Advice for Aspiring Luthiers

You will not be surprised to learn that I am frequently asked questions by aspiring guitar makers like: How can I learn guitar making?; How can I “make it financially” as a luthier?, and (most frequently); “Will you take me as a apprentice?”  My website has led to many such inquiries over the years.  I welcome these inquiries and enjoy them, but it occurred to me that it would be helpful to post some information right here on the website itself.

I am not seeking an apprentice and don’t ever expect to, but I am presently reaching out in my senior years to connect with younger luthiers and aspirants.  This is the time when I really will have learned something about this demanding craft, at least all I’m ever going to know.

My mentor, a local self-taught guitar maker whose name was Macario Breseño, took me into his workshop as a student, refusing to accept compensation of any kind, and I hope to be able to use his example as a basis for applying my God-given talents nowadays.  My plan is quite different from Macario’s, however; today I have digital resources—this website, Facebook, email, etc. that enable me to make instant connections worldwide.

Actually, an “apprentice”, particularly one who is not a family member, is nowadays little but a burden for a practicing luthier, and for this reason it is difficult for an aspirant to find an apprenticeship.  In times past, the guild systems that prevailed in European countries enforced work discipline and long-term commitment on aspirants so that a master could expect to eventually get some real work out of an apprentice in return for his investment of time and energy (while the apprentice could expect little but abject penury and near-slavery under the master).  Today every practicing luthier knows that an “apprentice” will pick the luthier’s brains until he has learned all the “secrets” he thinks he can and then fly the coop.  When a luthier takes on an “apprentice” nowadays, he’s probably just lonesome and wants some company.

Here’s some advice I have given to a number of aspiring luthiers:

1.) Start with this Undeniable Truth #1 of luthiery life: There are far too many luthiers in the world.  Because the guitars they make don’t wear out for decades, there is an overwhelming glut of luthier-made guitars available on the market today, and things are only going to get worse.  Does that mean there’s no room for a newcomer in the field?  No, but it does mean that you have to resolve to be the best, whatever that requires, if you’re going to make a living at it.  (This is true for guitar players, too.)

2.) Don’t waste years of your valuable time doing a lot of “apprenticing.”  There is a plethora of written, image-rich learning material available about the basics of guitar making; just do your own research on the internet, you’ll find it.  If you put in an extended time with any one luthier, you may gain some worthwhile knowledge, but you may end up with somebody else’s bad habits, too.

3.) I don’t doubt that there are some estimable schools of luthiery in the world, though I have never attended one and really don’t know much about them…except that the tuition and collateral costs (materials for your first guitar, which will probably be unsalable, travel, meals and lodging away from home, etc.) are very substantial.  Will your future luthiery income ever allow you to amortize these costs? Hmm.

4.) Don’t give up your day job until you have accumulated most of the capital you will need.  Plan to work on your guitars and your workshop before or after you’ve put in a paycheck day.  The economic return on luthiery activity never gets very large, and this makes it difficult to capitalize your business while trying to make a living from it. I worked afternoons as a railroad switchman for almost twelve years.  The work was a bore, but it paid well and was not particularly stressful.  It gave me my mornings for guitar making, the time of day when I function best.  Live in penury, so you can save as much as possible to plow back into your business.  This is hard, and you will have to endure it for many years

9 thoughts on “Advice for Aspiring Luthiers”

  1. Hello, my name is John Toon. I have been building basses and guitars (electric) for 6-7 years now and I always admire someone with the same love of creating musical instruments. I still have a lot to learn and expand on but I love what I create in the workshop. I have a coworker that has one of your fine guitars and the craftsmanship is amazing. So Im just reaching out to say hello from one luthier to another. I’m in the kansas city area by the way.

    1. Welcome, John. You’re the first visitor to respond to this completely re-platformed version of my website that went public at exactly 3:56pm yesterday.

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  2. Thank you for the information. Some of this I expect. Some of this I hope to push through. Nothing gives me more joy than seeing a guitar in action, played by someone who knows how to express themselves through it. Finishing work seems to be killing my time. Mess it up, strip it, do it again. That will be my next challenge.

  3. Thank you for this post, you just saved me so many mistakes. I was going to try to apprentance or attend a school and had high hopes of making a decent living once my buisness grew lol. I still might start this craft but atleast I know what to expect and avoid. Thanks so much.

    Cody

  4. I’ve been a cabinet maker for 35 plus years and looking to build a guitar or two for my son and I but have absolutely no experience in this field. Everyone I’ve spoken with assures me that I can do it. I’m self employed and should have more than enough tools set up , just looking for words of encouragement maybe and or solid advice on where to start.
    Thank you

    1. I’d recommend that you start by building a kit, Harold. You can purchase such one at Stewart-MacDonald’s Guitar Supply or Luthiers Mercantile Intl. A kit would let you try luthiery without some of the specialized equipment needed for start-from-scratch, e.g. a wood bender.

  5. Hey Paul thanks for the article, the frankness and reality check is much appreciated.Im in Boston and put together a strat and tele over the last few months for my own enjoyment,a friend of mine is luthier that runs a small school and suggested I take some classes with him, so I’m doing that at the moment,I’m enjoying it, but it seems like it would be tough to really make a living at it., He seems to get just about enough work for himself , and that’s it, but it might be great to bring me in some part time income, I seem to have a good touch for it,anyway we’ll seee, thanks again for this write up Rich

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