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Thread: Luthier training

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    I'm a lifelong woodworker with very good skills in production, custom work, custom finishing, and restoration / repair. I also play both frets and strings. After 35 years, I'm tired of commercial woodworking, an am considerng taking up instrument repair, both fretted and violin family.

    Although I have decent basic knowledge and good hands, I don't have the skills to be commercially succesful, and I don't have years to acquire them. I would need to hit the ground running. At this point, I am only considering full spectrum instrument repair and setup.

    Does anybody have any idea about how best to gain the specific training I need to work productively enough to make a living, and well enough to have happy customers?

    There seems to be plenty of demand for these services, but I will not allow myself to be just another hack.

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    Check out this page on frets.com.

    Info

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    I don't want to sound discouraging, but getting good at repair/restoration only comes with experience. Granted, you've already got quite a bit of that, but the tricks of fret jobs, set-ups, etc. can be a lifelong learning process.
    Even apprenticeships take a while, and they are probably the best formal training in lutherie. Most lutherie schools cover the basics, and not much more, with the exception of some of the violin making schools.

    One of the worst things about getting into the business is the lack of credentials. People don't believe you when you say you know how to fix their instrument, they have to hear it from satisfied customers, and the pickier the better. It takes a while to develope a good reputation by doing good work, and only good work. The reputation is your only real credential.
    Oh, and by the way, to be competitive on price and make a living, you have to do good work fast.

    The good news is; all the information you need is at your keyboard-typing fingertips these days, as well as the telephone. A few "mentors", a few friendships with knowledgable repair people, memberships in the GAL and ASIA, Frets.com, this board...it's all here.

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    Unfortunately,Wiz,John is right on,as usual. If you are determined to have a go, I recommend that you develop your skills in small parcels,for example: limit your practice to setups only,one genre of instruments at a time. Study the copious materials available on the net and in books and pamphlets concerning setup of,say,mandolins. You'll probably run spang up against something that baffles you in the first five jobs. That's when you reach for your keyboard and out to the wonderful Cafe'..before you reach for that chisel or saw or hammer,or glue bottle,etc,etc,etc.
    Good luck to you. I personally hate repairs and never solicit repair work,but I wind up doing some anyway.
    Jim

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    Diego, Great link. Thanks!

    John and Grow, I appreciate your comments. I'd say the same thing to someone I didn't know, but I believe I'm a little ahead of where you might think I am.

    I'm fortunate in that I already have quite a few contacts and quite a bit of respect. I'm not at all worried about getting the business, just doing the work at a commercial pace and still meeting the quality standards I want. As a woodworker, I was usually the guy people came to when nobody else could (or would, more likely) do the job. I'm just tired of it, and getting a little old, and I really love music and musical istruments.

    If instrument repair (not building) is like most other repair businesses, 80 percent or more of the work is pretty repetitive and fairly basic. Those are the areas in which I need to sharpen my skills most quickly. I can farm out or refer the rest until my skills meet my standards. Is my thinking correct, or is instrument repair an exception to the rule?

    What I think I mostly need do learn is shop organization, work flow, and how to do the routine things very, very efficiently. Fret work, bridge work, action sets, violin soundposts and bridge tuning, binding repair, that sort of thing. I can already do a lot of that work pretty well, just not particularly efficiently.

    As far as quick goes, try being a self employed commercial wood worker. Same thing applies. I've been self employed since about 1970.

    I have a fair amount of experience and a lot of "book knowledge". What I need is a lot of hands-on work doing the 80% jobs, and someone experienced to show me the efficient way to do things properly. Lots of repetion wouldn't hurt. I wouldn't mind working part time for some existing luthiers on a job by job basis at a very cheap wage in exchange for the specific training I need, and the opportunity to polish my skills under the tutelage of someone really good.

    I am already very well versed on finishes of all sorts, and finish repair, polishing, that sort of thing. I am very familiar with every type of finish used during the last two hundred years, and have a lot of experience restoring and matching finishes, probably as much as any luthier gets in a lifetime.

    I can fix most cracks and dings so that even I have to search to find them. I can carve well enough to repair broken carvings or to make replacement parts for furniture that are indistinguishable from the original. I know veneering and inlay work. Got a bunch more "heavy" skills, too that don't take a back seat to many, if I may say so myself.

    Like I said above, its the routine stuff and the specific tricks of the trade that I need to get really good at quickly, and it's largely a matter of transferring and polishing a lot of the skills that I already have.

    It probably sounds like I have an inflated opinion of myself, but that's not the case. The skill inventory is pretty accurate, and I know I still have a lot to learn. I studied and learned all the time at what I have done for the last 35 years, and I don't expect this to be any different.

    I didn't want to list all this stuff, cause it's boring, but maybe I need to present a little more complete picture of where I'm coming from so people won't assume that I'm quite so naive. I'd probably make the same assumption myself, with as little info as I first gave out.

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    Go forth and prosper.

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    I didn't figure you were a newby. The finish experience is probably more than most luthiers get in a lifetime. It doesn't sound like you have an inflated opinion of yourself, more like you have a realistic appraisal of your ability gained through experience.

    Yes, fret jobs, neck resets, guitar bridges, etc. (the repair person's bread and butter) can get pretty monotonous, but as Grow mentioned, there's always something you've never seen before. A buzz you can't find, a "squirrely" piece of wood in a neck that makes your best fret job efforts seem wasted, stuff that nobody can teach you, because they've never seen it either. Drawing on experience and asking questions is the key. Don't hesitate to ask questions, and ask a bunch of people the same question. Even people who have only a couple of years experience might have run across something that you haven't yet.

    One thing that is important is to familiarize yourself with the more-or-less-unwritten rules of what is acceptable practice (currently). There are "correct" glues and finishes and procedures that have changed over time. There are some pretty good repair books out there. You've probably got most of them already. Books like the Don Teeter books can help by just getting you thinking in the right direction. Problem solving skills transfer pretty well.

    Watching someone work is helpful to gain efficiency. To see the rhythm they develope in a fret job, for example. The demonstrations at ASIA and GAL conventions are good learning experiences.

    Beware of being the guy who will take on the jobs others won't. I've been that guy for a long time, and sometimes the time on a job can just snowball, and I loose money. It's impossible to estimate the time and money accurately sometimes, so you have to estimate high, (you already know this) and either price yourself out of the job, or have the safety net of the high estimate. That's something I never got very good at.

    I think you have the right idea. Repetition, and handing off the jobs you're not confident in your own ability to do. You already know what the stardards of the industry are, and that is a big head start over some people who start into instrument repair.

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    Good advice. Thanks!

    I'm certainly aware of the hazards of being "that guy". It can get expensive, and I've no desire to be a hero.

    And I agree that there's always stuff that comes up new. I'm used to that, and am pretty methodical in my approach.

    Sounds like you think formal training might not be so productive, and that I might be better off talking some good luthier into taking on some cheap labor for six months or so in exchange for instruction. Easier said than done, of course. I was taught a lot about violins by an old violin maker who liked to teach anyone who was interested, but in general, most folks are kind of leery about training their competition.

    Would any of you pro luthiers care to comment on what it would take to get you or a colleague to agree to such a deal? It's a lot easier to get things done if you present it right the first time.

    I'm interested in what anybody has to say, and will pay attention to all.

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    Quote Originally Posted by (sunburst @ May 21 2006, 19:23)
    Beware of being the guy who will take on the jobs others won't. I've been that guy for a long time, and sometimes the time on a job can just snowball, and I loose money.
    After 18 years of self employment, and ending up with a reputation in motorcycle mechanics in my area that I would put against anyone in the state at the time, I found that can work to your advantage, as maddening as it is at the time.

    Eventually, I got the reputation of being able to fix things the big shops couldn't (or wouldn't) fix. Don't let an occasional loss turn you away. It can end up making you a lot of money in the long haul if you play the cards right.

    A happy customer is your best advertising. Even if it hurts sometimes.

    But if you've been at it a few years, I'm sure you already know that..

    Ron
    My wife says I don't pay enough attention to what she says....
    (Or something like that...)

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    Get a copy of the Weishaar/Shipman violin repair book, about $350. and well worth it. Stewart/MacDonald has videos of various repair subjects you will find helpful.

    Get ahold of some inexpensivew instruments to practice on. This is really educational. Old falling apart things, throwaways, yard sale cheapies, etc. Treat each one as if it were a pre war D 28 or Stradivari. This is part of your repetitive process and education. Learning how to remove a bridge from a top of an old heirloom without damaging any of the fragile dried out finish is the sort of operation you need to concentrate on. Read the direction of any runout so you know which direction to work from. This applies to bridge removal, pick guard removal, fingerboard removal, etc. Practice, practice, practice! Lord grant me patience, NOW!

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    Thanks, Michael. Excellent points. I did that with violins for a year or so, and I could certainly do it with frets, as well as more fiddles.

    My old Stromberg-Voisinet parlor guitar could use a slight neck reset for starters. I paid to have a bridge made because I didn't have a fixture to determine the intonation. I could have done a better job on the bridge, myself, if I were able to deal with the intonation problem, so maybe I'll figure that out and re-do the pyramid bridge, too.

    I know a local dealer who has about ten old fiddles that I'd bet he'd love to have set up, cheap. He normally sells them "as is" because he doesn't want to put the money into them, but I know they'd sell faster if they sounded good. That would be good practice, and good advertising, I think

    I hadn't heard about the Weishaar book. Thanks.

    I think a big part of doing things efficiently is having the right tools and fixtures, laid out in a sensible manner. How important do you think this is? I'd probably have to buy the tools I need on an "as needed basis." Fortunately I have most of the violin tools, and can easily make most of the rest.

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    Unless I find a great deal on a tool, I usually buy it 10 minutes before I need it.

    There are some fairly straight-forward ways of figuring the intonation and cutting the saddle slot without too many special tools. I believe Frank Ford has at least one somewhere in Frets.com.
    Making your own tools is a way of life for luthiers, especially those who do lots of repairs.
    Don McCrostie, Frank Ford, Jeff Hostetter, and Dan Earlewine are some of the masters at it.

    Having your stuff layed out in a sensible manner is as important in lutherie as it is in anything else, but it's an individual thing. You have to figure it out yourself. Different good luthiers use different tools in different orders.
    Knowing what you're going to do next is one of the main time savers. Stopping when you finish one step and deciding what to do next is a big time waster.

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    I recently had one of those jobs you can't turn down,replacing the saddle on a Dreadnaught with a thicker one. This was a "no rejection" because I built the guitar and sold it a couple of years ago,and the thin saddle was wearing and bending to the distress of the intonation. Like John,I spontaneously decided to buy the proper tool for the job,the SM saddle routing tool. The cost,(about $130 delivered)gave me pause. So,I went to the great Frank Ford site for help. The ingenious Frank had indeed created a wonderful jig...but he had sunk a horse trough of time and money into it. In short,I wound up doing it the old way,with knives and chisels because I only repair my own work,and it only took a couple of hours. This is a typical tool purchase quandary we all face time after time. I must add that I was very grateful to have the little dog leg microchisels on hand which I also had hesitated to buy because the price seemed out of line at the time. ....and on and on.
    Jim

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    For future reference, Jim, if that ever comes up again.

    You can make a jig out of a board and some small scraps. Fasten two small scraps to the board so that it can lay flat across the top of the guitar, with the scraps contacting the edges so that the arch of the top is clear of the underside of the board. The board needs to be long enough so that you can clamp a fence on it to guide the router. A couple of pieces of double stick tape, (dusted with baby powder if you're worried about the finish) to hold it on the guitar, and a couple of stops for the ends of the saddle slot (if it's a short slot), and a small router with an end mill, and there ya are.




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    Thanks,John. I've thought some about a jig something like that,but not enough for the fog to clear. Your description makes perfect sense,and I have all the materials at hand. I appreciate your input,as always.
    Jim

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    Wiz, it sounds like you have everything (almost) to do this. The advice(andthe advisors)are priceless.Ford,Mr Lewis,and Sunburst make such a difference.I would think that you might have to figure out some way to finance yourself for a year or two though before you can make enough cash to survive. I take it you live in a place big enough to need such a service? And what about the local Luthier, does one even exist were you are? When I wanted to get into this end of things (way back when) the intenet was'ntin existance,so I had to do everything the hard way.I just had to do it locally. I made a deal with the three local Luthiers that I would pay them as consultants if I HAD to ask them questions,. All three of them liked the arrangement and I learned tons. I hope things work out for you in this project. Kerry...

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    Thanks for the input, Kerry. I've been self-employed for about 35 years, now, so I am pretty comfortable with the finance and marketing end of things. Productivity and meeting customers' expectations (my definition of quality) are my biggest concerns right now. And I agree, I've gotten some very good advice, for which I am duly grateful.

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