A musical instrument craftsman is a professional who designs, builds and repairs musical instruments, such as guitars, lutes, violins, trumpets and pianos.
No two musicians play in exactly the same way. And no two musical instruments sound the same, or feel the same in a musician’s hands. Not if the instrument is hand-made, that is!
Of course, guitars, pianos, violins, trumpets and glockenspiels that are factory-produced can sound and play perfectly well. But is there anything better for a musician than to own a unique instrument?
That’s where musical instrument craftsmen come in.
To be a good musical instrument craftsman you need able hands, sharp eyes, a saint’s patience, and the ability to listen, watch and understand. A musical background is unimportant but can help with some of the later stages of instrument making such as setting up the instruments and testing them so that they meet quality standards.
Becoming a musical instrument craftsman involves a long apprenticeship, which means it could be several years before you actually make a decent wage. Being self-employed will see your income fluctuate, of course.
The top, senior craftsmen can make £100,000 a year, particularly if they have a nationally (or even globally) recognised name that music shop chains have picked up on. For the vast majority of musical instrument craftsmen, however, £28,000 a year is the average salary. (Bear in mind that the costs involved in things like materials, workshop rental, utilities, etc., can all add up.)
The typical tasks undertaken by a musical instrument craftsman include:
- Sourcing the right types of wood and other materials used in the instrument making and repair process
- Designing musical instruments (and getting feedback from clients regarding which is the preferred design, any adjustments to make, etc.)
- Building handmade musical instruments from scratch
- Repairing damaged instruments
- Changing and making adjustments to instrument parts
- Drafting proposals
- Controlling finances
- Advertising services in the local area
- Constantly improving one’s musical build and repair knowledge
- Possible teaching of a student/apprentice
Theoretically, no particular qualifications are required for individuals wishing to become musical instrument craftsmen (some of the best ones are self-taught, and/or have spent years learning from a master craftsman without ever walking through the doors of a university or college). But if you do want to study towards qualifications in musical instrument craftsmanship, a BA in Musical Instrument Making and Repair would be a comprehensive course of study to enrol upon. This course is offered at several universities throughout the country, including the London Metropolitan University.
Musical instrument craftsmen will need to possess the following skills:
- In-depth knowledge of instrument design and repair
- Woodworking (using the full range of woodworking tools, to carve, shape, sand, joint and bend wood)
- Wood machining
- Wood gluing (and an understanding of correct temperatures for drying/storing newly-glued instruments)
- Paint spraying (including an understanding of acids and other chemicals)
- Acoustic listening skills (to ensure the instrument has the desired tone)
- Finishing (lacquering wood)
- Good interpersonal/communication skills with clients (the instrument building and finishing process can be rather lengthy, and can involve getting input and feedback from the client at certain stages of the overall process; therefore a good relationship with the client throughout is essential)
- Good organisational skills
- Knowledge of how to run a business
- Good administrative skills
- Some marketing skills
Although some musical instrument craftsmen rent a workshop in a craft centre, most work alone in a small workshop at home (for instance a converted spare bedroom or garage, a house extension). It’s a dusty environment, so not really suitable for anyone with asthma or allergies.
Building and repairing instruments can be a hot and sweaty business, and can involve long hours, so you need a working environment with good ventilation, and also one that is secure and without damp to protect both your tools/equipment and the instruments themselves.
Most musical instrument craftsmen were performing musicians before switching to building and repairing instruments. The ‘future luthier’ was the guy in the band who fixed the guitars, mandolins, banjos, etc., in the hour before the gig (the time when instruments are prone to get damaged and be in need of emergency surgery!).
The vast majority of craftsmen possess a genuine love and appreciation of wood, and so they have been around wood, woodworkers and woodworking workshops for as long as they can remember (many luthiers follow a family tradition, and seek to emulate their fathers when embarking upon the profession themselves).
Most musical instrument craftsmen are self-employed, building and repairing instruments for individual clients. However, some work for luthier companies that employ a large team and are headed by a ‘master luthier’ who no longer personally builds and repairs guitars, lutes, citterns and mandolas, etc. but oversees the work of others. Examples of companies like these are Lowden Guitars and McIlroy Guitars.
Also, some big music stores (like those found on London’s Denmark Street or Shaftsbury Avenue) can afford to employ a team of musical instrument craftsmen, as well as sales staff, admin personnel, etc. Smaller shops in UK towns may sometimes give a musical repairman a couple of days’ work a week ‘in store’, but the luthier would not make instruments there from scratch, as the shop would be focused on selling only instruments made by household names, such as Fender and Gibson.
Some musical instrument craftsmen branch out into big scale production (this can sometimes happen if a well-known musician endorses their instruments and is regularly seen playing them at concerts and on television). Trading at this level can mean being accountable and answerable to financiers (like venture capitalists), who act as ‘sleeping partners’: they have a stake in the musical instrument craftsman’s company (and therefore their future), but are not involved in the instrument build and repair side themselves.
How far you can progress in this industry is really up to you. Many musical instrument craftsmen remain as ‘one-man-bands’ (excuse the pun!), but others build-up a workforce and branch out into other areas and larger scale production.
Also known as…
- Guitar Maker, Lute Maker, Violin Maker etc
What’s it really like?
Richard Meyrick, 26, of Richard Meyrick Guitars, builds and repairs fretted musical instruments in Monmouthshire. He tells us what being a musical instrument craftsman is all about:
I have played guitar since I was a teenager. After realising I wasn’t going to set the world alight on stage, I switched to the instrument building and repair side. I’d always enjoyed tinkering with instruments: changing parts, making adjustments, and generally trying to improve them. I then tried to build a guitar from scratch. It was rubbish but it worked, so I built a few more. When I realised I needed to further my learning, I went to university, gaining a BA (Hons) in Musical Instrument Making and Repair.
Strictly speaking, you don’t need qualifications to become a musical instrument craftsman, but some woodworking experience is essential. Many instrument makers and repairers have either gone to university or college to learn more, or had an apprenticeship with an established luthier, because there are so many techniques that you can’t learn elsewhere.
After university, I started sending my CV to most of the musical instrument craftsmen in the country, looking for work or work experience. But most of them were working on their own in tiny workshops with no space for anyone else. So, whilst they were all very helpful and full of advice, I had to set up my own business in November 2008. I raised the cash by working as a joiner’s mate and gardener!
I generally work a standard day (I rent a workshop in a craft centre). Being self-employed, I can choose my hours. Not always having a regular income can be a worry, particularly after Christmas. But with regard to job security, as long as you have a good reputation and do good work, the customers will come.
A typical day involves designing and building musical instruments, discussing with customers their needs, diagnosing damaged instruments and repairing them, and installing new parts. Quite often I’ll have a student learning to make a guitar in the workshop, so it pays to have more than one workbench.
I have a fairly varied client base. A lot of my customers have played guitar for years and want to progress to a handmade model. I love building guitars for them. There is nothing better than hearing a guitar I’ve spent tens of hours working on being played for the first time.
I’d advise budding musical instrument craftsmen (and women) to attend a course to gain some kind of qualification and experience beforehand (the industry is male dominated, but many women work on the instrument part repair side). You really need experience working with woodworking machinery and hand tools. Knowledge of musical instruments is very helpful, and patience is a must. It’s also best to specialise in one area: woodwind, brass, pianos, or stringed instruments, whichever you are most familiar with and interested in.
Above all, collect as much information as you can, and spend time developing your technique. Buy cheap broken guitars and practise repairing them before you let yourself loose on a £2000 guitar.