Saturday, April 10, 2021

Some thoughts on craftsmanship and the lone luthier.

Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post, “So you want to be a luthier?” At the time I was getting quite a number of enquiries from would-be luthiers, so the post seemed appropriate and I think what I said then, is still relevant.

12 years on and I’d like to share my thoughts on working as luthier/craftsman (on his own) who, wishes to make the best possible instruments that he can.

Using the word craftsmanship implies a level of quality that a product (in my case a fretted instrument) has. The better the craftsmanship displayed, the better the product. However, from the perspective of the craftsman, I would suggest that the word craftsmanship isn’t just about the end product, it’s a state of mind, a continuous striving for improvement- more of a journey than a destination; something that the Japanese call Kodawari. But, what does it take to be a craftsman?

There is no denying that natural ability, talent or whatever you wish to call it, comes into play when you are trying to learn and eventually master a skill. With practise, perseverance and sheer bloody-mindedness you can attain a certain level of achievement, but you need that x-factor of natural ability to excel in your chosen area.

What are those talents needed for craftsmanship? Well in my opinion; manual dexterity, hand-eye coordination, the ability to visualise an object in three dimensions, a certain aesthetic appreciation, problem solving skills and, I’m sure, there are more attributes that I’m unable to articulate.

But of course, how many people do we know who have wasted their talents? Raw talent is not enough, you still need practise, perseverance and sheer bloody-mindedness to reach a high level of craftsmanship!

It’s often said that you need 10,000 hours of practise to master a skill; I think I’d agree with that. I’d equate it this way- say it takes on average 100 hours to build a guitar/mandolin by hand, build 100 instruments and there’s your 10,000 hours and I’d hope that you would have reached a high level of expertise by then. These days, the internet might allow you to skip hours of your own instruments’ design development, by allowing you to piggy-back on someone else’s experience, in how-to, YouTube videos. But, what you don’t get is the experience of handling hundreds of different pieces of wood and learning, empirically, their characteristics. Or gain the muscle memory of using tools, bending sides, the feel of applying polish with a pad etc. That’s where serving your time comes into play.

I was fortunate enough to attend the London College of Furniture back in the late 1970’s and literally everything was done by hand. I built 13 guitars whilst I was there; each piece of wood was thicknessed by hand plane and cabinet scraper, rebates for the purfling and binding were cut with a self-made purfling cutter and chisel etc. It wasn’t until my 54th guitar that I invested in a thickness sander for working on backs and sides!

If you are starting out now, there’s an abundance of specialist tools and jigs available, pre-shaped parts, and CNC machinery. Unless you’re determined to work with hand tools the experience that you gain will be very different and consequently, you will develop a very different skill set.

Once you can master the tools and techniques of your trade, the next step to being the best craftsman you can, is about your mental attitude towards your work. Is this too a natural aptitude or sheer bloody-mindedness and discipline? I don’t know.

If you finish a task by saying something like, “that’s good enough” or “that’ll do” then it’s implicit that the standard that you’re accepting is less than you are capable of. Maybe there is a pressure of time or labour cost, maybe you’re just bored with that particular task but whatever the reason, is that how you want your work to be? If you finish that task by saying something like, “I don’t think that I could have done that any better” then you are on the road to improving the quality of your work.  And you should also remember any lessons learnt, so that the next time you do that task, the result can be even better. That way you get closer to the unrealistic ideal of perfection.

Of course, mistakes will happen, the important thing is how those mistakes are dealt with; is the part remade, repaired or lived with to demonstrate the hand of the maker? Wood is very unforgiving and I think one the hardest parts of being a luthier is trying to work to near-engineering tolerances in a material that can twist, warp, split, expand and shrink, have wild, unpredictable grain, whilst using tools that depend on our hands to control them. Turning a piece of steel to a close tolerance on a lathe is a very different task to carving a curly maple neck with a spokeshave or rasp.

In order to achieve work of the highest standard, concentration is essential, you must be fully focused on the task; be in what is known as a flow state. For many years I worked with the radio on, or a CD playing in the background, but these days I generally prefer to work in silence, without any outside influences; just me and my work. If you habitually use social media to continually post images of your work or have your phone by your bench, then the ability to focus, uninterrupted, for the necessary period of time that it takes to complete a task, must be diminished.

When evaluating your work, you have to be honest with yourself; look hard at what you’re doing and be super critical. Kind souls will spare your feelings and tell you how good you are, but only you will know if your work is acceptable and gives you pride and happiness. And I use the word acceptable, deliberately because ultimately no matter how good the outcome, if you are a true craftsman, you will be thinking of the next instrument and how it can be better.

Following from that you must be willing to work without recognition or acclaim; the satisfaction coming from the pleasure of producing good work, not the praise of others. Financial reward cannot be a motivator, as the time that you need to spend perfecting the smallest of details would price your work out of the market.

One of the challenges of building guitars or mandolins is that apart from trying to make a beautiful object, you have to build something that functions. It must be comfortable and easy to play and, of course, sound good too. These properties may be subjective but they are paramount to the success of an instrument (and ultimately the luthier). It can be argued of course, that a well-built, well-crafted (and well-designed!) instrument will sound and play well, but the function of the instrument mustn’t get lost in the pursuit of its visual appeal.  

Another challenge is applying the finish. Making the instrument needs woodworking skills, but once it’s built, it needs a finish applied and that finish must be of an equally high quality. I know some makers farm out their finishing to another specialist craftsman. And there’s the rub, if you’re a lone luthier like me, who wants to do everything yourself on an instrument, you need to develop a parallel set of skills in wood finishing and become an expert in that craft as well.

Do you need to be creative to be a craftsman? It’s fair to assume that if you make things, you must have some creativity in you. However, an incredibly skilled craftsman may be part of a large company, using his skills to fabricate or repair a part designed by someone else or perform a single task to an extraordinary high-level on a production line. Equally, they may follow in a tradition and make artefacts that have been well-developed over time and do not require any design input or they may make replicas of classics designs. Their high level of skill cannot be denied but are they creative? I think that a creative craftsman is one who designs and develops the object that he makes, and that is the category that I feel the lone luthier should fall into.

That said, it is hard to maintain those aims, day in, day out without wavering. Doing the best that you can, has to become instinctive and not an approach that you switch on when you feel like it. When you push the envelope, there will, as the wood or your tools reach the limit of what is actually physically achievable, be disappointments. But, hopefully, there will be more highs than lows, as you gain pleasure from a job well done and you find your ikigai.

Labels: ,


Blogger Ralph Boumenot said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this subject and I didn't miss not seeing a vid posted with it.

12:34 pm  

Post a comment

<< Home