Today I wanted to share my conversation with Wilson Burnham, a luthier who specializes in building guitars using nothing but “hand-tools” by which I mean to say he doesn’t employ any power tools which would be commonly used by most of today’s guitar builders.
I met Wilson after sharing his post on building a guitar with hand-tools and commenting on his blog a few months back and after a few emails back and forth I realized we had a great little “interview” going
And here it is:
How did you get your start playing classical guitar?
My mom played a Harmony steel string guitar that she had bought as a young girl in 1939, she and her brother played and sang together when they could. It was a great experience for me to hear them. When I was 5 years old I begged for a guitar, so my parents bought me a used Harmony steel string guitar for $5. I still have that guitar. I guess I was about 11 years old when an older cousin showed me how to play flamenco on his classical guitar, I was hooked!
The next week I started to teach myself how to read music, talked my parents into buying me a cheap Yamaha classical and then taught myself how to play. I began lessons with Robert Backes, who had studied with Pepe Romero and Chris Parkening, when I was 13. I had a master class with Parkening when I was 17 years old and during that class I pretty much decided that being a full time musician wasn’t for me.
How did you get your start building guitars?
I grew up with wood and when I was little I loved making things out of wood: little airplanes; rapiers for me and my brother to fight with; rubber band guns; bows and arrows, you name it. I remember seeing an article when I was 12 years old on how to make a classical guitar, it fascinated me and I read whatever I could find on guitar making, which wasn’t much back in the mid-1970′s.
About 1990, when I started drifting back to traditional woodwork using hand tools to make old-timey style tables, chairs, blanket boxes. I made a few Appalachian mountain dulcimers then and sold a few. I made my first guitar, a copy of an 1816 Jose Martinez, which is so much smaller than today’s modern classical guitar. I made another copy of the Martinez then I made a modern classic using William Cumpiano’s book.
What is the easiest/best way to get started building guitars? Are there any specific methods/courses you would recommend?
The easiest way to build a guitar is to be interested in building one. Don’t be afraid of making a guitar and don’t listen to or believe anyone that says you can’t build a guitar. Just do it!
Before you attempt making a guitar, read Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology: A Complete Reference for the Design & Construction of the Steel-String Folk Guitar & the Classical Guitar by William Cumpiano and Jon Natelson. This is a must!
The other book to read is Roy Courtnall’s Making Master Guitars. Don’t read any other books or go to any websites about how to make a classic guitar until after you have made your first one, you’ll end up getting too much information and your head will swim. Make your first guitar using Cumpiano’s book, then use Courtnall’s book to make your second. After you make one guitar you will want to make another!
Guild of American Luthiers has a Links and Resources page that lists many schools that offer guitar making programs in the US, Canada and the rest of the world, plus there is a list of online courses.
David Schramm, www.schrammguitars.
Is the learning curve going to be quite a bit steeper if a person was to stick completely with hand tools?
No. If you don’t know how hand tools work you’ll never understand how power tools work. Power tools are simply hand tools, well, powered up. If you have never done any kind of wood working you simply cannot walk into a shop fully equipped with power tools and expect to make a guitar.
I always tell folks who want to make a guitar, that have never done any wood working, to take classes on how to use hand tools at a local community college or vocational/technical school. Or beg a local woodworker to teach you. Or just buy all the tools listed in Cumpiano’s book, a rip saw, read all of Roy Underhill’s books, buy a bunch of lumber and start ripping down the pieces into what you need to make a guitar. If you want to make a guitar, make a guitar.
Robert Bouchet and Jose Romanillos both built their first guitars on a kitchen table!
Do you have any experience with the “kits” out there on the market? Would they be worthwhile as an introduction?
I don’t have any experience with the kits, but if you want to make a steel string guitar, Stewart MacDonald offers some really sweet kits! I’ve been tempted to buy one. Stew-Mac’s kits would be a great introduction to guitar making!
Luthier Mercantile International offers several classic guitar kits, they even have a Guitar Kit Wizard to help you select what you want in a kit. I think kits could be great for the first time builder.
How long does it take to build a guitar?
About 80 hours, plus some. Most professional luthiers are so jigged up that they can produce a guitar in under 60 hours, that includes the finish. I like to french polish my guitars which adds about six weeks (two weeks are needed for the shellac to harden) to the time.
Do you have a favorite combination of woods for back/sides/top?
My favorite combo is whatever I am working with at the time. With the depletion of the world’s forests I am a firm believer that North American classical guitars and luthiers need to embrace using local woods.
Amazing guitars can be made from maple, cherry, walnut, cypress, mesquite, locust, etc., along with tops that are harvested in North America, Englemann, Sitka, blue, white and black spruce; Douglas fir; western red cedar, incense cedar, redwood….We need to look within our own borders for wood that is grown sustainably.
I could lecture on this subject for quite a while.
Who are some of your favorite classical guitar composers?
Ponce, Tansman, Moreno-Torroba, Harris, Ohana, Walton, Smith-Brindle, just to name a few modern composers. And of course, Sor, Giuliani, de Visee, Coste, Legnani, the standards.
Do you build strictly nylon/”classical” instruments?
For the most part, yes, because I love the classic guitar! I do make copies of early 19th century European guitars, they are such an eye opener to play and I make the occasional ukulele.
More About Wilson Burnham:
Visit Wilson’s Blog Here - http://guitarluthier.blogspot.ca/
Thanks again Wilson for the great responses and hopefully someday I’ll be able to send you pictures of my first guitar!