Amid the sounds of sanding, the smell of hardwoods, and a peaceful small town setting, fine, handcrafted guitars are born.
By Pat Fream
Q: What exactly is a luthier and what does your craft entail?
A: A luthier (pronounced loo-ti-er) is a maker and repairer of wooden stringed instruments. In the past it meant a maker and repairer of lutes, but today it includes other instruments. Folks who only do repairs usually refer to themselves as repairmen or guitar techs. Those who ‘jig up’ and run small factories cranking out a few models of guitars are light industrialists. Luthiers handcraft individual musical instruments.
Q: Explain how you came to be a luthier, and how one becomes a certified luthier today.
A: In the late 1980s I heard of a guy teaching guitar making on the west coast. I went out and met Michael Dunn, who was teaching at Douglas College in New Westminster and it seemed like a good mix to me. I studied there for two years, and received Certificates of Mastery in Musical Instrument Construction and Musical Instrument Construction-Advanced. Unfortunately that program is no longer running. Most existing ‘lutherie schools’ are short term and sometimes quite expensive.
Q: Are there many of you luthiers around? Or is this a dying art form in the face of mass production?
A: There are quite a few hobbyists, but few who have made the jump to full time. It’s not an easy way to make money. It is a competitive field especially for newcomers and you have to be consistently good and reliable. Often those of us who are doing well, are still not doing well enough that we can afford the loss in productivity that would occur should we take on an apprentice.
Q: What types of stringed instruments do you make?
A: Generally today luthiers make either violin family instruments or fretted instruments like guitars, banjos, mandolins, etc., but not both. Although I do repairs to violin family instruments including cello and double bass; I only build fretted family instruments.
Q: Such as?
A: I’ve built a few banjos and an F-5 mandolin, but I mostly build guitars. I build fine French Polished, Classical and Flamenco guitars; loud balanced ‘Steel String’ guitars and a very good ‘Acoustic Bass Guitar’. I also specialize in a high performance type of jazz guitar invented by Mario Maccaferri, and played by the great Django Reinhardt.
Q: I’ve heard about an interesting instrument you are building for Calum Graham (profiled in this issue of Routes).
A: Yes, this is the second time I have been commissioned to make a ‘Harp Guitar’ (similar to a ‘Schrammel Guitar’ or ‘Contrabass Guitar’ as built in Vienna in the mid and late 1800s). It will have a normal six string guitar neck but also a number of extra bass strings off the bass side of the neck. I will incorporate things I learned from the earlier Harp Guitar, but this will also be somewhat different. We are pretty happy with the design, and have been talking about materials such as Flamed Maple, possibly with Brazilian Rosewood. I will also use an innovation patented by the great Toronto luthier Linda Manzer, called ‘The Wedge’. Basically the bass side of the instrument will be considerably shallower than the treble side. This makes it easier to bring the right arm over the instrument, making the instrument much more comfortable to play.
Q: What do you like best about your job?
A: That’s difficult to say. I’m very versatile; it’s part of my secret to avoiding a regular job.
I like the challenge of solving new problems and helping people and I enjoy the complexity of repair work. The challenge of designing a new instrument and bringing it all the way to completion and, even to stage performance, is very exhilarating. Restoring someone’s family heirloom violin is also deeply satisfying.
Q: What qualities do you have that make you good at this kind of work?
A: I am very meticulous and have high quality standards. This is a good thing because my customers tend to have high expectations. The required attention to fine detail is not for everybody.
Q: Who have you crafted guitars for? Anyone Famous?
A: Calum Graham is getting a lot of attention and he has a Shifflett ’Flamenco Negra’ (rosewood Flamenco Guitar) I built for him, and George Canyon has a stunning French Polished African Blackwood Classical Guitar of mine. Jim Peace has two custom built Shifflett steel string guitars that I am quite proud of. I have been doing repair work for Ian Tyson for many years, and as well, a lot of repair work for all those sidemen who play with the pros.
Q: Are you commissioned to make instruments? Or do you make your own creations and sell them independently?
A: I almost always work to order, though once in a long while I sneak in a project that I just want to do. In fact I generally don’t do any work for anyone that I don’t want to.
Q: Do you play your instruments? Do you have a spouse or kids who play?
A: Now and then my wife Fay and I enjoy playing a little at our friend Donna’s pub (Gitter’s Pub). My kids are very talented but a little shy.
Q: How many guitars can you make in a year? Enough to make a good living doing this?
A: I make between one and five a year depending on how much repair work there is to do. I would say it’s a steady modest living, but a good life? Oh yes, I think so!