I’ve been a musician since the third grade, and a guitarist for at least two dozen years, so it didn’t seem that far fetched to me a year ago when I decided that I was going to try to bring together two passions and build an acoustic guitar. Having built several electric guitars I knew something of what I was getting myself into, and figured I’d answer all of the other questions somewhere along the way.
Since making this decision I’ve been asked (and answered) plenty of questions along the way:
Is it cost effective to build a guitar?
No, not really. Not until you build a few at least.
Is it going to be a quality product?
This one has been harder to answer. I’ve had the pleasure of playing and owning some very fine C.F. Martin guitars, and Martin has always been my benchmark for quality. What it is it about such guitars that makes them special? Is it the wood? Not really. You can buy the same quality wood. Is it the design? In part, but you can copy a design. Is it the skill with which they are assembled? Probably. Which leads me to the most important question…
Do you know what the heck you’re doing?
When people ask me this, they are asking, in essence, do I have the knowledge and skill to execute something of this nature? I’ll admit this is a question I had to ask myself before setting off on this venture, and the truthful answer is “well, yes and no.”
Yes I had some idea of what I was getting myself into. No I didn’t have the requisite skills at the time. Yes I could learn them. No, I didn’t have a teacher. Yes, there are books I could read. No, a book is not as good as first-hand experience. Etc., etc.
I financed this build (tools, materials, and everything) by selling off some decent gear including a perfectly wonderful Martin guitar. I wandered around the metaphorical pool until I found the deep end, and I jumped.
The first resource I turned to was William Cumpiano and Jon Natelson’s excellent resource Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology. The book is a goldmine of information, and it is presented in such a way that even if you don’t follow their methods fully, you understand why they do what they do and you can adjust and adapt the information. The book just makes sense.
Armed with this book (which I’ve read cover to cover at least twice by this point) and a little courage, I purchased the wood I would need as a kit from C.F. Martin. I started making jigs and molds and I began purchasing tools. And this is where I started down a rabbit hole from which I have just recently emerged.
The Cumpiano/Natelson text advocates heavily for the use of hand-tools over their power counterparts. Because of this, I started keeping an eye out for tools at antiques stores and flea markets and sure enough, one day I stumbled upon a Stanley Bailey No.5 plane in rusty but serviceable condition. It was literally one of those moments when the clouds parted, they sky opened up and a ray of light descended to rest upon the relic of iron and rosewood. It was $12. I was in love.
I brought it home and took it apart to start cleaning it, but my limited experience with planes sent me scouring the internet for information about how to go about that. It also connected me to the work and wisdom of two individuals that have shaped my understanding not just of what I was doing but why I was intent on doing it.
Connection #1: Chris Schwarz. A year ago I didn’t know who Chris Schwarz was. I had never heard of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest and I was still using my table saw with regularity and mediocrity. Turns out though that since Schwarz is such a polarizing figure to many, you can’t read a forum post about hand tools without stumbling upon his name, and consequently the whole groundswell of thought, craft and literature that is Lost Art Press. I hemmed and hawed about ordering the ATC (“but it’s so expensive when the internet is free!”) and finally pulled the trigger last spring as a birthday present for myself.
This took me down a long path into acquiring tools, learning skills and building lots of things that were decidedly non-guitar related. Or so I thought.
Either way, most of the wood, jigs and tools I had purchased to build the guitar sat patiently on the shelf in my workshop, waiting their turn as I created the space and skill-set I needed to do them justice.
Connection #2: Kieran Binnie. Solicitor, luthier, woodworker, writer and keeper of the blog Over the Wireless. It’s pretty clear that I have the internets to thank here again, but in searching out information about the ATC and about bracing patterns for guitar soundboards I stumbled upon Kieran’s excellent blog. Shortly thereafter I made contact with him on Instagram and by e-mail. My conversations with Kieran and his instructive posts have brought be back to where this whole journey started and I’ve begun work on the guitar again.
I’m pretty excited about getting on with things. I’m also pretty excited that I can answer that third question differently than I could a year ago. I feel like I have developed a set of skills, knowledge and resources that will be invaluable as this build progresses.