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Thread: Buying directly from a luthier

  1. #1
    Registered User Monkshood's Avatar
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    Default Buying directly from a luthier

    Advice sought. Iím buying my third mandolin, the first directly from the luthier. Itís not ďbespokeĒ but comes from his stock. Iíve played it and a couple others by the same luthier and am happy with its sound, look, and feel. He's a younger, unknown luthier who was taught by a more prominent one and is developing his own business.
    My question: For me as a buyer and as a business transaction, what should I be aware of Ė keep an eye out for, ask about, look forward to - in this case thatís different from buying online or from my local music shop?
    I have no reason to anticipate anything but good things from this, but I just want to make sure I know what Iím doing and get the most out of it.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    I'd ask if there is a warranty and what it does and doesn't include. I'd try and get it in writing. I'd also ask if there were an approval period and what the terms of return would be. Get a receipt for insurance purposes.

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  4. #3
    Registered User haggardphunk's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    I'd ask him about his willingness to do typical repair work, like setups, on it in the future and ask what he might charge. I know some will say free if asked, especially if they think it might help them sell the instrument.
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    It should be a pretty straight forward transaction. It is not impossible for there to be problems with the instrument, but most likely not, and most builders will stand behind their work, and although I don't know who the builder is in this case, that is what I would expect. There is a lot of competition for mandolin dollars, and a lot of high quality work to compete with, so what reason would the builder have to not do his/her best?

    Things to look for, however, are frets and set up. I've had a surprising number of hand built instruments come through the shop in need of neck and fret work. Having a good set-up person check it out can't hurt because it seems some builders don't take the time to develop good fret and set up skills.

    Please don't haggle on the price. With the exception of some well known names in the business, most builders are not charging enough to make lots of money selling instruments.

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    Registered User mingusb1's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    Besides what's already been suggested I'd talk to him about the set-up on your new instrument. Like if you know you like the action a certain way and a certain set of strings ask him to get it set that way so it's ready to go when you get it.

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  10. #6
    Registered User mbruno's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    +1 on the warranty details in writing. Specifically what issues are grounds for free repair or return / refund and what's the timeline. Last time two mandolins I bought from a small shop were both shipped to me. Both had issues that needed to be fixed after they arrived (one the fret wire was popping up because the fretboard radius was done incorrectly and the other the finish got all messed up because of the way they packed it). Both were fixed free, but added about 3 weeks to the delivery time

    Also if you want to sell it at some point, it may be harder if this luither's name isn't well known. While you may be able to sell it for what it's "worth", you'll likely need to "sell" it more than say a Gibson or Northfield since people know those brands.
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  12. #7
    Registered User haggardphunk's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    Quote Originally Posted by mbruno View Post
    Also if you want to sell it at some point, it may be harder if this luither's name isn't well known. While you may be able to sell it for what it's "worth", you'll likely need to "sell" it more than say a Gibson or Northfield since people know those brands.
    This is good advice to think about before purchasing. I recently bought a boutique mandolin and I got it used for over 1/2 off of what this builder was charging for new ones. I'd go in with the mindset that it'll be really hard to sell and maybe you'll never sell it. Hell, I have a nice Eastman mandolin for sale locally that I am having a hard time moving.
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  14. #8

    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    Having commisioned a few instruments, and having seen a few such instrument deals gone strange for myself and others, I offer a few thoughts:

    Memorialize everything. Make sure you nail down *all* the specifications that matter, including the things you think are obvious. (Yes, sometimes a buyer will be hit with something totally out of the blue like, "Oh, I decided to experiment with a pin bridge on yours, instead of the normal floating bridge!") Don't rely on phone calls. Make sure initial specs are in writing in email before sending a deposit, and don't communicate by phone, always in writing.

    Make sure you have a firm timetable in writing, and that any changes are in writing. Don't take or make phone calls. Keep all voice messages and emails.

    Make your deposits and payments in a way that you can get the money back if things go wrong. I always pay extra for PayPal, adding the extra 2.9% in fees that the seller would be charged and thinking of it as insurance for me. Some people balk at paying almost $30 on top of every $1000 to protect oneself, but it's cheaper than losing a deposit. Memorialize everything, including regarding specifications and schedule, in the PayPal message accompanying the deposit.

    Leave the lines of communication open, dropping a friendly email every few weeks to check the status. If the builder specifies a particular date the build will start, then I'll start dropping emails a week before that.

    Inspect the heck out of the instrument once you make final payment and receive it. Immediately communicate if there are issues.

    Lastly, if the person is going really beyond schedule, or starts doing strange things that make you nervous while violating the memorialized terms, be willing to walk away. That's why you payed with an escrow service, to protect yourself.

    I've had great handshake deals over the years with people I knew deeply, but I've also had builders change specs that were in writing, then claim I'd keep what I got, no refunds. The worst was in another country a few years ago, but I managed to cancel the last/second payment, and let the builder know I'd be selling it off to cover my deposit for the instrument whose specs he agreed to but didn't honor, and then would send back any funds above my being made whole. He flipped out, angry and saying it wasn't mine to sell until I made final payment, after he said he wouldn't honor our agreement anyway. He finally refunded the deposit, had a friend pick up the instrument, and I wired him the initial shipping costs on the shipped instrument which didn't fulfill our actual agreed-upon commision. That was around $5000 I would have been out, instead of just a few hundred on shipping. Ever since that, I've *never* dealt with someone I didn't know deeply without using escrow.

    What's funny is, I've had people argue that they wouldn't get to keep the deposit if they didn't deliver the actual commision. What? I repeated it back to them, making sure I was correctly understanding. If they really meant it, then I was better served elsewhere.

    I have *never* had a problem with those who viewed escrow (with seller's fees covered) as a bad thing. "I get a deposit, build it as specified, get final payment, and send it as per agreement? Sure thing!" It's when people start arguing that they don't like the specifications they agree to, and/or the schedule they themselves laid out, that red flags start waving everywhere.

    Others can argue that you should take a chance. I'm just giving you some opinions and suggestions based on those occasional horror stories, and assuming you're not just makeing a donation of cash for no return.

    Whatever path you choose, good luck!
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  15. #9
    Registered User haggardphunk's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    great info, Explorer.

    My music teacher was telling me the other day that his commissioned mandolin took 3 tries for the luthier to get it down to what they had laid out for specs. Basically, exactly what you laid out happened to him twice. Builder just doing his own thing and then on the delivery day he had to say "hey man, this isn't what we discussed"

    The cool thing was the luthier gave him a mando to use until he did eventually get it right.
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  16. #10

    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    Sounds like this instrument is already built and OP has played it, which takes away some of the need to document what specs you are asking for in the build.

    I think asking about warranty/repairs should cover it, especially if you like the instrument already and have examined it. Typically when you have something in hand and decide to buy it that should cover it and the warranty should cover you if there is any fatal flaw. Most builders don't want their instruments out in the world with issues if they can avoid.

    I will say when I started out playing I had a custom build by a well known small shop maker of affordable instruments for my 2nd instrumen. In my inexperienced hands I saw makers marks/setup issues that I thought should be fixed. The builder accommodated me, but in hindsight these sort of issues are pretty common even with more expensive instruments and with how inexpensive the mandolin was I probably cost him a good chunk of his profit shipping back and forth and handling the repairs. I think as a buyer you have to have reasonable expectations, as well.

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  18. #11
    Registered User Monkshood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    Quote Originally Posted by mbruno View Post
    Also if you want to sell it at some point, it may be harder if this luither's name isn't well known. While you may be able to sell it for what it's "worth", you'll likely need to "sell" it more than say a Gibson or Northfield since people know those brands.
    This issue has been lurking in the back of my mind. It seems like preparing for a funeral before a birth, but it makes very practical sense and is my biggest hesitation on pulling the trigger.

  19. #12
    Registered User Kirk Higgins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying directly from a luthier

    Presumably, the price is lower than other builders with bigger reputation so you may already be compensated in advance for resale risk. If the individual builds good mandolins, then you may stand to make money as the builder becomes better known.
    Kirk

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