My name is Macdara Ó Faoláin and I make handcrafted fretted instruments in An Rinn, Co. Waterford. I had some interest in woodwork as a child, after my parents encouraged myself and my brothers with a children’s woodwork set. My main interest was music however, having played fiddle, mandolin and bouzouki from an early age.
My quest to make my first instrument began when my parents decided to buy me a handmade bouzouki for my 10th birthday. Galway luthier Paul Doyle sent me a photo of some half-made bouzoukis for me to choose from and once it was completed he uploaded a video of Andy Irvine playing it. I thought a musician like Andy playing something you made from scratch back to you must have been an amazing feeling, so I set out to learn how to make an instrument.
At the age of fourteen, I contacted Paul and he agreed to teach me how to make a simple instrument – a ukulele. I decided that I’d go to Paul for a few days here and there and that I’d make my own ukulele in school for my Junior Certificate project. I finished the school ukulele first, safe to say it looked awful - lopsided, asymmetrical and rough around the edges, but it worked, and it sounded fairly good! At the time, I was just delighted it didn’t explode with the string tension.
It felt like a huge achievement and the fact that it was playable gave me the courage to make a few more. I then finished the ukulele I was making with Paul and it came out a lot better. It was still nothing spectacular but the sound of it still continues to amaze me, as plenty of mistakes were made along the way. The time I spent with Paul was very interesting and informative – he was there to answer all (millions) of my questions both in the workshop and over emails and Facebook. I still find it mad how he trusted me with equipment at such a young age, but that’s the kind soul that he is, he definitely changed my life!
As part of transition year, I did work experience with the skilled violin maker, Ian Knepper. Ian helped me out with making a few ukuleles, whilst also teaching me some critical things such as sharpening tools and general improvements on wood working skills - he continues to be amazingly supportive and teaches me something new every time I meet him! Ian really encouraged me to make an instrument that I’d play every day myself, as I’m not really a uke player. He challenged me to start a bouzouki and that he would give me a hand when I needed it, so the very next week at work experience, we made a mold and the journey began!
My great friend Seán Ó Fearghail had finished a guitar making course at the time and he also greatly assisted the journey. I reached somewhat of a wall when I passed the halfway point and another friend Paddy Cleere stepped in and helped me with the final stages. I have the few names above to thank for my very first bouzouki, as well as the one and only Andy Manson, who’s informative photos will be a source of inspiration for up and coming luthiers for years to come! The first bouzouki actually came out fairly well. Even though there were some clear aesthetic flaws, the sound was pleasing! It still plays very well, I was very proud of it and I played it as my main instrument for a year or two. It was an amazing learning curve, I took note of what exactly worked and what needed some improvement and design change! For an instrument that was mainly made on an old ping pong table at home, I was pretty happy to say I made it.
I put a lot of thought and consideration into tweaking my design before the second bouzouki was started. I wanted a deeper sound and I needed more volume, I felt the previous instrument lacked volume and power, getting lost in sessions. I deepened the sides, enlarged the soundhole and studied the hell out of brace voicing, mostly Dana Bourgeouis’ work. I felt all along that this would become my somewhat prototype bouzouki, although there are always improvements to be made. I put a lot of time into improving aesthetics and the tonal quality and I was extremely happy with the improvement from the first bouzouki to this one.
I decided to raffle this bouzouki off for the Williams Syndrome Association of Ireland. Although I was happy with it and loved playing it, I wanted this charity to benefit from it and also to put myself under the pressure of having something that I’d feel comfortable with a customer having. I played the bouzouki to really get to know it as the raffle tickets were being sold, I recorded with it on Páraic MacDonnchadha’s ‘Not Before Time’. People seemed to like it, and I was very pleased with the playability of it. If I’m honest, it was a hard goodbye, as I went back to playing the first bouzouki, which did not stand a chance against this new bouzouki. Back to the workshop I went... I’d definitely keep one this time!
The third bouzouki I made was a lot more successful than anything I had done before and my work has continued to develop with each instrument. That’s where I’m at today, fifteen instruments under my belt and excited to make more. Loving every second of it! I have many to thank for getting me to where I am today: Paul Doyle, Ian Knepper, Paddy Cleere, Seán Ó Fearghail, Paddy Tutty and Ultan Walsh in particular! Also to my family, who supported my rare interest as a teen! Gurb fada buan sibh go léir!