Strains of music from grand old tree felled by disease

Mr Chan with the electric guitar he made from a 25m-tall Senegal mahogany tree that once stood next to the F1 Pit Building at Marina Promenade. The tree-lover feels that having a "tangible" and "cool" object will help spread the conservation message
Mr Chan with the electric guitar he made from a 25m-tall Senegal mahogany tree that once stood next to the F1 Pit Building at Marina Promenade. The tree-lover feels that having a "tangible" and "cool" object will help spread the conservation message to the young.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Guitar crafted from its wood will be played at park concerts

In two weeks' time, a special guitar will be unveiled to the crowds at Gardens by the Bay as part of the Singapore Garden Festival.

The electric guitar was made by Mr Adam Chan using wood from a 25m-tall Senegal mahogany tree that once stood next to the F1 Pit Building at Marina Promenade.

"My hope is to see a young chap playing this guitar up on stage, to the cheers of other young people, as they marvel at the gift of trees from which the guitar originated and remember the importance of conserving trees," said Mr Chan, 46, a guitar-maker and repairman.

In March, he read about the launch of a 3km Civic District Tree Trail to prompt pedestrians to look up at the towering sentinels and appreciate the multiple roles they have played over the years.

As a tree lover, he was heartened by these efforts but was not convinced that they would cut any ice with the younger generation.

"Young people nowadays don't think about or even notice the trees around them. The trees only exist to provide shade for them if the sun is blazing," said Mr Chan.

 
  • FROM FELLED TREE TO ELECTRIC GUITAR

  • (ANTICLOCKWISE FROM LEFT)

    STEP 1: A log is chosen from a stack in Fort Canning Park and hoisted by a crane to be sawn up nearby.

  • STEP 2: Instructions are given to contractors to saw the selected sections - not affected by disease - into smaller and manageable sizes.

  • STEP 3: The wood is taken to a workshop and further cut to length.

  • STEP 4: In the absence of a kiln, pieces of wood are dried in a microwave that is extended to fit long pieces of wood.

  • STEP 5: Two pieces of wood are clamped and glued together to make the body.

  • STEP 6: It is common to make the parts for two guitars simultaneously, so that one serves as a backup in case the other is not built successfully.

    STEP 7: Different sections of the guitar are cut and holes are made within the body to install parts such as volume pots. They are sanded smooth before being sprayed with a varnish.

  • STEP 8: Metal wires are installed onto the guitar neck. The completed electric guitar comes in the classic Fender Telecaster design.

So he wrote to Senior Minister of State for National Development and Home Affairs Desmond Lee, asking if he could get wood from diseased or dead trees in Singapore and use it to make guitar frames.

His idea was to place the guitar frames, inscribed with information pertaining to that particular tree, along the Civic District Tree Trail, so that Singaporeans could appreciate the beauty of the distinct grain pattern of each type of tree.

Mr Lee linked him up with officials from the National Parks Board (NParks). They liked the idea but challenged him further with this suggestion: How about making a full-fledged guitar from the wood instead and playing it at NParks' upcoming events?

Mr Chan agreed and went full speed ahead with the project because he felt that having a "tangible" and "cool" object will help spread the conservation message to the young.

Initially, he thought of using wood from the large and majestic raintree, often seen growing by the road, because it was one of the trees highlighted in the tree trail. But he also wanted to make do with what was available.

In April, he got a call informing him that a mahogany tree was diseased and had to be felled.

He went to Fort Canning Park and gave the contractors the dimensions of wood blocks that he needed from its trunk. Those sections of wood were not affected by disease.

The wood was delivered to his workshop in Ubi, where he cut them further down to size.

Usually, the wood would then be put into a kiln to go through a drying process that may stretch from five to 10 years. But the workshop did not have a kiln. Mr Chan improvised and made do with a modified microwave which has an extension so that it is deep enough for long planks of wood to be put inside.

Over the next three days, Mr Chan dried the wood repeatedly in the microwave, for one to two minutes each time. It is important to dry the wood as it has 30 per cent to 40 per cent moisture, which would cause rot to set in.

Then he used a wood moisture measuring meter to make sure that moisture levels have dropped to about 11 per cent before he proceeded to cut and glue the pieces together. Other steps included installing parts such as the volume pots and metal wires, before he finished the one-month job by giving the guitar a spray over.

Mahogany is commonly used to make the necks and bodies of guitars but not their fronts and fingerboards, for aesthetic and technical reasons.

"But this guitar is made mostly of mahogany because I wanted it to spark off conversation among the young by familiarising them with one tree species for a start," said Mr Chan, who quit his human resource and corporate training job in 2009 to develop his skills in making and repairing guitars.

He gets his wood from timber merchants. His company, Guitaring Passionately, also runs guitar maintenance workshops.

Mr Chan said the sound quality of the mahogany guitar - crisp and twangy - has met his expectations.

He is open to future partnerships with NParks to create more guitars from recycled wood but that has yet to be set in stone.

There are high hopes for the mahogany guitar, which belongs to NParks.

Said Mr Lee in a Facebook post: "This guitar will be used by budding Singaporean young talent at park concerts to engage our community and raise awareness of the trees that provide shade, respite and character to our City in a Garden."

He added: "Thank you, Adam, for the gift to NParks and for helping these trees live on through music!"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2016, with the headline 'Strains of music from grand old tree felled by disease'. Print Edition | Subscribe