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Handmade Guitars
Written by Terence Tan

It is often said we are living in the golden age of guitar making. During the 70's there were only a handful of individuals who would craft a guitar completely from scratch. Today, a combination of expanded interest, and an increase of accumulated skills and experience has resulted in an explosion of luthiers who offer anything from a fancy pearl trimmed dreadnought to an all koa Weissenborn style instrument. Large factories have also increased quality and production over these few decades, begging the question, "What is the difference between factory and handmade instruments?"

The definition of "handmade" is rather tricky in the context of power tools requiring one to consider the importance of the differences between that high powered band saw and a wood saw? Most luthiers and players take the view that as long as the tools used are dictated by the operator, the instrument can be considered handmade. Thus, a specialized jig which predetermines how a neck is carved cannot be considered part of the handmade process, whereas a band saw used to rough out the neck shape 'freehand' could. Over the past decade, I have been playing, trading, and on occasion making my own acoustic guitars. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

Different Goals

Factories and luthiers have rather different goals when building guitars. Factories aim to produce a consistent, uniform product which is durable while maximizing efficiency. The individual luthier is trying to create a better guitar with each build, to maximize each component to suit individual clients. Therein lies the greatest difference- a consistent, uniform product versus a flexible approach for each individual instrument.

Consistency, Uniformity

Factories have standard specifications for guitar production. For example, each neck is carved to the same specs, each top same thickness. The current computer controlled CNC machines can create these instruments to exacting tolerances in an efficient manner. This can be a boon and a burden on the end product. Each component is standardized so the customer, the salesman and the repairman [if needed] can expect consistency. Unfortunately, conventions that work well for things like nut widths and neck shapes do not necessarily work for tops, backs and sides where wood parameters can vary greatly. For example, Sitka spruce tops can vary by up to 100% in density and 350% in lateral stiffness. Thus, by treating each top in the same way, factories can fail at creating a uniform tone.

Luthiers can be more dynamic in their approach in dealing with wood variability. The top is a little less stiff? No problem, use a stiffer bracing. This allows the builder to tap into the full potential of his materials. Also, this flexibility can be used to customize the instrument to the individual's needs rather than being stuck to a factory specification. Thus, the hand builder can tweak and personalize the guitar for you. In fact, I originally sought hand made guitars, because I found the standard nut widths and neck profiles of the factory too uncomfortable for my hands.

Efficiency, Durability

These go hand in hand. For the majority of factories, efficiency is a function of time taken for manufacturing for a given quality and the durability of the product. The instrument's finish best highlights how factories have maximized efficiency and durability. Unlike traditional lacquer or French polish, a UV cured finish can be applied and cured in a matter of hours rather than days.

Additionally, these modern finishes are more resistant to wear and the effects of time and humidity which reduces the warranty work required. For a large scale operation, the time and warranty work saved is substantial. Although a UV finish is tougher than a French polish, it is also much harder to touch up once marred. More often than not, the only solution is to send the instrument for a complete refinish which requires sanding off the existing finish and reapplying new coats. Although quick and relatively easy to do, it is costly for the customer and often not covered in the warranty.

Personal Relationship

For many musicians who strive to create something personal and connect with their audience on at least try to contact on a personal, a personal relationship with the builder of their instrument can be very important.

Value

Although Factory guitars are often cheaper than 'handmades' in absolute terms, many people believe that handmade guitars offer greater value for money. The resale values are often higher (some people even make money when reselling!) and when considering the price per hour, factory guitars often price out higher compared to the more labor intensive handmade guitars. Additionally, handmade guitars can be easily customized, sometimes at no extra cost, whereas factory guitars may have limited and relatively more expensive options.

Are they better?

I can safely say that one is not necessarily better than the other. A factory guitar functions very well as a utility instrument for less money than a handmade one, but may be limiting in range. Similarly, many players feel a special connection to their guitar which goes beyond the utility so may place a greater value on a handmade guitar. The final analysis is the result of a personal judgment that can only be made by the player.

Analogies

Perhaps the best analogy is that of a printer compared to a painter. A printer needs to produce a large volume of a product to a set, uniform standard. A painter seeks to produce a small volume of the very best work. Buying a print may be easier with clearer expectations and may be done from a variety of sources. but choices are limited to what the printer chooses to print. A painting is a unique work, and may require additional care and maintenance but the result is more responsive in suiting the commission.

Compromises

As commissioning a guitar can be daunting- especially when the end product is less predictable. A good compromise exists in terms of the guitar boutique. These stores have handmade guitars built on spec for customers to view and play. This is a great advantage as it eliminates doubt of the end product and very often can be a good opportunity to compare many handmade guitars as well factory made guitars.

All photos were taken by the author and can be found at Goodacoustics.

Guitar 1 (at right): An example of customisation: the frets here are prewar style solid bar frets rather than the usual T frets on this Greven guitar.Guitar 2 (at left): Exhibition grade woods are a distinct possibility - this Bown guitar features Brazilian rosewoodGuitar 3 (at right): More pictures of the Bown to show how the aesthetics can be customised in a handmade guitar- the purfling, rosette and backstrip are in perfect harmony!

Terence Tan is the founder of Guitarbench, a blog who vows to provide the world with free, valuable, original, and timeless content about everything guitar related.
 
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