Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Room Full of Luthiers

A Luthier is someone who makes or repairs stringed instruments. (

On Tuesday night, I started my lutherie course. Or, more specifically, a guitar making course. I've been excited about it since before Christmas, even though I had no more details about it than it's name, location and time. So, it was in almost complete ignorance that I entered a woodworking room in the bowels of Dewsbury College and entered a room full of older men working on guitars in various states.

I was enchanted.

The first thing I saw was a man carefully pairing away the waste from the top of the guitar, which he'd got stuck onto the body, ready to fix the beading.
The man next to him was carefully sanding and shaping the braces on the inside of the back of his guitar.
Another man, opposite, was trying to figure out how to carve intricate decorations onto the top of the vihuela he was building.
There was also a man sharpening a plane on a large oil stone. This was John. He was taking the course.

John quickly explained to me that it could take three years to build a guitar (if I came for two hours a week), and a lot of people were put off by that. Also that, along with course fees, there was the additional cost of materials for the guitar itself. Given that it's a 30 week term, this means that in 180 hours, I could have my own, custom, hand-built guitar. John sells his from £2000, and whilst I can't claim that my first attempt will be anywhere near as magnificent as an accomplised luthier, mine will cost £630 on course fees, plus whatever materials I might need (yeah, ok, this could easily stretch into a significant amount of money). But again, I will have a guitar that no one else has, and that I have shaped and loved from the time it was just a few pieces of wood.

John hand builds his guitars, and expects his pupils to do the same. The main tool for this is a No 4 plane (the closer one in the picture), as there's a lot of thickness and shaping of wood. As this has to be entirely accurate (to within stupid tolerances), the most important thing is that the plane is sharp.

So, I spent my first lesson firstly sharpening a plane. Then, when I'd got it nice and sharp (which I almost managed by myself), I practiced planing a piece of wood.
The idea was to reduce its thickness, but still leaving a flat surface. I did alright at this. It's surprisingly hard. Although the theory is that the perfectly flat shoe (bottom) of the plane can be used to take out on lumps and bumps in a piece of wood, the fact is that it requires a lot of technique to get this right. Also, it requires a lot of strength.

That was my first step on the road to building my guitar - a slightly less than flat piece of scrap wood and a very sharp plane.

John showed me what I can hope to acheive by easter - it was three pieces of wood stuck together - the top of which had be very carefully shaped so that it was thinner at one end. This was going to be the neck of someone else's guitar.

I'm going to start in earnest on this next week. It seems like it'll be a long task, but no doubt one that I can learn lots from and end up with something special and unique.