So How Did You Learn To Build Guitars? Part One

I suppose every craftsman who pursues something that isn't specified in a four year curriculum somewhere has heard the above question.  I certainly have heard it over and over.   If I'm feeling flippant, (a frequent state for me), I'll toss off a quick "well, I pretty much figured it out for myself." That is really the truth, as when I got interested in building guitars, there were just a few books on the craft and nothing on the internet.  The only luthier I knew of was Moze who was doing beautiful work in his shop right in my neighborhood of San Diego.   I'd bought two or three guitars there but never had the nerve to ask him question 1 about learning the craft.

Along with the "how did you learn?" query I get the "can you go to school for this?"   Well, yes you can, these days, and I'm sure there is some terrific instruction at these schools but it would not have been in my wheelhouse as I've always hated school.   Kindergarten through high school and a few feckless semesters in a community college were the worst torture I have ever experienced, a grim and frustrating endeavor to be sure.   I know it's a character flaw but to this day even the idea of a casual workshop makes me want to get in the Mustang, grab first gear and let that V8 take me from zero to outta here as quickly as physics will allow.

I'd been playing guitar for some time and had fallen under the spell of good flattops, but gradually realized that I was more interested in the how and why of various guitars than I was in playing them.  I knew I had to keep my chops up enough to properly evaluate and demo instruments, but what kept me up at night was the nuts and bolts aspect of guitars in general and American style flat top acoustics in particular.  I'd always had a mechanical bent since childhood.  I loved tools of all sorts and a quirk of fate supplied a father who was of the same persuasion, plus he just happened to be a sales manager at a huge tool distributor in L.A.

The decision came casually enough, one afternoon I announced to wife #2 (of 3) that I was going to build a guitar.  The response from the blessed bride was one of derision with more than a trace of outright hostility.    Well, that was all the incentive I needed and no, I don't miss #2 a bit.

Once I declared my intention I bought all the books I could find on steel string flattops.  Jim Williams, David Russell Young, Irving Sloane and later Cumpiano and Natelson.   These guys all knew how to do it and all had markedly different methods for every aspect of the craft.   I read, re-read, and thoroughly digested the material and came up with a synthesis of these approaches that I though would work for my beginning status.  I was lucky to have a small workshop area in my garage where I could leave projects without needing to clean off the kitchen table every evening.

Although I was quite accomplished as a mechanic, my experience had all been with cars, motorcycles, and firearms.   I disliked woodworking and was hopeless at anything like carpentry.  An inauspicious beginning, indeed.  Undaunted, I decided to hedge my bets a little and start with a kit of materials to save some of the steep learning curve for subsequent tries should #1 prove successful.   I bought a kit from Martin that was based on their splendid M-36 which was a guitar I had wanted to own anyway.   Frank Finocchio at Martin set me up with an M-36 package.  Once I had the materials, I needed tools.   What I had, helped me rebuild engines and transmissions but was of no use on guitars.  I quickly put together a good starter set of chisels, scrapers, clamps, and the like, and I had no more excuses.  It was time to do it.

Over seven months of evenings and weekends (I was working full time as owner/operator of a photo lab) I put that puppy together.  After 25+ years I still vividly remember the last agonizing day or two not knowing whether It would be tolerable, a disappointment, or a disaster. After string-up and set-up, all was well.  That first piece sounded terrific, played easily, and did not look too bad at all considering I knew less than nothing about quality guitar finishing.

Part Two will be along shortly.