View Full Version : craftsman - luthier-builder

01-11-2012, 01:05 PM
So, I originally was going to post this in a current thread but thought it wasn't fair to the original poster to derail his thread. I hate it when people do that to mine. But I have a genuine question about building instruments.

Several times I've heard statements like "If you don't do it this way then your not learning the craft." For example, if I don't learn to bend with a hot pipe or learn to plane with a hand plane instead of a drum sander then I'm less of a craftsman. I just don't get that argument. I don't understand learning a technique for the sake of a tradition, of course I don't build what I consider to be a traditional instrument either.
I guess its the technology debate all over again. I can use a hot pipe but I really don't enjoy it. I've never found the need, but to suggest that someone is less of a craftsman because he doesn't learn/use a traditional technique is absurd. If I'm out of line please tell me. For what its worth, I consider myself to be an instrument builder and not a luthier and I haven't really given any thought to whether I was a craftsman or not.


01-11-2012, 01:50 PM
Hey im a luthier too. Well I'm not even going to call myself that because I just started building one for fun! Even still I think it's really cool and I'm always looking for tips. I noticed that you don't build the traditional way and I was wondering how you do do it? I'm especially interested in how to bend the sides of a uke because I've tried twice and both times the wood has snapped. Thanks and I hope you can answer my questions. By the way I have a lot of respect for someone who takes the time to do stuff like this.

01-11-2012, 01:59 PM
I think there is a difference between doing it in a traditional manner, and being able to do it in that manner! I can, and have used a double ended ripsaw to convert logs. I also know which way to turn a screwdriver to get a screw in. It doesn't mean to say that I use those tools to do the job on a day to day basis. I've also bent 4x2 hardwood for boat gunwales, but wouldn't use the same method to bend uke sides!
The Craft side of it is subjective, the Luthier side is descriptive. And I'd guess that not too many of the great luthiers frequenting this forum have ever built a Lute! Most probably could though. That is the craft side of it, being able to without much reference to instructional material. It becomes instinctive in the way that you approach a project without having to think too much about the 'How'.

That is not to say that we can't learn new methods or techniques, or even invent them ourselves, but the true Craftsperson will not need to worry about how, because there will be a way that they would naturally accomplish the task. Only you will know the answer as to whether you can do that.

01-11-2012, 03:18 PM
This theme or a variation thereof pops up now and again. I like what Ukulian said and if I may I would like to paraphrase his last statement thus; the only person you really need to please, is yourself. Next week I am going to have a guest visit my shop to observe how I build my ukuleles. The first thing I am going to tell him is; what I do and how I do it works for me, you may wish to do it some other way. I will also tell him that most of what I relate to him is simply my opinion, and many other highly skilled people will disagree with me. In this forum there is a wide range of commitment and skills as regards to lutherie. I consider myself to be a serious student of lutherie. Thus, when the GAL has an article on violins, I read it and then read it again. I do not build violins, but I am always searching for some grain of truth that may provide some insight into the process. The value of this forum is huge, I have learned so much from all who contribute.

I love bending with a hot pipe because for me the whole building process is an intuitive one. I love to see, hear, feel and even taste the wood as I work it, although I will admit I do not much care for the taste of Spanish cedar. I do feel that any serious student of lutherie should have some experience of using the hot pipe, simply for the experience if nothing else, and if they choose to do it some other way, no problem. There are many ways to learn the craft, some go to trade school, some apprentice, some do repair work and some like myself are self taught. In the end it is your instruments that determine your degree of success.


01-11-2012, 04:00 PM
There are things you can do with hand tools that you simply cannot do with modern power tools... However in order to do many of those things you need to understand how the tool works, how it behaves when its truly sharp, when its getting dull, when its dull. You also have to understand the material, what it will do when you cut it, plane it... will it tear out, can I plane against the grain, do I have to watch for reversing grain, and on and on.

I guess what I am saying is it takes time and experience to have confidence in your ability... I think one of the biggest things I have learned from hand tool work is problem solving skills, and the confidence to do it even though I have never tried before... I often say to people when they are asking me to make something, Can I do it? yes. Have I done it? no.

I think when people say your not learning the craft, what they are saying is you are limiting yourself by not mastering a certain skill, because at some point you will find yourself in a situation where that skill will be very important, or the knowledge from having the skill will be important.

I find myself wonder often, how was that done? I think that is what got me started in building instruments, I wanted to understand them, I'm not much of a musician, but I love instruments. One day I would love to build an acoustic instrument completely from scratch without using any electricity... I have built a couple pieces of furniture in this manner, and It is one of the most satisfying things I have done.

01-11-2012, 04:55 PM
There are many ways to learn the craft, some go to trade school, some apprentice, some do repair work and some like myself are self taught.

I am still very new to building, but from what I've seen so far is that there seems to be as many ways to do something as there are builders.

One day I would love to build an acoustic instrument completely from scratch without using any electricity... I have built a couple pieces of furniture in this manner, and It is one of the most satisfying things I have done.

Like Boaz Elkayam? Gonna take a table from a diner and a swiss army knife and build a uke? That kind of skill blows me away.

01-11-2012, 06:01 PM
Man I am with you Andrew. There is more than one way to skin that proverbial cat. There is a thousand ways to slice a pie. I enjoy learning and respect the passed down traditions. And I respect what the builders on this forum share so freely.They are tried and true. Why reinvent the wheel, right? But I enjoy putting my own spin on things. Now if you are doing this for a living then your clientel probably demand the more traditional. But I am not a builder, I am just a woodworker and I lean constantly towards taking the road less traveled. For good or bad. I like improvisation. They say its the journey, not the destination. But then again they say alot of things. Peace.

01-11-2012, 07:47 PM
My advice is to grow thicker skin and not take what others have to say too much to heart. It can quickly demoralise some.

How you get there maters not, but it's the road traveled for it's merits. Be it a leisurely drive, a scenic one, or the fastest way possible.

Some hand tools are truly indispensable, and accomplish a certain job quicker and more accurately than any other method....but as said, it's rarely the only way. And at the end of the day, people that buy my instruments never ask me if the top was hand graduated with planes and scrapers or with a drum sander. They just want an instrument that they are pleased to own.

Pete Howlett
01-11-2012, 10:36 PM
As one who insists on the idea and practice of craft I guess I must answer the criticism Andrew with a short anecdote:

When I majored in silversmithing in my 3rd year at teacher training college I raised a silver cup for my wife which I took to an 83 year old engraver. As I was on a four year course I was interested in his training which started at the age of 13 in beginning of the 1900s. He explained that the first year of his 7 year apprenticeship was spent sweeping the floor, making tea and filling the pitch-pots. After 3 years of very similar menial tasks, much of it standing (not sitting) watching his Master he was set onto partial engraving tasks. Soon he got a 144 piece silver service on which he had to engrave a monogram. I asked him how long it took to get that right and he replied very precisiely, "After the 67th one..."

For me, being a craftsman is about serving time, learning to use hand tools through repetition and thus, getting your chops. What I find surprising about this craft here is that often, after a few instrument builds and with no apparent training of any sort in hand skills, people attach the moniker 'luthier' to who they are and what they do. Because as builders we are also tool makers, finishers and often musicians the whole craft of building is so vast I cannot imagine anyone but the gifted knowing anything of any great value after building just a few instruments. And I say this without criticism or prejudice for I, who used to subcontract my finishing is still learning how to spray and even coat without runs on a slotted headstock after 4 years!

Further, when I advertised that I was doing a building video I had many requests for demonstrations on how to sharpen tools and build jigs and tools. The techniques and skill for doing so are the underlying ones that inform my work - like today when I am going to have to profile a fingerboard end that I have glued to a neck but forgot to profile (end of the day mistake). I'll do a video of the fix just to show you that thinking, hand and machine skills are only a small part of the craft - it is the body of knowledge built up over years of repetition and correction that are vital if, without hubris, you are going to call yourself a luthier or craftsman. It is also clear to me, who can shutter concrete forms, plaster walls,2nd fix joinery, design/make furniture and hang wallpaper but not fix cars or house-paint very well, that some crafts inform others...

What I truly despair of are those who immediately go to a power tool or machine as a first port of call in their personal journey instead of discovering the intense satisfaction of hand planing and scraping a set of sides and then hand bending them. In this internet age the primary steps are being missed. I first noticed this with those gifted kid guitarists who grew up with video instruction. Few are any good at their own compositional work and few make it into aldulthood having learnt anything. Back in the day when I had to lift the needle on the record player and try and decipher through the crackle and spit of those old blues remastered recordings I learnt how to play and compose because I had to explore the structure, work out the chords and decipher those picking patterns. By so doing I absorbed the way of playing blues so that I smile when the person who tabbed out my uke video of walking blues added the caution "... he never plays the tune the same twice..." which of course, is in strict Robert Johnson style... Serving my time made sure I also picked up other things along the way :)

Liam Ryan
01-11-2012, 11:43 PM
Coming from a long line of tradesmen, I always find stories of old time apprenticeships interesting. I can't help but picture that engraver with nostolgic curiosity. It seems very dickensian to me. A seven year apprenticeship started at thirteen. I juxtipose this with my own experience and mine couldn't have been more different. I started a 4year electrical apprenticeship in my mid twenties. I guess I'd have at least nine years more full time education than the engraver (not including the apprenticeship itself). Would the engraver have been a better engraver if he'd studied chemistry, physics, art etc? who knows? I know that I'm a better electrician because of not only my hard science and nerd maths studies but my history and social science studies as well.

One thing that certainly hasn't changed; If I was given a 13yo apprentice to supervise, I wouldn't let them touch anything for 3 years either.

As for the luthier-craftsman topic, I don't really care.............when I get home from work I just want to build ukuleles:D

Pete Howlett
01-12-2012, 12:15 AM
That was in the days when the word apprentice meant something and your parents paid the master for the privilege. He was, when I met him a true master craftsman, showman and the very best hand engraver in the UK. At 83 his workshop was filled with commissions and he was never going to get through them all... don't sneer at this. It is an impotant part of UK history and gives an idea of what it takes to build character and make for someone who is in effect entering a craft of endless repetition.

01-12-2012, 12:42 AM
I did an apprenticeship..started just 4 weeks after my 15th birthday ended on my 21st...the first 18 months was works training school and office boy in various departments..Rate fixing office..Time keeping office..Drawing office....started real engineering aged 16 on a pedastal drill, drilling 1/8" dia holes into the ends of hundreds of thousands (Skips full) of 3/4" steel hinge spindles for split pins...and every time I broke a drill bit i got my arse kicked by the Foreman..I progressed on through loads of diferent types of machines, lathes, shapers, milling, boring, slotting, planing etc: till I ended up as Marker out on the shop marking table...then on to the Toolroom as a toolmaker, then I became of age:( 21 and earning £7 a week, and I left that Firm for a higher paid job in the Building trade :D

Liam Ryan
01-12-2012, 12:51 AM
It's probably the lack of non-verbals combined with my poor writing, there was no sneer included in my post. I really do find the history of apprenticeships fascinating.

01-12-2012, 03:24 AM
Pete, you make some valid points and I'm just playing the devils advocate. Times have changed, for better or worse, and I really don't think that I'd be building instruments if I had to do so using a lot of "traditional" methods. That's not to say that I haven't come to appreciate them over time as an art in and of themselves. I understand your comments about apprenticeships, but how many builders here went through an apprenticeship in instrument building? I'm sure there are quite a few that have worked with other builders but not a true apprenticeship. Anyone attend a luthier school? Do they teach you to hand plane tops? Bend on a pipe? Sharpen tools? Cut dovetail joints by hand? Not being snide, I literally have no idea.

There really aren't any apprenticeships anymore at least in the US. For a trade, its more of a vocational school followed by on the job training but not an apprenticeship in the traditional sense. At the most, trade unions would have the closest thing to an apprenticeship. I've heard a lot of builders say they wouldn't hire anyone to work in their shop without any type of experience. I had a Gibson employee tell me that most of the guys that came to an interview brought an instrument they had built instead of a resume.

One thing I have found interesting is that a lot of "trades" have become professional jobs in the past 30 years, so they attend a school instead of doing an apprenticeship.

Pete Howlett
01-12-2012, 04:14 AM
When this guy trained, University wasn't an option. At the turn of the 20th century labour was cheap and plentiful and in Sheffield at the time there was more likelihood that you would enter a metal trade than University - in fact, I don't think Sheffield even had one back then. Sadly, it's now a scar on the landscape of Hallam...

My view is that hand skills are often transferable but you must acquire them in the first place in order to understand where you come from, where you are going and perhaps, more important, where they can take you. Chuck did lots of stuff before getting into uke building and you see the trail and evidence of it. No-one would be able to do such work without ... well if he wants to join the debate I best let him tell the story.

In Finland, luthier school attempts to teach hand skills and I understand that the courses in the UK also do. I learnt hand skills at college and machine skills on my own - not a good way to do it though I had long conversations with the master sawyer technician at college who helped me understand about bandsaw technology - I can even hand sharpen a band but I cannot stress it so it cuts perfectly vertically - a true old world skill using a hammer and anvil.

01-12-2012, 04:34 AM
I guess I see the issue being that most builders are not entering building as a career and they aren't able or willing to go to a school or work at an existing shop, so their options are limited. If they can't find someone to show them a skill then they are going to find the easiest way for them to complete the task. Building then becomes a series of tasks. I know that was how I originally approached it as my background was in production where 50 tasks equaled a completed project. I guess that's the point where we draw the line? The difference between learning the craft and completing a task?

01-12-2012, 06:57 AM
While I agree with a lot of what Pete is saying, the endless repetition and the 50 tasks making a complete project are one and the same thing. And the majority of that type of production has moved to the Far East, for good or for bad.
The last time I had an apprentice working with/for me was in the late '80's, and even then they were wanting to move on after a couple of years, thinking they knew everything! ;)

Around that time we had an old Turner come to work in the workshop, and by 'old' I mean he was in his late seventies, so he only did part time, 8am until 1pm, five days a week. He had done his apprenticeship in Epping Forest on a pole lathe. After two years of work he announced that he had to go on holiday for two weeks and was going to the Island of Jersey. We wished him well on the Friday lunchtime as he knocked off for the week, and off he went.
The following Wednesday morning he was back at his lathe. "What are you doing back?" we asked. "Flippin' Island" he said, "walk round it once and you've seen everything!"
He retired at the age of 97 and died at 99, having stated that he wasn't hanging around for a telegram from the Queen!
But, even at that age, he could knock out 50 identical turnings faster than anyone could set up a copy lathe. A serious case of really knowing your craft!

01-12-2012, 07:19 AM
JUST REMEMBER.....the "traditional luthiers" of old were using the best tools and materials they had available. I'm sure that even Stradivarius would have marveled at modern wood working machinery, glues, finishes, etc.

That said....I really love hot pipe bending. Best part of the build for me

Pete Howlett
01-12-2012, 07:59 AM
Strad would be cranking them out on a cnc machine no question - it makes a lot of sense. However, the pathway to that point needs to be rodden barefoot and not driven hoverspeed.

01-12-2012, 09:21 AM
From Bruce Lee, "Absorb what is useful".


01-12-2012, 09:36 AM
Strad would be cranking them out on a cnc machine no question - it makes a lot of sense. However, the pathway to that point needs to be rodden barefoot and not driven hoverspeed.

"From Bruce Lee, 'Absorb what is useful'". Right! The challenge for a beginner is to sort out which of the tools, materials and techniques are: 1) so central to the craft as to be essential; 2) so outmoded as to be a drag on the craft; 3) not essential but desirable to the individual because of intangibles such as "I just enjoy doing that way" or "I want to do it the way the old masters did it" or "This tool allows me to do it faster and better and I like that."

The photographer Ansel Adams was very much a craftsman who taught and mentored his assistants and students to master the most basic and traditional methods and materials as a foundation for developing more advanced skills. Yet, in about 1970, I saw in his darkroom lab-quality equipment including a state-of-the-art densitometer that used nixie tubes for the readout (and if you know what those were, you're seriously dating yourself!). He was eager to keep up with technology when it advanced his artistic goals but insisted upon the importance of traditional skills.

So, is an apprenticeship or a thickness sander desirable, necessary, or essential? That depends. :)

Michael Smith
01-12-2012, 01:20 PM
This group has aspects of Adam's F64 group. Those guys shared techniques, ideas, insights, critiques. They brought their art further, faster then they would have alone or taught by one master. It was very important for me when studying photography to take as many classes from different instructors as possible. If you have never gone to an Ansel Adams print exhibit and you get a chance to do go. Seeing his work in books and calendars is nothing like standing before a well lit original print. What guys are trying to tell you is that there is important information and insight to be gained by hand bending and direct contact by hand surfacing. Might be something like teaching photography without teaching the darkroom wet processes. Sure you could learn photography all digital but there are important things you learn about light, exposure, etc in the darkroom.

01-12-2012, 03:49 PM
I did not apprentice with anyone, just jumped in. I read everything I could get my hands on and was happy to have that information. I am not the kind of person that is going to sweep floors and look over someones shoulder for years before I get my hand into it. The old style apprenticeships and politics of yesterday were fine then, but information moves at great speed today. I have apprenticed a few folks in the past and will offer anyone information when they ask, but to those who want to dig in, I say go for it.

I don't use a hot pipe, although I could. I like the blanket technique much better.

Pete Howlett
01-12-2012, 10:11 PM
I don't think I could follow such and apprenticeship and I agree, they are not relevant today. Many of us 'jumped in' and I guess like Jose Romanillos who ripped the label out of his first guiutar (I met the lady who had this patheric little thing and from whom he tried to reclaim it) we'd all want to recall the first 50 or so instruments we built... Study is important but so is character. Those early apprenticeships were as much about class and teaching a person his 'place' - something I wholly disagree with. Nevertheless it built craftsmen and master craftsmen and undoubtedly, this is a business which also builds and promotes both but it don't happen oevernight, it isn't for the idle and only the curious get there. It is also curious that many of the outstanding luthiers of today come from an engineering background and the techniques often used by luthiers today are very much geared towards wood engineering - a good influence I would say :)