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Handy Howard crafts the humdrum into harmonies

Be Creative
February 19, 2019

Halcyon Lakeside craftsman Howard Cox turns the mundane into the magnificent. A fitter and turner by trade, Howard loves to create exquisite guitars, ukuleles, banjos, and banjoleles out of things like biscuit tins, cigar boxes, truck hub caps, distinctive wood and - in one case – a huge piece of fruit.

He has made around 70 of the stringed instruments since becoming fascinated with a cigar box guitar he saw in a shop while on holiday five years ago. “I wanted to buy it, but it was too expensive,” he said. “I thought to myself ‘I could build one of those’ and so I built a basic one out of a biscuit tin.

“I looked in a few books, however, most of it was ad-libbing and just came naturally because of my wood and metalwork skills. “You can make them out of anything that has a hollow resonation, although some things don’t sound as good as others.”

It is the latest phase in a lifetime of craftsmanship for Howard who has also made model boats and aeroplanes. A willingness to experiment led him to transform Mack Truck hub caps, miniature coffins and even a 40cm-wide gourd – a pumpkin-shaped fruit - into musical instruments.

“I don’t like to build the same thing twice,” he said. “I’ll try to do a lot of different shapes and experiment to find out what kind of resonation and what kind of sound I get out of them. “Some of my early ones weren’t so pleasant sounding but you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Over time, Howard has added wood to his guitar-making repertoire, using tone-friendly and distinctive timbers like King Billy Pine and Tasmanian Blackwood to fashion his instruments. Depending on the complexity, a guitar can take anything from three days to a month to make.

His work so impressed Montville’s Rare Emporium that the store – an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of unique treasures and collectibles – now sells Howard’s creations to musicians, collectors, and tourists. They can sell for up to $1,200. The sales help Howard to cover the cost of materials and to gear up for the next guitar, banjo or ukulele he wants to make.

One of his guitars recently went under the hammer for $320 at a Halcyon Lakeside fundraiser while at least two homeowners have asked Howard to make them an instrument. Howard does keep some of his creations for himself, with about a dozen adorning the walls of his home.

The two-storey home’s triple garage was a huge selling point for Howard as he and wife Jeanette looked to downsize from their five-acre property at rural Wamuran in 2017. The vast ground-floor garage space allowed Howard to section off an area for his workshop and fill it with his beloved machinery and tools.

It has become a place he feels very comfortable. “I spend most of my life in the workshop,” he laughed. “I wouldn’t have moved anywhere where I couldn’t have my own workshop. “I have to be using my hands because it’s part of my life to build things, repair things or to do things.”

Howard says he does tear himself away to play golf each week and to get out and socialise with Jeanette. Occasionally, he’ll take down one of his guitars for a strum, insisting that he plays only for his own amusement.

“I’m a builder, not a player,” he laughed.