So, You Want to Build an Acoustic Guitar?

How do you go about it? What are the options and pitfalls? In this essay I offer some opinions, in the form of a Q & A, to get you thinking. But talk to others! There are differences of opinion on all these issues.

Why would I want to build a guitar?
With the possible exception of wooden boat building, its the most fun you can have in woodworking. If you do a halfway decent job, the sound quality will surpass even expensive factory-made guitars. Plus you’ll be able to build it to fit you perfectly, both in terms of your physical size and playing capabilities, and also in terms of building in sound qualities that fit the kind of music you want to play. And you’ll get to use it every day, which is probably not the case with a wooden boat (though I suppose it could be!)

Do I need woodworking experience?
People with no previous woodworking experience at all have built fine guitars. In fact, some habits from other types of wood working may have to be unlearned. That said, certain kinds of experience can be helpful. Knowing how to sharpen scrapers, planes, and chisels is a big plus. Delicate inlay work experience is also helpful. Good free-hand bandsaw skills can help.

How much time does it take?
From scratch for a first guitar, about 200 hours, including finishing. You can cut this time down somewhat by buying a kit, but that has disadvantages (see below). Of course, you can triple that time by making a guitar with mother-of-pearl binding!

How much time does it take to become an expert?
Forever. This is an open-ended avocation, capable of endless innovation and improvement, enough to last many lifetimes. Be warned – you can get hooked. Almost no one ever builds just one guitar.

Are special tools and jigs needed?
Yes, a lot of them. Your best bet, starting out, is to work with someone who has these. You’ll learn the ropes, learn what works for you, and as you gain experience you can start to equip your own shop.

Should I build from a kit?
I wouldn’t. You’ll miss a lot of the fun and be less able to customize the guitar to be exactly as you want it. Part of what you want to learn is how to find and select guitar wood. There are excellent lutherie supply houses but there are also small, independent suppliers around the country. It is even possible to find appropriate wood at a lumber yard, such as Highland Hardwoods, and resaw it yourself, at enormous savings.

I have my own workshop. How much of the work can I do at home?
A big issue here is humidity. You want to build the guitar in an environment that is kept at 40-50% relative humidity, else you might have cracking problems down the road. That said, there is a lot you can do in your own shop, provided you have the necessary tools. But be sure your teacher demos and explains each step before you try it at home.

Is there a book that can teach me everything I need to know?
No, but there are a number of good books. Best advice is to get several. There is no one standard approach to guitar building. Try ” Guitar Building, Tradition and Technique” by William Cumpiano. Living luthier legend Ervin Somogyi has recently published a 2-volume, $280 masterpiece, ” The Responsive Guitar”. If you get serious about this activity, get it when you start your third guitar.

The catalogs are filled with exotic woods. Can I choose any of them for my first guitar?
Get some advice on tone woods before you buy an expensive set. Good choices in domestic wood for the back and sides are Walnut, Maple, and Cherry. This is because they are pretty easy to heat-bend without snapping and won’t give you a lot of problems with pore-filling. The last thing you want is to choose a $1000 old growth Brazilian Rosewood set and have the sides crack in the bending jig! Also, bear in mind that a lot of people are allergic to various of the exotic woods. For example, if I get anywhere near morado dust, I start itching.

Do I need a teacher?
Yes. We are fortunate to have a number of teachers in the New England area. Check out the New England Luthiers web site at www.newenglandluthiers.org. You’ll find both classes and individual instruction. Check to be sure your course includes finishing the guitar. Talk to and visit several venues in person to be sure its a good fit for you.

How do you run your classes?
At North Road Guitars I teach students one-on-one at reasonable prices – something of a rarity these days. The schedule can be tailored to your needs – weekdays or weekends – and can be altered midstream.

It will take about 200 hours to go from raw wood to a finished, lacquered. and set-up guitar. So a 4 hour lesson once a week means it would take about a year to finish. At twice a week it would take 6 months and so forth.

Due to the one-on-one format, lesson content can be altered depending on your interests. Some students simply want to build a guitar for themselves, or perhaps for a family member. Others, in addition to building a guitar, want to set themselves up for building more in their own shops. For them we spend more time on jig making. tool selection, and other background topics.

Besides helping students acquire technical expertise, I stress a philosophy of building mindfully and patiently, enjoying and becoming absorbed in each step of the process as rewarding in its own right, rather than rushing impatiently through a list of “to-dos”. The doing itself becomes more rewarding, the final quality is better, and the approach generalizes to a more serene approach to life in general.

Do you offer long-distance lessons?
Yes, but only to experienced woodworkers with their own shops. For such individuals, I custom create individualized instructional materials using written descriptions, photographs, and videos. We interact frequently via telephone and e-mail. This option works best if you are able to arrange at least one visit to New Hampshire to get started.

© 2010, John Whiteside