Getting Started in Lutherie
If you are thinking about getting into guitar building, here are some helpful thoughts I would like to share with you.
Where I started
I grew up having some experience with table saws and basic hand tools, but I didn’t have extensive wood working experience going into guitar building. On the other hand, my formal training in research science gave me a good combination of analytical, problem-solving and spatial skills, patience, and creativity that suited me well to start building. This self-awareness was important in my decision in 1999 not to pay someone to teach me how to build, but rather, trust myself to select or design construction methods that suit me best.
For the $2000 that I would have to pay someone to use their tools and teach me (today, it would be about $6000), I decided to use the same money to buy my own tools and learn all I could by reading everything I could get my hands on. I found that reading a large breadth of opinions with an open mind also contributed to the rapid development of my own style. I sold a $3,000 guitar I owned to set up a workshop in my basement.
Here are the basic tools I bought:
Entry-level table saw
Entry-level band saw
Laminate trimmer (hand-held router—one of the most versatile power tools you can buy).
Straight and rounded cabinet scrapers
Many of clamps of various sizes
Workbench made with solid-core door
If you are interested in learning how to build guitars, finding someone to teach you is difficult. Except for the few lutherie schools in existence, which require significant time and money, finding a willing teacher locally is exceedingly rare. Learning on your own is likely your only realistic path.
Everyone is different
I suspected, and later confirmed, that although there are basic approaches established in different building traditions, most builders execute each step differently. The individuality is particularly evident in the myriad of jigs and fixtures each builder devises. While a lot of contemporary lutherie relies on jigs and power tools to aid accuracy and reproducibility, using a limited number of jigs and tools is just as valid. The majority of high-level lutherie lies not in the methods, but rather, in nuanced decision making guided by experience, which translates to refinements in sound. Just like there are many different styles of guitars—each wonderful in its own way—there are many ways to build quality instruments. There is no one right way.
The two curves on your development path
You will probably find that your development as a guitar builder will follow two learning curves. The first is gaining the woodworking skills required to build the structure and developing enough control to make your guitars look good every time. Although extremely challenging, this is the easiest phase because nothing is new under the sun when it comes to woodworking.
The second curve is a slow, lifelong pursuit: optimizing sound through incremental changes in design and execution, and then wrapping the whole product together into one complete package of sound, playability, and aesthetics. Mastery comes when you can subtly control the tonal properties and feel according to the player’s needs. This is not easy; wood is highly variable in its mechanical properties, and you must learn to control something that often has its own ideas. This challenge fascinates me. There is a saying that lutherie is not rocket science—it’s more complex.
Fortunately, many beginning builders are surprised how good their first guitars can sound. They may not look good, but because care can be given to properly voice the soundboard, the first attempt can often have better sound than guitars in the $1000 or higher range. Playability and fit and finish will come later with experience. Starting with a kit may be a good compromise. Many kits come with pre-bent sides and machined parts, lowering the risk of some of the more difficult steps.
Emotions and temperament
When you start building, expect to feel some frustration because our expectation is to create something of similar look and sound quality of the guitars we already play. This is an unrealistic expectation because there are at least 100 steps in building a guitar. What are the chances you can hurdle all the tasks successfully on the first few attempts? It’s better to embrace the beginning experiences as a way to learn how and why guitars are built in certain sequences and with different methods. Alone, that is a thrill, like learning how a magic trick works. Mistakes will be made. Your goal is to declare victory each time you find a solution to a problem so that you’ll never repeat the same mistake. Your development will progress as you gain control and eradicate mistakes.
The right temperament and emotional state are crucial when building. I find I do the highest quality work when I have a combination of intense focus to detail, healthy respect for what could go wrong, but not so uptight that I’m petrified from making a cut or executing a procedure. The more confidence you gain through successful repetition, the more relaxed you will become.
Words of wisdom
1) Before you start, plan in your head and on paper what your process will be. I took a year before I started the woodwork on my first guitar to read, learn, and make several jigs and forms. If you can plan the construction process from start to finish, you will be in good shape. Much of lutherie is organizing the sequence of techniques and procedures in a logical progression. It’s very easy to paint yourself into a corner because some techniques are not compatible with others, especially if done in the wrong order. Lutherie can be like a chess match, which can be fun if you like problem solving.
Books and plans can guide you through a majority of the structural steps, but be aware that many crucial details might be missing, such as neck angle (see discussion below), soundboard doming, stiffness and weight. After my first few guitars, I abandoned plans and books as I developed my own procedures.
There are two parts to planning. The discussion below starts to get technical, but wrestling with these concepts at the beginning is important for your success:
a) Draw a full-sized, side-view schematic of the guitar’s basic structure and geometry. Because playability is foremost (what good is guitar that sounds nice, but is unplayable?), the most important thing to plan is the guitar’s geometry. Two critical questions are: 1) Where in space do the tops of the frets lie in relation to the position and height of the bridge? and 2) How far will the strings sit above the tops of the frets when fixed to the nut and saddle? Question 2 is essentially the definition of action height, and you can see how 1 and 2 are interrelated by the angle of the neck and how much saddle extends above the bridge. [For the purpose of this exercise, the height of the strings above the1st fret is negligible and is easily controlled by the nut slots].
A philosophy I developed that has served me well is: position these critical points in space correctly and build the rest of your structure around them to ensure they are stable and stay there.
What is the correct neck angle? A simple and reliable rule of thumb is if you place a straight edge on the tops of the frets (which in turn are sitting on the fingerboard) and project the straight edge to where it hits the front of the bridge, the bottom of the straight edge should hit approximately half-way up the front face of the bridge. On a classical guitar, which typically has an 8 mm tall bridge, that will ideally be 4-5 mm above the soundboard. This geometry allows a large range of acceptable action with 2-4 mm of saddle above the bridge (string height of 10-12 mm above the top). If you get this wrong, there’s nothing but heartache ahead trying to obtain a playable action because one can’t have a saddle lower that the top of the bridge nor too high above the bridge that it exerts excess torque to the top.
Your books will teach you methods on how to structurally establish the neck angle. Even if you have a full-size plan that has a side-view, drawing a simple schematic could still be a worthwhile exercise because you are mentally building your guitar.
In your schematic drawing, include at least:
1. The top of the soundboard, including the dome.
2. The bridge at the correct position
3. The neck at the correct angle (which on a classical will be slightly positive, that is, the1st fret higher in space than the12th, and negative on a steel string).
4. The fingerboard, particularly the length and thickness
5. The crown of the frets (you only need the 1st and12th; the height will be listed on your fret wire’s specs).
6. The saddle
b) Write your building procedure on a computer and add details and modifications as you continue to build more guitars. Your procedure will be an ever-evolving document. Include info on the technique/tool used, dimensions and other physical targets such as weights and stiffness (weights and stiffness will come with time and experience and are important for controlling sound). Also include information on what you should avoid the next time. This is crucial to the process of eradicating mistakes. If you can’t write the procedure for the whole guitar, at least have some understanding how you are going to accomplish the later steps.
You may or may not exactly follow a book or plan. The procedure you choose may be a blend of different approaches depending on your prior experience with certain tools and techniques, and the time and money you want to invest in buying different tools and making jigs. Having a sense of how many guitars you want to make will also be a huge factor. Will you make one guitar just for fun or will this be a life-long endeavor? Your investment level will depend on the answer.
2) As you build, keep a notebook where you can quickly record handwritten notes and observations that don’t have to be formalized in your computerized procedures. Resist writing notes on loose sheets of paper because you will surely lose them.
3) Practice on scrapwood.
I enjoy seeking ways to build better guitars because lutherie is a form of self-discovery and adventure. Be warned: once you start building, you will probably get hooked, and you may have little time to play guitar at the expense of your new hobby (not necessarily a bad thing). I went through a period of about 8 years where I seldom played. Then I decided it would be necessary to play better to build better. I started to study classical guitar privately in order to: 1) learn better technique so I could produce a better sound when I played, and hear and feel those qualities in good and not-so-good guitars, 2) learn the common language used by conservatory-trained guitarists when they talk about guitars, making sound, and the rigors of performance, and 3) enjoy a part of guitar that I had been missing for many years. This return to playing has made all the difference in my journey through the second curve.
I continue to scour the internet and talk to colleagues for new information. There is a ton of great information out there, and as you gain experience, you will learn how to determine what is gold and what is garbage. Guitar builders are unusually generous in sharing their methods and love to engage in discussion. Below are my favorite sources of information.
Above all, have fun. Enjoy the discovery about something beautiful and mysterious, and in the process, you will discover many things about yourself.
Contemporary Acoustic Guitar Design and Build
By Trevor Gore and Gerard Gilet
A wealth of information in rigorous, technical form. The true physics behind guitars. This book was not written when I started building.
Making Master Guitars
by Roy Courtnall
Expensive, but a good look into the different designs of classical guitar masters of the past. It goes into a lot of discussion at the beginning about the different designs used by the masters such as Torres, Hauser, mainly using hand tools. This is the book I followed on my first guitars.
Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology: A Complete Reference for the Design & Construction of the Steel-String Folk Guitar & the Classical Guitar
by William R. Cumpiano, Jonathan D. Natelson
Paperback, 388 pages
The Cumpiano book is considered by most to be the Bible of building both steel and classics, but is now somewhat outdated. It’s not as detailed as the Courtnall book. This is a book I referred to on my first guitars.
Classical Guitar Making
Excellent value with good photos. DVDs now available. This book was not written when I started building.
These were not available when I started building.
Courses by Robert O’Brien
Classical Guitar Making by John Bogdanovich.
Companion DVD to the book.
Official Luthiers Forum. The best building forum on the web. Includes archived discussions and steel string plans.
The best periodical on building is American Lutherie published by the Guild of American Luthiers. If you can find a nearby library that subscribes and has back issues, you will have a goldmine on your hands. This has some of the best thinking and advice around on guitar building. You can also buy a several volumes of compendiums from previous years’ issues (called the “Big Book of Luthere”). GAL also offers excellent classical plans.
© 2021 Garrett Lee