Inside the Craft

B.C.'s Michael Heiden learned guitar building at Galiano Island commune

B.C. string instrument builder Michael Heiden first learned the craft at a commune full of luthiers on Galiano Island.

Inside the Craft explores B.C.'s finest instrument builders

B.C. luthier Michael Heiden has been building string instruments since the 1970s. (CBC)

B.C. craftsman Michael Heiden remembers when he first started making musical instruments.

He is now an accomplished luthier, a master string instrument builder, but back in the 1970s, he was just a young man coming out of high school who knew he loved music.

That love led the then 17-year-old Heiden to leave Vancouver and move to a commune on Galiano Island, B.C., which was full of elderly instrument builders.

Heiden always had a fascination with woodwork and he remembers thinking, "this is what I want to do."

"That became a total obsession to me, to be able to build musical instruments and work with wood," said Heiden.

Armed with his new-found skill as a luthier, Heiden moved back to Vancouver, rented a house, set up a workshop and started repairing people's broken guitars.

His first steady work came from building dulcimers — a type of zither — for Vancouver's growing folk-music scene.

"The dulcimer ...  was so popular I couldn't build them fast enough."

Heiden juggled his luthier business with his pursuit of a musical career. He worked as a travelling musician until the early 2000s, when he decided his main focus would be building string instruments.

Of the many musicians who use instruments made by Heiden, one of the most famous is American mandolin player and front man of the Jaybirds, John Reischman.

"I worked on his famous mandolin for quite a few years," said Heiden. "Keeping it working for him."

Establishing a strong relationship between builder and musician is key, said Heiden. For example, Reischman liked the first mandolin Heiden built for him, but the neck of the instrument didn't feel "quite right."

"So I built him a second one ... And I paid really particular attention to the shape of the neck so that it would feel right for him."

"I like to think I nailed it."

Heiden now lives in Creston, B.C., where he owns and operates his own professional restoration and construction workshop, Heiden Stringed Instruments.


Tune in to North by Northwest on Sundays at 8:10 a.m. from February 24th to April 22 for the special series, Inside the Craft.