Meet Yorkshire's ‘Purveyor of the Peculiar’ who creates his masterpieces in an industrial unit
Surrounded by countryside, Old Sleningford Farm is a hive of industry. Within an industrial unit in this rural part of Ripon, hangs Herbert’s bike complete with basket and the ball of twine he used to tie his trousers around his ankles while riding – a precursor to bicycle clips.
Such improvisation and finding use for things has never been more pertinent when considering our carbon footprint and the long-term impact on the planet, but for many recycling has, and always will be, second nature.
Continuing Herbert’s legacy is his resourceful grandson, Robyn Greig-Brown, whose workshop where Herbert’s bike proudly hangs, bears all the hallmarks of someone using their skill to turn pre-loved and reclaimed products into instruments and practical gifts to be passed on to and enjoyed by others.
Stacker boxes neatly packed with tins of all shapes and sizes that have contained everything from biscuits to toffee and tobacco down the decades are now playing tunes…
Before handing me a one-string “canjo” – based on the Diddley bow understood to have originated in the States – Robyn demonstrates If You’re Happy and You Know It from one of the music sheets supplied with his handmade instruments crafted from reclaimed wood and hardwoods, including ash, beech, mahogany, oak and walnut.
Furniture, and even old radio cases, sourced from car boot sales and junk shops have been put back into use with pluckable strings to bring enjoyment to music makers all over the world.
Attempting to follow his lead, my fingers dither close to the frets as I tentatively pluck the single string running along the beech neck and manage a staccato sound from the tiny tobacco tin at its base.
Robyn’s string-playing proficiency comes from his introduction to the banjo 25 years ago. “I’ve tried most instruments and I like the banjo – it has a nice tone,” he says.
“We went on holiday to Scotland, it rained all week so I sat in the conservatory and got my first bum ditty with a Clawhammer banjo and nailed it in Scotland,” says Robyn, who along with his wife Nik are members of the Cricket on the Hearth Appalachian step dancing group in Harrogate.
His foray into instrument-making came as a pastime. “I’d always done woodworking with my grandad. He was a fret worker and a hands-on guy and I’d be in his shed and the garden and he took me to the agricultural shows,” says Robyn, referencing the aforementioned Herbert.
Despite his earlier love of woodworking, Robyn completed a degree in landscape architecture which became his career. Instrument-making was a sideline inspired by a trip to the States when, at 19, he went to work on a cattle ranch.
“The first time I saw a guy playing a handmade instrument was in Lincoln, Nebraska. I saw a guy busking with a cigar box guitar. I thought I would make one of those – 20 years later I did.”
Robyn recalls it took time to perfect his craft, and never one to let anything go to waste, he ended up making more instruments from his off-cuts.
By the time he had made his 30th instrument it was a subtle hint from Nik that prompted him to attend his first local festival. “Then I bit the bullet and did Glastonbury,” says Robyn, who attended the famous festival for a decade.
His instruments have attracted celebrity attention. Serge, the guitarist from the rock band Kasabian, apparently took an interest in one of his canjos at Robyn’s Glastonbury stand. One of his instruments was also used in a TV advertisement for Yorkshire Tea.
Robyn says the most popular range are the Jammy Dodger tin banjos but demand for the tins is making them more difficult to source. “The instruments bring people to the stalls,” says Robyn who, over the years, has sold thousands of banjos, canjos and ukuleles.
“Most of what I sell are ukuleles mainly to people who have retired and U3A groups. It is very sociable and relatively easy to play and easy on the fingers because they are nylon strings.
Attending high-profile festivals and local agricultural shows introduced Robyn’s work to a wider audience which proved beneficial to the business he eventually set up in 2010. Spatchcock & Wurzill, a made-up moniker, is as quirky as the products it promotes.
When festivals and shows were curtailed by Covid, Robyn took the opportunity to refocus on his range. But instruments remain the staple of Spatchcock & Wurzill and sit perfectly alongside the bridal, interiors and gift range Robyn is busy producing.
Wooden and slate signs for home and garden, wooden book nooks, ornately crafted hooks keeping dog leads in place and vintage wooden puzzles are among the sustainable pieces Robyn sells through his website and the internet marketplace Etsy.
Attending local shows gives him the opportunity to meet his customers. This year he had stands at Driffield Show and the Great Yorkshire Show and was due to appear at the Whitby Regatta and Egton Show when we met.
When he isn’t promoting his products, he’s busy producing them. On the workbench sits the prototype of his latest creation – a beautifully crafted clock with turning cogs. A few tweaks and this elegant timepiece could soon be in production.
Robyn’s hand-crafted products are proving particularly popular in the States where the bridal decoration, a beautifully engraved pavement sign decorated with artificial flowers standing in his office, was bound.
“People always want signs. Sixty per cent go to the States. I think they like the fact they are made in England,” says Robyn.
Slabs of wood are neatly stacked or sit on workbenches ready to be transformed into decorative pieces to play or display.
Close by Banjo, the perfect name for Robyn and Nik’s border collie, waits patiently – his eye on one of the many balls he drops at visitors’ feet to encourage to throw so he can play chase.
Robyn’s second favourite banjo is the instrument he crafted in wood, featuring a 1940s vintage toffee tin. He strums the strings to demonstrate how a circular confectionery tin can provide the perfect sounds and talks about the many commissions he receives – the aforementioned stacker boxes of tins sent to him to transform into instruments are testimony to the demand for quirky gifts.
“I made a special one with three tins bolted together – the ornate ones are usually bought as wall art,” adds Robyn.
Experimenting is all part of the process and Spatchcock & Wurzill gives him a platform to showcase the tried and tested and share them with customers.
Free-spirited creativity abounds in Robyn’s workshop where he’s constantly mulling over the next thing. His current contemplation is a new range inspired by his model railway interest – perhaps this will be up and running for Christmas. “I want to get the clocks sorted out and I’ve been thinking about making N gauge model railways in suitcases.”
Having the freedom of working for himself means he can take Banjo for a walk or throw him a few balls, then return to his workbench. “If I fancy making something different, I can,” he says.
www.spatchcockandwurzill.com. You can also find Spatchcock & Wurzill on Facebook and Instagram.