What is “handmade”?

I often describe what I do as building handmade guitars. Handmade can mean different things to different people, so I should probably explain the way I use the term.

There are some builders who build guitars entirely by hand, using hand tools. That means no power tools at all. They use chisels instead of a router, manual drills instead of a power drill, and so on. The process from design to completion is lengthy, but these luthiers report that it’s extremely satisfying. The speed that you would have to work at would make it more meditative and part of a certain approach to life. Violin makers and builders of acoustic and archtop guitars tend to build this way.

Some large-scale manufacturers will use the term handmade to refer to processes that include the use of a CNC machine. A Computer Numerical Control machine is a carving machine that is connected to a computer and CAD software. Design your guitar on a computer, and the CNC will consistently and reliably produce perfectly formed bodies and necks from wood blanks. These guitars still require a lot of handwork to complete, so the guitar can still be considered handmade despite the majority of shaping being done with the aid of a CNC.

I sit somewhere in the middle! While I don’t use a CNC, I do use power tools as much as possible. As far as I know, most builders who are not supplying to guitar shops are building this way.

With a modest selection of power tools, from floor standing pillar drills to hand held routers, it is possible to build a guitar in a reasonable amount of time and keep costs fair.

If someone gave me a CNC, I’m not crazy enough to turn it down! But I have to admit that I really enjoy the tactile approach of doing so much by hand. When I was working in an office and producing everything with a computer, I felt somewhat out of touch. Since I was designing as part of my job, I had to produce illustrations efficiently and cost effectively. While I would have preferred to paint and draw using paints, board, pencils, and so on, time and budget restraints meant that using an iPad was more logical. However, I missed getting my hands dirty, making a mess and handling real materials to create something that existed in the real world and not just on the screen. So handbuilding guitars is a solution to several problems.

At the moment my output suits the way I build. When space, time and production permits, I’ll be using a CNC to build guitars – by hand.

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