Bryan England’s shop in Caneyville offers a full line of mandolins and guitars, and his instruments have been used by country superstars, including George Strait and Brooks & Dunn.
England was working at General Electric when he decided he wanted to learn to play the banjo, and then learn to build one. From a hobby that started on his kitchen table, England’s instrument work grew into a business called Custom Inlay. Known for his intricate inlay work, England is also renowned for his use of exotic materials, including fossilized walrus jawbone, wooly mammoth ivory, and unusual woods.
“It’s a challenge. I’ve always liked working with my hands,” England said. “It’s been a blessing.”
He often works with maple and spruce. “We’re at the point where I know what I want to do on each one, and the only thing that comes out different is the real good wood,” he said. “Redwood siding that’s on a house for 60 years, you know, all this makes a difference.”
England makes precise measurements to achieve the sound he wants. “The carved front, back inside, getting those measurements that perfects the sound, the tone bar–there’s a whole lot more work to the mandolin than the guitar,” England said.
His customers appreciate the unique sound of each mandolin. “My name is on this mandolin, but it’s an England mandolin,” said musician Kevin Brooks. “I consider each mandolin hand-tuned. Because each individual mandolin has its own personality, its own tone, which is created by the hands that built it.”
Mandolin player Leon Davis agrees. “It’s got a unique tone. … The mahogany and red cedar I think really make a good combination. And they do a great job of putting them together. It’s a personal thing that they do. They’re good quality mandolins and I don’t play anything else.”
Many people don’t realize they are seeing inlay work and think it’s a painting, England said. “It’s actually cut and then recessed down into the wood. “Most of the inlay is pearl or abalone shell, he said.
Instrument maker Larry Shepherd, who has worked with England for years, is proud of the work they do. “When I’m gone, there should still be someone playing an England mandolin, because they just hand them down …,” he said. “As long as they’re taken care of, they’ll last a lifetime, or two lifetimes. So I‘ve made something, that when I’m gone and forgotten, that somebody is still enjoying.”
England fondly recalled the many people he has met through his work. “It’s just a joy. This should go on for a long time, as far as what we’ve built.”