From the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Kate Koenig
For many luthiers, the path into the field is not a straightforward one. It can be a very personal journey, in which an aspiring builder discovers—often through exposure to both music and woodworking—a passion for working with their hands to create a product with both practical and artistic applications.
In recent years, a wide variety of young luthiers have joined the industry and are making names for themselves. We spoke to five promising builders—Brian Itzkin, Oliver Marchant, Eve Meister, Max Spohn, and Olivia Elia—most in their 20s. Here, these artisans share how they became intrigued by lutherie, where they studied it, what materials they prefer to work with, and their personal visions and approaches. Read on to gain insight into what goes into becoming and succeeding as a luthier.
Brian Itzkin’s Classical Journey
Brian Itzkin, founder of Itzkin Guitars, started his lutherie journey when he was barely a teenager in Long Island, New York. He began studying the guitar at the age of eight, and, inspired by his father’s woodshop, made his first acoustic out of a C.F. Martin & Co. kit at just 13 years old. “It turned out OK,” he says, “I just kept building and getting better.”
About a year later, Itzkin began corresponding with the Northern California luthier Ervin Somogyi, and later, after attending two years of college—where he briefly pursued an English degree—he studied with another builder, Stephen Hill, in Granada, Spain, which deepened his love of the classical guitar.
When Itzkin returned home to New York to build a guitar business, he started working part-time as a bartender to make ends meet. But when pouring drinks started becoming more of a full-time commitment, he decided to drop everything and return to Spain. Itzkin arrived on March 2, 2020, right before Spain’s total Covid lockdown, and ended up staying until September of that year. “In that timeframe, I built a few guitars, one of which I sold through Siccas Guitars, which is a pretty big dealer in Germany,” he says. “I gained a lot of legitimacy, quite a few orders, and haven’t really looked back since then. For the past two years or so, I’ve been building guitars full-time.”
As a classical maker, Itzkin, who is 26, has been heavily influenced by the pioneering Spanish maker Antonio de Torres (1817–1892) and also informed by the lesser-known Vicente Arias (1883–1914). “I generally gravitate towards a more 19th-century aesthetic, while melding it with a more contemporary tonal palette,” Itzkin says. “I want my guitars to have a cohesive image where all the individual elements melt into the whole but can be admired from up close. I think they sound pretty good, too. “
Though he is firmly rooted in traditional aspects like fan bracing—“things that have worked for 150 years,” he says—Itzkin does sometimes make use of more recent innovations. For instance, he explains, “I’ve been planning out a double-top guitar, with Italian Alpine spruce, an inner layer of Nomex, which is aerospace-grade composite honeycomb material, and another piece of spruce on top.”
Itzkin also has a more contemporary take when it comes to tonewood selection. He always uses ethically sourced woods, often working with recycled materials, such as old furniture he’s found in the street. “There are a lot of blood diamond-esque things in the guitar-making world with the timber we use,” he says. “I don’t really want to be a part of that. Alternative options also tend to be quite a bit cheaper, which I can pass down to the client.”
One of Itzkin’s favorite parts of the guitar-making process is choosing the materials that correspond with a client’s vision, both sonically and aesthetically—that and being in the room when they play the first notes on their new guitar. He’s confident and passionate about each instrument he delivers, but he also knows that there’s always room for improvement. “I think the goalpost is always moving,” he says. “If I finally found one thing that was perfect and kept making it, it would get boring pretty quickly.”
Oliver Marchant’s Triumph Over Adversity
Based in Farnham, a town in Surrey, England, 30-year-old Oliver Marchant of Marchwood Guitars discovered lutherie as a much-needed creative outlet during a difficult time in his youth. In between pursuits of degrees in art and design and photography, he was diagnosed with a chronic illness.
“It’s a long, boring story,” Marchant shares, “but a few years into it, I was just feeling rudderless and kind of cut down in what should have been the prime of my life. I decided I wanted to find a project and complete it, to help me move on in some way.”
After discovering a blog written by someone who had built a guitar at their kitchen table, Marchant set out to do the same on a desk in his bedroom, which initially proved difficult. “I got completely obsessed with triumphing and finishing it,” he says. “And once you build the first one, it’s pretty difficult not to build the second one, because there are so many different processes to master that you just think, ‘The next one, I’m going to get it right.’ I still feel like that, seven or eight years on.”
Marchant currently offers an OM model, with dreadnought and 00 designs in development for future builds. He typically likes using walnut for backs and sides and German spruce for tops, and lately has been branching out with unconventional tonewoods, to adjust for increasing costs of materials and decreasing resources. He has been using Fenland oak—naturally blackened by being submerged in a UK bog for thousands of years—for fretboards and bridges. Last year, he built a guitar out of steamed pearwood from a vineyard in France, although he found it difficult to sell, as his clientele tends to have more conservative preferences. “I guess the thing now that has to change is peoples’ buying habits as much as the building,” he says.
Marchant emphasizes the benefits of having your guitar handmade by an independent luthier, saying that it’s his hope for that awareness to spread. And, expressing gratitude for the amount of support he’s received from the lutherie community, he says it’s a personal goal of his to eventually teach others. “I’ve seen how beneficial craft can be for you mentally and physically, and how it helps you to feel better about yourself and life,” he says.
Eve Meister: Pushing Boundaries
Eve Meister, proprietor of Eve Meister Luthière, in Montreal, took up the guitar briefly in high school, but felt a much stronger connection with woodworking than she did a passion for playing. “I prefer building stuff in the concrete,” she says. “When I was a teenager, I remember looking inside of my guitar and wondering how it works more than actually playing it.”
With the desire to leave the small town she grew up in just outside of Montreal, Meister, now 28, studied at a well-established lutherie program in the city, École-Atelier Bruand, from 2011 to 2014. Afterwards, she apprenticed under the luthier Martin Tremblay, also in Montreal, from whom she learned how to restore gypsy jazz and acoustic archtop guitars. She started her own business while working for him, then began doing lutherie full-time in 2018.
Meister considers repair work to be the bread and butter of her business, and she does everything from neck resets to refrets to crack and impact repair. She advises any aspiring luthier to do the same, as it can be instructional for guitar making. “Repair work has helped me so much in understanding the geometry of instruments and how they move [when vibrating],” she says. “It has helped me identify common design flaws as well.”
When it comes to building, Meister prefers either mahogany or walnut for backs, sides, and necks, and spruce for tops. She makes one model of her own design, affectionately dubbed “Booboo”—a lighthearted nickname for an early model that stuck—which, with a lower bout of 15 inches and an upper bout of roughly 11.5 inches, is a variation on a 00. “I’m trying to make the best object I can by doing a bit of parametrical design and not just doing a copy, she says. “I try to push the boundaries a bit. And, of course, I want to give the chance to musicians to have good-quality, locally made products for a respectable cost.”
Max Spohn: At Once Modern and Vintage
For 27-year-old Max Spohn of Spohn Guitars, a path to lutherie fit naturally with his interests. Spohn was always drawn to designing and building things. He started playing guitar at eight, and has a special memory of his father, who was an art teacher, letting him play his handmade acoustic. But it wasn’t until his late teens that Spohn realized his calling as a luthier.
During a gap year between high school and university, Spohn was planning on studying industrial design, but became bored with preparing the drawings necessary for the application. Instead, he started modifying his electric guitars. “It was my mom’s idea that I should think about becoming a luthier,” he says. So Spohn started an internship with German guitar maker Thomas Ochs. After five months working under Ochs, he began studying lutherie at Westsächsische Hochschule Markneukirchen, a university for applied science in Saxony, Germany.
Despite his early work on electric guitars, Spohn knew that he would focus on steel-string acoustics and learn to make them as best as he could. He also knew that if he was going to pursue lutherie, he must be self-employed. “I always wanted to work creatively, and you can’t necessarily do that if you’re working for someone else as a guitar maker. So, I started my own business during the time that I studied.”
Spohn currently offers four models: 00, OM, dreadnought, and baritone dreadnought. His instruments stand out in part because of the style of his inlays, which are uniquely minimalist and geometric. “I think that you can see that my guitars are different from most others,” he says.
Spohn believes what makes a good luthier is consistency of quality, and that is his main goal. His building is guided by a vision of combining modern voicing with the feel of vintage instruments. “Many modern guitars are built very heavy, very rigid—at least the sides and the necks—and then have pretty flexible tops and backs. I try to build very lightweight guitars; I don’t want the guitar to be so stiff that I can only feel the top and the back.
“What I like most about the guitar-making process,” he adds, “is that I have so many different tasks to do. It rarely happens that I have to work on the same process on two consecutive days. Usually, I have something different to make each day.”
Olivia Elia: From Fly Fishing to Guitar Making
Though Olivia Elia is only 26, a life in lutherie has already been a long and winding road for the California native. “It’s been like a thousand-piece puzzle that magically came together,” she says, laughing.
Elia studied fine arts at UCLA, where she specialized in mediums like ceramics and film photography. After college, she taught fly fishing near Mount Shasta, California, at the same time beginning an apprenticeship for making bamboo fly-fishing rods—her first woodworking experience. “Building fly-fishing rods is very similar for me to building guitars,” she continues, “because in both worlds you’re working to the thousands of an inch and doing very small, focused detail work.”
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After that gig, Elia moved home, to Santa Rosa, California. Eager to build up her skills in woodworking, she accepted a job with ukulele manufacturer Kala Brand Music, where she learned everything about building instruments. She was allowed to use the shop in her spare time, and in 2019 made her first guitar, guided solely by William R. Cumpiano’s Guitarmaking—Tradition and Technology. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits. “It was mostly just to attempt a project I had never done before. I think most of what I do in life is because I wanted to learn how to do it. You’re going to learn so much more by doing something than you would by trying to learn about it before doing it.”
Elia now works for one of the premier boutique makers, Preston Thompson Guitars, in Sisters, Oregon. Her main job is constructing bodies, most often using the holy grail combination of Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce. “That’s my favorite part of the process because you’re going from nothing to something by the end of the day. You have this physical object that you can tap and hear it start to come to life.”
Elia says that her versatile background in the arts, as well as in building fly-fishing rods, informs her guitar making as much as the standard practices of lutherie. “The instruments that I’ve designed and made are more aesthetically towards being works of art just as much as by how they sound,” she explains. “I like pulling in colors from different places and working with all the lines, which I’m sure everyone considers, but I might just have a different eye for it.”
A Sound Education
A relatively short time ago, back in the 1960s and ’70s, there were scant resources for aspiring luthiers in the steel-string world. Most builders were self-taught, learning from publications like The Whole Earth Catalog and Irving Sloane’s Classic Guitar Construction, and through much trial and error. Of course, things are very different these days, with so many great teaching resources available both online and in person, including a number of schools in the United States, a handful of which are listed below. If you are interested in pursuing a path in guitar making, you might reach out to one of these institutions, where many luthiers of note cut their teeth.
- American School of Lutherie, Portland, Oregon.
- Galloup School of Guitar Building and Repair, Big Rapids, Michigan.
- Colorado School of Lutherie, Denver, Colorado.
- Musicians Institute Guitar Craft Academy, Nashville, Tennessee.
- Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, Phoenix, Arizona.
- Whetstone School of Lutherie, Brattleboro, Vermont.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.