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My introduction to Luthierie

The first instrument I made was a steel string guitar.  I’d seen someone in my Industrial Design course in college make a guitar and I thought it was the coolest thing. A couple of years later, I’d moved to Berkeley, California.  I had my first regular job, some cash in my pockets, and free evenings. I was ready to make my own.

I got copies of Irving Sloan’s, Steel string guitar construction and Overholzer’s Classic guitar making, and worked from them. For materials, I discovered that The Luthier’s Mercantile supply company was just up the road in Healdsburg. I drove up there, rummaged through their stacks of wood and picked myself a set of mahogany for the back, neck and sides. For some reason, either through thrift or perversity, I didn’t get a top from there. Instead I went to the local lumber yard and bought a 1×12 board of clear, old growth redwood, which wasn’t that hard to find back then.

To get access to woodworking machines, I signed up for an evening class at the local junior college.  The most specialized tool I lacked was a bending iron to shape the sides.  At the time I was working at Lawrence Berkeley Labs with my cousin Mike and we visited their reclamation yard where we found a couple of heating elements, some 4″ aluminum tube and a temperature controller that was accurate to 0.1 degree C.  I returned all the materials to the lab when the guitar was done, though I wish I still had that bending iron.


Two unique features of this instrument

  • The shoulders where they meet the neck are brutally straight, this was because I was scared of cutting the neck mortise by hand and decided instead to use a table saw to cut the joint.  The flat shoulders on the body allowed me to do this.
  • The neck joins the body at the 13th fret.  Traditionally the neck on a steel string joins at the 14th fret and that of a nylon string, at the 12th fret. I  was actually unaware of this when I was laying things out, so the the point of joining was randomly achieved. It’s nice that it did coincide with a fret at all.

Notice the asymmetry in the top bouts. In those days it was due to lack of ability. These days I might do that deliberately.

After completing the guitar

I got a lot of encouraging comments from people who knew guitars better than me and could actually play them.  I had enjoyed the project so much that I considered taking up guitar making or repairing as a profession. But when I asked around about it, it seemed that there probably wasn’t much of a living to be made  (things have changed quite a lot since then, there a lot of guitar makers around and a small handful of them make a good living) so I kept my day job at the lab.  About five years later, when I was inspired to take up violin making, I took the guitar with me to interviews at the Newark and Welsh schools of Violinmaking.  During the Newark interview, one of the teachers said that it was a very nice instrument but it didn’t look as though I had had no help in making it –  as I had claimed, and which was in fact quite true.  It seemed futile to protest my case, so I simply thanked him for the compliment and I wasn’t surprised when I wasn’t  offered a place. The staff at the Welsh School were less suspicious and accepted me and I was on my path to a new life.

The guitar got a lot of use in the early days and you can see the scars of enthusiastic party use. When I had kids, I gradually stopped playing it and when I did pick it up the strings hurt my fingers.  Recently I fell for the tone and playability of nylon strings and decided to build myself a classical guitar.