Locally Made: Ross Stuart, Instrument Maker
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Locally Made: Ross Stuart, Instrument Maker

A former carpenter finally nails his tin can dream.

South Africa native Ross Stuart was standing on a rural mountaintop when he first discovered his calling. “We were travelling in the Transkei when I was about nine or 10 years old, and we stopped at one of the lookout points to look out over the countryside,” he remembers. “There was this boy up there playing this tin can guitar—a piece of wood nailed to the tin, and at the top of the wood were these six tuners made out of bent nails, and he was using fishing wire. And it sounded great.”

It wasn’t just the sweet sound, though, that caught Stuart’s attention. “He was playing local songs and people were giving him money. And what really got me was that this guy had made something that people were giving him money for,” he says. “I went right up and stared at him. Everybody thought it was because I wanted to play the guitar, but I never wanted to. What I wanted to do was make something that people would actually pay for.”

Thus began Stuart’s lifelong attempt to craft a tin can instrument that would have the right weight and tone. “I had no idea how to build them,” he recalls. “I didn’t know anything about bridges or frets or tuners or anything. All I had was a mental image of what that guy was holding in his hands.” Stuart eventually moved to Canada and spent several decades running his own carpentry business. As his career took off, the tin can dream was put aside.

It wasn’t until seven years ago, when he bought a ukelele for a Hawaiian-themed party, that Ross decided to modify his original guitar aspirations and focus on a banjo-ukulele hybrid. When he came upon a National Reso-Phonic ukulele, he knew that its sound was exactly what he had been looking for. “It had a big metal body, and an aluminum cone inside,” he says. “But it was $1,700! I thought, that’s outrageous; I can make that. I figured if I could make ones that sounded as good and sell them for under $200, then I’ve got a brand new career.”

Which is exactly what happened. In the past two years, Stuart has retired from carpentry and started building tin can banjo-ukeleles full-time, which he sells through his new venture, The Great Mush-Uke. Despite his initial trepidation, Stuart’s instruments have been a huge hit with the public. “I didn’t want to give up my carpentry business until I was certain that I had the right price point and that I could pay all the bills,” he says. At his first show, he cleared over $900. “And so I told all my contacts, ‘I’m no longer doing carpentry for a living. I now make tin can banjos and ukuleles.’ And they said, ‘That’s so weird…but good luck!’”

Stuart is now a regular fixture at events like the One of a Kind Show, the Queen West Art Crawl, and the Cabbagetown Art and Crafts Sale, where he received an award last year. This summer, he’s bought a block of weekends at the Distillery District, where he sells his instruments to the tourists that flock to the historic site. “These have gone out all over the world,” he says, gesturing to his instruments. “I have ones in Australia, in California, in Holland…even in Thailand.”

Stuart spends his days in his backyard workshop, where he can build and weld a new instrument in just two weeks. Sitting near his big apple tree, with his dog keeping watch over his tools, Stuart says he’s achieved what he’d always wanted to. “From the very first time I saw that boy standing on top of that big mountain with people giving him money for something that he had made, that was what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “I wanted to find something that I could do with my hands that people would want and pay me for. And now I’m here.”

Thanks to Moosehead for making this series possible.