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Thread: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

  1. #1

    Default Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    I am a relatively young guy (41), and thankfully I'm looking at retirement from my current "day job" in 12-15 years. I've made one mandolin, and I'm working on more. I don't anticipate needing a massive income stream upon retirement. But a little pocket money--and also an engaging hobby that I love--will be welcome. As an experienced woodworker with a pretty well outfitted shop, I've kind of become enamored with making mandolin's and even considered branching out in to other archtop instruments later.

    Considering I have a dozen or so years to learn and to perfect my craft, I wonder what pieces of advice more experienced and professional instrument builders might give me to consider and to work on in that time.

    Thanks for your thoughts and input.

    Mark

  2. #2
    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Repair stuff. Know your limits and take on repairs accordingly. When we take instruments apart and fix them, we can see how they are built, what went right and what went wrong. Study different building techniques and on and on. As you gain experience you can take on more valuable instruments and learn from those.

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  4. #3

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Get a beater. Take it apart and rebuild it. Scratch the top/back and fix that. Strip top/back and refinish. Refret it. Replace the fingerboard. Repeat on A/F style. Change the tuning machines. Install a new bridge that fits perfectly.

    Continue until strangers offer to give you money for your work
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Study good instruments every time you have the opportunity. Try to discern what makes them tick. On mandolins, look at the arching, feel the stiffness of the plates, try to see if you can produce a tap tone. On guitars, study the bracing of the older instruments-- most aspiring modern builders over-brace their instruments.

    Get into repair. You'll learn a lot by seeing what causes instruments to hold up or fail over time.

    Put your early priority on building rather than jig making! I knew one fellow who spent more time building jigs than instruments, then he quit the business after his 9th instrument. He abandoned a shop filled with a couple of hundred pounds of wood, and a dozen mass-production jigs that were not essential to an early builder.

    He also had a lack of patience, which is the kiss of death in lutherie.

    Learn what tools are essential, and don't skimp on those. Avoid spending money on tools that are interesting but are not really necessary. Stew-mac sells good stuff, but a simple old fashioned double sided fret file will serve you just as well as the super-duper extra-special fret file of the month. Learn to distinguish the difference between good journeyman's tools and unnecessary boutique tools.

    Avoid short-cuts-- they can come back to haunt you later.

    Learn about glues. Why do those of us who restore instruments often prefer hide glue, even though it can be troublesome to use.
    And, especially if your focus is going to be on mandolins to start with, learn all you can about varnishes.

    Purchase and read "Complete Guitar Repair" by Hideo Kamimoto. Read Cumpiano's book on guitar making. Read books on violin making. Study Frank Ford's frets.com website.

    And yes, take 'em apart and put 'em back together.

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  8. #5

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    All good stuff.

    One thing I will say - while building an instrument always includes an element of repair, repair is way harder - and in many ways a completely different skill set- than building a new instrument.

    If you're pumped about building new instruments, dive in and build a bunch. Even building a partscaster or Tele from Warmoth parts is fine, you'll learn about fretwork, setup, finishing, etc, and a host of other things.
    Focus on FINISHING stuff (getting it done, getting it playable).
    Many people (myself included) have potentially-lovely instruments which have been sitting at 60-80% completion for decades. That doesn't teach you nearly as much as building some pieces of Frankenstein garbage which you then work to make playable.
    Push through the ugly, get stuff done, don't stress over the details too much. For the first dozen instruments, they're not going to be perfect anyway. Just get them done, reflect on the process, rinse and repeat.

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  10. #6
    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Train your hand skills in woodwork, don't just buy jigs and special gdgets that promise that anyone can get great results (perhaps you will get them, but will learn nothing). I've seen folks who bought all kinds of machines and copied jigs for making and built decent looking instruments but they still show typical detail flaws that inexperienced makers do all the time. You need to master your tools and be able to materialize the image of instruemnt you have in your mind.
    Train your ears - play the darned things and try to pull tone out of it and learn to judge tone and playability (setup issues), train your taste - often novices have quite different taste from what seasoned players want, ask better players about what they like in instrument and test every instrument that goes your way. That will allow you to judge tone and playability of your built instruments.
    And most of all: train your patience!
    Adrian

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  12. #7

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Thank you all. This is really helpful.

    The suggestions around repair are not anything I had thought about before. I do realize that building from scratch versus repair are different skillsets. But I do think taking an older "beater" apart in the first place would have been a GREAT exercise before trying to build my first mandolin. I think of it as a future doctor taking an anatomy class, I guess... So I may look in to doing some repair work in the near future.

    I think I'm done buying tools for a while (and I imagine my wife will agree!). My wishlist still includes a drum sander as the one, stand-out "bit ticket item." And I've had my eye on a roller bearing set for my Laguna bandsaw. But I don't think either of those are essential.

    My finishing knowledge and experience is very weak, so I will look in to that some more. I've read Flexner a great deal and looked in to older finishing methods but have barely even started to apply all of that knowledge. That's definitely a weak spot.

    But I do think my greatest obstacle is my own lack of patience. I want to get every project done NOW. So I'm going to have to work on that over time. I appreciate everyone's input on that regard.

    These have all been some very helpful comments. Thank you so much. -Mark

  13. #8
    Registered User jim simpson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Pre-internet days, I used to read everything I could get my hands on for repairs and builds. Over time I've found that some techniques that were taught or illustrated in some books are no longer acceptable (for good reason). It's great to always pick up new ideas from forums like this and others. I like doing repairs and re-builds for my own amusement. The road of learning while you go is a good journey. Best of luck to you!
    Cabin Fever String Band, Bill Gorby and the Musical Mercenaries

  14. #9

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Don't get seduced by a drum sander too early. I'm always yearning for one, but as a pure amateur I only build 4 or 5 instruments each year, mainly ukuleles. The process of thicknessing to under 2mm is tedious, but it gives me a really good feel for the properties of the wood for when I start actually building. Yes, it adds to the build time, but if you're doing it mainly for fun then taking longer isn't a problem.

    My friends with drum sanders spend a lot of effort replacing the abrasive, adjusting the machines and cursing, so they don't remove all the sweat! But if I were making a dozen or more each year, hand thicknessing would become very like drudgery and a drum sander would be a blessing. So once you retire ...

  15. #10
    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Quote Originally Posted by ProfChris View Post
    Don't get seduced by a drum sander too early. I'm always yearning for one, but as a pure amateur I only build 4 or 5 instruments each year, mainly ukuleles. The process of thicknessing to under 2mm is tedious, but it gives me a really good feel for the properties of the wood for when I start actually building. Yes, it adds to the build time, but if you're doing it mainly for fun then taking longer isn't a problem.

    My friends with drum sanders spend a lot of effort replacing the abrasive, adjusting the machines and cursing, so they don't remove all the sweat! But if I were making a dozen or more each year, hand thicknessing would become very like drudgery and a drum sander would be a blessing. So once you retire ...
    You can do it all with hand tools only but some tools are realy necessary. You need excellent handplanes #4 #6-7 and one of the small benchplanes for small tasks and if you get a good toothed blade you can thickness ribs without much effort. Good scrapers will smooth the surface and you'll learn sharpening with all that. There's no real need for drum sander but access to a good bandsaw is almost compulsory both for resawing billets and for cutting out blocks and neck profile. On well set bandsaw you can resaw ribs so close to final thickness that you just need to remove saw marks and you're done. If you have machinery you need vacuum to keep your space clean ...
    Making your own forms and jigs will also help you understand the processes and get better results.
    Adrian

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    Registered User Timbofood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    My cabinet maker buddy has a “Timesaver” and WOW, that thing is amazing! It’s really good to have a longtime friend with two things...
    1-equipment and...
    2-skill!
    Timothy F. Lewis
    "If brains was lard, that boy couldn't grease a very big skillet" J.D. Clampett

  17. #12
    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    As others have said, do repair work and especially learn about set-up. It doesn't mater which sort of fretted instrument, the principles are the same in getting the neck, frets, nut and saddle right.

    I would argue that after a 14" bandsaw and a good drill-press a drum sander is one of the most useful things to have in the shop. A 12" disk sander is also very useful. The Al Carruth scraper from StewMac is essential if you want to carve tops and backs.

    Cheers

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  19. #13
    Mandolin & Mandola maker
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Ah yes, drum sanders. I bought one over 20 years ago when it was reduced price. It sat in the big carton for a few years because there was no room to set it up. So I did without one for some years. However, once I got it out of the carton and set up, never looked back and wondered why it stayed in the carton for so long. Yes it is a pain to change the abrasive, and yes I curse every time I need to change it, but it makes it so much easier to thickness sides and make your own wooden bindings. A drum sander is almost essential if you want to branch out into other instruments such as guitars or flat top mandolins.

    All the above is great information, but the hardest thing in Lutherie is selling your creations, and you have to sell them or they accumulate and you run out of cash. Marketing skills are tricky to learn when you spend most of your time in a workshop, and most of us are not very good at marketing.
    Peter Coombe - mandolins, mandolas and guitars
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  20. #14
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    A good tool: Microplane rotary shaper drill attachment-- comes in 1" and 2" sizes and replacement blades are available. Available at Woodcraft, or from International Violin Company.

    Chuck it up in a drill press just like a conventional rotary sanding attachment, and clamp a fence to the drill press table. Take small passes, or you'll either wear out the blade, the drill press, or hurt yourself. The same holds true if you use a more conventional sanding attachment.

    Good for thicknessing small pieces of work, and for cutting the wings on acoustic guitar bridges. I don't know if I would use it for ribs, though.



    Strad didn't have no drum sander. [Or belt sander, electric drill, or bandsaw either.] But he probably would have welcomed all of them if they were available. Me, I live without the bandsaw and drum sander, but a friendly cabinet maker lets me use his bandsaw when I really need one.

    Strad couldn't go to the local hardware store and buy a piece of sandpaper either. We often don't realize how easy we've got it, drum sander or no drum sander.

  21. #15
    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Hand tools can be very effective compared to electric tools. Folks tend to forget that great many modern tools (and jigs) werenot created to make the work more efficient but to enable less skilled person get the same result without the hard earned skill. There was a contest between two top notch violin makers one carving the top of violoncello with gouge, other with one of the carving angle grinder attachments and result was draw with folks noting something like that the angle grinder guy will spend next hour cleaning the mess around the bench.
    You can see videos from chinese factories mass producing instruments trditional way and see how effective the right tools can be in the right hand.
    Luthiery is more on traditional side and unless you want to produce many instruments a year and don't want to "waste" your time honing your fine skills you can do it almost allwith hand tools only. I built my latest two F-5 mandolins completely with handtools (except few uses of bandsaw for blocks and neck contours), no router for bindings, no sanders (that I've never used anyway) etc. and result was just the same as before.
    Adrian

  22. #16

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    A big drum sander is certainly a big deal, both for space and cost. A 12” Taiwanese planer can, if you stick the thin wood down on a carrier, do a similar job. With a drill press, the ancient Safe-T-Planer plus a carrier (or caul) can work if it doesn’t get away from you. (By the way, this thing plus a vacuum hold-down is even convenient). Lots of options, but nothing as educational, IMHO, as learning to set up and use hand planes and scrapers.

  23. #17
    I really look like that soliver's Avatar
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Love this thread!... Putnam, I am in almost the exact same boat here, (41 yrs old with a lot of woodworking and cabinetmaking experience and looking down the road at building for fun)... only you've actually built a mandolin, whereas I have not,... I am in the middle of getting my shop up to a reasonable manner of cleanliness as well as insulating and sealing from outside conditions so it will be more conducive to instrument building. My plan is to order plans for a A/N Flatiron style pancake and utilize Graham MacDonald's book to build a flat top sometime this year. If not, I'll have a much more temperate and comfortable man-cave. ... Doesn't everyone have a flatscreen TV with streaming device in their shop?
    aka: Spencer
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  24. #18

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Here is how I rigged up a thickness sander. The drum for the sleeves came from Sears several years ago. I have enough sleeves for now but need to find a new source. The sleeves are 3 inches long so they will do mandolin sides, fingerboards, headstock veneers and wood binding. The block underneath has four 3/8-16 screws so each flat of the hex raises it 0.010 inches. I feed it by hand pushing then pulling through. The whole thing including motor cost around $100 or so, mostly the motor. It is not fancy but it works. And it takes very little space. I use a vacuum for dust collection but need to rig something better.

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  25. #19

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Tools are tools, but I would focus on the instruments. I was lucky and started at a vintage shop as a salesman and watched the repairman there. That led to setups, bridge reglues, and some electronic repair. Eventually, I was confident to do the bigger jobs. Also, this was 30 some years ago and the store was well-stocked with 30's Martins, Gibsons, Nationals, 50's and 60's Fenders, Gretsches, etc. -- you know, the good stuff. The point is to put yourself in a situation where you can see as many guitars as possible and how they are made. I don't think it would be possible to be around that many vintage guitars today unless you worked for a handful of very well-known shops today -- and doubtful they would trust a beginner to work on such guitars. I should also add, in a sense, I was getting paid hourly for MY "apprenticeship!"

    I sure wish I was getting paid hourly these days!

    Good luck!

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  27. #20

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    Build five and and tweek the graduations, how do they sound compared to a $3500 mandolin? Learn finishing (do you already have a 60 gallon compressor and a good gun?) Dyes, sunbursts, and immaculate finishes are the norm, as are fine attention to detail. In the sub $2000 range, you're not going to be able to compete with the pac rim makers and make any money. In the $5000 range, buyers are very picky (rightly so) and you'll have LOTS of competition from well-established builders producing great instruments.

    I got into building because, as a poor public school teacher raising a family, I couldn't afford a $3500 mandolin. My #5 is close to what I'm wanting and sounds better than a couple of Collings bottom-tier mandos with Englemann tops I've played. But buyers for unknown builders' instruments are rare. So build because you love it. Maybe keep track of your hours for one instrument. Calculate the cost of wood, hardware, and finish- deduct that from your selling price, divide remaining profit by 50-120 hours spent on building and finishing. The math likely will tell you it's a labor of love, not a reliable source of income (for most of us anyway). …But it can be a consuming passion.

  28. #21

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    It takes a hunger for skills and then it takes a desire to improve them. As much as your schedule allows, visit local music stores frequently looking for instruments that are not economically suitable for repair. Make friends with the owners if you can -- bring donuts. Respect the time you take from these people. In the time you have to develop your skills, its totally within reason that you could develop a decent level of skill if you persist.

  29. #22

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    FWIW, I had good luck finding project guitars by just casually asking music stores and pawn shops, "hey, by the way, I like to work on repairing guitars, do you happen to have any broken stuff in the back?" Usually, they just say no, but believe it or not, many times I've had grumpy ol' pawn shop owners open the back door and welcome me -- often selling me broken stuff that fell off the hooks for $10 or 15 bucks. Sometimes stores have even given me things like broken amps, cases, etc. Warning: you may encounter pointy, heavy-metal guitars that time forgot.....

    Also, sometimes even junk guitars are useful for parts to fix other guitars, so if its cheap, I buy it.

  30. #23

    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    duplicate post

  31. #24
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    I have built two A style mandolins, and I'm happy to remain a hobbyist. But if I were to turn pro, I would read all of grandcanyonminstrel's (James Condino) posts regarding his jig that enables you to hear what the mandolin is going to sound like before it's glued up.

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  33. #25
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    Default Re: Advice for a pre-professional luthier?

    I am retired & build octaves as a hobby. I've built about a dozen & sold 2. Despite the doubts of others, I agree wholeheartedly with SBJ's post above. I was skeptical at first but decided to take the time to build a test rig based on James Condino's design. I think I have learned more about how to achieve the sound I want in the last few months with this rig than I learned in the previous several years without it. The greatest point of skepticism about these rigs seems to be that the sound would be too different between the test rig & an actual instrument to be useful. In my experience this has not been the case; I have been surprised at the similarity. I have developed a new (to me) bracing system that is a great improvement over my previous builds. I included in my test rig a variable angle neck attachment so that I can test both carved & flat top instruments. Of course the whole idea is greatly complicated is you want to build F-style instruments. There is probably some way to build an F-style test rig, but it's not something I'm interested in.

    Then too, people tend to approach building from varying perspectives. Some choose to follow a set of plans in order to achieve tried-&-true results. Others improvise hoping to find what works best for them. Personally I fall into the second group. That is, in part, why I have chosen to build octaves: no rigid standards. Best of luck in your endeavors.

    -Earl Tyler

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