Making musical instruments

 25 July 2012

Mike Anderson founded Starfish Designs after making a traditional Scottish harp for his daughter. Now he sells instruments worldwide and spoke about how he achieved this business success.

Each instrument is made by one person from start to finish.
Each instrument is made by one person from start to finish.

At Starfish Designs, Mike Anderson and his colleagues have a full order book and a six-month waiting list for their products.

The musical instruments they make, both traditional and modern, are sold worldwide and have earned them an enviable reputation. A suitable reward for 20 years of hard work.

Being a good musical instrument maker

It seems strange that Mike Anderson does not play a musical instrument, since he makes them for a living. “Stradivari didn’t play the violin,” says Mike, “but he made the Stradivarius violins which are world-famous.”

Mike adds that being both a musician and a maker can bring a clash of loyalties.

“You don’t know which side of the fence you’re on. Some makers get quite obsessive about what they are producing, as they can’t decide whether they are making what they want to play or what their customer wants.”

Listening to the customer is vitally important. As is a thorough knowledge and skill at woodworking.

“You have to know about music and understand what the customer wants. But in fact we only have one member out of our five staff who plays music. It is useful to have one.”

Starting out in musical craft

Mike began the company in 1987, when his daughter asked him to make her a clàrsach (a Gaelic harp), which she had started to play at school. Mike was a joiner, working in the construction industry at the time. He was self-employed and looking for a change from, “sitting on roofs, freezing to death, trying to make money.”

By doing a lot of research and looking very carefully at what was required, Mike successfully built his first clàrsach. There were very few people making celtic harps at that time, and Mike realised that this could be a real niche market for him using his woodworking skills.

“The greatest buzz for us is seeing people performing with our instruments.”

Situated in North Ballachulish, Argyll, in the west highlands of Scotland, Starfish Designs continue to make clàrsachs, traditionally used to accompany singing. But they have also added a modern twist to their business.

In 1991, Duncan Chisholm, leader of the famous Scottish rock band Wolfstone, asked Mike to make him an electric fiddle. Following that, Starfish now make electric violins, violas and cellos, which are used by classical and rock musicians worldwide.

Mike now works in partnership with Dave Shipton, a skilled boat maker, who joined the company in 1992. Mike feels that, since Dave became a partner, he has been responsible for taking the company to a whole new level of skill which has allowed them to build up the business to concentrate on making, rather than chasing sales.

“We have a full order book for six months ahead,” says Mike, “so we have enough of a market to keep us happy.”

How instruments are made

Both traditional and modern instruments are made of wood in a similar way:

  • Sawn timber, mostly walnut, cherry or maple, is chiselled, planed, sanded and glued together.
  • Everything is finished by hand with hours and hours of sanding to get the necessary fine surfaces.
  • Harp strings are made from cow gut (which gave Mike huge problems during the BSE crisis), and they have metal tuning pins.
  • The electric instruments are wonderfully shaped with an open body to facilitate electrification of the sound without feedback, making them highly sculptural items as well as musical.

It takes about six weeks to make a clàrsach and one of the company's makers will take ownership of the harp, seeing it right through from the raw wood to the finished instrument.

“You know from the start who you’re making it for , so you know what they want. It’s the opposite of a factory process here and it keeps people involved if they are responsible for the whole instrument.

The challenges of a small craft business

“Being such a small company we have to get on with each other. It’s a compact and pretty intense environment at times and hugely demanding on people’s skills. We need to have a consistent and very high standard of workmanship. People have to be able to work unsupervised.

"It’s the opposite of a factory process – people are responsible for the whole instrument.”

"We do provide training on how to deal with customers as Dave and I can’t always be here, but most of the sales and marketing work is shared between Dave and myself.”

Mike and his colleagues don’t see themselves as craft workers, at least not the type to join the local Crafts Association.

“I think the term craft worker has got diluted, and has just become about making something to sell in village halls. We’re putting genuine quality into things here and we’re very proud to be making the best clàrsachs in Scotland.”

Finding new customers and markets

Sales are not just in Scotland but are worldwide. Harps, costing from £1,500 to £3,500, sell to amateur and professional musicians, including some very good musicians who are trying to take traditional music to a higher level.

The electric instruments, priced between £1,600 and £3,500, are bought by a wide range of people, from classical musicians who want to extend their employability to session musicians, celtic rock bands and classical players exploring new types of music making.

“We don’t have any stock, as everything is made to order. We don’t sell anything to retail outlets, only to individuals as we’re too specialised. So we need to be able to communicate with the end user.”

As with all small businesses, Starfish Designs struggled at the beginning to get funding and Mike says he should have been much more aggressive with banks and other funders.

“I think the organisations that encourage small businesses should concentrate more on what those companies are trying to achieve than just encourage them to employ more people. 

"We don’t want to double our business in five years, that’s not what we are about. It must be very difficult for businesses like ours starting up now to find markets and funding.”

Mike obviously gets immense satisfaction out of what he does. “The greatest buzz for us is seeing really good people – and sometimes the best people – performing with our instruments. That’s just the best feeling!” 

5 tips for running a craft business

  1. Keep a consistent, high standard of workmanship
  2. Be totally involved in the making process
  3. Look at how you can use traditional skills in new ways
  4. Maintain direct communication with the person who will be using your product
  5. Identify a niche market, and then excel in it.

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