Nfld. & Labrador

Shreds from the sea: 300-year-old shipwreck finds new life in electric guitars

Greg Fleming's Tidebreaker guitar was created with wood from a shipwreck found in Renews Harbour, on the southeast coast of Newfoundland. When the wood was found in 1994, he says, those in the community knew they had come across something special.

Newfoundland musician has carefully crafted instruments from sunken timbers

Greg Fleming built his Tidebreaker guitars using wood from a shipwreck found in Renews Harbour, on the southeast coast of Newfoundland. The wood dates to 1661. (Submitted by Greg Fleming)

St. John's musician Greg Fleming has seen a lot of guitars made out of a lot of different materials.

But after experimenting with creating guitars from an unlikely source, he says he hasn't come across anything like his first creation.

"I've got Gibsons and Fenders and all sorts of guitars, and these Tidebreakers are completely different than all of it," Fleming told CBC Radio's Weekend AM. "They're very unique."

Fleming's Tidebreaker guitar was created with wood from a shipwreck found in Renews Harbour, on the southeast coast of Newfoundland. When the wood was found in 1994, he said, those in the community knew they had come across something special.

"The wood was very interesting because it wasn't put together with steel. It was put together with what's called tree nails," he said. "And because of that, I decided to get the wood carbon-dated."

Working with the University of Ottawa, Fleming discovered the sunken timbers dated from 1661. At some point, they wound up on the ocean floor until 1994, when the wood was moved to a field on Fleming's uncle's property in Renews, on the southern shore of the Avalon peninsula. There they sat for another 25 years. 

After Fleming decided to start making electric guitars early last year, the wood became the inspiration for his first set of custom instruments.

The wood used to make the guitars must be slowly dried before it can be cut open, which led Fleming to discover the wood was infused with salt water. (Submitted by Greg Fleming)

"I decided to cut [the boards of wood] open and I dried them out," he said. "Once I split them open and saw how the wood properties changed and how the wood infused with the seawater after being underwater for about 300 years, I knew then and there it had to be a guitar.

"I had some preconceived notions of what I was going to do with the wood," Fleming said. "But when you open the wood and make an initial cut and look at it, it really tells a different story and you kind of get inspired. [You] sort of tailor it to what that artistic piece of wood looks like."

Fleming's process usually takes two to three months, as the fragile wood needs to be slowly dried before it can be used. After experimenting with the salt water-infused wood, he said, the guitar has surpassed all expectations, providing a unique sound unlike anything else in his collection.

Fleming has completed two Tidebreaker guitars and is working on a third. He hopes to make a series of 10. (Submitted by Greg Fleming)

"This wood is absolutely phenomenal," he said. "The guitars are solid, they're two or three pieces. They don't have a separate top, there's solid wood throughout.... It's got incredible sustain, and that gives it a really toney volume."

Fleming hopes to complete a limited series of 10 guitars with the wood he has left, but he won't be sure how much wood is usable until he cuts into it. He said he might end up selling a few of the guitars in hopes of sharing the feel, sound and history of the instruments.

"It's truly remarkable when I look at what this wood looked like in a field, to a finished instrument," he said. "So every time, I kind of get a little bit of chills when I realize I'm playing a shipwreck that was underwater for 300 years."

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About the Author

Alex Kennedy works in St. John's for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

With files from Weekend AM

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