Phil Haworth had a passion for music and building guitars, and as a result Haworth Guitars was born.
By Amanda Craig.
Phil Haworth, in 1985, had a class room full of eager year ten students who were ready to start their major project for woodwork; many of whom planned to craft coffee tables and wall units. There was one student however who had a totally out of the ordinary project in mind, which would eventually change the course of Phil’s life in an unexpected and wonderful way. Campbelltown High School student Paul Smith, approached Phil in class and revealed that he wanted to build a guitar for his assignment. Playing a little guitar at the time, Phil thought it was a great idea. Not knowing how to make a guitar, Phil headed to Wollongong Library and photo copied the pages of a book which instructed one in how to build a classical guitar, and brought them into class to help Paul on his project. It was this very important moment in time that eventually saw Phil, fifteen years later, opening the first Haworth Guitars retail store in Kiama Downs.
“I was so engrossed in it”, Phil chuckles, recalling what it was like to build a guitar for the first time with student Paul Smith. “The other kids were a bit put out I think because, you know, they were making their coffee tables; but I was just more interested in helping this kid make a guitar. They’d say, ‘Sir, can you help me? I know it’s not a guitar, I’m only making a coffee table, but can you still help me?’”
Phil confessed he never got to hear the guitar play, after Paul picked it up the following year; leaving school at the beginning of year 11 to pursue a career in the police force. He did however have a chance to take the guitar home during the break to finish building it.
“I never actually heard that first guitar play” Phil explains, “…it was probably too much to undertake; building a guitar in year ten, and it was never quite finished. I did take it home at the end of the year, and over the school holidays I finished it off; but I didn’t put any machine heads on it and I didn’t string it up. So I gave it back to Paul…[and] I’ve never seen him since…would be really good to catch up with him and see if he still owns it” Phil laughs.
Starting a career in teaching late in life, Phil previously worked as a metallurgist before joining Campbelltown High School as an industrial arts teacher in 1983. It was a school he enjoyed working at for three years before leaving to teach at St Joseph’s High School in Albion Park, where he then stayed for 14 years before making the best but tough decision to resign and concentrate on his guitar workshop/retail store from home in 1999.
Walking with his wife, Sylva one particular day, Phil explained to her how he wanted to focus more on guitar making. “…she was really supportive…which was pretty good of her”.
“I really enjoyed guitar making and the hobby was getting very busy”. Phil recalls, “I had quite a lot of orders for guitars and a lot of repairs”.
He had now found himself at a major turning point in his life, and was determined to excel in the guitar business. Even if others thought he was taking a drastic step.
Going into St Joseph’s the following day, after his talk with Sylva, Phil told the school that he wished to resign. They suggested for him to take leave without pay instead; but Phil had made up his mind to focus on either teaching or his guitar business, and making guitars had completely won him over. “I was just certain it was going to work. Everyone was saying ‘you’re crazy, you’re leaving a good job with holidays and good pay to make guitars’, and as it turned out they were pretty right,” Phil explains “because in the first 12 months or so it was obvious I wasn’t going to make a living out of it. Even though at one stage we had a three-year waiting list for guitars. The problem was I couldn’t make them fast enough; I think the most I ever made was eight per year”. This did not hinder Phil’s perseverance though.
Travelling up to Sydney once a month on a Tuesday to an auction which was held near the fish markets, he bought second-hand amplifiers and guitars, which he took home to restore. After bringing these instruments back to life, Phil would hang them up in the workshop for customers to see when they visited to get their guitars repaired. “I was selling a lot of those, so that supplemented the guitar making,” Phil reveals “and that’s how it expanded”.
Walking into Haworth Guitars at Albion Park on either a Tuesday or Thursday morning, Phil is found working away in the repair center of the store. Helping out voluntarily now after he passed the business over to his son Glenn in 2012, his school teacher quality still shines through as he shows the other staff members tricks to repairing guitars that he has learnt over the years.
“Every-time I come in, I try and impart some of the knowledge; some of the things I’ve learnt the hard way by reading books and ringing up other people,” Phil explains “we’re lucky that we’ve got Raff and Glenn and Nick repairing guitars in this store and Kane in the Wollongong store. They’re all going really well with repairs; they love what they’re doing and they’ve picked it up really well”.
Climbing up the narrow stairs of the store, where music lessons is now set up, it’s hard not to stop and have a look at all the framed photos of memories and newspaper clippings hung proudly on the wall. Two of these wall hangings are old news articles, with photos of Phil and his son Glenn at his workshop from home.
“Glenn and Deanna were in the workshop in the early days as three-year olds,” Phil recalls “I used to get them to stand up on a stool and I’d hold their hands and we’d be cutting bits of wood through the band saw; just to get their confidence up and as a bit of fun. They were always involved in what I was doing”.
When Glenn was ten years old, Phil helped him build his first guitar; a Stratocaster which they made from scratch, crafting the whole body, the neck and the finger board. “He did a lot of the work himself,” Phil reveals “he played that guitar for a long time”.
“Building a guitar together when I was still in primary school was good fun”. Says Glenn, “It was a black Stratocaster style with a Floyd rose tremolo and I’ve still got it now”.
Remembering what it was like growing up with a father who is passionate about making guitars Glenn reveals, “I remember him waking me up some mornings by playing the guitar, he always had his acoustic out. The house was always filled with the smell of paint and lacquer from the guitars when he would spray them on the weekends.
“…Restringing guitars together and working on different projects together in the work shop in the early years were fun… it’s been great for me to have such a good mentor in business and in life”.
Haworth Guitars has gone through a lot of changes over the years, with the earlier stores in Kiama and Warilla, through to the two more recent locations in Albion Park and Wollongong. Though a lot of time has passed, Phil still remembers the store’s first little milestones from replacing the wallet in the overalls for a proper cash register, to buying a computer for the business. “It was funny watching all those things fall into place as the business grew… I didn’t start off with any business knowledge at all and it was just this passion for musical instruments. I think in a lot of ways, looking back on it, that was part of the success because we weren’t chasing the money”.
Blue Jeans and shirt with a laid back infectious smile, Phil chats away casually with the staff and it is evident to see that Haworth Guitars is like a second home. Nearly all of the staff have worked for the business for years and have become an extended family, through picnics and other celebrations like engagements and weddings. They will even sometimes forget to work; especially if they see Phil trying out a new Cole Clark guitar.
“Kane heard me trying out a few guitars…he grabbed a guitar and we sat down on the floor and started playing a few different songs. Shenay came over and filmed it and then Glenn got an acoustic bass and joined in…we do that all the time”. Phil laughs “Sylva will then come over and say ‘come on you guys back to work’”.
“We’re surrounded by toys aren’t we? What a great business to be in! It’s like a big boys’ toy shop and girls’ toy shop too”.
Phil still plays the first acoustic guitar he built on his own, which is rightfully named ‘No.1’.
Everyday, Phil picks up the guitar from its stand in the lounge-room and jams a few bluegrass licks along with a couple of tunes from The Beatles: ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’.
Made of spruce and mahogany, Phil describes the guitar as having “matured from age”; and as his fingers move up and down the fret board as he plays, so does his passion for music and guitars.