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The Well-Unpublished Luthier

The Well-Unpublished Luthier

by William R. Cumpiano

Originally published in American Lutherie #6, 1986 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume One, 2000



Gather around and listen to a strange tale; a saga of oppression and self-imprisonment and of unending, grueling effort; of frustrated expectations and missed opportunities. But it is a sad story with a happy ending.

My story begins ten years ago when I, a budding young luthier, hired a booth in a large Northeastern crafts fair. It was the dawn of my career: I was green and I was anxious and I could not have known then that craft fairs are worthwhile for makers of multiples, such as ceramic pots and leather bags, but a waste of time for guitar makers. But I had to learn that for myself. Think of the exposure, I was told. Just think of the exposure...

Yes, I was to learn. There I stood, an innocent with a hopeful smile on my face, my shiny wares hanging on a makeshift masonite wall behind me, each one of my little babies stamped with the mute evidence of all the care, sacrifice, and painful experience that had brought them into the world.

“Wow!” a voice in the crowd exclaimed, “what are you asking for one of those?” Haltingly, I responded, a little tongue-tied: “Sev... six... five... five hundred and fifty dollars.”

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Dalbergia Nigra and Friends

Dalbergia Nigra and Friends

Luthier and author Cumpiano interviews famed wood scientist Dr. Bruce Hoadley

by William Cumpiano

Originally published in American lutherie #1, 1985 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume One, 2000



For over four hundred years, Dalbergia nigra has been considered the crown, jewel in the luthier’s creation. Its color, figure, and vitreous hardness has made it the sine qua non in the luthier’s inventory of raw materials. And so it has been among cabinetmakers: a book published in the late 1700s characterizes Brazilian rosewood as the “queen of the hardwoods.” Today a luthier can tack on something like $500–$800 to the sale price of a new guitar simply for the purchaser’s privilege of owning one made from Brazilian rosewood, never mind whatever additional qualities it may have. Part of this is unquestionably due to the material’s unique suitability and beauty but also is due no doubt to its great scarcity.

Manuel Velázquez, perhaps one of the greatest living classical guitar luthiers, bemoaned this fact and told me that during World War II, when he was a salvage carpenter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he was required to dismantle ten-foot mess tables and benches made from two- and three-inch thick Brazilian rosewood — and this was on troop ships. He began his career in guitar making taking scraps home with him. When I started my own career about thirteen years ago, these same Brooklyn docks held piles of enormous Dalbergia nigra logs stretching as far as the eye could see. The docks are empty now. Back then a set of Brazilian cost $35. Today a set of lower grade Brazilian can run $150, the better stuff up to $200. For the equivalent of less than one board foot of volume, this means Dalbergia nigra is among the two or three most expensive hardwoods in the world.

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This article is part of our premium web content offered to Guild members. To view this and other web articles, join the Guild of American Luthiers. Members also receive 4 annual issues of American Lutherie and get discounts on products. For details, visit the membership page.

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