Alan builds banjos instead of retiring

Alan Funk at home holding one of his White Swallow banjos

Image: Bruce Manners

Back in the late 1960s, Alan Funk bought his first banjo. It cost him $50.

‘I soon worked out why it was $50,’ he says. ‘It was the greatest heap of rubbish. It was a terrible banjo, and I thought, I could build a better one than this. So I did.’

And since ‘retiring’ 20 years ago, 80-year-old Funk has focused on building banjos. He has built and sold more than 300 under his brand, White Swallow.

Born into a farming family at Lake Cargelligo, New South Wales, he became a farmer near Gunnedah in north New South Wales. He married a local girl, Helen, and they grew wheat and sunflowers for 26 years.

They then moved into town where he and his son, Terry, opened an engineering business where they serviced farm machinery, made trays for trucks and grain bins, and sold tractors.

He was about 60 years of age when they sold the business. That’s when they moved to Adelaide and he began making banjos seriously.

Music a part of Funk’s life

At 13, Funk taught himself to play the mouth organ. He was keen on learning to play the banjo and asked if his dad would get him one. But Dad didn’t like the sound banjos made and bought him a button accordion instead.

Fortunately, a friend was also playing the accordion so they and a few mates started an accordion band. ‘I don’t know that we were great musicians,’ he says, ‘but people used to dance to our music and we had a lot of fun.’

Instrument maker

Funk made his first banjo in 1968. ‘It wasn’t too bad, but I decided I could do better.’

He joined a woodworking/instrument-making group based in Sydney. He’d just made his first five-stringed banjo when the group was invited to display what they’d made at the Darling Harbour Music Festival.

During the festival, Ian Simpson—banjo player in the Flying Emus—saw it and asked if he could try it out. After playing it, he asked if he could use it at the Tamworth Country Music Festival.

Simpson won the Australian championship with the instrument, and then again another year. Then Trevor Warner from Adelaide had Funk make him a banjo and with it, he also won the Australian championship in Tamworth—three times.

The White Swallow backyard ‘factory’

When you walk up the Funks’ drive in suburban Adelaide, there’s a letterbox supported by a metal frame in the form of a banjo player and, if Alan’s van is there, you see the registration plate: ‘BANJO 1’. Welcome to the home of White Swallow Banjos.

Funk calls his banjo making a hobby—even if it is a seven-hour-a-day hobby.

‘I’ve told many people that if I relied on my banjos for a living I’d be a lot skinnier. And if I think I’m making too much money I buy some machinery to offset income. That’s why the shed is full of machinery.’

His ‘shed’ is about the size of one-and-a-half double garages. It looks well set up with a combination of woodworking and metalworking machinery, and a sanding machine.

In his best year he made 17 banjos, but normally the number is closer to 10.

He also spends several weeks on the road each year attending six folk festivals around the country, displaying and selling his banjos.

What about retirement?

Funk plans to keep going until he’s physically unable to do it anymore. In his words: ‘If I stop I’d probably turn my toes up and die.’

‘Even one day off and I’m looking for something to do. I find I just get lazy—and the lazier I get, the lazier I get. I just have to get up and do something. Besides, doing nothing is a waste of time.’

He says this approach has been a part of him for as long as he could remember. ‘Except for my school days,’ he adds with a laugh.

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of RetireNotes.com

Category: Refusing To Retire

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