By Greg Olwell
About three years ago, Rick Gunn ran into something that happens to guitarists all of the time: he played a guitar he wanted and couldn’t afford. However, instead of just longing for that Martin HD-28, he realized that he might be able to build one himself.
Since building your first guitar from scratch might be a little too much for someone with just basic woodworking skills, like Gunn had at the time, he began investigating how to build the guitar he wanted from a kit. After a couple of months of research online and several consultations with sellers, he settled on a Martin HD-style kit from Blues Creek Guitars.
“When I first started, the idea was building a few of them as cheaply as I could,” says Gunn, an accountant from Cumming, Georgia. “Now, it’s an obsession.”
He’s not alone.
Many guitarists are eager to try their hands at building a guitar. For many, it gets in the blood and becomes a life-changing event. What began for Gunn as a way to get the guitar he wanted has turned into a sideline of guitar-building from scratch and repairing guitars under his own brand, Rose Creek Guitars.
Call it a success story, a late-blooming obsession, or a hobby run amok, but building your next guitar from a kit could be the most musically rewarding thing you do. “This is like the ultimate build. You build it and then you can make music with it,” Gunn says. “I love the sound my guitar makes—and when I play my first guitar, I know it’s mine.”
Just make sure your skill set includes patience, especially for your initial build. “If anyone has any woodworking experience, I think they can build a guitar,” he adds. “You just have to take your time.”
Before you order a kit and start building it on your kitchen table, count on doing research—lots of research—planning, and some soul-searching. You’ll need to know your motivation: Are you building a guitar to save money? To learn how they’re made and maybe deepen your love of lutherie? Or maybe you’re considering a new hobby or even a career change? Knowing your motive can help you decide which kit might be best to begin your first build. Some are designed for first-time builders and will be comparatively easy to build, requiring only basic gluing and clamping and fretwork, while others will be way more intensive.
To begin, you need a vision. Since you can ultimately do a lot of customization, your vision doesn’t have to be the exact guitar you end up with, but you’ll need to make some basic decisions before you make your purchases. Almost every kit on the market is a tribute of a classic Martin model, so you’ll be making decisions between dreadnought, OM, and OOO shapes and basic woods you want in your guitar (rosewood or mahogany backs, with a spruce top). Many kits are available with either a bolt-on neck, which is much easier to set correctly on your first build, or a more traditional dovetail joint.
The kits you should consider for your first build are the ones that contain every part you’ll need to complete the guitar, from pre-shaped parts like a machined neck, pre-bent sides and binding, to shaped braces with the gluing locations mapped out on the back and top. Several of the suppliers also offer kits that have less work done beforehand, but you might want to consider those more advanced kits after building at least one guitar. You’ll either have the bug and need to build more, or know that it’s not for you.
You’ll also want to check which parts are included in each kit. Though some kits include hardware, like tuners and strings, others do not, so plan accordingly. You’ll also need to decide and budget for adhesives and finishing materials.
COMPARE THE COST
Many people try to do it on the cheap when they’re first starting out, primarily because they’re not sure of their level of commitment. Plan on spending $400 to $600 on a kit, depending on the supplier and materials, plus maybe another $100 on finishing materials (if you do it yourself). Tools will be the next most important—and largest—investment.
Beyond the cost of the kit, your biggest start-up expense is going to be those tools. Building a guitar, even from a mostly complete kit, is going to take proper tools and skimping on those never saves money nor time. It’s the one area that Gunn, as well as Lars Vendel, a guitar maker from Kil, Sweden, who got started by making ten kits, both wished they had spent more on at the beginning. Both agree that the best bang-for-the-buck investments an aspiring builder can make are purchasing the right tools to build a better guitar: proper lutherie tools, like files; radius sanding disks for the guitar model you’re building; and molds to hold everything in place. Tools, including clamps, can easily set you back another couple of hundred dollars.
No one said building a guitar from a kit would be easy, but the challenge is part of the reward, right? Presuming you have some basic woodworking skills, you’re still bound to find some challenges. Even if your first kit is mostly just gluing the pieces together, there are still areas that remain a challenge even to experienced builders, and these can make or break a build.
Patience may be the biggest challenge a builder faces. You’re going to need plenty of it because your first guitar is going to take a while to build. Gunn and Vendel both report that their first guitars took over 100 hours to complete. Vendel, who used to work in auto-body repair before launching his new career as a guitar builder, warns against taking shortcuts. “I never made any instruments before this, and it was way more difficult than I ever could imagine,” he says. “After all the custom cars and trucks I’ve built, this is the hardest! But, if you do it step-by-step, the proper way, you shall be rewarded.”
Getting the neck angle correct is crucial and ended up being the most time-consuming part of Gunn’s first build. “I timed myself on my first guitar and it took me about 24 hours to get the neck right,” he says of the shimming, sanding, and reshimming he had to do to get the correct geometry. The good news, it gets better with each build—he says he can now do it in about 45 minutes.
Finishing is another big challenge faced in each build. Some call it the Achilles heel of lutherie because it’s so difficult, and well, you’re never finished because it’s always a challenge to get it right, for large factories and small builders alike. Some kit builders choose to send their guitars out to a professional for finishing, while others do it themselves, usually starting with spray cans of lacquer before moving on to more sophisticated finishing equipment as their interest and skills grow.
FIXING THE MISTAKES
While the kits may come with everything you need to build a guitar (except tools), you might make a mistake and need to replace a part. Most suppliers offer spares for every part, so if you trim a brace too short, or if you just end up with a bad piece of wood (it’s organic material and each piece is different, after all), you can usually replace it easily.
IS IT WORTH THE TROUBLE?
Considering the good quality of many affordable acoustic guitars on the market and the value that they can offer a player, is there any way that building a guitar from a kit could be worth it?
“Definitely,” Gunn exclaims. “My first one, I spent $500 on the kit and $100 on the finish, and I’ve had people offer me $2,000 for it, and it’s not even close to being nice, finish-wise. Each one gets better as you go along. Do you spend $3,000 or more on a guitar, or spend $600 or $700 in parts and build it yourself?”
Vendel, on the other hand, suggests that it’s worth the effort, but not if you’re trying to save money by building one guitar. With the costs to get started, especially the purchase of tools, you’re going to end up with an expensive guitar, but it’s worth the personal satisfaction. “The guitar will end up being pretty expensive, but it will beyour sound,” he says. “If you have some handy skills, you end up with the one and only guitar you want to play the rest of your life.”
And for many builders, it’s the quiet focus and determination that it takes to complete a guitar that are some of building’s greatest rewards. It’s wood therapy, according to John F. Hall, Jr., moderator of a forum dedicated to nurturing the community of kit-guitar builders. He’s also the owner of Blues Creek Guitars, a popular supplier of acoustic-guitar kits. For many who get into building, each guitar is better than the one before, and the next guitar is going to be the best.
Documenting your build is another way to help memorialize your efforts. Gunn, who has since moved on from kits to scratch builds (he’s on his 26th guitar), photographs each guitar throughout his build, and puts together a photo album using Shutterfly to accompany each guitar he makes and sells.
Once you’ve taken the plunge and turned your luthier dreams into a reality, the next question is what to build next? It could be another guitar, a ukulele, a mandolin, or who knows what. After you’ve invested your time and money into getting started, it’d be a waste not to make more.