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May 5, 2011 3:23 PM   Subscribe

I want to become a luthier. Please give me advice.

I come from an industrial design background and I love playing guitars. I think I want to put the two together and learn how to design and build guitars as a business.

I've read a couple (5-6) of guitarmaking books and knocked about with fixing up a couple of old broken guitars, but there's a couple of things I think I want to do/know:

1) Get an apprenticeship with and existing luthier. How would one approach established luthiers on order to gain a little in-workshop experience when armed only with passion and keenness? Are there any hard and fast rules?

2) Is there money in being a luthier? Not you're "I'm gonna be famous and loaded with my new Bugatti" rich, but the "I can pay the mortgage and go on a camping holiday once a year" kind of rich.

And advice or thoughts based upon experience would be greatly appreciated. I'm at the very early stages of this idea and it makes me feel very excited about doing this, but I'm trying to be honest and realistic with myself as I want a balance between doing something I enjoy with the amount of money I make doing it.

Many thanks. x
posted by gonzo_ID to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I know a few luthiers, and I don't think any of them have been able to turn it into a "pay-the-mortgage" job as independents. The may not be a representative sample though. The one I've known longest just applied at shops until he got hired, learned how to use the tools, and then went solo. I don't know that there's an "apprenticeship," per se, so much as getting used to the tools of the trade.
posted by lekvar at 3:37 PM on May 5, 2011

The luthiers I know personally all started out doing repairs and setups before they began building their own guitars. One stopped doing repairs for a while but the economic downturn forced him into doing them again. Doing repairs is a great way to see how guitars are constructed from the inside out and lets you see how different construction methods affect tone and playability. More than one luthier has started out building clones of Gibsons or Martins based on their familiarity with the design.

Nevertheless, there is definitely potential for making money doing nothing but building instruments but it may take some time. A couple of luthiers, like the Bob Benedettos or Linda Manzers, can charge premium prices and are in a position where orders (or potential orders) greatly exceed their build capability and that's only after years (or decades) of building guitars. Newer and lesser known luthiers generally command lower prices (but that doesn't mean their guitars are of lower quality).

The only apprenticeship I'm familiar with is Jimmy D'Aquisto's with John D'Angelico. Jimmy started by offering to sweep up the shop floor for low wages and gradually took on more skilled tasks. Given the current economy, I'm not sure if this would be possible anymore (though I'm sure free labor might be welcome).

I personally believe the market for working musician grade guitars is still viable. Collectors have driven the prices of older instruments out of range of most everyone else. A lot of luthiers have recognized this and have begun building less fancy guitars at prices that compete with the factories. They're not rich but they're paying the mortgage.
posted by tommasz at 3:55 PM on May 5, 2011

And I should have mentioned that Vintage Guitar magazine frequently has interviews with lesser-known luthiers. Worth a look to see how others have done it.
posted by tommasz at 4:01 PM on May 5, 2011

Just as an aside, one of the luthiers I know sells his instruments overseas as "folk art." So while the instruments aren't being played, at least they're selling. Which is my convoluted way of saying that you can build all you want, but you still have to get your instruments into the hands of people who'll buy them.
posted by lekvar at 4:05 PM on May 5, 2011

My wife's nephew (I guess nephew in-law?) just finished an apprenticeship in Germany to become a luthier. He's now completely burnt out on it. I do keep trying to drag him in to our neck of the woods, 'cause there's a huge luthier community here in the North (SF) Bay.

We have NCAL, which would be well worth attending a few meetings of. I talked to Natalie at my local woodworker's association when it was at Luthier's Mercantile, and it sounds like they run the gamut from hobbyists who are buying preformed sides to people who have been building guitars for a living for decades.

I also occasionally get by Alembic, the clan there seems to be making a decent living and loving what they do.

I think if you made the next NCAL meeting and suggested you were up for sweeping floors you'd be a couple of steps closer to finding a mentor.
posted by straw at 4:25 PM on May 5, 2011

I believe the North Bennett Street School in Boston has a formal program.
posted by pentagoet at 4:39 PM on May 5, 2011

I should probably hook my dad up with MetaFilter as he's an amateur luthier and also friends with a "famous" professional luthier. But for now I'll just go off of what I know through him/them.

My dad has always been good with his hands and putting things together with wood and last July he decided to take guitar building on as a hobby. He's now 5 guitars in and while the first one was pretty awesome, they're getting better every time. Even from the first guitar, it was better than anything you'd find in a shop for under $500 or so. Now, he's almost hitting a true professional level and doing both regular acoustics and classical guitars.

What I've seen from his work is that making things up as you go along is an essential part of the process, as is making your own tools as you go. He's ended up building his own sanding tools, his own heating system (for doing the sides), and now he's working on molds. He also tried non-standard woods. The first guitar was mostly mahogany, for example, and he found this a lot easier to work with than the more typical rosewood. Lots of experimenting, lots of playing, and he's finally feeling confident about the process almost a year (and 5 guitars) later.

On to his friend, he's been a luthier for about 40 years and it's his full business. From what I understand of it, he makes something like 20 guitars a year and sells them at specialist folk guitar fairs. I don't know exactly what they cost but they're somewhere in the £1500-£2500 zone ($2500-$4250ish). Obviously that's "pay the mortgage" money, but he's very well established and well known as a Selmer Maccaferri luthier.

If you're interested in having an e-mail dialog with my dad as an amateur-to-amateur type thing, I'm sure he'd be more than happy to answer your questions. You may find his blog useful too as he's been blogging since he started out on this hobby (though the earlier parts are on a separate Tumblr blog).
posted by wackybrit at 4:43 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and in case it wasn't clear from the story, my dad didn't do any apprenticeships or take any training (beyond a lot of Googling and a single book). He just leapt into it solo on passion and keenness alone and made it fly. I suspect not everyone could take that approach though but he's a stubborn git and that's how he usually tackles everything.
posted by wackybrit at 4:45 PM on May 5, 2011

My dad was an apprentice luthier in the 60s, so apprenticeships have definitely existed. The guitar maker to whom he was apprenticed, however, was a barber to pay the rent, so I don't know how lucrative this would be.

I suspect a good way to look for both advice and an apprenticeship would be to google people in your area and send them a non-crazy, friendly email asking them for resources.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:45 PM on May 5, 2011

Several really good local luthiers got their start taking Sergei de Jonge's Hands-On Guitar Making Course. Ottawa might be a bit of a trip for you, though.
posted by scruss at 7:01 PM on May 5, 2011

Don't quit your day job before you build a guitar or two. Do you have access to any tools? It seems like a table router and a bandsaw for the neck blank are the two big ones. You can do a lot with hand tools and time. There are tons of forums online for luthiers where you can pick up some tricks. And there are online supply stores that will sell you anything you need (stewmac is one). Build a kit at whatever level you're comfortable.

I'm not sure, but apprenticing seems to be less in favor today than going to building/repair school. I've asked around and frequently heard 'just go to Red Wing.'
posted by kjell at 7:25 PM on May 5, 2011

Like any art, a very small handful of stars cash in, and the rest of the masses just scrape by.
posted by ovvl at 7:55 PM on May 5, 2011

Best answer: Basically, no. You are not going to make a reasonable living doing this. 20 years ago, you might have done well, but like many artisan things, so many people want to do this, and the quality is so high, even with amateur work, that you are constantly going to be competing against way too many people in the market.

Your stuff would have to be insanely perfect to stand out.

It's a nice hobby though!

this magazine and organization is really awesome:

Repairing instruments can be as satisfying and more lucrative than making. There is always more of a demand for good repair people than for makers.

you might also check out

The violin world is even worse. If you would like to be a really good violin repairer or builder, it's generally considered essential to apprentice in a really fancy shop for at least a year - get this - for free. This is to be at the top of your field. That's the hard truth and it's been that way for a while. And while you do it, your "master" browbeats the shit out of you, and possibly sleeps with your girlfriend. You have to overlook that.

Sort of kidding but sort of not.

If you can repair double basses, you tend to be in demand.

Anyway, keep your day job, have a nice little shop (you really don't need much) and make amazing guitars in your spare time. Or try to figure out how to make a perfect violin (harder and less interesting in my opinion). But unless you literally can't imagine doing anything else, and are prepared for a life of financial misery, don't try to make it a career, particularly in this economy.

Violin makers, are, as a really, really excellent violin maker friend has told me at length, totally miserable. It turns out sitting in a room, by yourself, for years at a time, trying to copy something that was perfected 300 years ago and has never been bettered is really not fun. I take him at his word. I have stories.
posted by sully75 at 5:47 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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