I have a strong family background in mechanical engineering/manufacturing (father, brother, grandfather, cousin, uncle…), and grew up making models and small electronics projects. I did OK academically in high school, but my favourite subject was what at the time they called ‘design and technology’ (a very basic introduction to making things with wood, plastic and electronics). At sixteen I took a two year vocational electronics course, which I enjoyed and did pretty well in. I also did night classes in things like industrial automation with PLCs, AutoCAD, and got my amateur radio license. I had a summer job repairing circuit boards at a world-famous maker of professional mixing desks. At this point I probably could have dropped straight into an electronics design job (if I could have persuaded anyone to hire me without a degree), figured out what I didn’t know as I went along, and been reasonably successful at it.
Instead I went down the default ‘smart kids go to university’ path, and embarked on an electronic engineering degree. I alternately struggled to cope with the large amount of heavy maths and theory, and was bored by the small amount of practical content (which my vocational course had already covered in more depth). After the first year I came very close to dropping out, but was persuaded by family and friends to keep going, because to give up would be to fail and ruin my chances of a well-paid career in engineering (or so it seemed at the time). By the end of the course, my enthusiasm for making things had been fairly thoroughly squashed, and I fell into an unrelated desk job in IT that I soon came to hate but felt trapped in.
Fast forward a few years and a couple of side-tracks that I need not go into now. Gradually my enthusiasm for making things returned in the form of hobby electronics projects. I also developed a fascination with old machinery and for a while I put most of my spare time into restoring vintage cars. I became more and more bored and unfulfilled in my day job, and in hindsight I admit I wasn’t performing it to the best of my ability because it no longer held any excitement or interest for me. I should have got out earlier than I did, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what else I could do, given my lack of experience in any industries other than the one I wanted to escape from.
In 2009 the IT consultancy I worked for went bust and my situation changed completely. Thanks to my best friend I found myself working on the restoration of a historic building, which involved teaching myself traditional carpentry and masonry skills. I took up wood carving as a hobby and was commissioned to make two sets of puppets. I took up blacksmithing as a hobby because I wanted to be able to forge my own wood carving tools, and was commissioned to make several hundred hand-forged nails. I tried my hand at jewellery making and sold several pieces. I did more physical labour and became fitter as a result. I was earning far less money than in my previous career, but I had rediscovered the joy of learning new practical skills, making things, and solving problems with my hands.
For several years I floated around rudderless from project to project, without a good idea of what I wanted to do long-term, other than that it had to involve working with my hands and brain, preferably involving a wide range of different skills. One day I happened to buy an antique concertina. I needed to do a fair bit of restoration and repair work to get it playable, one thing led to another, and in the end I realised that what I really want to do with my life is to become a full-time maker of high-end instruments.
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