Classical Guitar Maker
From Oxfordshire, England
How long have you been doing this work?
What other lines of work have you had?
I teach the classical guitar a little, and before becoming a guitar maker I studied English Literature at university.
What does your work consist of?
I make classical guitars to order – mostly for music conservatory students, professionals and keen amateurs, as well as to guitars dealers. I also do occasional repair work. I usually make around ten guitars a year.
What training does someone have to have to be qualified for this line of work?
I’m self-taught, using an instruction book as my guide, though early on I had some guidance over the phone from an established maker. No qualifications are needed – as with an artist, if the work is good enough to sell then you are qualified. Once I had already made some instruments I went on a summer course with a famous maker; there are longer courses you can take, but after having studied at university I didn’t fancy the discipline of going through a formal course again.
Have you won any awards for your guitars? If so, what?
‘Fraid not! There aren’t any awards or competitions that I’m aware of. Some concert guitarists play guitars of mine, which feels like a kind of award.
What personal attributes must someone have in order to be able to do this line of work?
Possibly patience, as one guitar does take a long time to make, though as it’s an enjoyable process I’m not sure that’s an issue.
For me it’s important to make the best instrument I can without compromise, and the possibility of creating something better each time keeps it interesting, so I suppose that being self-critical and uncompromising are good qualities to have (in the work rather than in life!)
"Guitars can be made entirely with hand tools or almost entirely with power tools, and every maker strikes his own balance between the two extremes."
Is there a class in school that you can look back on and say was essential to have taken for what you do?
Nothing in particular from the academic classes. The kind of instrument I make and the sound that I am after come from my own playing, and the main influence on that – and my ideas on sound and music generally – was from my guitar teacher at school. We’re still in touch and last year I made a guitar for him, which was particularly nice to be able to do.
What lesson was the hardest to learn about doing this work?
To try and free your mind from work at the end of the day. I’m not sure I’ve fully learned it yet.
When you were a child, did you conceive of doing this sort of thing when you grew up? What did you want to be?
When I was 15 I wanted to make a guitar, though I think I wanted to do it only as a one-off project. I didn’t end up doing it, and then I didn’t think about it again until I was in my last year of university and thinking of what to do next. I never had any clear ideas about what I wanted to do, though I never thought it would be anything with my hands.
How many hours are in your working week?
Depends how close I am to a deadline, it can be many hours.
Do you have a second job?
I have a second job teaching guitar at a primary school one day a week.
Would you consider this a job, a vocation, or a sideline?
A vocation — I mainly enjoy it very much.
Where is your work located?
In my workshop, which is on a farm.
Do you have to travel as part of this work?
There is the occasional guitar festival or talk on guitar making, and every year there will be a trip to a wood dealer; sometimes in the UK, sometimes to one of several sawmills in the Alps, where the spruce I use grows.
Do you work alone or as part of a team?
Alone – for the most part I enjoy it, but it’s nice to get the odd visitor and to get out and about meeting guitarists.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
If you could change one thing about your work environment, what would it be?
I rent a workshop on a farm, which is a very nice location, but as there is no running water I have to lug the water in a jerry can. I would rather have a tap!
|Two guitars being made|
What do you typically wear to work?
When my regular casual clothes become too old and worn even for me. They fall off the conveyor belt into the ‘workshop approved’ bin.
What raw materials do you work with?
Different kinds of wood: Alpine Spruce or Canadian Western Red Cedar for the soundboard (front of the guitar), Indian Rosewood, Cypress or Flamed Maple for the back and sides, South American Cedar for the neck, and Ebony for the fretboard. Then there are wood veneers of various kinds chosen purely for their colour used for the decorations. I also use shellac dissolved in alcohol for the French Polishing, and various glues – both synthetic and natural (rabbit skin glue).
Guitars can be made entirely with hand tools or almost entirely with power tools, and every maker strikes his own balance between the two extremes. I tend more to the hand-tool end of the scale – I find it more enjoyable and satisfying.
Do you use any particular tools specific to this work?
There are many tools and jigs (fixtures for holding work in certain positions) which are specific to guitar making and are either cheaper or better to make for yourself. For example, I made a cutter which spins on a central pin for cutting the circular channel into which the rosette is inlaid.
Have you received any injuries connected to your work? If so, what?
Touch wood I haven’t chopped off any digits yet, but I have developed a dust allergy, so for the slightest operation which produces dust (which is most things) I wear a powered respirator. I like to think of this allergy as a blessing in disguise, because in looking into dust-management I became aware of how dangerous to health certain dust particles can be (particularly those of tropical hardwoods such as ebony and rosewood).
Are there any words or terms used in your line of work that you could share and explain?
Body resonance. A guitar has a pitch. You can find it by humming notes into the soundhole; when the whole body of the guitar starts to vibrate you know you have found that pitch: the body resonance. The body resonance doesn’t determine the quality of the instrument – you can have good and bad instruments at any given pitch – but it does go a long way to determining the character of the sound (darker, brighter, etc.) My guitars generally come out at F or F# (the pitch of the first or second fret on the 6th string).
Please tell us about what you are working on right now.
I’m just finishing the polishing on a guitar made with Cypress back and sides. It’s usually used for flamenco instruments, and is a lighter wood – in colour and weight – than the Indian Rosewood which is far more common these days for classical instruments. But it gives a very strong, deep, and penetrating sound – I don’t get many orders for it, but on the back of this guitar and a few others I’m hopeful that I will do in the future. And it has a pungent lemon smell which is nice to work with.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about what you do?
I’m not aware of any particular misconceptions people have, though I have occasionally been asked if it’s hard to let go of an instrument once it’s finished… it’s not! Once I’ve played it, and learned what I can from the way it’s turned out, I’m far happier thinking of it being used to make music than keeping it myself.
What is the hardest part of your work?
French polishing – it’s a real dark art; very temperamental and nothing to do with woodwork. Many Spanish makers farm this work out.
What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
What is the most mundane part of your work?
French Polishing (I break my Radio 3 rule for this and listen to audio books – polishing can get pretty dull).
What is it you love about what you do?
I like working with my hands – like a cabinet maker — while there is also a musical element in that I am trying to create a particular sound. It’s also a great and un-diminishing challenge to make the best guitar I can – especially when my opinion of what constitutes ‘best’ is constantly changing.
People would be surprised to know that:
What advice would you give someone interested in doing this work?
Make as simple a guitar as possible, as quickly as possible and with the best possible materials you can find. Then you’ll know whether you’ve got the bug, without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. Old guitar makers I’ve met don’t seem to be particularly jaded, so I guess it’s a career that maintains its interest. I also think it’s good to have, or develop, passionate opinions about the kind of sound you like – otherwise you may be too easily satisfied with nice, competent work and produce bland instruments.
Can you please share an anecdote about your work?
I was full of hopes for my third guitar, but when I strung it up and played it, it sounded dead. I was quite depressed about it for a while – I was supposed to be improving with every instrument and this was much worse than my first – until I looked inside and saw I had left in a block which was taped to the underside of the soundboard. I took it out and the guitar breathed!