Opus: The making of musical instruments in Canada

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Ihis far-from-exhaustive study of instrument making in Canada has been confined to artisans whose instruments are part of the Canadian Museum of Civilization's collection. There are many other talented instrument makers in Canada, some of whom loaned instruments to the Opus exhibition. These artisans are profiled below.


Nedd Kenney,
wind-instrument maker

Wind-instrument maker Nedd Kenney is particularly interested in the Irish concert flute and the traditional Celtic flageolet. With over fifteen years' experience in performing Irish music, he came to instrument making through his search for a quality instrument. As the Irish concert flute is based on baroque flutes, he apprenticed under baroque-flute maker Jean-François Beaudin in 1989. Kenney established his own workshop in his native Prince Edward Island, where he works full-time and continues to perform. He is a founding member of the group Flying Tide, which specializes in Celtic and traditional Maritime music.

Jacques Martel, luthier

After training for three years under Italian master Sylvio de Lellis, Jacques Martel established his own workshop, L'atelier de lutherie, in Trois-Rivières in 1980. In addition to being especially interested in making instruments of the violin family, Martel restores stringed instruments. He has broadened his basic knowledge of  the luthier's craft through extensive training with European masters. In particular, he studied varnish composition and the restoration and adjustment of string quartet instruments under Frédéric Boyer, and honed his knowledge of advanced restoration under Jean-Jacques Rampal.

Jacques Martel has received several grants from the ministère des Affaires culturelles du Québec and, in 1989, represented Quebec at the first Jeux de la francophonie in Morocco, where he won a gold medal for instrument making.

Iain Ro-Ha-Hes Phillips, luthier

Iain Phillips has been making musical instruments for close to twenty years. After discovering early music, he pursued studies in this field at the University of Ottawa. In response to the heavy demand for historic instruments, he spent much of the 1970s and 1980s making instruments, beginning with harps and eventually expanding his skill to other types of stringed instruments.

Phillips has several instruments to his credit, including viols, vitheles, mandores, gigues and medieval organs. He also teaches music history at Carleton University and heads an Ottawa baroque music group called Les barricades mystérieuses.

Thomas Strang,
wind-instrument maker

Thomas Strang studied art restoration at Queen's University, and works as a scientific restorer at the Canadian Conservation Institute. In his free time, he makes wind instruments, an activity with many rewarding aspects: finding solutions to various technical challenges, perfecting a technique, researching quality raw materials and, finally, hearing the first sounds of the new instrument. One of the challenges that Strang set for himself was to build a Northumbrian bagpipe, a complex instrument based on the French musette.

Gregory Walke, luthier

When he was a biology student, Gregory Walke visited Ireland with his brother Bernard. The trip proved to be a decisive experience as extended contact with traditional Irish music encouraged him to learn the violin and violin making. In 1979, Walke enrolled in the Welsh School of Violin Making and Repair in Great Britain, where he studied for three years. He furthered his knowledge during two training sessions in European workshops. In 1983, he was invited to spend a year studying and working in Michael Franke's workshop in Wiesbaden, Germany. Subsequently accepted in the Stuttgart workshop of master luthier and restorer Hieronymus Köstler, Walke spent two years learning the art of restoration and had the opportunity to work on major seventeenth- and eighteenth-century instruments. Upon returning to Canada in 1987, he opened a workshop with luthier Sibylle Ruppert and began collaborating with his brother Bernard, who is a bow maker. They have customers in Canada, the United States and Germany.

Karl Wilhelm, organ builder

Robert Barclay Video Excerpt
Karl Wilhelm
Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec

Karl Wilhelm learned to build organs in Germany and Switzerland, where he worked with the renowned organ makers Metzler and Sohne. He immigrated to Canada during the 1960s resurgence of organ building in Quebec, when the Casavant firm recruited European organ makers to revive tracker-action organs (which had not been built since 1904). In 1966, he established his own company, Karl Wilhelm Inc., in Mont-Saint-Hilaire. Staffed by a group of talented, specialized artisans, many trained by Wilhelm himself, his workshop is equipped to build all parts of the tracker-action organ and has produced over 120 organs, which have been sold throughout North America.

René Wilhelmy, luthier

René Wilhelmy studied classical guitar at the Institut Marguerite Bourgeois and with guitarist Jean Vallières. During this training, he learned instrument making on his own, thus launching his career as a luthier. Two grants, one from the Canada Council and the other from the Office franco-québécois, enabled him to hone his skill, and his travels in Europe brought him into contact with major luthiers and guitarists. With his solid experience acquired over the years, Wilhelmy has become a prominent luthier.

While he works on historic guitar models, René Wilhelmy also experiments with building more modern instruments, such as folk guitars and electric guitars. To date, he has produced nearly one hundred instruments, including lutes, folk and electric guitars, and more than seventy-five classical guitars. These instruments, many of which are owned by award-winning musicians, are widely admired as much for their artistic beauty as for their fine tone.