Dirtbox Guitars: An Interview with craftsman Jeff Sacree

29 . 06 . 20

At our 2017 Annual Gathering of Makers we were joined and entertained by The Cheddar Experiment (the side project of Reef bass player Jack Bessant). Jack had Reef’s acclaimed American producer with him, George Drakoulias, as they were in between recording sessions for Reef’s last album Revelation. George joined Ched Ex on stage (the corner of the barn), and sat on a chair jamming along with the band on a really unusual looking guitar. It turned out that the guitar was a Dirtbox Guitar, made by Jeff Sacree at his workshop just outside Bude. Jeff is a former surfboard shaper who founded Gecko Head Gear (initially making surf helmets but they now supply the RNLI and other emergency services), and in his spare time he makes unique cigar-box and diddley-bow style guitars from all manner of reclaimed materials, each one a totally functional work of art.

We wanted to find out more about Jeff’s craft, but even though his workshop is only a little over an hour’s drive up the coast, lockdown meant that we had to interview him over the phone. Hopefully we’ll be able to head up the road and share a wave with him at some point in the not too distant future, though.

From where do you draw your inspiration?

In terms of inspiration, it kind of depends. If it’s a customer then I’ll try and push them for a brief, although they might just say “I want something” I need to find out a bit more about what they’re into. It could be a band, it could be a look, it could be a feel. It could be anything. And then I’ll build from that, using my own interpretation to try and draw out what I believe to be what they really want. The briefs are now getting a bit extreme I suppose, to say the least. I had a request from one customer who wanted something that “looks like 3rd generation Scandinavian folk art passed-down banjo”. For another one the brief was “the moon’s interpretation on the earth”. And others just have perhaps a favourite band or something like that. You have to work around it, but inspiration to me comes from maybe an object that I might pick up. It could be a kitchen utensil. Mostly it’ll be a box or something like that, that I’ll pick up at some car-boot sale or antique store, or that somebody’ll gift me. I get drawn towards these boxes that look as though they’ve had a history, and kind of divulging what sort of history it’s had. The rest of the build reflects the state of the box, so the more dog-eared the box, the more dog-eared the build. The same goes for the component parts that go in it. I try to keep the look and patina throughout the build. Just little things, like you wouldn’t use cross-head screws on a relic build, because it just wouldn’t look right. So I kind of guess that’s where it comes from; it’s just repurposing and looking at something. I’m terrible for not throwing things away. I’ll look at something and think, “well ok, it’s a bolt, it’s a fork, it’s whatever, how can I reuse it and repurpose it for another lifetime and a use that it wasn’t intended for?” Hopefully it’ll go into a build and be a useful addition.

With each of your guitars being unique, do you start with a concept that you then source the component parts for, or are designs informed by the parts that you have to work with? (Or is it a mix of the two?!)

I try to make each guitar unique. I guess at the end of the day you can say, “it’s a body, it’s a neck, it’s some strings, it’s some tuners and it’s a bridge saddle nut”, but there are a million ways to reconfigure that. There’re rules that you have to apply in terms of musical playability and tuning and scale length, etcetera, but apart from that you’re free to roam and go in whichever direction you want. I’m always collecting bits and bobs. I’ve got boxes and boxes of stuff. Half the problem is I’ll have a build in my head, and they’re always built in my head before I actually start making.  I’ll know the component parts that I want and I’ll know that I have them, I just can’t find them! So the magpie in me will have little treasures, but the brain in me can’t locate them! Sometimes builds might take a little while because I’ve either got to find a part or maybe I haven’t got the right part so it’s incomplete and I’ll keep searching and looking until I find something that I can reclaim and repurpose, that can ultimately go into that build.

Out of all of the guitars that you’ve made, which have been your favourites and why?

I’ve made coming up to 160 guitars now, over probably a five or six year period. There have been favourites. Occasionally I’ll make a guitar that I’d really like to keep. I’ll just like the tone, or the look or the feel of it. I was doing a charity show in Brighton and I had all of my guitars out on display but there was one at the back which was my favourite, and which I kept at the back. People would come by and they’d try various guitars and occasionally they’d buy one, and then a guy came along to my stand and he looked at all of my guitars and he noticed the one at the back leaning against my van. He said, “What’s that one over there?” and I said, “Well, that’s one of my guitars but it’s not for sale.” He asked to have a look at it and I said “Yes, but you can’t buy it because it’s not for sale,” to which he replied “Yeah sure, ok.” So he took it and he played it and then he came back and said, “I want this guitar.” I told him that he couldn’t have it because it was mine! He said that he really wanted it and I apologised but said that’s the way it goes. He said, “Well, look, how much is it?” and at the time my guitars were selling for around about £150, maybe £175 tops. I said “It’s not for sale” but he said “I’ll give you £175 for it”. I repeated that it wasn’t for sale and then he offered me £200. I was getting a little bit agitated saying that I didn’t want to sell it, even though I knew how much he wanted it I just couldn’t pass it over. He had his son with him and he turned around and said, “Look, I’ll give you £300 for it”. At the time £300 was a lot of money for one of my guitars and half of me kind of respected his wishes to want to buy it, and half of me was thinking that I didn’t want to lose it. But economics prevailed – I was there for three days and I had to pay for the stand and make some money back, so I said maybe. He said he’d come back with the cash and he disappeared and I moved on to talking to another customer. Then he came back and counted £300 in front of me and I kind of just… let it go. I do miss that guitar, and I still love that guitar. But I figure that it’s more important to share your passions, your loves, your creations with other people. And hey, I can make another guitar! I’ve made lots since then, so you just have to let things go if you want to let your art grow and let other people appreciate it. I have to consider the fact that he wanted it that much and that’s got to be a good thing.

Talking about other favourite guitars, they’re all numbered and catalogued. I don’t know why I did it, but I’m glad I did it. I’ve got names and numbers so it’s easy to draw back on what was sold at what time and what number it was. Number fifty was pretty special, because I had a Makita metal tool box which was originally cherry red, and it certainly was inside, but the outside most of the paint had flaked and rubbed and it was kind of a silvery-grey. I turned that into a six-string guitar. Back then I was still developing my craft, so the overall build wasn’t wonderful but the actual look of the guitar was kind of nice so I kept that and it’s hanging up on a wall in my house.

Another build was a guitar out of an old wooden box from a Post Office, a six string, and it had quite a large area on the back of it that I didn’t know what to do with. I figured I might put song lyrics on it. One of my favourite songs is The Weight performed by The Band. I burnt the lyrics to the song on the back and a friend came over, kind of a new friend then called James Dixon, and he asked what I had going on. I showed him a couple of things and he said “This is kind of nice” and picked it up and said “oh wow, you’ve got The Weight on the back, I really love that song.” I finished the build and in the end he took that guitar and things kind of changed at that point. He really loved the guitar and it sounded really nice when he played it and it became part of his gigging arsenal so anybody who went to see James Dixon at a gig would see this battered old guitar in the rack, but the sound that it makes… I don’t know what it is, I don’t lay claim to be clever, but for some reason the tone on this guitar is just superb. That guitar became a firm favourite with me and also with James, and other people have got to know this guitar which is nice because it creates a mini history around that object.

You work mostly with reclaimed materials. What drew you to giving a new lease of life to old wooden boxes and the like?

I’m a big recycler and there’s a big emphasis on everything I do within the workshop, wherever I can, being something that I’ve found or taken out of skips. I’ve got a couple of friends who are joiners so I tend to go through their offcut bins and take any wood that I can find and reuse. The older the better, which is why I’m drawn to old boxes. If I can find an old door or a cupboard which has got usable wood in it, I take old flooring, I had a friend who gave me a load of oak flooring that he’d ripped up and I used that for a lot of necks – it’s got a lovely colour to it and tends to blue where the nails have been in the wood over twenty or thirty years, maybe more, which gives a really nice effect on the finish of the guitar.

I was in a gallery once and there was a chair made entirely out of recycled stuff. You could recognise household and metal objects within the chair and on the armrest was a little badge that said “recycle, reuse, rejoice” and that kind of hit me and has stayed with me ever since. I’m always trying to push, when I post my builds on social media to explain to people how they came about, is that I’m repurposing and reusing. Living in Bude we’re really behind trying to keep our beaches and oceans clean. We all do a lot of active beach cleaning and try to educate tourists about picking up their rubbish, taking their rubbish home and not discarding stuff. That’s something that I try and push in my guitars and I’m very much behind recycling and repurposing.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve turned into a guitar – for Dirtbox or simply as an experiment?

I’ve got a local friend who works for the council, and part of his job is cleaning beaches. He tends to bring me stuff every now and then, just to stop something from being thrown away as he knows that I might reuse it. A couple of years ago he found a speargun washed up on the beach. It had been in the sea while. He passed it over and I thought “Well, what am I going to do with that?” and looked at it again, then cleaned it up and took the salt off it, took the trigger mechanism out and fitted a single string and a pick-up and gave it back as a gift to return the favour. Now he’s got a one-string diddley-bow speargun, which is kind of neat!

Another idea I had, was because I really like the old 78” records, I figured I could make a banjo-type guitar using 78s for the top and the bottom of the banjo body. I picked some really old 78s up at a car boot sale and started constructing this thing. I had about half a dozen but they kept breaking because they were made of shellac before plastic came along so they were super brittle.  I took one to work (my day job is in fiberglass) and I made a mould of one side of the album and from that mould I was able to cast two what looked like records (because they still had all the grooves, but were actually fiberglass) and used those to make the banjo type guitar. People couldn’t believe that I’d made it out of records, but it was actually fiberglass made to look like records. Again, it’s just reusing, repurposing and taking one object and turning it into another to give it a new lease of life.

Keep up with what’s happening on Jeff’s workbench on the Dirtbox Guitars Instagram.

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