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Well, I know that I'm just a lowly inlay guy, but here is my take on it.

I started inlaying all by hand. Did it that way for years. I've done some really cool work that way too. About two years ago I went to CNC and I would NEVER go back. I was really good before, but the accurancy of CNC has set my inlay into a whole other world. I can make very little, very complex pieces that would be almost impossible by hand and they fit perfect. Plus, once everything is done for the prototype, I can repeat the task with ease.

There is still a lot of hand work to do to finish the job, leveling, polishing, etc, but as I said I would NEVER go back.

I my opinion, there are two types of people - those who have CNC machines and those who can't afford it (yet).

A picture my my machine routing a fingerboard.

cam2.jpg

I'm curious about the CNC for inlay. I can see where the CNC would cut very acurate slots for the inlay to fit in, but isn't that backwards? At least in old fashioned hand inlay you cut the inlay material and then scribe around it, right? So is the CNC cutting out the little pearl/abalone/stone pieces also? If so, can you post a picture of it doing that? I just can't imagine how you would keep such small pieces of shell imoblie and fixed to a work board as you have a machine rout out the edges.

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Well, I know that I'm just a lowly inlay guy, but here is my take on it.

I started inlaying all by hand. Did it that way for years. I've done some really cool work that way too. About two years ago I went to CNC and I would NEVER go back. I was really good before, but the accurancy of CNC has set my inlay into a whole other world. I can make very little, very complex pieces that would be almost impossible by hand and they fit perfect. Plus, once everything is done for the prototype, I can repeat the task with ease.

There is still a lot of hand work to do to finish the job, leveling, polishing, etc, but as I said I would NEVER go back.

I my opinion, there are two types of people - those who have CNC machines and those who can't afford it (yet).

I'm curious about the CNC for inlay. I can see where the CNC would cut very acurate slots for the inlay to fit in, but isn't that backwards? At least in old fashioned hand inlay you cut the inlay material and then scribe around it, right? So is the CNC cutting out the little pearl/abalone/stone pieces also? If so, can you post a picture of it doing that? I just can't imagine how you would keep such small pieces of shell imoblie and fixed to a work board as you have a machine rout out the edges.

Here's Ron Thorn's CNC doing that:

030-38_small.jpg

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I'm curious about the CNC for inlay. I can see where the CNC would cut very acurate slots for the inlay to fit in, but isn't that backwards? At least in old fashioned hand inlay you cut the inlay material and then scribe around it, right? So is the CNC cutting out the little pearl/abalone/stone pieces also? If so, can you post a picture of it doing that? I just can't imagine how you would keep such small pieces of shell imoblie and fixed to a work board as you have a machine rout out the edges.

Double sided tape.

That machine is so accurate it can cut right down to the tape and leave it on the table.

Its pretty dang cool. :D

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Hello everybody,

I hate to impose and I will fess up if I am wrong, but looking at this from a drafters point of view I would submit the following for discusion.

CNC - I can see the benifits of this as you can repoduce the same quality every time a peice is made. The only varing issue is/would be the person finishing the peice. Equals control over an extended period of time.

Handmade - While I know handmade peices can be of the highest quality the human error is there and people have different levels of work on different days.

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I want one. Whats the baisc price for one of those? At the joinery factory i work at i can make a neck thru neck in 3 hours thats including the lamiting... i bet it would be quicker on a CNC

I bet it would probably take about the same amount of time when you include setup and the milling itself.

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Hi there, I'm Ricky from Indonesia.

I have a plan to build some guitars for myself, and I think CNC will be good enough.

My questions are:

1. Is there any downside of using CNC, and will the result better than handmade?

2. What kind of CNC machine should I use and where to buy?

I live in Jakarta, Indonesia (a very beautiful country :D), and I think it's hard to find CNC here, can I buy it from ACE hardware?

Thank you, guys :D

Edited by Ricky Anderson

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Hi there, I'm Ricky from Indonesia.

I have a plan to build some guitars for myself, and I think CNC will be good enough.

My questions are:

1. Is there any downside of using CNC, and will the result better than handmade?

2. What kind of CNC machine should I use and where to buy?

I live in Jakarta, Indonesia (a very beautiful country :D), and I think it's hard to find CNC here, can I buy it from ACE hardware?

Thank you, guys :D

Pop the word cnc in google. I don't think you quite grasp the concept yet. An entry level cnc machine is $6000 - $8000 US. Software will be around $2K unless you go with cheap homebrew stuff. It's not practical unless you are running a business with it.

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CNC vs, Handcraft, in my company it's not acceptable to use CNC machines, more when a customer is paying you big bucks for a "old school handcarft guitar", in my shop I have a jig for each part of the contruction of the guitar, including headstock brand inlay, everything in my guitars is totally handmade, this make the instrument in a piece of art (do you paid big bucks for a art painting done by a machine?). About precision, trust me, I'm very persistent in how perfect the instrument has to be, trilple check all the time, using very presice tools and jigs, Maybe you concern about time, but in my opinion, professional musicians concern about a combination of presicion, sound and state of art, this is my experience making custom guitars for 22 years for almost 200 prfessional guitar players from all America, some few does'nt care about terminations, craftmanship or precision, thats why companys as Fender & Gibson re open theirs " custom shops" making guitars the "old way" for this very specials musicians who cares about this importants details!

You can take a tour inside my shop in my web page...... Guitarzonepr.com

Edited by Maiden69

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I like the old way too, but 3D tool control of router cutters can be safer. I never liked the look of an overhead router/shaper and making the jigs.

From a design point having 3D design tools are in a world of there own...

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Y'know, I'm quite seriously considering building myself a homebrew CNC router (this is what happens when you decide you have no more room for more tonewood, but have a few thousand dollars to spare, sorta); I still very much doubt I'll use it for carving tops and the like, because I'm a) too lazy to model that and :D I like adjusting the depth, look, and style of carve to the individual build and individual piece of wood. But for things like jig making, it strikes me as absolutely ideal; making templates, jigs, a lot of fingerboard work, donkeywork inlay cutting (logos and the like), arching bodies...I had a 'regular' router jig drawn out that would, theoretically, be able to a minimal fraction of this stuff, less accurately, with manual control, and taking up a larger footprint than an equivalent benchtop CNC gantry setup. So it's off to scoure CNCzone.com and eBay for cheaper parts for me!

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thats why companys as Fender & Gibson re open theirs " custom shops" making guitars the "old way" for this very specials musicians who cares about this importants details!

i went to the gibson custom shop last year... CNC everywhere. i think with the exception of some hollow body top and backs being carved by hand everything was done on CNC's. The same happens around at Fender to my knowledge.

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Ours (DGM) are still 100% handmade! Our website will be completed soon and I will post links. Currently we are building a Bass out of some Beautiful wenge with a wenge neck and black hardware, wow this is killer grain, and a semi-hollow 8 string guitar out of 35 year old ash which will have a natural to red burst. The bass is nearing the final finishing and the guitar is approaching final sanding. If interested I can send pics. Thanks Terry D.

I've seen your neck through blanks on Ebay & have you listed as one of my "favorite sellers". & I've been meaning to ask you a question.

When you provide a neck through blank with frets installed, are they complete, ready to play as in, frets crowned and polished, or are they just leveled & beveled?

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I've read through this and thought I'd throw my 2cents in as someone who programs a cabinet shops CNC's for a living and building his first guitar on it.

The CNC is awesome. But I honestly think for the people working up something for the first time, hand is WAY faster. Trace out what you want on a board for a body shape and cut it on the bandsaw. On the flip side, programming the CNC for the first time can be a long, long, long tedious task. If you had a tablet/digitizer this can be a bit quicker and a bit more intuitive but sometimes its tough to "feel" something drawn in 2d on a computer screen.

Speaking of, our personal CNC an SCMI Tech 99l is 7 years old, might as well be 50. Its a 3axis machine with limited 3d abilities (basically you have to trick it into doing what you want). We bought our machine just before the 5 axis stuff hit the market (and in all fairness, for making cabinet parts we dont need it) and it cost a 110k lol.

Now, should I have a 5 axis with good 3d software this would be a slightly different story. Either way though, the benefits of CNC are almost all after the fact. Setup and programming time is IMMENSE for a completely new design. I literally had hundreds of hours in programming mine, tweaking, ect. I can't even think about the time I have into mine.

The upide that the CNC has over everything is mockups. I literally have probably 50 different pieces of scrap that resemble various parts of guitars littered about the shop over the years. The ability to throw a piece of scrap on the machine to see if everything is going to jive or not. I would never be able to bring myself to actually cut a guitar blank w/out one (I'd never be quite... ready to take the plunge).

Everyone knows that CNC's are accurate. To me besides the mockup ability, the real benefits in CNC's are repeatability. All of my mock up guitars had exactly the same body shape. I could stack 15 of them and they were all identical. The accuracy is amazing... the only issues we run into is when the bits start to wear under their programmed size.

From a production stand point, the CNC is a no brainer. Once you get the thing dialed in, you start feeding material in and walk away. Also, in my case now that I have one completely dialed in I can do things like change the shape of just the body w/out major reprogramming (ie keeping the neck, scale and bridge the same).

I love mine... its completely ruined me. After so many years of having one if I had to cut a circle by hand I'd be almost lost by now lol.

Just my 2cents (USD). It really blows me away the quality of work here by guys in their garages doing it completely by "hand". Makes me feel kind of lame actually. lol

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From my point of view, making guitars is an art, as a sculpture or a paint, it is not just a matter of money, it's about proud, any person who has the money to buy a CNC can make guitars, paintings, sculptures etc. that does'nt make you a luthier or an artist, a machine is doing the job for you, and it's ok if you goal it's just the money matter, but, it's not better if you contact some chinese with their CNC's and probably you can make the same product a lot less than buy the machine?

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That's a simplified view that excludes a lot of factors. For example, is the art in how material is removed, or the fact that you've decided where material should be removed? Very few of us are unassisted by power anyhow, so what's the difference between building a template and running a router up against it, or programming a machine and saying, "yup, take the wood away from THERE." To me, the art is primarily in the design, from choice of wood to shape/profile, to electronics. You can't just tell a CNC machine "make a guitar". It's not like the human factor is eliminated.

A guitar is in many ways too precise an instrument to get caught up in glorifying the "art" of it. Like I said above, the art is in the design. But there's also the engineering and math involved. It's a verrrrry slippery slope to try to play the "art" card, but still allow things like fret-saw jigs, templates, drill presses, calipers, and other tools that are meant to produce as -precise- (not "artistic") a result as possible. Even at its very worst, the CNC machine is just another tool at your disposal (or not... if there's not one at your disposal...!).

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Ive got a CNC machine coming. Im getting one because im tired of spending four hours doing a shell logo. Im tired of carving tops. I dont have time to spend six hours inlaying fretboards when something i programmed can do it for me, more accurately... with less waste...

I guess my guitars will be crap from then onwards...

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Ive got a CNC machine coming. Im getting one because im tired of spending four hours doing a shell logo. Im tired of carving tops. I dont have time to spend six hours inlaying fretboards when something i programmed can do it for me, more accurately... with less waste...

I guess my guitars will be crap from then onwards...

I don't believe that they will, because you have perfected your designs by hand and are transferring some of that to the CNC. The CNC still won't put the thing together, make sure that the fit is good etc... There's still a lot of hands on intervention.

I got 2 bodies from Jim Donahue (Ibanez) that he routed out on his CNC machine. There's still a lot of work to be done when the body comes out of the CNC. To me, its no different that using a router with templates, except its faster and more repeatable. I still view my Ibanez Jem completed guitars as hand made (with the help of power tools)

Edited by guitar2005

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I'm curious about the CNC for inlay. I can see where the CNC would cut very acurate slots for the inlay to fit in, but isn't that backwards? At least in old fashioned hand inlay you cut the inlay material and then scribe around it, right? So is the CNC cutting out the little pearl/abalone/stone pieces also? If so, can you post a picture of it doing that? I just can't imagine how you would keep such small pieces of shell imoblie and fixed to a work board as you have a machine rout out the edges.

Wow, I'm really sorry that it took me two years to respond to this, I just saw the question. Hope I'm not too late :D

As someone said before, I use double back tape for wood products sometimes, if I can clamp them down. For shell, I wood glue the to a piece of junk wood and cut away. The pieces stay glued to the board. Then I soak the board and the piece come off. Works great.

Sorry, no pics.

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I am currently making making a CNC router out of aluminum, Ill make a thread for all to see in the tools area once I get all my materials layed out and bought , It will be detailed for you to copy. That is if you want.

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I think that a CNC machine is fine for somethings. Like if you want to save time. But when a company is selling a almost "total" guitar done by CNC and selling them for a hand made price that is where the subject starts to become blurred. I believe that when you buy a hand built guitar that you paying for the luither time and they know what is best. And some part of the person is past on into the instrument. This debate could go on and on for centuries, but it's totally up to the person but to me if I am being charged for guitar that i could get a hand built one, then I would chose the hand built one over the CNC machined one any day!

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I might be asking for something already answered :D anyway... Does any body knows about a CNC machinnig parts supplier? or in other words, any CNC router owner that can supply me custom bodies and necks?... Thanks! :D

Jonbuho,

It depends on what you mean by custom. The preliminary work it takes to create CAD files, then tool-paths (G-Code) then proper fixturing for the wood is mind boggling. If your design is fully custom, and true 3D, you're way better off carving it manually. On the other hand, if you want to bacically cut the outline (only) of a custom body shape and add pickup holes and a neck joint, you might find someone willing to do it for you. you could then add more features (like a belly carve) manually.

The task of CAD modeling a fully custom guitar neck is also extremely time consuming. The fixturing t hold the wood is a complex process as well.

Tell us more about what you have in mind? could you live with a custom body and a purchased neck?

How about a kit?

full%202.jpg

Paul Vogt

PVX Guitars

Charlotte, NC

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check out this article by master luthier Ervin Somogyi

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HANDMADE AND FACTORY MADE GUITARS

by Ervin Somogyi

I am often asked what makes hand made guitars different from factory made ones, and whether they're better, and if so, how. These are good questions, but complex ones. Handmade guitars are not manufactured goods in the same sense that factory made guitars are manufactured goods. Each is made differently, for different purposes and different markets, and with different intent, aim and skills. Factories need to make instruments which are good enough to sell to a mass market. Luthiers need to make instruments which are successful tools for musicians. Comparing a handmade guitar to a factory made one is analogous to comparing a painting with a toaster: the one really needs to be judged by different standards than the other. I wish to stress that I do not wish to malign either luthiers or factories, but rather to point out how very different their products are in spite of the fact that they can look almost exactly alike.

What, really, is handmade? Obviously, things were literally handmade a long time ago, when tools were simple. But what is one to think if the luthier uses routers, bandsaws, power sanders and joiners and the like? Aren't these the same power tools used in factories? How can something made with them be handmade? These same questions were asked by American luthiers in the l960s and l970s, because the use of power tools was so very common. After much debate it was decided that the answer had to do with the freedom of use of the tool. That is, guitars could be considered handmade if the tool could be used with a degree of freedom dictated by the needs of the work and the will of the operator. Dedicated and specialized tooling capable of only one operation, as is the rule in factories, did not qualify; neither did the rote assembly, even if by hand, of components premade to identical specifications. These became the standards by which to distinguish handmade from production made.

It might be most true to say that handmade guitars differ from factory made guitars primarily in that factory guitars are mass-produced, and handmade guitars are not. While this may sound obvious and self-evident, a number of implications arise out of this basic fact:

l) Long term repairability. In the long term, a guitar is likely to need tuneups, maintenance or repair work, just like a car. Things like bolt-on necks, and the fact that the repairman may have worked on this or that brand of factory guitar before and knows what to expect, can make certain operations easiser. But otherwise factory instruments are often made with procedures and processes which, although quick, cheap and easy to do within the manufacturing context, can be difficult to undo or work with in the normal, post-factory setting. Guitar finishes are a good example of this. The traditional finishes such as lacquers and French polishes are beautiful, but are skill- and labor-intensive to apply. The increasingly popular polyurethane, catalyzed and ultraviolet-cured finishes are much easier and cheaper to apply, and look good. But, they cannot be repaired or worked with if there is damage. To fix a crack in the wood properly, the finish will need to be completely sanded off and redone. Lacquers and French polishes, on the other hand, are comparatively easy to spot-finish or touch up.

2) Personal relationships. If you deal with an individual guitar maker you will establish a personal relationship with someone which may last for years, and which may become an important one. He will almost certainly be available directly to you to consult with or to take care of some difficulty, and he will feel a responsibility to you for any work he has done. With a factory made guitar, you cannot have this personal relationship with the maker. You will have to settle for the best relationship you can have with either the store you purchased the instrument from or the factory's customer support hotline.

3) Choices, features and options. Factory guitars are made to strictly unvarying specifications and in large numbers. Each one will be exactly the same in all particulars, and if you want anything a bit bigger or smaller, or in any way different, you will not be able to have it unless you pay extra to have it customized. An individual instrument maker can provide you with an instrument that is tailor-made for you in many ways. As musical styles and playing techniques evolve, instruments with differing scale lengths, actions, neck widths and contours, fret sizes, string spacings, tunings, tonalities, electronics, woods, body shapes and sizes, etc. all become more desirable. But proliferation of design variables complicates production. I've been told that in Japan many Japanese customers want guitars exactly like someone else's, because that's how things are done in that culture. The factory model serves this need. In the United States, however, musicians more commonly complain about things such as that the neck on a certain brand of guitar is too awkward for their size hand, and that their hands would tire less if the neck were just a little different -- but all the necks are the same.

4) Value and price. A handmade guitar will carry a price which reflects its real value in terms of labor and overhead more truly than a factory made one which carries the same price. The former may take 200 hours of someone's conscientiously invested time and skill; the latter may take 8 to 36 hours of intensely repetitive and automated work. A factory will target a price at which it wishes to sell a certain product and will do everything it can to enable its introduction into the market at that level, including using parts made by others and mounting ad campaigns. A luthier will probably want to make something that's as open-endedly good as he can make it, without an overriding imperative from the profit motive. Because factory instruments are made for wholesaling and price markup, and handmade instruments are in general not, there is much more room for discounting within the system of retail store markups than an individual maker can offer. Discounting is a marketing tool, and factory made guitars are made and priced so that everybody in the complex chain of recordkeeping/tooling/subcontracting/assembling/

advertising/retailing/delivering can share in the profit. Handmade guitars are priced so the maker can survive.

5) Quality. According to a guitar industry spokesman at a recent symposium, quality, from a factory point of view, is the same as replicability of components and efficiency of assembly. That is, the factory man considers quality to be the measure of how efficiently his parts can be identically made and how fast his instruments can be assembled in a consistent and trouble free manner. From the musician's point of view quality has nothing to do with any of this: it has to do with how playable the guitar is and how good it sounds. This also is, normally, the attitude of the individual luthier, for whom efficiency is important but secondary to his concern for creating a personal and effective tool for the musician. The main ideal behind factory guitars is that they be made quickly, strong and salable. The main ideal behind the handmade instrument is quality of sound and playability. A really well made guitar almost plays itself.

If quality for the factory man has to do with efficiency and consistency in making identical things, it cannot be so for hand makers. And for obvious reasons: there are a lot of hand makers working at vastly different levels of skill and creative talent, and they have different concepts of "best". Let us return to the analogy of the painting and the toaster to illustrate this point. A painting is something somebody made which may be good or bad, or beautiful, or repellent, or even personally meaningful. Or perhaps unintelligible. Then, some paintings can be amateurish or indifferent. Some are interesting. Some may be pretty damn good. And some are timeless, significant and really great. A toaster, on the other hand, will do what it was designed and built to do, every time, or one fixes it or discards it. One does not normally think of a toaster as being amateurish, meaningful, expressive, trite, evocative, profound, unintelligible, interesting, or timelessly great. This is not what toasters are all about.

6) Craftsmanship. An intelligently run factory is geared to operating smoothly in a standardized, not customized way. Its priorities are automation of procedures and dimensional standardization of parts. A hand maker, on the other hand, is generally flexible and inefficient enough to do customized work in every place where it counts. This methodology is essential due to the innate variability of woods: two identically thicknessed guitar tops can differ by as much as l00% in density, 200% in longitudinal stiffness and 300% in lateral stiffness. Bracewood also varies as much and further compounds the possibilities of mindful wood choice and use. Therefore, while certain components in handmade guitars may be roughed out to approximate dimensions in batches of 4 or 6 or more, the selection of these components, and their final dimensions in the assembled instrument, are done on an individual basis: this top gets those brace-blanks, which are then pared down to that height, which depends on the stiffness of the braced top, its tap tone, and the judgment of the luthier as applied to this particular unique instrument.

As mentioned above, the levels of skill, judgment and attitude among luthiers are variable quantities, some highly developed and some not, depending on how experienced and talented one is. In my opinion many hand makers today are insufficiently trained and experienced, and as a result many handmade guitars are less satisfactory than factory guitars of comparable price. Any luthier worth his salt, however, will continually strive to learn better techniques and improve his work, because personally achieved quality needs to be his stock in trade. He must be good in order to survive. The intent and skill level of factory work, on the other hand, tends to be constant and predictable and does not improve appreciably from one year to the next. Factory work is based more in using the best tooling and jigs available than in developing workers' skills beyond what they must have so they can operate the tooling efficiently and safely and do work that meets the standards set by the quality control department.

This is, in fact, the essential distinction between handmade and factory craftsmanship. The factory's craftsmanship is based in division and automation of labor: there is someone who is paid to do each step or make each part. He has to do it repeatedly, many times a day, at a level that meets the factory's criteria for acceptability. As often as possible, this specialist is replaced by a machine. The handmaker, in comparison, has to be adept at everything. He must spend years to master all the techniques and skills necessary to produce a high quality guitar, and, until he does so, his guitars will be of less than highest quality in some way. The need to perform every operation to a high standard is not unlike an Olympic athletic performance: make one single mistake and you fall short of the goal. To aim so high is an exceedingly demanding, and noble, effort.

7) Playability and action. Since factory instruments are assembled in large quantities, they normally almost all need fine tuning and adjustment before they come into the hands of players. Music stores in the United States often have a person whose job it is to set up all new guitars so that they are most comfortable for the customer. I don't know whether it is the same in other countries, but I'd be surprised if it weren't. Set-ups include setting the strings over the frets at a comfortable height, dealing with buzzes, calibrating intonations at the bridge, adjusting truss rods to the stringing, and whatever else needs to be done. Hand makers, on the other hand, will usually have done these things prior to delivery because, as far as they are concerned, a guitar that isn't as perfect as possible is not ready to be delivered.

8) Sound. The study of the factors involved in the production of tone teaches the instrument maker that small variations in structure in the right places can make important, specific, differences in response. Because there are so many places where one can take away or add a little wood, and because the difference between "a little more" or "a little less" can be critical to a specific aspect of tone, this study takes years. This is the level of work a hand maker engages in and strives to master. Ultimately, he will be able to make guitars which are consistent in quality and consistently satisfying to his clients. The factory approach, on the other hand, cannot spend so much time on any one guitar: its entire operation is based on treating all guitar assembly processes identically. Therefore all tops of a given model are equal thickness, all braces are equally high, all bodies are equally deep, and so on. Tone in a guitar is controlled by paying attention to specific qualities in the materials. Yet, the factory's focus on treating all parts uniformly bypasses these important factors. Because dimensionally identical guitar tops and braces can be twice the mass and up to three times the stiffness of their companions in the assembly line factory guitars are, essentially and literally, random collections of these physical variables. In consequence, their sound quality will correspond to a statistical bell-curve distribution where a few will be brilliantly successful, a few will be markedly unresponsive, and most will be pretty good. To repeat: a factory work's chief priorities and focus are production, selling and delivery. It is off the mark to compare this to a concern with making a personal best at something.

9) Durability. Here, again, the concerns a factory and a hand maker bring to their work are markedly different. And for perfectly good reasons. There is nothing wrong with a factory maker's desire to sell guitars to the public. But each member of this anonymous guitar playing public will treat the guitar with different degrees of care, use different strings, play differently, live in different cities or even countries with different climates, temperatures, altitudes and humidities, and will sometimes take their guitars to the beach or on trips into the mountains. These guitars must be able to hold up against these unpredictable conditions. It is the factory's concern that these instruments not come back to plague its warranty department with problems and repairwork. To ensure this, their guitars are substantially overbuilt. Hand makers are concerned with making sensitive, responsive tools for musicians who are fairly certain to treat these with some care. These guitars can therefore deliberately be made more delicate and fragile -- and this makes possible a louder, more responsive instrument. The factory cannot afford to make fragile, maximally responsive instruments: for every increment of fragility a certain predictable number of damages and structural failures can be predicted, and the maker would sink under the weight of warranty work. The hand maker, on the other hand, cannot afford to overbuild his guitars: they would be the same as the factory version but at a higher price, and they would fail to have that extra dimension of responsiveness which makes them attractive to the buyer. He would soon starve.

l0) Machine precision vs. the human touch. Machines will do the same operation, over and over again, to the identical level of precision; there are no bad days or sick days, and they don't get fatigued or depressed. Hand work, on the other hand, is forever shaped by fluctuating human factors of energy, attention, concentration and skill. For these reasons, most people believe that machines can produce faster, cleaner, more consistent and more desirable products for the consumer, as well as reducing the tedium inherent in parts production. There is much truth in this.

But also, it is a fallacy. This relationship between tooling and craftsmanship only applies in direct proportion to how the machines and operations are completely free of human intervention -- as is the case with computer controlled cutters, which are getting a lot of press nowadays. But as soon as any real workers enter the picture factories cannot escape from the same limitations of hand work under which hand makers suffer. This is shown by the fact that a factory's own quality control people can tell the difference between the level of workmanship of one shift and that of another, and especially when there are new employees. Anyone who has done factory work of any kind knows that personnel problems are the larger part of production problems. Naturally, no one advertises this.

This brings us to the fundamental difference in the logic which informs these different methods of guitarmaking. The factory way to eliminate human error and fluctuation is to eliminate, or at least limit as much as possible, the human. The handmaker's way to eliminate human error is to increase skill and mindfulness.

11) Is a handmade guitar necessarily better than a factory made one? No. Many factory guitars are quite good, and many handmade guitars show room for improvement. How successful a handmade guitar is, is largely a function of how experienced the maker is and what specific qualities of design or tone he is known for. No one ought to be surprised to realize that beginners will make beginner's level guitars, and that more experienced makers will make better ones: this is what makes the instruments made by an experienced and mature maker so special. On the other hand, there is considerably less significance to the purchase of an instrument made by a factory simply because it's been in operation for many years. Long, cumulative experience with the materials is not what they are about, and neither are improvements and advances in design which conflict with profitability.

l2) Are factory guitars any better than hand made ones? By the standards of the factory people, yes. They believe that high-volume assembly of premade and subcontracted parts produces superior products. At least one company advertises this explicitly. By the standards of the individual maker, it is possible for factory guitars to be better than individually handmade ones, for all the reasons outlined above. But, in general, factory guitars are "better" only in a limited sense of the word, also for all the reasons outlined above. I wish to emphasize again that handmade and factory guitars are each made with a different intelligence, with different priorities and for different markets. The luthier cannot compete with the factory on the level of price. The factory cannot compete with the luthier on the level of attention to detail, care and exercise of judgment in the work.

13) Are not high-end factory guitars, at least, better? From the view of the musician, no. They are much more extravagantly ornamented and appointed and also produced in limited editions so as to justify the higher price. And they are in general aimed at a quite different market -- the collector. For the average musician, the appeal of collector's guitars is blunted by the high price; and for the serious musician by the fact that their essence, soul and sound are produced under the same factory conditions and with the same concerns as any other product of that factory -- with comparable results: random variation of musical quality. But the collector has different interests. He seeks the appeal of rarity, uniqueness and "collectableness" in an instrument and his principal interests tend to be acquisition, owning and display -- not playing or using.

The collector's market of vintage and collectable musical instruments is not large but it is quite strong, and its continual hunger for new products helps drive the production of "collectable" guitars. Factories respond to the demand by producing and advertising limited edition guitars which have, for the buyer, the requisite appeal of uniqueness, scarcity, rarity, and high cost. There are individual luthiers whose work is sought in the collector's market. But on the whole the difference between factory's and a handmaker's collectable work is that the individual guitarmaker's collectable work is scarce by definition, and ends when he dies. A factory such as the Martin company can turn out limited and special edition collector's models for generations.

l4) A collaborative aspect. I like to think that an important difference between handmade and non-handmade guitars is the degree to which the process is one of collaboration. Makers want to find musicians who are able to appreciate how good their work is, and who can challenge them to do even better work. This is a fruitful partnership. The factory's needs are overwhelmingly to sell guitars, and usually prefer to form partnerships only with endorsers.

l5) How can one really know whether one guitar is better or worse than another? A key factor in the assessing of what is better and what is worse is the somewhat basic one of how educated and sensitive one is to the matters under examination. A discussion of differences cannot go very far without understanding this. The consumer is not merely a passive bystander in this debate but a participant in it, even if he doesn't know he's doing it. To illustrate, I want to give you an example of something that has happened to me repeatedly in my experience as a guitar repairman (and which I'm sure other repairmen have experienced as well).

A guitar player called me to report that his guitar, which had worked well for several years, was now not playing in tune. He suspected that the tuning mechanisms were worn and slipping, and he wanted to know whether I could replace these. I said yes, please bring your guitar to my shop. When the caller arrived I examined the guitar and found no problems: the tuners worked perfectly, the bridge hadn't become unglued, the frets and nut hadn't moved, the neck hadn't warped; the guitar was not in any way damaged or broken; in fact, everything was exactly as it should be. What had really happened was that the musician's ear had improved over time so that he could now hear that the guitar did not play in tune. In fact it never had; but he simply had been unable to hear the dissonances before.

Obviously, a guitar which plays in tune is better than one that doesn't; but if one is unable to hear this then it becomes a non-issue. With an improved ear, this man was ready for an improved guitar. This same growth of ability to see and hear in an educated and experienced way affects our ability to appreciate nuances of detail, subtlety, and quality. These are the very areas in which handmade guitars can differ from, and excel, non-handmade ones. But, until a player reaches the point of capacity to discriminate, whatever guitar he has is good enough.

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