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Thread: Becoming a Luthier-How?

  1. #1
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    Default Becoming a Luthier-How?

    First, I’m not planning on jumping on that train-shoot I have trouble properly sharpening a pencil. But I have been curious as to how one gets established as a maker of mandolins and or guitars or any musical instrument for that matter. First off we have all the mass producers, then there are the already established “boutique” builders. So if someone wants to start out along that path, what is a typical “path”? How do they break in? How do they learn to make them-apprentice-who takes them on? How long does it take before one is able to make a living at it? Who buys the early instruments and why-are they cheaper? I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than my feeble questions, but I’ve wondered about this for a long time. Please chime in with your thoughts.

    Thanks!
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  2. #2

    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    I'll give it a try....

    First, you have to be somewhat of a "handy" person and like building and taking things apart to see how they work. Dad had tools, so I was always watching him and learning what tool was used for what....(on his deathbed, Mom mentioned she thought her battery cables were loose and I said that I would go tighten them -- Dad lifted his head to say, "be sure to use a socket, not a Crescent wrench, you don't want to chew up the nuts!") Anyway, you get the idea -- it helps if you start early.

    I guess I always took my guitars apart and tried to improve them. The first time I turned a truss rod nut, it was like magic....my old Silvertone electric went from being unplayable to playing great. I should add the very next truss rod I turned broke right off, so.....

    Anyway, that led to working at a guitar shop and doing repairs. Fortunately, that was many years ago when shops would have pre-CBS Fenders hanging on the wall alongside 40's Martins and Gibson acoustics -- the point being I got to see a bunch of vintage stuff firsthand and work on it daily -- whereas that wouldn't be possible today unless you live in a handful of cities with amazing vintage shops....

    So, I guess you just keep doing it and getting better at it and learn from people who know more than you do. I will say we are lucky today to have youtube and internet forums, which at the very least saves you tracking down wiring diagrams and other fun stuff.....

    As far as making a living at it, well, if you are single and don't require a lot of money and can budget your money you might be OK. Otherwise, as the old joke goes, your wife better have a pretty good job if you want to live in semi-comfort....

    As far as making instruments, I have no idea. I'm just a repairman and am happy with that. I'll let the builders chime in on how they got started and found an audience for what they do.....

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    My favorite luthier went to school in the 90's, and then began the long journey toward building fine guitars. It's my understanding that it (or gunsmithing for example) takes years to become well versed.

    When I see amateurs recommend that everyone (perform all) work on their own guitars, I'm left to wonder about that advice
    Kentucky KM-380

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  6. #4
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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    You might read the following books: "Complete Guitar Repair" by Hideo Kamimoto, "Violin Making as it was and is" by Ed. Heron-Allen, Roger Siminoff's book on mandolin construction, "Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology" by William R. Cumpiano. These people all know something about what they are doing, though some techniques have changed since some of the books were printed. And visit Frank Ford's frets.com website.

    Then, find a friendly luthier and see if he will let you look over his shoulder. Then, find some cast-off junk instruments and practice repairing them, then practice taking them apart and putting them back together.

    If you are successful, you might know something after about five years.

    There are also builder's schools, but you'll still want to do most of the above before you enroll.

    I have offered to let at least half a dozen people watch me work. Only three showed up. One helped me re-fret a guitar and didn't come back. One helped me re-profile bar frets [a tedious job] and didn't come back. One, who unfortunately lives a couple of hours away, has become an occasional apprentice, and along with helping me on a few jobs, also brings in stuff of his own to work on. He looks over my shoulder a lot, and now he's starting to do some of the work while I look over his shoulder. I left him alone for a couple of hours on a fret job the last time he was here, and he's coming along. If he keeps up with it, he will one day become a competent worker.

    Don't even think about this kind of work unless you have a lot of patience, and can control your temper. The work can be difficult and tedious, and things can go wrong no matter how much experience you have.

    In the old days, we used to talk to each other a lot and trade techniques and figure out how to handle problems.

    Building and repair are two separate but related crafts which share some common ground. I have not built an instrument from scratch, and I do not open one up very often. I do remove necks and fingerboards from time to time. It is easier to put them together than it is to take them apart.

    I learned the craft by reading, asking questions, and doing. I have had very little training, but I looked over the shoulders of more experienced folks any time I had the opportunity.

    It is not a good idea for a beginner to pull the neck on a pre-war Martin, or take the back off of an F-4.

    I worked on instruments for 20 years before I started to call myself a luthier.

    "Keep your tools sharp and your mind clear."
    Last edited by rcc56; Aug-03-2019 at 9:41pm.

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  8. #5

    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    I have been messing with building mandolins. I have a decent home workshop and spent 20 years working as a tool and die maker on high precision progressive stamping dies and injection molds so I have built quite a few complicated projects. I built a couple of guitars when I was younger from some books. Both guitars failed, one from glue letting go in a hot car and the other from a problem in the design of the bracing. That was about 25 or 30 years ago. Since then I have done some repair on inexpensive guitars successfully, regluing a headstock, making new bridges and replacing bridge plates. This was done as favors for people with broken instruments and no cash to pay someone. I also do a certain amount of hobby woodworking when I feel like it.

    About 3 years ago a friend of mine had a broken nut on her mandolin, a cant top someone in Minneapolis built. I fixed it for her and was looking it over and thought I could build one. Since then I have completed a couple of A model archtops based on Siminoff's book. Graham Macdonald's book is really good also as well as the luthier forum on here. I used board wood cedar for the tops, being selective about grain since I could get that inexpensively and throw pieces away when I screwed up without feeling too bad about tossing a 50 dollar board on the campfire. I have a bunch of walnut and maple stored in my garage from trees my dad and I had harvested for projects and have used that so far for backs, sides and necks. I am building number 3 now. Each one has been better with fewer mistakes.

    I had a chance to hear my number 2 played last weekend by a decent player. He then played three other decent quality mandolins. It sounded reasonably good by comparison, at least as good as one other made by a respected small builder and not quite as good as a Gibson Sam Bush model but not embarrassingly so. All in all it gave me some hope and encouragement though the fit and finish need a lot of work. I have a lot of time on my hands and will continue to experiment and learn though it is doubtful any of it will be commercially viable except as a supplement to retirement income.

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    If you're good, you might be able to make a modest living if you have another source of income. I don't know of any millionaire luthiers. The work is slow, the cost of good tools is high, and the demand for the work is small. On some jobs, you only make minimum wage.

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    Quote Originally Posted by rcc56 View Post
    ...On some jobs, you only make minimum wage.
    Those are the good ones!

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    Those are the good ones!
    This sounds like the perfect application for a very old saying: "Don't quit your day job."
    You can't get there from here.

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    Those are the good ones!
    Yeah, John. I forgot that minimum wage has gone up . . .

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    Minimum wage is typical, if you are thinking minimum wage from a few decades ago.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    Within the next few months the University of Tennessee Press will be releasing a new book about Luthier, Randy Wood. Although everyone does what they do for many different reasons this book explains Randy's early passion and education on the road to becoming who he is today. It should help answer your question

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Mando View Post
    Dad had tools, so I was always watching him and learning what tool was used for what....(on his deathbed, Mom mentioned she thought her battery cables were loose and I said that I would go tighten them -- Dad lifted his head to say, "be sure to use a socket, not a Crescent wrench, you don't want to chew up the nuts!") .
    Aww, Jeff, that put a lump in my throat! I also credit what limited handiness (and some of the tools) I have to my late Dad - and that sounds just like something he would have said, too!

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    First step, get a "normal" job that pays the bills. Next step get some basic woodworking skills. Next step get a shed and some tools (paid for by the normal job), and some wood (also paid for by the normal job). Next step make some mandolins and try to sell the good ones. You will make some duds. Don't sell the duds. If you sell some, buy more tools and wood. Keep this up for 10 years. After 10 years you are probably breaking even, the normal job is no longer funding the instrument making and you probably now have a good set of power and hand tools. Keep it up until you are making a reasonable profit and have a waiting list for your mandolins. Here comes the tricky bit - make sure you have a source of backup income before you quit your normal job. That might be a partner that works, superannuation or pension or inheritance. Don't get divorced. Now quit your job and become a full time Luthier earning less than the minimum wage. If you are really really good and are making something in demand you might earn a minimum wage. You now can get divorced.

    I did the woodworking skills at high school, and the divorce thing first. You really need to have the passion or the long hours of working 2 jobs and the crappy financial part gets too hard.
    Peter Coombe - mandolins, mandolas and guitars
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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    I would be happy with "minimum wage"...
    kterry

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    How to end up with a million dollars through lutherie: start with two million.

    Consider being an amateur. An amateur isn't necessarily worse at something, they just do it because they love it, instead of the need for a paycheck. Because of that, I can make stuff that would not be economically feasible to make if I were depending on it to keep a roof over my kids' head. And my health insurance is paid for, which is good, because lutherie isn't great for your health.

    It's like working musicians... they usually don't have top-grade instruments.
    Working photographers never shoot with Leicas.
    Want a Somogyi guitar, a Festool chop saw, and a Leica camera? Go to medical school, then buy the stuff you want. Then build the stuff you want. It'll be a lot less stressful.

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    Do as much repair work as possible to start out. If nothing else, it will show how instruments should not be built and build up a customer base. If possible find a more experienced person to work with as assistant/apprentice or whatever and absorb as much as possible while making all the mistakes we all made starting out. Then you can work up to making minimum wage.

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  32. #17

    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    The best reason to build instruments (in my case mandolins)is to be able to play and listen and look at something you made with your own hands.
    I have a friend (Paul Dunn) who lives in Bourbon Missouri who builds just about anything you can imagine, who holds small group classes. For a very modest fee you can learn to build mandolins.

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    If it was easy, you could just read this book --

    Click image for larger version. 

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    (It's always helps to read the book first to best enjoy the musical comedy!)

    Steve

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  36. #19

    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    Funny, Steve.

    Two actual books:

    Nigel Forster's book on how to build a successful lutherie business: https://www.nkforsterguitars.com/books/

    Carlos Everett's book on how to keep your lutherie business afloat, once you get it there, which I find nauseating but has a lot of really good tips in it: http://www.lulu.com/commerce/index.p...ontent=6764706

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    I really love to work on instruments........for two or three hours a day.

    Over time I acquired a few instruments. I bought basic set up tools. One day I leveled the frets on a Tele. Swapped pickups, painted Warmouth necks and bodies, and did everything you'd need to do to put partscasteres together. Seems like every new thing could be done with better specialized tools. Finally broke down and bought fret files, then some clamps.

    One day a friend asked me to replace the plastic bridge on his old Epiphone. Came out ok. Some years later it had developed top cracks down both sides of the neck, one clear to the soundhole. Well, what the heck, if he was willing to let me have at it, I'd try. What a feeling when it didn't fold up. Put correct Klusons back on it too.

    I wanted to learn mandolin setup so bought the Michael Kelly 199.00 solid mandolin on closeout. No loss if I ruin it. Replaced the nut, leveled and crowned the frets, fit the bridge, and speed necked the neck. Pretty successful. Oh, no. Addicted to a scroll. Bought and built an Arches kit, but to practice for that, I bought a cheap arch top guitar with a horrible neck angle. Took the back off, well it mostly fell off, slipped the neck, glued it back on, then did my first refret on it. Put real binding on it too. Gave me the confidence to build the kit, building a thickness gauge and a gazillian spool clamps along the way. Learned to french polish too.

    Had I done all this in high school, maybe I'd have tried to earn a living doing it. Maybe I wouldn't have the savings for a modest retirement. Maybe I'd be Paul Reed Smith. Who knows, but the guys who have a reputation by their tenth mandolin are few and far between. You'd better be passionate about it for sure.

    I feel like it is so much better now with guys making videos for the net. So much to learn from that. I try not to work on stuff that isn't solid wood, but it's harder to find an old instrument to fix up these days, and that is how you really learn stuff.
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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    I can't comment from a luthier's point of view, but I'm a professional maker of ceramic vessel flutes (transverse ocarinas) and a lot of the research and development process is essentially the same. As has been mentioned, its helpful to be handy and naturally curious about tinkering with things. I've been lucky growing up under my father's tutelage in many things and because of his influence and encouragement I've always been interested in fixing things and making things.

    Take advantage of our modern age and use resources online as well as trusted literature. In my case, research was absolutely key because I was interested in a very uncommon and niche instrument. Studying works by other makers and tinkering with their instruments gave me hands on knowledge and I was additionally lucky to study excellent historic pieces at a museum in Italy. A good relationship with fellow makers also increased my knowledge and some were very kind to offer their guidance in my early days.

    Most of all, I would get used to failure. I learnt so much from trial and error. While some failures stung, I never would have got to where I am today without them. That said, although I am successful and my work sells faster than I can make them, I could never earn a living by them. Mandolins and other fretted instruments might be different as they are more common however. It will take years, but if you're passionate about it and love to make things then the happiness it brings you will be worth it. I work a full time job to pay my bills. Instrument making for me is a labour of love.

    Edit: As an addition, I'd highly recommend lending out functional instruments you make as you develop to accomplished players. I sent out ocarinas to players across the globe and their critique was essential to my progression as a maker. A different perspective is always enlightening and worthwhile.
    Last edited by Kalasinar; Aug-06-2019 at 5:52am.

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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    It’s really easy...
    “You have to WANT to do it!” Then the learning is that much more enjoyable.
    If you don’t have a real desire, it can simply feel like drudgery.
    It’s not much different from being a good cook, you learn basic skills then spend the rest of your time putting them into practice.
    Timothy F. Lewis
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  44. #23

    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    Let's just for a moment take a hypothetical situation of someone tinkering in their spare time repairing instruments, then deciding to make one. They might be encouraged by the feedback they get from fellow local players, and they build another. They sound fabulous because they just have a natural ability to carve wood. Their learning curve is faster than most. Their fit and finish leave a lot to be desired, good, but not the perfection needed to make the $6k they need to break minimum wage. So they sell their first half dozen to locals who are happy to have a pro level playing and sounding instrument for $2500 if they are lucky. Now what? Let's say they reach aesthetic excellence by instrument 20, but this takes a number of years because they need to eat and pay rent. I buy one of these and praise the builder to high heaven, as do three or four other no name cafe members. That and five bucks will get you a cappuchino.

    What you have to hope is that somehow or someway one of your mandolins gets touted by a player of stature, or maybe a major dealer sees a business opportunity and stocks one. That adds credibility. But it still needs to be sold cheaper, because I'm not going to take a chance when I can buy a Gibson or a Collings I know I can unload easily.

    It has to be a daunting task to get established, and that is all the more reason to respect those up to the task. You have to do it because you just can't see doing anything else.
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  46. #24
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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    How to start? With a plan that includes:

    1. You will need the requisite woodworking skills.
    2. You'll need the requisite finishing skills.
    3. You'll need some equipment/tools/machinery (I know someone could whittle one with a pocket knife but that's not the best path). 4. You'll need money. (see #3 above)
    5. You'll need a method to acquire all of the above.
    6. You'll need a place to do this. (Shared space could be available by a variety of mechanisms).
    7. At some point you'll need business skills (marketing, administrative, tax)
    8. You'll need more money.

    If you're going to do it as a hobby, you don't really need a business plan, just an instrument plan. But to succeed commercially you should realize that woodworking generally is a capital intensive business, ie, you'll need a fair amount of capita goods (machinery) to compete with other boutique builders who have made those investments.

    After several years of doing this you may have enough success to have a niche in the boutique market. Beware that boutique builders come and go, I can name 3 that have left in the past 2 years, all names familiar to Cafe members.

    Some people have succeeded fairly well in the business, but the number is small.

    And in the end, to me, you've become a one man factory, although some folks describe that as an 'independent artisan in wood', full of self actualization. That's great, as long as you eat well.

    Plan carefully. Good luck if that's your choice.
    Play it like you mean it

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  48. #25
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    Default Re: Becoming a Luthier-How?

    When i went to Wintergrass, I remember meeting a number of guitar, banjo, mando etc makers from Bend, the Sisters, Portland, and places near you. Andrew Mowry, Preston Thompson, Brooks Masten, um, I can't remember the others. For some reason, there's a bunch in Oregon, not that many in WA state. But i'm sure if you ask them they'd tell you about all the help they got when they were starting.

    The guy that used to set soundposts on my violin and cello had a performance degree in Medievel music or whatever pre Baroque is called from a top school (Indiana) and he got hired as an apprentice fiddle/cello/bass fixer and after awhile he got really good at the basics and was starting to reset necks and more involved work
    The Keepers: Kentucky km900, looking for next one
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