Frequently Asked Questions


Dear Mr. Calkin,
I am extremely interested in becoming a luthier. I have played guitar for 15 years now but have no building experience. I am curious about starting points in order to get into this trade. Can you help me with a bit of direction, possibly some references in this area, or some of your own start up experiences when you first became interested in the trade? Thank you for your time, as I know it must hold a huge value to you.

Hello Brendan —
This is a question I’m asked several times a year, and I am happy to answer you at some length in order to have a complete opinion I can give to all those who find themselves groping toward lutherie. Also, I find that my thoughts have evolved somewhat through my own experiences of late, so you might consider this an update.

Perhaps the obvious choice is to attend a lutherie school, time and finances permitting. However, you need to have a realistic picture about what the school will do for you. I have worked with two graduates of Roberto-Venn and neither left the school as a functioning, confident luthier. Two years simply isn’t enough time to cram together everything you need to know and to put the information into your hands as well as your head, unless you are an extremely apt student. This reflects my experience with a Junior College course in gunsmithing that I attended right out of high school, as well as conversations I have had with Red Wing graduates. High grades don’t necessarily indicate professional competence. The best one or two of my classmates began making money at their trade during their first year of school, but even they were not good enough to open their own shop right after graduating. Guitarmaking will be just the same for all but the most talented individuals. This isn’t meant to reflect badly on any lutherie school. The huge amount of information that has to be imparted, as well as the time required for talent to develop, dictates that graduates will emerge as worthy apprentices and not journeymen. Still, you should find it to be one of the most intense experiences of your life. The opportunity to submerge yourself in your deepest passion while surrounded by brother junkies should not be lightly dismissed.

Short of lutherie school, what can you do?

Acquiring all the how-to books is an obvious place to start. The best ones will offer you inspiration as well as instruction. I must confess, however, that I never made a really fine guitar just from reading and building. My earliest guitars were made from both the Sloane and Cumpiano/Natelson books. I created working instruments that pleased me, but they could never sit on the same shelf as the better factory guitars. That’s the goal — you have to offer guitarists a unique and satisfying means of making music that will compare well with any other instrument they encounter in their travels. Hardly anyone reaches that level of craft simply by working from books. I would also like to add that I received a lot of pleasure and inspiration from many other lutherie books that I never used as guides. I love books, but for teaching a craft I have nearly come to consider them obsolete.

Video or DVD instruction is miles ahead of books, and when used in conjunction with books can give you a real shot at learning the craft. The DVDs and videos made by the Stewart-MacDonald crew are tops in the field and cover a lot of territory. Get them as the need arises. It may brand me as overly dedicated, but I prefer them to most of what passes for entertainment on TV.

Some people deride the use of kits, but my experience with them has been nothing but positive. You need to find out if you have the hands to be a luthier. I have known fine guitarists who wanted badly to build and repair instruments but who destroyed everything they touched. If you have no woodworking experience kits are a painless way to scope out your raw capabilities. Musicmaker’s offers basic kits that don’t demand a lot of ability on your part or the possession of professional tools. I’ve not built their guitar kit but I can tell from their catalog that it won’t measure up to a Martin or Taylor and you shouldn’t expect it to. It’s just for getting your feet wet without demanding so much of you that you get discouraged. Build a dulcimer. Build their guitar or whatever else may appeal to you. An evening spent surfing the web will turn up other kit companies that provide different selections. Make some wood dust and see if the work really is for you. Lutherie is part mystery, part hard discipline, and part drudgery. If you can’t find a bit of joy in even the drudgery then lutherie is not for you. Be real, this is your life we’re talking about.

The next step might be might a kit from Stew-Mac and/or Luthier’s Mercantile. They will demand much more of you but have the potential of turning into as good a guitar as anything you can buy.

After all that you’re ready for some personal instruction. Charles Fox, Harry Fleishman, and Dave Freeman come instantly to mind, though other fully competent teachers are out there. In one or two weeks they can set you straight in ways you can’t imagine. You could go to them right at the beginning but I believe you’ll come away with much more if you already have some experience, even if you’ve not produced a guitar you’re really happy with.

At that point you’ll probably want to expand your shop, acquire better tools, and build some useful jigs. You’ll be well on your way. I wish you luck, but stay real. There are many rewarding ways to make a living, many of which offer a financial payoff greater than lutherie. Like any craft, lutherie is a way of life. It demands a great deal from you that isn’t visible from the outside, but the satisfaction factor is pretty high.

— John Calkin