiberglass back and sides of the resonator uke and adding a wooden top much like the flea and flukes. I think the fiberglass is a much improved sound over the ABS plastic of the flea and fluke. I’ve used a variety of timbers including native NZ Kauri, both ancient from swamp salvage trunks and recently milled wood. The funny thing is that the highly mineralized 40,000 year old timber sounds pretty much like the recent milled stuff! I’ve also used mahogany, Tasmanian Blackwood and Koa – all to good effect. This project isn’t part of my mainstream production but I do it from time to time and keep a stock to sell locally. My painter has done some great Paua (abalone) paint finishes on these.
JM: The combination of Polyester resin and fiberglass and wood is interesting, how much does it differ in sound from an all wooden instrument?
SE: Difficult to describe- it’s a very open, warm sound. The fiberglass back reflects the sound very efficiently and makes for more volume than wood. An archtop mandolin with fiberglass back and sides in my next project.
JM: A resonator octave mandolin is something I’d like to hear, I bet it would roar like a lion.
SE: It certainly does. The guy I made it for wanted something that could compete in a big session and he’s got that alright. I’ve just made a sound clip for my website. When I’ve done photos I’ll put them all up there.
JM: I take it that you aren’t sold on the idea that older wood is somehow better than more recently cut wood?
SE: All the wood I’ve used in these ukes is old in the sense that it is recycled from old furniture or buildings but the ancient Kauri is unusual in that it has been in the ground for up to 40,000 years in peat swamps. The new/old Kauri I was comparing it to was a mere 100 years old. I’m pretty opened minded about old and new timber. I think there is a lot in the quality of the build and the qualities of the timber involved. Certainly old timber is nicely dried out but I have seen and played old ukes and guitars that are not great sounding instruments in spite of this. I recently did an instrument swap with Scott Wise of Western Australia. He has one of my guitars and I have one of this mandolins built of recently milled maple and spruce and the sound is absolutely wonderful. I guess these are nice pieces of wood and Scott has the ability to bring out the best in them. I think what I’m trying to say is that it has to be taken on a case by case basis. There was a blind study done with old and new violins and concert violinists recently that showed how random the perceptions of players are when they have no idea what instrument they are playing. Like you say – hearing with your eyes.
JM: The market for alternative materials for musical instrument appears to be growing rapidly so your timing does seem to be very good. Are your customers looking for alternatives or simply looking for good sounding instruments?
SE: In resonator instruments, the choice is either wood, metal or my resin bodies. Aluminum is the only viable choice for cones: I have tried CF for this too and I met a guy in Australia who makes cones out of thin cedar segments! They had great tone but very little volume. I don’t think I’m in the same business as the people making carbon-fibre acoustic guitars. They are trying to make the material itself make the sound – all I’m doing is using it to create a sound chamber or speaker cabinet for my existing cones. Years ago I had a metal guitar reviewed in a guitar magazine. As a final thought, the guy doing the review said that he thought making guitars out of metal might be a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way to make a guitar. He had obviously had a sheltered life! If he had have seen the inside of the Dickensian workshops where the bodies were electroplated or even thought about the condition of people who work in the copper mines where the ore is being dug out that makes the brass, I’m sure he wouldn’t have said that. All that is a very long way to say, no, I don’t think people are actively looking for alternatives in materials when they come to me – they come because the like the sound my instruments make and the fact that they are so much lighter than metal bodied ones and usually they have heard about them in some way prior to contacting me.
JM: Are you currently taking orders and how would one go about placing an order instrument from Beltona? How long does the typical (if there is such a thing) build take for a Beltona ukulele? And for your other instruments, as well?
SE: Yes I’m always taking orders. They usually come via the internet and there are a lot of repeat sales. I deal mostly with individual customers and not many shops.
I enjoy this side of things- the customer interaction
Typically the delivery time for a built from scratch instrument is 3 -4 months . I do tend to stockpile parts so it can be a little quicker. I also attempt to keep a stock of finished instruments but this often falls behind if I have orders to fulfill.
JM: Steve, thanks for taking the time to be interviewed. You are building some really unique and very interesting instruments, hopefully I’ll get the chance to play a few of them sometime.
The Beltona website: http://beltona.net/nav/welcome.htm is filled with pictures of all of the varieties of instruments they build, with a sound recording of each style.
Steve can be contacted through the website and will be happy to answer any question you may have about Beltona instruments.
As this is the last issue of http://ukesessions.com/ I’d like to say thank you to all the folks at Mel Bay for hosting this site and giving me the opportunity to do these interviews. I’ve learned a lot from talking with all of the builders, I’ve seen and played ukuleles I probably would not have run across otherwise and even made a couple of new friends in the process. I’m grateful to all the builders for taking time out of their busy schedules to be interviewed and answer all my questions so freely and generously. Thanks to Joe Carr, the editor, and more importantly, a good friend, who has had the faith in me to write these interviews and has allowed me to repair several of his instruments and even build a few for him. I also thank all of the readers, it’s really nice to know that there are people out there that enjoyed these interviews and I appreciate it when you mention it. Thank all of you very much.
Joe may be contacted through his website: http://jmendelfrets.com/