During his working life, Mark Taylor has gone from being a professional clown to managing a business that has this week launched the North-East’s first guitar-building school. PETER BARRON reports

AS he looks forward to the latest stage of his colourful career, Mark Taylor chuckles at the thought that he’s had a lot to juggle over the years: “Oh yes, there’s definitely been quite a few plates to keep spinning!” he admits.

As CVs go, it’s certainly out of the ordinary: fireplace salesman, professional circus entertainer, mime artist, comedian, then manager of a business primarily selling and making guitars.

And now, the amiable father-of-two is embarking on the latest chapter – launching the North-East’s first specialist school where people can learn to make their own guitars in a workshop on an industrial estate at Shotton Colliery, in County Durham.

“It’s a big change in direction for me – life-changing, but really exciting,” says Mark, as he sits behind his desk at Luthier Crafts, inside a unit close to Shotton Airfield, where folk frequently pluck up courage to parachute out of planes.

He’s a man who’s gone from the smell of the greasepaint to the smell of freshly-cut wood, and he’s surrounded by stocks of timber, destined to become guitar parts, along with a range of other craft products.

The Northern Echo: UK timber is used wherever possibleUK timber is used wherever possible (Image: Peter Barron)

Middlesbrough-born Mark had been selling fireplaces for a living for 30 years when he saw a magazine advertisement for circus-skills classes, run in Saltburn by veteran trapeze artist, Cathie Sprague. He’d always loved the circus and theatre, and was lucky enough to meet one of his heroes, Norman Wisdom, after the legendary slapstick comic had performed at Middlesbrough Town Hall.

Cathie Sprague’s circus classes covered a range of disciplines, including trapeze, juggling, plate-spinning, diabolo, and clowning, and Mark excelled at them all. He was encouraged enough to launch Marko’s Circus Workshop in 2007, starting with after-school clubs at Teesville Primary School, on his home patch, then kids’ parties, and he didn't looked back.

As the circus business grew, he quit selling fireplaces full-time, and started a part-time job, working for Peter Claes, a local entrepreneur who happened to be obsessed with guitars.

“One day, he came in here, when it was under the previous ownership, to buy a new guitar, and ended up buying the business,” says Mark.

When the Covid-19 pandemic decimated the children’s parties market, Mark was persuaded to put his clowning on hold and work full-time, helping to manage the guitar company alongside Peter. He took over the management of the business when Peter left the UK to pursue further business interests in Andorra.

With Mark’s experience from running his own business, along with the people skills he'd developed as a circus performer, Luthier Crafts thrived. As well as selling and making guitars, trade benefited from the explosion in crafting that took place during the lockdown years.

“Everyone was taking to their sheds, and we started selling off-cuts of wood to turners, woodcarvers, and the crafting community in general,” Mark recalls.

As well as making guitar parts and putting them together in the company’s own workshop, a laser machine was put to good use, making a range of bespoke products, such as engraved plaques, coasters, and keyrings.

However, guitars remained at the heart of the business, and the idea for a guitar-building school came from a chance meeting during a guitar show in Thirsk. Mark struck up a conversation with Martin Dixon, a highly experienced luthier, originally from Peterlee but now living in Staffordshire.

Ever since he caught the bug when he assembled his first guitar as a 15-year-old at Shotton Hall Comprehensive School, Martin has been building guitars by hand, from scratch, for nearly 40 years. His guitars have gone all over the world, with famous customers including heavy metal rock band, Saxon.

It transpired that Martin (pictured below) had also been a tutor at Leeds College of Music, teaching students how to make and repair guitars. He'd gone on to run private courses for individuals for the past 18 years.

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Discussions followed and it was agreed there was a gap in the market for what has now been named The North East Guitar Building School.

“It was the perfect match,” says Martin. “I’ve got the skills and experience, and Luthier Crafts has the equipment and facilities needed to scale it up and establish a school. I’m looking forward to seeing how far we can take it.”

He’ll be running the courses with local Shotton lad, Ricky Hutchinson, who's training as an apprentice luthier, having previously worked for a mailing company in Seaham, where he packed magazines for distribution.

In the run-up to the opening of the school, Martin has been travelling up to his native North-East to hone Ricky’s skills, ready for students arriving for the first course this week.

“I love the creative side of it, and I’m developing my knowledge and techniques all the time,” says Ricky.

While Martin and Ricky will run the practical side of the school, it’s Mark who’s charged with strumming up business.

“It was tough keeping it going during lockdown, but we managed to survive as an online business. Having come out the other side of the pandemic, the business needed something fresh, and the school provides us with the opportunity to get people coming in and interacting with us again,” he explains.

“There are other luthiers in the North-East, but we will have the only guitar-building school, and it’s great to be able to offer something new for the region. There’s already been a lot of interest in what we’re doing.

“My message is that if you love guitars, working with wood, or both, come and give it a try. You’ll have an experience to remember, and leave with an instrument you can really call your own.”

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The school offers a variety of courses, including one-day set-up courses to keep guitars in top condition; three-day assembly courses, including Luthier Crafts guitar bodies and necks; one-week full builds; or longer courses for those wanting more in-depth training using the school's own raw timber. All tools are provided, and the courses can be configured to specific requirements.

It’s a fresh start for the business after lockdown and, instead of relying heavily on eBay, the company has launched its own website this year, as well as having an active Facebook site.

For Mark, it’s a new challenge – another plate to spin – but Marko, the clown, is still alive and kicking in the background.

“Luthier Crafts, and the new school, are definitely my main focus, but I still keep my hand in with the circus skills when the chance arises,” he says.

“I’m looking forward to an exciting time for this business, but I’m still doing a bit of clowning – and that gives me the best of both worlds.”