The Handmade Question
Posted on April 2, 2022 by Scott French
The previous entry in this four part series found me reconnecting with the parts of lutherie that inspired me from the start and deciding to move forward with guitar building in ways I never considered. This entry is an extension of that reconsideration of all things held holy in guitar building.
If you went back and looked at my first website from 2004, you'd see I put a lot of emphasis on my instruments being handmade. The entire first run was about as handmade as you could be. I did use a lot of power tools, but very few templates of any kind. As time has gone on I see more and more value around precision, repeatability, and doing complex things in the most quick and efficient manner possible (at my budget). Having a machine that can do a better job than me at tasks I would consider menial, while at the same time being able to quickly iterate on new ideas, is a win on so many levels. At this point I don't see any glamour in making templates for different pickup routes, control layouts, bridge mounting holes or neck pockets by hand.
You can build an instrument 100% by hand and it may end up totally mundane, unoriginal, and terrible... all while playing and sounding like crap.
Many years ago I started questioning the value of "handmade" instruments. I remember coming across some very basic kind of Strat clones that were boldly being advertised as totally handmade, and thusly the only way to experience True Tone Bliss or some other nonsense. I don't want to mince words, I love what Fender and Gibson did for the guitar world, but I don't have a lot of interest in most classic instruments at this point. I guess I've had my fill of vintage worship and am ready to see mainstream instruments move on from the stagnation that started around the mid 90s. I guess the point I am trying to make is a guitar being handmade doesn't automatically make it interesting. Anyway, this got me questioning if I don't care about an instrument being totally handmade, then what is it I do value? It took a while to figure out but I can tell you! I value uniqueness, originality, and quality. You can build an instrument 100% by hand and it may end up totally mundane, unoriginal, and terrible... all while playing and sounding like crap.
I would rather see a true master using all the tools available to make something incredibly interesting and unique.
Building an instrument with the assistance of automated machinery in turn does not make it any less interesting to me. I would rather see a true master using all the tools available to make something incredibly interesting and unique. There's value in developing your skills and becoming a great craftsperson, but that's only half the journey. In my opinion finding your voice and making your instruments is the harder and more rewarding part of the journey. Each builder needs to find that balance and create instruments in the way that makes the most sense for them. As my skills with these new tools grow and the overall price of decent quality machines goes down, I can only see more and more possibilities for automating the less interesting parts of instrument building.
When I am working on something new I always start with paper. It's just the most efficient way for me to get an idea out of my head without being influenced by any outside limitations... like my poor drafting ability. Paper is also a really quick way to take an idea, clean it up, and see how it actually lays out at full scale. But beyond that I have always used Adobe Illustrator as the next step to lay out my designs. I know there are likely many better tools for this task, and definitely cheaper tools, but this is what I learned 20+ years ago as a graphic design assistant. From there I am able to clean up the designs, add all the fine details and get the layout perfect. In the past I would then print out full scale designs to confirm everything was correct at actual size and then make the templates by hand. Now for certain elements I am able to go straight to wood using the CNC, no printing full size or making templates!
In places where precision counts and there's not a lot of creativity or artistry involved, I'm happy to utilize these new tools.
Dedicating the time to transition my meager Illustrator 2D drafting skills into 2.5D CNC CAD/CAM skills has been a great investment. The endless number and quality of custom designs I am now able to machine easily was well worth it. I still love custom shaping necks and other parts of the instrument by hand, but in places where precision counts and there's not a lot of creativity or artistry involved, I'm happy to utilize these new tools like the CNC router and laser.
Another benefit of learning the CNC is it inspired me to start making my own pickups. I've tried making custom covers and shells for pickups out of wood in the past, but the level of precision required is really beyond my skill, and more honestly probably beyond my patience. Very carefully shaping and drilling a bunch of tiny holes only to screw up and crack something two hours in is demoralizing. Using the CNC and now the laser is so much more precise and reliable. It's been a lot of fun learning more about pickups and coming up with my own unique twists on old designs. That in turn has inspired me to start thinking about all kinds of different approaches to guitar electronics. I have a lot of interesting ideas in the works.