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The real costs of building a guitar...


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I tracked the costs of buying the parts and tools needed for my latest guitar build.  Now that I'm finished I thought I'd share it to give anyone thinking about this for the first time a realistic idea of how much it actually costs to build.

I'll caveat this a bit as I did already have quite a few tools and supplies, I already had:

  • Drill Press
  • Triton Bobbin Sander
  • Cheap Hand Plane
  • 8" table top band saw
  • Sanding Block
  • Router and selection of 1/4" bits
  • Straight edge
  • Fretting tools such as crowning file
  • Some sandpaper from 800-2000 grit

On to the costs.  I'll cover the additional tools and supplies first which cost in total ~£185:

  • 6mm Chisel - £5
  • Random Orbital Sander - £15 Lidl 
  • Fret Press attachment and 14" caul (used with drill press) £12.50
  • 18mm MDF for templates £45
  • Fret bender £27 - ebay 
  • 5 sheets each of multiple sandpaper grits from 120 - 400 - £11.50
  • Fret Rocker - £4
  • Mini triangular needle files (for frets) £1
  • Half round and straight cut bastard files and additional Mdf £34
  • 22mm Forstner bit £3.60
  • long 3mm drill bit (for trem claw screws) £4.85
  • 4 sets of Filters for 3m Mask (I now have loads to spare)- £13
  • Countersink bits £4.50
  • Notched Straight Edge £10.15 

Hardware and wood costs in the next post

 

 

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The hardware and wood cost ~£616 in total

  • Abalone acrylic backed shark fin inlays £10
  • walnut and maple Binding strips, with lots to spare £10 
  • 2nd hand Original Floyd Rose £85 - more on this one later
  • Flame maple neck blank £32
  • walnut off cut for accent strips, loads left over for another 2 guitars approx - £12.50
  • Truss rod £12.30
  • Stewmac Fret Wire £14.50
  • 5A Flamed Maple top 6mm £40
  • Gotoh locking nut £23
  • Gotoh tuners £37.50
  • side dots £2.50
  • Limba body wood £60.70
  • Neck Ferrules £3.75
  • Neck bolts, selection of different lengths £6
  • Strap locks £3.90
  • Battery box £2.05
  • Pickup Toggle switch £6.50
  • input jack £4
  • 3 x black metal knobs £9.45
  • Pickguard screws £2
  • Fat Brass Trem Block £19.50
  • Saddle Blocks £5
  • Floyd turbo trem arm £23
  • Brass trem claw £11.50
  • EMG Het Set pickups £179 

Whilst the Original Floyd Rose probably worked out a bit cheaper buying it second hand, I do believe it was a false economy.  I had bartered the seller down from £150 to £85 and thought I had got a bargain.  However, when it arrived the saddle blocks were all broken, with some of the brass saddle retainers missing on the saddles. 

Being 2nd hand the black saddles had wear and tear scratches through use.  The trem arm had a load of paint flaked off and the 2x locking nuts provided were cheap Chinese stuff.  Also the steel block was thin and I wanted to change it out.

Had I bought new I probably wouldn't have changed anything, but as it was 2nd hand I eventually spent another £80 0dd quid on getting it to where I'm reasonably happy.  Total cost £160 with the risk that it was a bad trem and also knowing that to get it perfect another £50-60 would be required to purchase replacement saddles.

So, I hope this information is useful.  Whilst it seems like an expensive guitar, particularly for DIY, I don't think I would get the same quality buying new unless I went to custom shop prices.  Guitars can definitely be made cheaper, one of my previous guitars I think only cost £250 but that particular one could probably have been bettered buying off-the-shelf instead. 

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That's some good reading!

My guitars have much cheaper hardware (sub 50 altogether) and many of the wood choices have also been inexpensive either from the local hardware store or the now closed outlet of a parquet factory.  Let's assume the total price for the woods and the hardware is somewhere between 100 and 150, that'd be close enough.

But then, the course I'm at is on Saturdays, 5 hours a day. It's about 150 for a semester making 300 for the winter. During that time you can build a guitar - note that a lot of extra sanding because of transport damage is involved! There's a whole lot of industrial grade power tools available, however they're not necessarily equipped for guitar building. For example there's four band saws, each of them having a narrow blade with lots of teeth per inch which means trying to get a thin slice out of a body blank without ruining the rest of the blank is a nightmare. There's also a large variety of poorly maintained hand tools. The chisels and planes are sharpened free hand with a bench grinder with the tip angles being all over the place. For delicate jobs many of us have bought some quality tools which add to the cost.

 

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wait... I know this one I know this one... the REAL cost is measured in units of time.  Given that I probably spend 60hrs (not well spent) noodling around with my design and changing my mind and what not... and given that each guitar I have built so far was a 'one off' that I had to spend 30hrs building templates/jigs for... pretty sure my real costs are a number that I don't even want to know!

honestly this is a great idea for a thread.  I freq post my sources on everything because I freq look at other builds and wonder where someone got 'x' and what they paid.  for instance, above - shark fin inlays - would love to know your source. 

I think once you get into the nitty gritty of what you actually spent your costs go up quick.  for instance, tool wear.  a whiteside bit is $45 shipped and my orig bowl bit (use it for everything) has lasted about 6 builds... and she's about done.  so that's about $8 per build right there.  could resharpen and maybe get 6 more out but that'd cost an hour of time plus some wear on a diamond file and it's not going to match the bearing as well anymore. 

plus little things like paper towel, acetone, mineral spirits, solder, wire, dust mask, electricity....

 

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For a hobbyist builder I'd say time is irrelevant. It's a sparetime hobby, not a job. If you go surfing, skiing, shooting, playing golf or whatever your hobby is, you don't count the hours spent as an expense.

If you build for other people for money, it's another thing. As a professional builder you're not only selling your skill set, you're also selling your valuable time to the customer.

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45 minutes ago, mistermikev said:

for instance, above - shark fin inlays - would love to know your source. 

I think once you get into the nitty gritty of what you actually spent your costs go up quick.  for instance, tool wear.  a whiteside bit is $45 shipped and my orig bowl bit (use it for everything) has lasted about 6 builds... and she's about done.  so that's about $8 per build right there.  could resharpen and maybe get 6 more out but that'd cost an hour of time plus some wear on a diamond file and it's not going to match the bearing as well anymore. 

plus little things like paper towel, acetone, mineral spirits, solder, wire, dust mask, electricity....

 

Yep, costs add up quickly without realising it on consumables.  

In terms of sources, this was practically an eBay build.  I tried to get UK suppliers but some things that wasn’t possible.  The inlays are on eBay: https://rover.ebay.com/rover/0/0/0?mpre=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ebay.co.uk%2Fulk%2Fitm%2F382536897930

the pickups came from Andertons and the Gotoh hardware from Axesrus.  Some tools like files and The MDF board were local from Homebase.

i tried tracking my hours but lost count after 50, I reckon that was half way through so could easily be 80 to 100 hrs on this one

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54 minutes ago, Bizman62 said:

For a hobbyist builder I'd say time is irrelevant. It's a sparetime hobby, not a job. If you go surfing, skiing, shooting, playing golf or whatever your hobby is, you don't count the hours spent as an expense.

If you build for other people for money, it's another thing. As a professional builder you're not only selling your skill set, you're also selling your valuable time to the customer.

I bring that up because people often don't factor it in when comparing the cost of their build to the cost of buying something off the shelf.  Seems perfectly relevant in that context.  Sure that guitar only cost him $800 in parts... but I bet it cost another grand in time because you could have earned 'x dollars' spending that time at your work... and just buying a guitar off the rack.

That said... when I go across town to buy a used set of pickups I often think "is this really a good deal?  $80 for two pickups that would have cost $150 shipped new but then $8 in gas and a half hour drive each way"... what do you figure your time is worth?  If I was at work that'd add 'x' onto the price of those pickups because I would work that hour and make that much money towards the purchase of those same pickups new.

EDIT: I have been accused of over-analysis from time to time...

edit/edit: where are my manors... thank you @willliam_q for the link above... also... you have an extra l in your name (hehe)

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26 minutes ago, mistermikev said:

but I bet it cost another grand in time because you could have earned 'x dollars' spending that time at your work.

Well, it depends on your work. It's not possible for everyone to work extra hours whenever they want. Be it because of local laws, contracts, lack of work to do or other possible reasons, in any case changing your leisure time to paid working hours is not always possible. I'm self employed so the working hour regulations don't apply but there's not much one can do when no-one calls for your services.

So counting your spare time hobby hours as lost income is not always valid. 

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Just now, Bizman62 said:

Well, it depends on your work. It's not possible for everyone to work extra hours whenever they want. Be it because of local laws, contracts, lack of work to do or other possible reasons, in any case changing your leisure time to paid working hours is not always possible. I'm self employed so the working hour regulations don't apply but there's not much one can do when no-one calls for your services.

So counting your spare time hobby hours as lost income is not always valid. 

think you might be missing the overlaying point.  not that you would actually work extra hours... but factoring into the balance what you would make conceptually if you just worked those hours at a job instead of having fun making guitars.  You also have to factor in x dollars an hour discount depending on how much fun you are having... and another x dollars for the benefit of the experience... and carry the one... yup t0tally worth it that I spent way more on building guitars than I would have to buy one!

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In my opinion your spare time can't be valued similarly to working hours. If they were equal, doing nothing at all should be valued as high as doing something productive you like and do voluntarily, voluntarily being the key word here. If we take your conceptual approach, even sleeping should have a price tag. How many bucks have you lost by sleeping one third of your life while conceptually you could have worked those hours at job? Same goes for eating, visiting the toilet, showers etc.

If there's no option of getting paid for the time used then there's no point counting the hours of your hobby.

-Today our course was canceled because our tutor was sick. So instead we visited my parents. Should I put a similar price tag on that visit as on the guitar building time?

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10 minutes ago, norm barrows said:

you' need to keep track of finishing costs - stain or paint - clearcoat or oil,    they can be significant.

Actually that’s a good point.  I forgot to include those.  £15 worth of stain from Crimson guitars and danish oil and black paint that I had lying around anyway.  
 

yes bling definitely adds up!   The next one hopefully won’t be as bad, thinking plain old straight up Strat style.  

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8 hours ago, Bizman62 said:

In my opinion your spare time can't be valued similarly to working hours. If they were equal, doing nothing at all should be valued as high as doing something productive you like and do voluntarily, voluntarily being the key word here. If we take your conceptual approach, even sleeping should have a price tag. How many bucks have you lost by sleeping one third of your life while conceptually you could have worked those hours at job? Same goes for eating, visiting the toilet, showers etc.

If there's no option of getting paid for the time used then there's no point counting the hours of your hobby.

-Today our course was canceled because our tutor was sick. So instead we visited my parents. Should I put a similar price tag on that visit as on the guitar building time?

I don't want to derail too much and I apologize for how much I have derailed already. 

wasn't the case here, but I freq see threads of partscasters or scratch builds where folks say "it's so much better and I only spent x" and I have the opinion that that isn't an accurate perspective because they are comparing their price for parts/materials to a price for an assembled guitar.   That's fine to have that perspective, but there's nothing wrong with factoring in your hours in that comparison either.  That's all I'm saying.  I think in most cases it probably works out pretty favorably because to get a guitar from the big boys that is a one of a kind and was built top-to-bottom by one luthier and hand made... would probably start at $3-4k.

that's just how I look at it and I promise not to force you or anyone else to see it that way (hehe).

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17 hours ago, willliam_q said:

The hardware and wood cost ~£616 in total

Sounds pretty typical for a one-off build for personal usage. Thanks for taking the time to tally up and share your expenses.

Note that (as I'm sure you're aware) the cost of your materials (wood, pickups, frets, bridges etc) and consummables (sandpaper, glue, paint etc) will go down if you can source them in bulk and/or at wholesale prices. This translates to a lower expense per completed guitar when spread out over more builds. But you obviously need to have more guitars in the pipeline to take advantage of it, otherwise you're just buying a box of 100 neck screws with only plans to use 12.

Another thing you can do is to save money is by purchasing guitar parts from cheaper sources where a premium part doesn't matter. You could pay $5 for a pack of four neck screws from Allparts, or you could go to your local specialist fasteners outlet and buy something that looks and works just as well for $0.75 each. Do you need mahogany sold specifically as a guitar body blank, or could you get a plank of the same thing from a local timber wholesaler for half the price? Does it even need to be an expensive timber like mahogany in the first place?

 

1 hour ago, mistermikev said:

but there's nothing wrong with factoring in your hours in that comparison either. 

As a hobbyist, cost of hours expended to create your guitar is a moot point. Unless you're building it to sell it, you can only measure the instrument's financial cost in the materials used to create it. @Bizman62's point is that you're using your free time to create your guitar, so there is no metric available to you to evaluate its worth other than the time taken to complete it, which to you has nil monetary value.

Measuring the number of hours expended is useful however, as if you do intend to sell your creations you can factor in how much you should charge for it. As you say, this should also include things like electricity for the workshop, insurance, wear and tear on tools, purchasing consumables etc, plus some kind of profit margin so you can actually make a living from doing what you do - buy food, pay for the home loan, fill the car up with fuel, go for a holiday once in a blue moon...

Once you start looking into what your hourly rate should actually be for building a guitar for a paying customer, it can be a bit of an eye-opener as to what you should be charging for a completed build. $3-$4K for a professionally-built, high-quality instrument probably doesn't go very far at all if you spent 80-100 hours creating it

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5 hours ago, mistermikev said:

they are comparing their price for parts/materials to a price for an assembled guitar.   That's fine to have that perspective, but there's nothing wrong with factoring in your hours in that comparison either.

I fully agree. Comparing the price of parts to a fully assembled guitar only can tell how little someone gets paid for the building job!

As @curtisasaid, the hours spent become more important when you're selling the instrument you've built. Even there one should take into account things like slower working pace compared to a trained professional or having pauses in the building process just because your income isn't dependent on that.

I'll add yet another aspect to the price tag conversation: If and when you're a hobbyist, you're willingly doing something you really like and it's supposed to make you happy so we're talking about therapy of sorts. Instead of building guitars you could spend the same time lying on the sofa of a highly paid shrink. Just think how much you save by spending those hours doing something you love! Again, this only applies when you're doing it as a hobby only, trying to make a living out of it requires counting every minute.

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this horse is undoubtedly dead... but like michael jackson I will 'beat it' some more.

I get bizmans point fully and I would assume everyone on this forum is here because they find building to have intrinsic value that is "worth it" for them.  To say that there is no point in considering your time as part of the value of that instrument unless you are building to sell it - well, we'll just have to agree to disagree. 

The orig focus of this thread is what is the "REAL" cost of building a guitar.  IMO the most expensive thing you put into it, even as a hobbyist, is your time.  After all, you only have so much on this earth.  You could have spent the time drinking beer or sleeping and that has value as well.  You could have spent the time with your wife watching movies.  Could have spent the time shooting sporting clays or making music.  You could have spent the time bullspitting with friends online (wait... ).  The parts/materials... those are just expenses... the real cost is your life.

If I want to compare the value of a guitar I just built to what I could buy from someone else... sure I have to factor in the amount of fun I had building it, the joy I get from showing it to someone and saying "I built that with my own two hands", the amount of relaxation it added to my life by forcing me to focus on it instead of what is coming down the pipe at work... but also the time I spent on it, the risk I took potentially lopping off a finger, the potential of ruining my back to the point I can't stand straight anymore, the reality of a wenge sliver... and least of all: the money it cost.

Surely you would agree that the "REAL VALUE" is not just the money you could sell it for?  So logically the "REAL COST" is not only the money you put into it but all your materials -including time. 

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Oh dear! I've never thought about losing parts of myself or my health as potential costs of building guitars.

That said, my back aches a bit, maybe due to the visit to my parents' - an hour's driving one way - or because of carrying the basket at the store after that as a wrong position can break your back even with a minimal weight. Life is a deadly habit!

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So going on this suggestion that time is not free...because I spent so much of it building then a lot of other stuff didn’t get done.

i didn’t cut the grass over winter and am dreading the first seasonal cut now in March because it’s so long

i didn’t lift the autumn leaves so now I’m hoping they haven’t stained the tarmac and concrete when I go to lift them on the next dry day available.

some necessary DIY hasn’t gotten done and because I spent £800 in total on this, that’s money that didn’t go towards a new bathroom for the house, or paying off credit cards, or replacing the oil boiler that is 35 years old.

The garden will now have to wait another year to plant autumn bulbs for spring flowering, something I’ve been meaning to do in the 4 years I’ve lived here!

so yes, I get and understand both points.  I can’t work overtime as I’m on a salary, any second part time job wouldn’t come close to hourly rate I’m on in my day job so that’s not worth the time, so any time and money spent on this is time and money I can’t work extra to earn...if that makes sense.

i do want to track time building though, whilst I don’t want to become professional, I’d like make more and maybe sell one or two For marginal profit as a means of justifying the number of guitars I want to build! 

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I agree with pretty much everything in this thread, though I guarantee you have spent more than you think - for some perspective, I used to save > 1/3 of my salary each month, since I started building guitars, I have saved maybe 5-10% so I have started keeping a spreadsheet as of this year.

The spend is pretty much down to acquisition of wood for future builds, investment in larger tools e/g drill press, drum sander etc and also more premium specialist tools like nut files. But the hope is that these tools will last me a long time and they will pay for themselves before too long. There are also the other expenses that would come under overheads. e.g my electric bill is double what it was before I started building guitars. However I am much more of a hermit now preferring to spend time in the garage woodworking than going out socialising/spending money. 

I only see the time aspect as important if you're building a guitar for someone other than yourself - but if you are building for others then it is an important factor because for factory guitars (certainly guitars built in Europe/USA with a high minimum wage) staff wages is always the largest overhead. Also wastage is a factor when producing on mass - When I buy wood from someone selling "tonewood" if it comes split etc and I can't use it, I send it back and get a replacement/refund, but when you're a factory churning out 100-300 guitars a day, problem materials just go in the bin until waste is audited, suppliers changed etc. On the other hand, I expect I pay 5x for a mahogany body blank what PRS/Gibson do.

Anyway, going off on a tangent. It's a fucking awesome hobby and I don't really care what it costs  

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Crimson doubled or tripled their prices for custom guitars since James took the lead of economics. Until then it was like "parts and woods plus some 500" for a couple of months' work, Ben asking for people to support him to feed his kids.

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