Transforming wood into brass; the alchemy of Rob Jones

Splendor in the grass.

Recently I had some some email exchanges with Rob Jones, an award-winning artisan who sculpts in wood. In our exchange he offered some specific insight into his instrument sculptures: a French horn, a trombone and a trumpet.

It was about a year-and-a-half ago that first I stumbled upon the amazing and unique wood carvings of Rob Jones. A few months later a video with more detailed pictures of his French horn project appeared on YouTube.

What is the story?

According to Rob Jones, each instrument sculpture has its unique learning curve and challenges. As an additional personal challenge to himself (and also for novelty purposes), he seeks to make each piece both artistically beautiful and musically playable.

I’ve had to reverse engineer the brass instruments. The local library doesn’t have any books on the engineering behind them.

Mr. Jones lives in Thomaston, an old seaport town in Mid-coast Maine. According to the United States Census Bureau the town is a mere 11.5 square miles (29.8km) – 5% of that space is water.

A history in wood

During the height of the shipbuilding era in the 1840’s, three millionaires lived in Thomaston. There was a grand total of seven millionaires in the U.S. at that time.

The “Thomaston Three” were all ship captains and boat builders. The port of Thomaston itself was in fact once known as the “town that went to sea” due to its rapid construction rate of large, ocean-faring wooden ships.

A wooden horn

Click on the image for a closer look at the valve cluster

His passion with woodcarving began in 2001.

Since then Rob Jones has been collecting tools and searching to find the limits of what can be done with wood. He incidentally does not own a lathe and prefers instead to think outside of the box when it comes to his work.

I had started doing some woodworking by making wood top banjos because I wanted to learn how to play.

Making a trip into the local music store to see the banjos, I saw a French horn hanging on the wall and I thought to myself, now there’s a challenge!

From the very beginning Jones aimed towards playability. With the French horn project he hollowed the slides, but did so without having a good idea of inner dimensions. According to Jones, while the finished horn looks great it does not play very well.

The sculpture ended up being constructed of 170 individual pieces. It was finished in two months, done during spare time.

The learning curve in this one instrument alone was immense. I started with making 1/8″ wall thickness, but realized that wasn’t going to work well once I got up around the lead pipe. I was trying my best to keep the outside dimensions accurate and let the interior walls fall where they may.

Trombone and trumpet

Tooling a wooden mouthpiece.

The trombone was his second brass instrument project. The end-result was better but with one major caveat.

When you blew a note through the bell section it was quite loud and nice sounding, but the slide section really screwed up the sound.

With his trumpet creation, Jones asserts that it is much closer to being on pitch, citing that the entire interior bore is within .005″.

The trumpet had the internal bore perfect through the whole instrument, but, since I made all the slide elements work, there is a lot of blow-by. To a professional ear it may not be up to par, but I think it sounds pretty close to on pitch.

Compared to the 2 months it took for the French horn, this sculpture took only 3 weeks. (Click on any image below for a closer look at the finer details.)

While Mr. Jones waits for a good trumpet player to put it through its paces, he plans on making 2 or 3 more instruments to get an even better idea at how they work.

I mostly do it for the challenge, I consider it just a magnificent sculpture, with a surprise of it being playable. As I do more, the quality increases dramatically as I learn what makes them tick.

I tell my friends that I do for the ‘sheer torture of doing it.’

Future aspirations

At 36-years-old, Rob Jones still has plenty of time for more sculptures and long-term goals.

I’d like to eventually create enough of these pieces to start my own museum – a local attraction in Mid-coast Maine so people can come and enjoy my pieces as a collection.

Playable or not, Jones’ brass instrument sculptures are a sight to marvel and behold. The amount of thought, detail and creative craftsmanship put into these pieces is truly amazing. Bearing in mind too the area’s historical roots, a showcase in his hometown of Thomaston would indeed be appropriate.

As a final note it should be mentioned that if you would like to have a brass instrument sculpture from Rob Jones as one of your very own, you can certainly purchase one  – for around $5000.

University of Horn Matters