View Full Version : What makes a good maker and a good apprentice

Pete Howlett
09-27-2016, 06:51 AM
Well, I am near the end of my travels having met with a diverse crowd of builders and educators - if I had two stand-out observations it is these:

Building is more a state of mind than exercising a basket of skills.
To be a financial success in this business you have to master three skills: Building, finishing and business.

These two ideas seem at first to work against each other but are in fact inextricably linked - you really cannot have one with the other if you are going to follow this as a full-time profession.

Very few are able to do this because they are not skilled in Business - so many good makers have entered the field only to retire because they got 'hungry'. After 22 years I just paid all the business debts and instead of taking money from the business when I needed it, formalised a monthly salary for myself. Being a craftsman is a very hard road. Please think twice before you think you can get some skin in the game - despite the health of the ukulele market it is still a competitive shark pool where only the fittest survive.

And yes, everyone I have spoken to in the ukulele 'game' says it shows no sign of dwindling....

Michael N.
09-27-2016, 07:07 AM
I'd place 'marketing' at the top of the list. Marketing comes in many forms, it's not always the form of marketing that we think when Mcdonalds or some other multinational springs to mind. It can also be done in a very subtle manner, stealth like :confused:
I've seen some less than stellar makers have healthy sales despite being 3rd or 4th rate makers. Being good certainly doesn't hurt though. It's all about getting people to feel as though they need your instrument. That's a generalisation (as all these things are) but there's a certain amount of truth to it.

Bob Orr
09-29-2016, 04:04 AM
Hi Pete I see you have some instruments on display at Brewery Arts in Cirencester! Plan on a visit soon to have a good look! Sorry to ambush this thread!

Cheers, Bob

Dan Gleibitz
09-29-2016, 05:17 AM
Sorry, what makes a good apprentice?

09-29-2016, 06:10 AM
Sorry, what makes a good apprentice?
Someone who pays 500 dollars to stand in the corner for a day!

(sorry, couldn't resist)

09-29-2016, 06:50 AM
I owned a digital printing business for eight years. As a craftsman mind you, not as a business man. I am an artist, very experienced in digital imaging and many types of printing. Printing and visual communication are a passion of mine. My shop was mostly a one-man outfit with admin help and occasional labor to handle very large prints. I closed down the business when an opportunity to become a government employee came along. The point is, I started the business because I was very skilled in my area and naturally (it seemed) I should be doing this for myself and not lining the pockets of someone else. However, the reality and the true lesson was that I'm not interested in being a business man. I'm an artist. Rare would be the person who is excellent at both. How could you dedicate yourself to two such diverse intentions? Wouldn't one suffer in order for the other to flourish? Many people, however good at something, are not necessarily good at running a business doing that something.

I did make many friends in business and for the most part they were people who wanted to have a business. I'm not even sure that the particular business they were in even mattered to them. Building a business was their passion. But for me printing was my passion. I made a fine living, but I had no business to sell in the end, as I was the business.

To bring this back around, I think the same would hold true if I built ukulele full time. Would I build as a craftsman, or try to be a business? Business are owned by business people and others do the work. That is a business that can be sold and live on. But for artisans and craftsmen, it is you, almost all you. If you have a spouse that can do biz management, that certainly helps. If you have an apprentice that can learn, then help, then carry on the biz one day that's great. But can you keep him through his own phase of "hmm, why am I lining this guy's pockets when I could be doing this for myself?" I think it would be unusual these days to find an apprentice that didn't consider this.

Teaching others your craft. Hmm, isn't that yet another phase of your business that, while perfectly coinciding with what you do, simply takes away from your building time.? Maybe your career as a luthier can end up as a teacher, but should it be part of your building career?

There are as many possibilities of what works for you as a craftsman/businessman as there are luthier personalities. But right you are Pete, you must be a good business man if you want to be successful as a builder. But if being a good business man is not in a person's nature, they shouldn't kid themselves that they can wing it. They'll be under paid and under satisfied.

I build as a passion. Some may say hobby. My dream would be to build better and find efficiencies to build more. Satisfy my curiosities and sooth my desire to craft with my hands. So I likely will be a retirement builder. Selling to supplement my lifestyle. But, it's not like thats easy street either, just ask Ken. :o

Pete Howlett
09-29-2016, 11:50 AM
That's all a bit cynical Rod. For a start, the business side of ukulele making can be as creative and exciting as building. After all, you've got to eat and pay the bills so why not approach it with the same attitude to teaching? Secondly I do not approve of slavery - my assistant is very well paid and is staying with me because he knows he cannot make it on his own - he has tried and is learning that businesses are 'built' not formed. Third - I have no option but to modulate to teaching because of the encroaching physical limitations of Parkinson's. Rather than succumb to it I intend to share the years of experience I have so that there will be others after me to make better than I did.

In the US because of the cost of health care and the need to save for retirement, I can see how the self-employed route lacks attraction!