Treva LindSeptember 24th, 2015
An antique clarinet once sat in a backroom at Hoffman Music too old to play. But now the instrument has a brighter future as part of a $250 hand-crafted lamp.
The Spokane music store typically stocks at least a handful of such novelty lamps that incorporate otherwise discarded musical instruments. The person giving them new life is Hoffman co-owner Allan Smith, who turned a hobby into creating the popular gift pieces mounted on the artisan wood bases that he crafts.
Smith oversees Hoffman’s band department, repairs, and consignments. Ten years ago, he started honing woodworking skills with the help of a longtime family friend. A few years later in a home shop, he first applied that craftsmanship to make the lamps, using various instruments from the Hoffman store that were broken beyond repair or stripped for parts.
A cracked violin or old trumpet becomes a central component that tactfully hides the light’s wiring.
“We keep old instruments for parts; we part them out and they just become skeletons,” says the 56-year-old Smith, who has repaired instruments for 35 years. “After the instruments are stripped, they’re not very attractive. This is a way people can still enjoy instruments that don’t work anymore.”
He adds, “In the beginning, I made about 10 of the lamps, and people said, ‘You shouldn’t have made so many, you’re never going to sell them.’ Within a week, they were gone.”
Today, the crafted, instrument-centered lamps range in price from $250 to $850, and Smith says any profits go back into the business.
He keeps the inventory of lamps on a table in the brass, woodwind, and orchestral department, inside the store at 1430 N. Monroe. Operating as a business for more than 100 years, Hoffman Music primarily sells, rents, and repairs musical instruments played in bands and by individuals, including students, hobbyists, and professional musicians.
Because of demand for the lamps as gifts, though, Smith tries to stock at least a few of them during most months, and strives to increase that number substantially near December.
“They became the best Christmas gift we seem to sell,” he says. “I like to have around 20 of them as the holidays approach.”
A recent display of lamps included ones made with a guitar, selling for $480; flugelhorn, also $480; violin, $350; trumpet, $350; and the clarinet light, $250. The acoustic guitar converted into a lamp was reinvented because it got delivered to the music store with the neck snapped off.
The clarinet has a back story too. Over 100 years old, it was manufactured as an Albert system clarinet, which has fewer keys and a different fingering system than most.
Smith also crafts lamps for customers who commission pieces, sometimes using a person’s instrument keepsake. A current bassoon piece is in progress for a customer order as a 5-foot-tall floor lamp. He found a bassoon that was missing a top section called the bell, so he used his woodworking skills to make one.
“Some people do bring me the instruments they used to play and then I make them into a lamp,” he says. “It’s hard to enjoy your instrument when it’s sitting in the basement in a case. If it’s an old instrument and it’s playable, it should be sitting in someone’s hands and being played.”
For others, if valves are shot, or an instrument plays so far out of tune it’s in a different key, then it’s time to do something with it other than play it, he adds.
He says customers’ interest in the lamps jumped substantially after a Jan. 18 Spokesman-Review column described them. At that time, Smith estimated 75 of his instrument lamps had sold since he started making them seven years ago. Since that newspaper article ran, an additional 50 or 60 lamps have sold, he says.
However, he adds that he isn’t going to bump his production much higher. “It could grow, but I don’t want to get into it as a factory-type thing. I want to do it as something fun. If you go too far with it, it becomes a job, and I already have a job.”
The time it takes to make each lamp varies. He starts with a square piece of aged, dry wood. Curing the wood and crafting it into a base also are time factors. He cuts the wood piece with a band saw, then uses a drill press to create the center.
“Then I shape it with a wood lathe,” he says. “You have to do a lot of sanding to finish them, then put the polish on, which is a wax with a lacquer.”
He adds, “The number of hours per lamp depends on whether I have to glue several pieces, or if I have one main piece. I go to great lengths to hide the electrical part within the instrument. Some lamps are fairly easy to build; others are tricky.”
He often uses exotic woods such as ones from African trees. Some of the woods are expensive, such as $90 for an 8-by-8 inch piece of Cocobolo, but they provide a desired artistry, he says. Area residents also have called him offering wood from a maple or English walnut tree they’ve cut down.
Smith did some woodworking in junior high school, but not much more until his friend, Doug Bendewald, showed him some techniques a decade ago.
“Doug encouraged me,” he says. “For Christmas, my wife and several relatives went in together and bought me a wood lathe, and of course it went on from there to a drill press and a band saw. Most of the equipment takes up a two-car garage. What I need is a shop.”
Some customers have purchased as many as 10 or 11 lamps, he says. Smith says he does the work because he wants to make something unique.
“I just take things that are considered junk and turn them into a little profit, and a lot of fun.”