Miniature of the Month
String Instruments by Ken Manning
At a time when many people are considering retirement, Canadian Ken Manning chose a different path—whittling his way into a new career as a miniaturist at age 61. Well, what began as youthful whittling actually evolved into a profession of carving intricate stringed instruments that could in essence play music. Today his work is found in museums and collections worldwide.
Imagine the IGMA Fellow working in his garage-turned-workshop listening to his favorite songs by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Perry Como. He would be contently carving tiny pieces of cedar, mahogany, maple, spruce and rosewood which would become perfect examples of lutes, violins, ukuleles, guitars, harps and an array of other instruments—some exotic, some ancient. He preferred using historically accurate materials, save for ivory tuning pegs, for which he substituted bone. Fine fishing line for strings. It’s been noted that he could spend as much as 40 hours creating a single lute. He spent 100 hours replicating an Italian mandora. And even the most seasoned miniaturist would be daunted by the number of coats of lacquer he applied to each wooden wonder before polishing. And as if that were not enough, he then handcrafted an authentic tiny case to accompany each instrument.
It’s no surprise that his personal history includes both woodworking (starting out as a whittler) and music (he played guitar, harmonica and accordion). In fact, his miniaturist career began after his son asked him to make a reproduction of an Ovation guitar. In a 1984 interview, writer Judi Lees witnessed him strumming “a reasonable rendition of ‘Home Sweet Home’” on one. I have her and journalist Mariam Mesbah to thank for background information on Ken, who passed in 2009.
Collectors far and wide have long admired Ken’s work which includes 25 different stringed instruments. In addition to details such as using the same type woods that would have been used in crafting the full-size instruments, he tediously designed and strung the instruments as the real ones would have been.
For example, he dyed the strings on his harps red and blue just as the originals. It would take him an entire workday to string a concert harp with its 46 strings. You can see wonderful examples of Ken’s harps in the KSB Miniatures Collection’s Clermont Manor and Harrietta Plantation, room boxes by William Bowen. Other examples of his string instruments can be seen in throughout the gallery and in the William R. Robertson Fine Arts Rotunda.