Craft Stars: Barry Rust of Great Plains Handmade
Upcycling instrument maker Barry Rust makes his ukes and banjos the way they did in the Great Depression - by using materials like vintage biscuit tins and gorgeous second-hand cigar boxes. We visit his Brooklyn studio for an in-depth interview. Illustration by Ellen Lindner.
The first thing you notice entering Barry Rust's compact Brooklyn studio is an aroma that once would have been commonplace, but which nowadays has grown incredibly rare - the fresh, spicy smell of recently sawn wood. Here on the banks of the Gowanus Canal - a waterway in the heart of the last industrial neighborhood left in Brooklyn - Barry works with hardwood, antique cigar boxes and gorgeous vintage tins to create one-of-a-kind stringed instruments.
These ukeleles, banjos and fiddles, which the Illinois native sells at the quintessential Brooklyn outdoors craft and food fair, the Brooklyn Flea, and online, are making a name for Great Plains Handmade, Barry's fledgling company. I met up with this skilled woodworker - who's a primary school teacher during the academic year - to discuss his life as an aficionado of this seriously old-school craft.
Hi Barry! The question that anybody who sees your instruments will want to ask is a simple one: how did you learn to make them?
There's a community of people who make these instruments, and cigar box instruments have been around for a long time. There are a lot of resources online, where you can go and find plans. There are actually some really old plans online, from the twenties, for making ukeleles, and cigar box fiddles, and anything like that.
There are some core principles, that once you figure those out, you can apply to different things. You can use cigar boxes, coffee, tins, and you can still basically make an instrument.
Cool! So, it sounds like you're a longtime crafter - when did you make the leap into instrument making?
About six years ago. Since I moved to New York 12 years ago I'd been making things; sewing curtains for my apartment, or cooking even
Well, it satisfied the same urge to understand a craft. But then I got really into making mosaics in my apartment, and making music. About six years ago I went to a garage sale and saw a cigar box. Somewhere I'd seen or heard of cigar box instruments before, and I'd been thinking of buying a new ukelele, and I thought - hey, maybe I can just make one. I didn't have the tools at all that I needed, so I had to wait until I went home to visit my parents.
There were a lot of tools to accumulate, and a lot of materials - and things to figure out - how to fret it, how to get the gears, but then when I strung it up it played like a ukelele, and it was pretty amazing. It's definitely an exciting moment, when you strum it and it makes a sound.
What was the learning curve like? How many did you have to make before you felt like, this is an instrument you would be happy to play? Was that the first one?
No, not at all - I have got all the old ones up hanging up in my apartment in Brooklyn. All of those I made by going home to Illinois, and then bringing them back to Brooklyn, and I'd do some sanding, and some finishing, and that sort of thing.
Some of them were pretty rough, how the pieces fit together - I guess you could say that the craftsmanship of them was pretty rough, just how the necks fit into the boxes.
But once I had this (workspace) it took about six months to get everything in order - then I was able to experiment much more easily because I could just spend a lot of time, in here. It was nice - as a teacher, it's a great break from thinking about lessons.
It must be so quiet, compared to a classroom full of nine year olds.
You have a control over it that you have to let go of when you're working with kids. You have to meet the kids where they are. And here you can approach things from where you are.
I read an interview with Sylvia Plath a while back, and she said that with baking, she always knew how things would turn out. With crafts, there's a control that you don't have with other things - there's that guaranteed result - I know how this is going to go.
Ahem. (Note to self - Sylvia Plath is a conversation killer.) I did take a look at a couple of cigar box instrument websites, and it does seem that there's a large and very passionate community around making these instruments. Do you have any heroes? Whom do you find inspiring as a maker?
I don't know if I have any heroes - there's so much out there. There's stuff that this guy (does), on this site called Carolina Fiddle; I really like what he does, and he wrote up plans that I saw in the process of learning how to make these instruments, that have been pretty helpful.
I just thought that his stuff was exactly the aesthetic that I really liked - using older boxes, rather than new ones.
With anything there's a lot of variation in how you can approach the same thing. People will use new cigar boxes and add a bunch of flourishes. But I really just like the simplicity of these old boxes, and using fairly simple designs for the neck.
Some of the cigar boxes are so beautiful. They're so gorgeous that it makes you want to learn how to play the instruments. You must spend a lot of time on Ebay...
Looking for boxes? Yeah.
Do you do anything to preserve the exterior?
Yeah - I've tried Elmer's white glue, lots of things. Now what I use is Mod Podge -
Yeah - it gives a little sheen to it (starts moving around, picking up various instruments). I've put a bit on all of these. It's good, because if you pick up one of these and the paper's coming off you'll tear the paper.
You sell these instruments in person at the Brooklyn Flea, and you sell them online - what works best?
Online you have a broader reach - but I like for people to be able to come and play them, and see which they like the best.
Center: the view from above Fort Greene's Brooklyn Flea, the city's premier vintage and crafts market. A great destination any summer weekend.
While I've been in London the Flea has grown to epic proportions! How would you describe the Brooklyn Flea?
They sell both vintage thrift store type things as well as crafts. I guess it really encapsulates something about Brooklyn right now, which is that there are a lot of people making things. Whether it's pickles, mugs, or prints, there are a lot of people making stuff that sells really well at the Flea. And it's a good reflection of the creative surge that's happening. But if you're expecting the traditional flea market, it's not that. But there's less of the just going and sifting through junk.
Is it difficult for a person who loves old-timey stuff to live in New York? Because if you travel around the Midwest or the South, this stuff seems to be everywhere. Have you ever thought about other places you'd like to live?
I go to a cabin upstate (northern New York State) and my girlfriend and I will find spots where people have transplanted up there. There's so much potential for buying something and turning it into something new.
(Still), Brooklyn is a pretty special place, and so many of my friends are here. And if I do sell at the Flea, I just put everything in a cardboard box, and it on the little dolly, and pull it down the street six blocks, and I'm there.
So where do you teach in the city?
In Fort Greene (the western Brooklyn 'hood, opposite lower Manhattan, where Barry lives), so my life is pretty centered in that neighborhood. It's a public charter school. It's really interesting - it's an exhausting job.
I give you credit - I did one year as a nanny, and it completely destroyed me. So, as a 4th grade teacher, you teach general studies?
Yeah - reading, writing, math, and social studies. And community stuff, lots of little things you need to fit into the day. Classroom meetings. Some community projects, that definitely happens in my school.
I have one last question - it's the most important question, and we ask it of every single Crafty Crafty interviewee. So, Barry - when the inevitable happens, and zombies crawl out of the Gowanus Canal and threaten to devour us from the brains down, which of your many tools would you use to dissuade the zombies from entering Red Hook?
My mind immediately goes to, what would make the best weapon against zombies? This is straight out of a horror movie, but, I guess I'd have to do...the circular saw.
So you'll lure them to your studio, plug it in, and....
I'd try to stay away as much as I could, but if it came down to it, and I had to defend myself...
If you're working late, and you hear....arrgghh, brains.
Yeah. I don't think anything else is going to work - it's all too heavy.