Abigail Kirwan of Secret Swan Custom Guitars: “We are only limited by our imagination.”

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 15 – Spring 2021 – Electrified!

An unfortunate accident would take Abigail Kirwan on a journey to create the most beautiful, intricate custom guitars. Secret Swan Custom Guitars, located in Newbury, UK, began when Kirwan discovered her woodworking skills after a motorcycle accident left her unable to return to the workforce. Taking inspiration from the sky’s northern lights, the American flag, leaves, and mythical creatures, Kirwan carves guitar masterpieces.

“What started out as carving Celtic knots into old tree logs soon turned into small commissions for friends. For every piece that I do, I like to try something new and challenge myself, experimenting with new techniques to come up with a unique look and feel to any piece that I create. The first guitar I made was another challenge I set for myself, and I immediately fell in love with the process and the possibilities. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tell us a little about your background in music and what instruments you played as a young child.

From the age of seven, I learned to play the piano. I was at the age where I wanted to copy anything my sister was doing, so learning was inevitable. I added the flute and double bass to the list (I had to go bigger and more inconvenient than my sister’s violin) at the age of nine and ten. I was fortunate to secure a music scholarship to a local private school at the age of eleven. From there, I continued with my individual lessons, adding in groups like choir, orchestra, flute ensemble, and jazz band. I continued playing right through my school career, achieving grade eight in both piano and flute.

As a creative individual, you were drawn to art. Do you have any formal art training, or is this a creative passion?

I always struggled with the drawing side of art but loved anything creative with different materials. I studied art textiles in school, and at home, I was always out in the workshop, tinkering on projects with my dad, who enjoys carpentry as a hobby. Other than that, I have no official training.

Originally working in a marketing position for a scientific company, events occurred that brought you back to your creative side. Share with us the transition.

I had always thought I would keep my artistic side as a hobby. I have a degree in Genetics from The University of Liverpool and quickly went on to work in marketing in the pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately, in September of 2010, I had a life-changing motorcycle accident. The recovery took a lot longer than expected, and I was unable to go back to my previous job for both physical and mental reasons. During this time, I was stuck at home on my own for long periods of time. I would try and keep myself occupied with things like cross-stitch, jigsaw puzzles, knitting, and painting by numbers, but I quickly became bored by them. As rehabilitation went on, I would go for walks with my husband, and as I couldn’t walk very far without needing a break, we would take a couple of knives and do some wood whittling. I found I had a bit of a flair for it (much to my husband’s annoyance), and I started to make more complicated pieces. That was where the woodworking began for me as I kept challenging myself to do more difficult things.

What was one of the first pieces of art you created?

Once I got the hang of the wood whittling, I had two projects that I wanted to master. The first was creating a small train set from an old branch for a Christening gift, and the second was creating an interesting spoon for a craft swap somebody had set up on a Facebook group. I chose to do an owl, highlighting the details with pyrography (wood burning).

How did you get into crafting guitars?

I had developed my basic whittling into creating decorative wall hangings and picture frames. At the time, I was trying to get into the wedding industry with table plans, but I wasn’t having any success. I casually mentioned to a friend one day that I would love to carve an electric guitar, but I would need a guinea pig to commission and just pay the cost of materials, as I couldn’t afford this. She was engaged at the time and asked me to make a guitar as a wedding present for her husband. It went better than I could have hoped for, and that propelled me into making more, trying out different techniques to see what was possible and how far I could take it.

Where do you find the inspiration for your pieces?

A lot of my inspiration comes from tattoos. People spend a lot of time and money on their tattoos, so these images must be important to them. I thought it would be interesting to be able to pair what somebody has on their body with something physical they are playing in their hands.

All of your designs are very creative and artistic. Is there any one in particular that speaks to you?

My favorite changes depending on the mood I’m in, I think. I will always have a great love for the Spriggs Swamp Ash as it was my first and what got this whole journey started. I find the Autumn Leaves really intricate, and it always makes me smile when people ask if they are real leaves. That feels like a massive compliment to both my carving and my painting. I find the Chinese Dragon bass really striking, and when I’m trying to explain to people the kind of things I make, that is always the first picture I go to. However, I’m always most excited by my next project, whatever that may be. I always think it has the potential to be my best yet, and I love seeing it emerge from the wood.

What has been one of the most difficult guitars you have crafted?

Each of the guitars offers its own unique challenges. With those I’ve done so far, each has had a new process to master, providing new difficulties. I think the most challenging aspect is the sanding. Once the basic shape has been carved out and refined, getting into the small spaces to sand to a fine grade is particularly challenging. This difficulty was probably most prominent in the Chinese Dragon bass and the Skulls and Roses Tele that I am currently working on.

When working with a customer, how do you approach the design process?

I start by asking the customer if they have any particular images they want to be included. If they are struggling for ideas, we talk about their hobbies and interests, eventually deciding on a theme. I then create scale drawings of different designs, going back and forth between myself and the client until we land on a design they are happy with. The initial design process is no obligation and free of charge until the final design is signed off.

Is there a particular type of wood that you prefer?

The type of wood I use depends on the finish we are aiming for at the end. If I am painting the wood, I prefer to use Sycamore, as this is nice to carve and gives a light base color for the paint color to go on to. If there is no painting, then I really don’t mind. I love wood with a beautiful grain and preferably a bit of a story (some of the Spalted ash I’ve used came from less than ten miles from my house). It all depends on the finished color, though, and what the client would like.

Your designs are for the body of the guitar. Who do you partner with to do the finishing work and set up of your instruments?

So far, my designs have been for the body of the guitar, but I am excited to now be creating my own necks as well. This gives me a lot of scope for more creativity, coloring even further outside the lines of convention. I work with a local luthier called Mark Silk of M Silk’s Guitar Works, who advises on technical details and puts everything together for me, ensuring the guitar is not just a work of art but something any musician would love to play.

What do you want your customers to take away from your designs?

I would like my customers to take away that we are only limited by our imagination. I believe anything is possible if you put your mind to it. These guitars have the potential to show so much personality, and I would love that to be embraced wholeheartedly.

Photos provided by the artist with permission to use.