Hamilton

New charity project creating guitars from centuries-old Hamilton building

A group of local arts businesses are coming together to celebrate their anniversaries with a limited edition run of 25 guitars, crafted from centuries-old wood from a historic building in downtown Hamilton.

Jillard Guitars is making 25 instruments built from reclaimed wood from a building from 1872

This prototype is the first guitar made as part of the 99 James North project. (Jillardguitars.com)

Music lovers now have the chance to own a piece of Hamilton's history.

A group of local arts businesses are coming together to celebrate their anniversaries with a limited edition run of 25 guitars, crafted from centuries-old wood from a historic building in downtown Hamilton.

It's called the 99 James North project, named after the building where the wood was recovered before restoration — namely, Douglas fir beams from a four-storey Victorian on James Street North that was built in 1872.

"It's a really unique chance to have something actually made from Hamilton," said luthier Jay Jillard, who is building the guitars as part of Jillard Guitars' tenth anniversary.

"It's a celebration of our individual histories, as well as a celebration of Hamilton's history."

Mark Milne is one of the partners who purchased the building at 99 James St. N. (Jillardguitars.com)

On top of Jillard's anniversary, the project is also celebrating Sonic Unyon Records' 25th anniversary, Cottage 13 Tattoo's 20th anniversary, and Birchway Sound's fifth anniversary.

Proceeds from the project are being donated to An Instrument For Every Child, an organization that aims to provide access to instruments and skilled instructors for children from all walks of life. 

Mark Milne and Tim Potocic of Sonic Unyon bought the building with other shareholders back in 2014. The pair watched 99 James for years from the windows of Sonic Unyon's building on Wilson Street, and saw it fall into disrepair like the nearby Tivoli Theatre and the (now restored) Lister Block had before it.

Hamilton custom guitar builder Jay Jillard takes us inside his workshop. 1:00

The group didn't want this building to suffer the same fate, Milne said. "We just thought something had to be done here."

Milne, who is used to working with reclaimed wood for projects inside his home, made sure to save some of the old wooden beams that were pulled out of the building as it was renovated.

It was during last year's Supercrawl that all the parties got together and the idea for the project was hatched.

This is what 99 James Street North looked like back in 2012, before it was renovated. The building now houses Cottage 13 Tattoo. (Google)

In working with reclaimed materials, there are challenges. Jillard found that out himself when he wrecked a saw blade while attempting to cut through a beam and striking a hidden nail.

Each piece of Douglas fir has spikes, knots, and stains that Jillard has to avoid.

"With reclaimed wood, you just have to work around that," he said. The wood is similar to pine, but not as soft and with a tighter grain.

"It makes for a great-sounding guitar," Jillard said.

Chrisy Hurn of Basement Revolver uses a wood burning tool to sign her name on the prototype 99 James North guitar. (Jillardguitars.com)

Each guitar is one-of-a-kind, and carries Hamilton's history with it. It also features artwork from Cottage 13 Tattoo engraved on the back.

Considering every guitar is made by hand, they don't come cheap. Each one runs at $4,800 — which is still cheaper than some custom shop options from bigger brands like Gibson.

A prototype guitar has already been seen onstage in the hands of Terra Lightfoot, Chrisy Hurn from Basement Revolver, Dan Mangan, The Elwins and The Trews. People who use it are signing their names on the instrument using a wood-burning tool, almost akin to Willie Nelson's famous guitar "Trigger," which is similarly adorned with signatures.

Jillard is making every guitar by hand. (Jillardguitars.com)

These guitars are extra special in that musicians get a chance to play a piece of Hamilton history, Milne said.

"Guitars today are far more mass-produced and far less personal than they used to be," he said.

"But this — it's really meaningful to have something that's a collaboration of Hamilton-based companies and musicians."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

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