Paul Henry Martin builds the stories of wood

By Bill Franz

Photo: Paul Henry Martin identifies as both craftsman and artist; photo: Bill Franz

About three years ago, I started taking photos of people at work, with a focus on two groups.  One group is Dayton artists working in their studios. The other group is workers in some of the region’s oldest factories. Paul Henry Martin is the first person I’ve met that fits into both of these groups.

I met Martin at Gerstner & Sons, in a plant that has been making wooden tool chests since 1913.  Henry is Gerstner’s top woodworker and his studio is in his home in Spring Valley. There, Henry works as a luthier, making violins and guitars.

The instruments Henry makes today are special because the wood is special. He calls what he does “character woodworking.”  In his own words: “My idea is to capture and understand the character and the story of certain pieces of wood and then to use those pieces to make fiddles and guitars.”

Martin explains to me that he needs softwood for the tops of his instruments and hardwood for the sides and bottom. He was just getting started on two guitars, which will use the softwood from a Scotch whisky box and hardwood from a mahogany dining room table. “People grew up around this table,” Martin tells me. “This wood has stories to tell.”

I noticed a saying of St. Francis on the wall of Martin’s studio:

He who works with his hands is a laborer.

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.

He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

I asked Martin where he fits into that spectrum. “I guess I am an artist, as I select wood that has a story to tell. Then, I have to be craftsman enough to make an instrument that can tell that story.”

Martin showed me his personal guitar.

“Years ago, I played with a band in a lot of small bars. The music was great but then came the hardest part, packing up and driving home. Too many beers made that job hard, so we’d drink coffee. Every once in a while, we’d ask the bartender to throw a shot of Drambuie into our coffee,” he says. “Years later, I’m walking through a flea market and saw a Drambuie box.  So many wonderful memories came flooding back. I knew exactly how I could use it.”

“Around that same time, my mother told me that the old tree behind our house was being cut down.  I asked her to hang onto a few logs,” he continues. “The Drambuie box became the front of my guitar and that old tree became the back sides and neck.”

For more information on Paul Henry Martin’s art, please visit   storyfiddles.com.

 

Bill Franz retired from a business career and became a volunteer photographer doing projects for many local nonprofits.  His photos of people at work have been shown in art exhibitions across Ohio and neighboring states.  Find out more at billfranz17.com/about. 

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Bill Franz
Bill Franz retired from a business career and became a volunteer photographer doing projects for many local nonprofits.  His photos of people at work have been shown in art exhibitions across Ohio and neighboring states.  Find out more at billfranz17.com/about. 

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