Thursday, 27 December 2018

The Journey and the Journeymen

Image result for journeyman carpenterTraditionally there are three levels of craftsmen. An Apprentice, a Journeyman and a Master. Historically, an apprentice would work closely alongside a Master craftsman who would have a good number of years  running their own small business in the Trade).  A few years ago I had a fascinating visit to Martin Goetz and Dominic Gwynn's organ building workshop on the Welbeck Estate, where a young apprentice was being introduced to the technical aspects of metallurgy, essential in the construction of organ pipes. After three or four years learning on the job, an apprentice would typically take some form of examination, and become a Journeyman. The word journeyman is derived from the French for day (journ√©e), which refers to the right to claim wages on a day-by-day basis. With time, a reputation would lead to a few journeymen becoming Masters, which would usually be associated with setting up their own establishment. This system of apprenticeships dominated all trades: my own ancestors from Liverpool were Blacksmiths. It was very common for such trades to be associated with families, where the Masters would hand down the trade and business to their children.

Ray in his workshop with the students
Ray's journey When I met Ray last week, I asked him to take me through his own personal journey to becoming a Master Luthier. Here is my version from that conversation. The first thing you realise when you meet Ray in his workshop, is that he definitely isn't "Liverpool born and bred!". Ray hails from the frozen wasteland (from my experience!) of another English seafaring city: Newcastle. The second thing that becomes clear is that conversations with Ray work best with a good cup of strong coffee from Ride

A  badly damaged truss rod
Tenacity Ray's family influences were clearly important: his father was "handy" and his grandfather, who worked for the engineering firm Vickers, one of the largest engineering businesses in the world at the time, was a great role model. Ray would delight in taking apart old components from discarded machinery, just to see how it all fitted together. Here were the green shoots of a craftsman who can't settle until he's "fettled" a challenging problem. Only recently, a Ray told me, he had to fix a badly warped neck on a client's beloved Fender Telecaster (with a stripped truss rod, as shown): going to some serious lengths, including fashioning new tools, just to keep the customer satisfied, and pride in his craft, intact! So, two key early ingredients as Ray started out in his working life were family influences and a determination to solve problems.

Image result for The Technique of Furniture Making Hardcover√Ę€“ 30 Apr 1987 by Ernest Joyce (Author), Alan Peters (Editor) Multi-disciplinarian (or as they used to be called: all-rounders) School for Ray was followed by a course in furniture design (the book on the right was a recommendation from another luthier, the brother of an old friend of mine), which gave him skills, not only in carpentry and a love for wood, but introduced Ray to the principles involved in design: all of which would prove invaluable later. Another important string to Ray's bow came in the form of music: he turned professional guitar player around this time, but while the love of Blues and playing remains very much part of Ray's persona, it didn't pay the bills. And so, Ray moved through a job in a council drawing office (adding more relevant skills), through the audio visual department at the University of Newcastle. This last job proved to be the prelude to Ray's move to Liverpool, where he obtained a position he was to hold for the rest of his working life in sound production for Lime Studios. That is of course, until he took up residence at the Cains Brewery Village...

The Master By the time Ray decided that working from his garage was commercially limiting, he had added electronics and an appreciation of the recorded sound to his portfolio of skills. It was clear to me by now that, although Ray often drifted into opportunities along the road, he was perfectly placed to begin his new career as a contemporary luthier. As an academic, who has spent over 30 years working in experimental science and education, I immediately recognised some formative themes while talking to Ray. The importance of role models, passion and enthusiasm for what you do, a strong work ethic, great communication skills, determination to get the job done and, as we finished our coffees, the importance of a good sense of humour, oh and a healthy suspicion of "the Man"! As a favourite son of Liverpool, on a flight to the USA, was once asked to respond to the visa application question: "do you intend to overthrow the lawful government of the United States?", he allegedly replied: "sole purpose of visit"! I think Gilbert Harding was his inspiration, but it does capture John Lennon  to a tee! I like to think that Ray and I share some of that spirit!

In finishing, I would like to invite the students who gave such an excellent interview recently on Tony Snell in the morning (BBC Radio Merseyside, just after 47 mins)) with their school mentor, Robbie Bell, to share their own personal experiences in a Blog format. Let me know if you want to accept the offer, and I'll post it here.

Thanks again to Michael McGloughlin from NLA for the photographs.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Part II. The Luthier's story

Image result for gallery of vintage D'angelico guitars
1957 D'Angelico
New Yorker
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a luthier as a maker of stringed instruments such as violins or guitars: the word originating from the French for Lute. I assume that the artisan instrument maker of old would turn their her hand to any instrument, depending on its popularity. So in 18th Century France, it was lutes! On the left is a picture of the late, great American luthier, John D'Angelico, in his small workshop. A luthier doesn't need much space, just a good work bench, a place to hang a few guitars and today, unlike in D'Angelico's day, Ray Palfray's workshop has to accommodate computer driven cutting instruments. 
Image result for model T production line]
An early Model T assembly
line at the Ford Motor Company

It wasn't long after Henry Ford established the Ford Model T production line in Michigan at the turn of the 
last century, that everything artisan, individual and bespoke, became mass produced. This inevitably led to the domination of the electric guitar market by makes such as Gibson and Fender (alongside some specialists like Gretsch and Rickenbacker etc). The Rock 'n' Roll boom of the 1950s and '60s was partly fuelled by the corporate giants, and most specialist luthiers found it very difficult to earn a living, especially as the quality brand guitars were rather good, and more importantly affordable.

Ray Palfray in his workshop,
 sporting his signature shirt!
(Photo credit M.McGloughlin)!
However, in Liverpool, specialist luthiers such as Stan Francis, who made acoustic guitars for skiffle icon Lonnie Donegan and folk activist Pete Seeger, drew on their engineering skills and their passion for music, to turn out a few dozen guitars, essentially from the garden shed. Around the country, a small band of luthiers kept the craft alive, largely as a hobby. By the time Ray Palfray had hung up his sound production boots at Lime Pictures in Liverpool, he had already combined his carpentry and audio-electronics skills with his love of the guitar, and was making exquisitely crafted guitars out of his garage. Retirement then presented an opportunity for Ray to turn his hobby into a business venture, and when the Cains Brewery Village came on stream as a focal point for emerging creative businesses in Liverpool, Palfray Guitars found itself embedded in Sort Rehearsal Rooms at the East end of the Cains site. Which is where our story began.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock
As I was contemplating my pitch to Ray and Mark over a year ago, I began thinking about the skills needed to be a contemporary luthier, and I realised just how valuable they are. You need a knowledge of music, perhaps not as a practitioner, but certainly as a listener. You need to understand and appreciate the different  properties of wood: the body requires a combination of rigidity, lightness and suitability for carving while the neck needs the strength to take the stress of the strings without warping. The measurement skills for string length and consistency between the bridge and the nut, a knowledge of electronics to ensure the wiring is discreet and appropriate, and the choice of pick-ups (one of Ray's specialities) to give a sound quality that matches that of the classics such as the twangy metallic sound of the Fender Telecaster (twangy, metallic: think Mike Bloomfield mid-'60s or Wilko Johnson, '70/'80s). Or the smoother sound of the Fender Stratocaster, from Buddy Jolly to Hank Marvin and Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton and Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd: all fans of this iconic guitar. Finally, the pickups on the Gibsons including the Les Paul, that have a fuller sound: think of Paul Kossoff (Free) and Alright Now or Peter Green's sublime Need Your Love So Bad......

All achieved without digital modulation, but in harmony with classic amplifiers
such as the legendary Vox AC30 or a Marshall stack. Could there be a combination of skills any better for equipping students for the world of work? Electronics, woodcraft, design, the art and science of music? I think not! The two supervising teachers, Robbie Bell (NLA) and John Dyer (UTC and Studio) developed an outline project, which Ray and Mark then adapted to make sure the project was delivered on schedule as follows. 

Project Summary Mark Flanagan is a guitarist from Liverpool who plays with Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. He is looking to have a guitar custom built which looks and sounds different to the guitars he already plays. He has set students in the Northern Schools Trust the task of working with Ray Palfray – a guitar designer and creator working in the Baltic Triangle – the challenge of designing and building a new guitar based on his requirements. The guitar will be played by Mark on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny, a BBC show broadcast on NYE with close to 3 million viewers.

Aims and Objectives The main aim of this project is to give students the opportunity to develop skills in designing and building a guitar to specifications from the customer. You will work alongside Ray and Mark to gather information what Mark requires from the guitar, including the type of sound, the components and materials preferred and its appearance. You will then be involved in producing technical drawings and designs, models using softwood, testing, modifying and producing the final product on time.


June – Aug 2018

Background research, visit Palfray workshop, interview Mark on key requirements/specifications for guitar. Start designing body.

Sept – Oct 2018

Students produce technical drawings. Students to work on building softwood models with Robbie at NLA. Finalise designs.

Oct – Nov 2018

Students submit final design to Ray and building of final guitar begins. Students visit workshop and assist where possible.

9th December 2018

Guitar completed and presented to Mark.


  • Question Mark on specification/requirements
  • Research history of guitar shapes/designs/materials
  • Research stages in designing/building guitars
  • Start producing initial designs/technical drawings
  • Research/decide on components such as pickups
  • Produce softwood models of guitar shapes
  • Decide on final shape and send to Ray and Mark  for feedback.
  • Submit final design and start building guitar

Mark, Ray (foreground) and students
at the back in Ray's workshop
Mark, John and Robbie (L to R),
with  "the guitar"
(Photo credit M.McGloughlin)
It is a great credit to the teachers and students that they developed a close working relationship with Mark and Ray in particular, and the guitar was delivered a week early! It was also great to see the sheer joy of all involved in the project. I have arranged to meet with Ray to give him the opportunity to give his side of the story and to correct and embellish some of my own observations. 

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Action speaks louder than words! Part I. Opening Chords.

Image result for liverpool baltic cainsAround two year ago, I was stood in a queue in a shop in Liverpool's vibrant Baltic Triangle. Gazing around the room, I noticed a stack of postcards on a small display table. I was drawn to the photograph of a rather nice looking, but unusual, electric guitar. No surprises there: I had spent most of my spare time at school between trying get to grips with this wonderful instrument and poring over guitar magazines and catalogues. Some of you may remember the famous Bell catalogue!. According to the information on the card, Palfray guitars was just around the corner from the Life Sciences UTCin the Cains Brewery Village. I put the card in my pocket and forgot about it. However, a few weeks later, while trying to wrestle with the tuning on my 40 year old Maccaferri copy (the iconic guitar played by legendary acoustic jazzer, Django Reinhardt over 70 years ago), I thought here was an opportunity to get my CMI fixed up once and for all. I rang the number on the card, but unfortunately Ray (Palfray) who answered, was too busy to take a look until the New Year: by now it was near Christmas.  In January 2017, I finally met Ray and he not only fixed a problem that had come between me and my prized possession, but he added an "invisible" pick-up, integrated into the bridge turning my much loved acoustic guitar into an electro-acoustic. Looking around his workshop: compact and bijou maybe; but to me, an Aladdin's cave, I envied his lot in life!

Image result for jools holland mark flanaganA few months later, I had the good fortune to persuade one of Liverpool's finest guitarists, Mark Flanagan, of Jools Holland fame, to come to the NLA, en route to Glastonbury, to deliver a great version of the Lennon and McCartney classic All You Need is Love, deftly accompanied by the choir at the North Liverpool Academy. I think it made for a great denouement, to a wonderful evening celebrating ethnic and social diversity at the school. The evening continued into the early hours, with a celebration in the traditional manner back in the city centre. I then thought: why not bring the guitar making (luthier) skills of Ray and the musicianship of Mark together as the centre-piece of a schools project. After all, Liverpool is possibly a world heritage site for popular music, and has an incredible luthier legacy from Unilever engineer Stan Francis, in fact Mark has a Stan Francis original! And so, with the support of students and staff at the North Liverpool Academy, the Liverpool Studio School and the Life Sciences UTC (all part of the Northern Schools Trust) and a generous gesture from the founder of the Northern Schools Trust, the project got underway. 

The finished article
Photo credit Michael McGloughlin)
As the year progressed, the guitar design took shape with Ray introducing the students to his woodcraft, his electronic skills, and of course his passion for The Blues! Ray discussed design principles, selection of wood, neck curvature, pick up design, switching, "bucking-the -hum", balance of the body and neck over the player etc. etc. The students discussed body designs, made mock ups, interacted with Ray, stood star-struck as Mark talked of accompanying Eric Clapton, rehearsing with Paul Simon and deliberating over the piano skills of Jools Holland and  New Orleans' very own Dr. John. I think you will agree, a totally unique project and one that will be the first of many.

And I hope you agree, the guitar that Mark collected is, as Michael McGloughlin commented (as he captured the event with his camera) "a work of art". I am going to leave you now with a quote from Mark Flanagan, which made me choke, and I think sums up the whole ethos of the project, conjuring up for me, the spirit of Annie Proulx's great novel, Accordion Crimes: .

"Let me just say that as I accept this beautiful instrument, it is on the understanding that it is in my custody, until the day comes when I keel over, and then arrangements will have been put in place for the guitar to be returned to the Academy for the next lucky recipient."

Coming next

  • Part II The Luthier's story
  • Part III The Journey and the Journeymen
  • Part IV The Axeman cometh
  • Part V Hootenanny and the next project!

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Experimental Planning 1.Work Flow Diagrams

1.Work Flow Diagrams as an aid to planning

This series of posts is intended to introduce newcomers to the key elements of experimental science. In this first post, I shall discuss the elements of planning and preparation. I believe the success of any experiment is directly related to the care taken in preparation and planning.
If you set out to bake a loaf of bread, go on a holiday, get ready to run a marathon or revise for an examination, there is always an element of planning and organisation involved. The better prepared you are the more likely the outcome will be under your control. So if you are travelling to the USA for the first time, you will need to organise tickets, a passport, a visa, dollars or some form of credit card, accommodation, onward travel and possibly arrange tickets for the opera etc. If you want to travel to the USA at short notice, then there are a number of consequences. Without a passport, you will be unable to travel at all, unless you organise a 1 day passport, but for normal passport applications, this may take between 2-8 weeks. You will need a visa, but if you have internet access and online credit you can organise this the day before. As you can see, some things require planning and organisation. 

I want to introduce you to the concept of the  Work Flow Diagram which is a popular way for experimental scientists to organise an experiment and in addition, provide you with a framework for noting down any observations as you go through the day's protocols. I want to avoid a rush to get started, which can lead to wasted time and effort: something that must be avoided. Starting any experiment without any serious planning is a recipe for disaster! Constructing a Work Flow Diagram should form the first activity in the morning. You will begin to get familiar with my approach of never running lab work like a structured class practical, in which all reagents and solutions are provided, rather you have to plan your experiment and obtain the materials. To help you with this we shall make use of the Work Flow Diagram (WFD for short) in every lab session and it must be approved before you get started.

What should a good WFD look like? The diagram should include a brief title, the overall aim of the experiment(s), the sequence of steps which should include any key pre-incubations (e.g. pre-heating agar plates, thawing frozen samples, preparing fresh reagents, ensuring you have tubes ready for aliquoting samples etc.) You might construct a Table to help you organise the composition of multi-component assay mixtures (where appropriate), and you might work out the dilutions of samples in order to ensure the data that emerge cover the appropriate numerical range. 

I am keen for you to develop a style of your own, but as you will appreciate, a typical WFD will have some common features and some specific features that relate to the experiment and the materials. There should also be space on the WFD for noting observations, which may include suggestions for improvements, or steps that can be eliminated etc. It should be a live document! I will be asking you to produce a WFD in all classes, so start thinking about the way you will approach this. For your first induction project, you will be given help in constructing your first WFD in the first session of the Biology and Chemistry mini-project. I look forward to discussing the outcome with you when we get together  during the following week.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Y7s celebrate diversity in style!

On Thursday this week (22nd June), NLA students from Year 7, proudly displayed their project work and gave a series of performances as a culmination of a year long project to express their own perspective(s) on "diversity". With the help, encouragement and commitment of their teachers and the senior team at the school, the doors opened at 5pm and pretty soon after the drama studio was full to capacity. 

 Diversity Evening – North Liverpool Academy
Main Refectory
-          Arrival
-          Stalls and Activities
-          Samba Band
Science, Technology, History, Geography, Maths, Music, ICT
Drama Theatre
-          JO introduction
-          Performing Arts 
-          English – Cultural 
-          Diversity Presentations 
Performing Arts, English
Main Refectory
-          Interval and world food
-          Dragon Performance
Food Tech
Drama Theatre
-          Art Gallery

Drama Theatre (back)
-          African Drumming 
-          Speech
-          Africa Oye 
-          Spiritual choir 
-          Science presentation 
-          All you need is love        
Music, Science

The dining hall of the school provided a showcase for projects in all disciplines from Science (and the science of Egyptian mummification took my fancy, as a scientist of course!) through Arts and modern languages to humanities. Not forgetting the rousing African drumming! [The school website will soon provide a photographic record of the evening]. The drama studio provided the focus for interpretive dance, starting with a thoughtful piece commemorating the recent Manchester tragedy followed by a piece of great Shakespearean "farce". The middle of the evening combined interactive sessions around the student displays, interrupted by some great food and capped off with a tremendous display of martial arts by intensely focused and superb (very) young experts. The Oriental Dragon and the Panda provided great entertainment and illustrated the huge value in opening our eyes to the diversity of sports and arts on the other side of our planet.

The evening ended back in the drama studio with a few short words from the MC (and driving force for the event) Mr Ollerton (Joe). In what seemed to me a perfect ending, Mark Flanagan, born and steeped in Liverpool culture, who made a detour from Suffolk en route to Glastonbury, together with the girls in the choir, delivered a great version of the Lennon and McCartney classic "All you need is love". Mark, who is the guitarist from the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra reprised his performance of the song he had last played to world leaders at a G8 summit. A finale fit for world leaders and for the students, staff, families and friends of the NLA!

For me the evening was a demonstration of how the staff came together across the disciplines to work with the students to produce an event that was both memorable for everyone who could make it. There is a follow up visit for the whole school to the Liverpool Slavery Museum before term ends. I am already looking forward to next year's celebration from the new Y7s!

Finally I would just like to say a huge thanks to all of the students and staff at the school, especially Mr Ollerton, Ms Lane and Mr. Westerdale for giving me the opportunity to be part of this magical event!

Monday, 10 April 2017

Governor's visit

On Thursday, just before half term, I visited staff and students at the North Liverpool Academy (NLA) sixth form, to find out what a typical school day was like and to get a feel for the challenges facing the staff and students and the overall culture that exists. It was a well organised, enjoyable, revealing and thought-provoking visit. As a governor, I have been to the school on a number of occasions, largely for formal meetings to discuss rules, regulations and progress etc. This was a targeted visit, in the light of my new role in supporting the school sixth form. Those of you at the NLA will know the "statistics", but for those of you reading from outside, a little perspective may be useful. So, you can skip the next part if you are a "local".

The NLA opened in 2006, following the merger of two community comprehensive schools: Anfield and Breckfield. The physical footprint of the NLA lies between Heyworth Street, to the West and Breckfield Road North, to the East: connected by Hamilton Road at the south end: the post code is L5 0SQ. It was built from scratch (see RHS) during the merger, under the stewardship of the then Chair of Governors, Nigel Ward. Nigel is now of a larger group of schools including NLA, under the banner of the Northern Schools Trust (NST). There are approximately 1500 students attending the NLA, of which 250 are in the sixth form, taking either A levels, vocational qualifications (such as BTECs) or both. The school head is Mr. Mike Westerdale and the Chair of Governor's is Dr. Geoff Wainwright from 2Bio in Liverpool. 

The school forms a small triangle (a 10 minute walk in either direction) with Liverpool's famous football clubs: Everton's Goodison Park and Liverpool FC's Anfield Park (see LHS). However, the area is on the bottom 10% of the UK's most deprived regions. One in four homes in the area are said to be workless, and over 70% of families earn less than £16, 000, which automatically entitles the children to register for free school meals. The very high levels of inter-generational unemployment have an enormous impact on the children and create a mood of low aspiration; something that clearly needs changing, and that lies at the heart of the school's pastoral and educational priorities.

Back to the visit! I was met by the Head of Sixth Form, who gave me a briefing on the numbers, the challenges and asked me to chat with some students. My first "interview" was with a student taking Maths, Economics and Chemistry A levels. We chatted about the value of algebra and the use of equations to describe and model phenomena and behaviours in Science and Economics. Very impressive! I then met with a group of students working on their various BTEC assignments in the sixth form resource centre (see above)

One student was developing a performance piece in which she was aiming to dramatise a romantic encounter between two young people, that took place on daily train journeys, with inspiration from a song she liked. In the narrative, the boy sent his messages via graffiti on the walls alongside the girl's regular train journey. A great idea and a great conversation! I also discussed the issues around racial discrimination in public sector organisations and the logistics of travel planning by plane and train across Western Europe. Not only were the discussions engaging, it was clear that these students had developed a nicely balanced level of citizenship. Before we re-grouped, I bumped into one Y13, who had been interviewed for a place at three Universities for a graduate nursing programme. She had quickly learnt from each interview and had incorporated all of the  criticisms, to develop a much improved interview strategy. Again, very impressive.