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There’s a long history of homemade instruments in the United States, especially those made out of recycled boxes and tins and transformed into strings. At the turn of the last century, every household had an instrument and at least one person in the family knew how to fashion one out of something they had laying around. Fast forward to today where the resurgence of DIY culture and a new found appreciation for recycling and upcycling is inspiring people from all walks of life to build instruments by hand. Not every Tom Dick and Harry knows the intricacies of creating a masterpiece like those made by Barry Rust of Great Plains Handmade, but there is a growing community that appreciate the history, the craft and the music.
Meet Barry, one of the people helping to continue the practice. Check out his corner on Krrb and read on for the interview.
Where are you from and where are you living now?
I’m from the Midwest—grew up and went to college there. I moved to New York about 11 years ago and have lived in Ft. Greene for 6 years.
Can you describe in your own words what you make? Where does the name come from?
I make instruments out of old, weird stuff, like antique cigar boxes, cookie tins, and coffee tins. They’re mostly ukuleles and banjos. I called my business Great Plains because all my memories of building things when I was a kid are set in the Midwest. I come from a long line of Midwestern tinkerers.
What recycled materials do you use and where do you find them?
I used a cigar box from my parents’ basement for my first uke. It had “couplers, screws, pins, engine parts” written on it, since my dad used it for his model trains when he was a kid. Once that supply ran out, I headed for eBay. There are tons of beautiful old cigar boxes there. The details on them are gorgeous, and a lot of them have handwritten labels all over them, just like the one I got from my dad. I’ve also started using old coffee tins. They’re a perfect size, and the details are great. It’s funny to think how so many of our containers are made out of plastic now. A lot of the wood I use comes from my dad’s barn, where he keeps the wood my granddad bought about 30 years ago, at a clearance discount from the local lumberyard. It’s always been hard for my family to pass up a bargain.
How did you get started?
I’ve been collecting instruments for years. I started with an accordion, and now I’ve got all sorts of stuff, like a jaw harp, a musical saw, and a harmonium. At one point I wanted a nicer ukulele than the one I had, so when I bought a cigar box at a garage sale, I thought I’d try to make my own. I had no idea about anything as far as instrument building went—I even found out that the cardboard cigar box I’d just bought wouldn’t work—but the internet is a wonderful thing. I found a few plans and got started. Somehow the final product actually worked, and I was hooked.
What else do you make or how else do you spend your time? Anything in the realm of handmade or DIY?
I kind of have a hard time just sitting around. I’m usually trying to build something or fix something whenever I’ve got a spare couple of minutes. Before I got into instrument making, I made a bunch of broken-china mosaics on furniture around my apartment. Before that, I altered some of my old clothes with my grandmother’s old sewing machine. I’m also into cooking and gardening. When it comes down to it, though, the best part of it all is the learning part. Taking on a new challenge and figuring it out is my favorite.
Is there a resurgence of handmade instruments (or specifically the cigar box guitar)? If so, why do you think that is?
Cigar box instruments do seem to be getting more popular. Lots of people like the one-of-a-kind aspect to it. And it’s possible make something that sounds about right without too much money (think toothpicks for fretwire), but it’s a pretty amazing thrill when you pluck that first string and it really sounds like something. There are a bunch of online communities where people share ideas and ask for advice. It makes the process more accessible.
What is you day job? Does this relate at all?
I’m an elementary school teacher. As a teacher, you have to think about the steps of learning and how kids navigate their way through them. What’s neat about having all these hobbies is that I get to think about my own learning a lot—including the mistakes. It helps me understand what the kids in my class are working through when they’re doing math or reading or writing. Plus, I get to share my building process with my students. Even as an adult it’s been amazing for me to see how something like a ukulele comes together. I hope that when kids see their teacher making things, they get inspired to try something they never thought they could do.