Luthier Work Viable?
I have for some time pondered going to learn the art of luthery. I have researched several schools and have a fairly decent background in wood working. I would like to mix several of the most enjoyable things I do, working with wood and playing guitar.
I have some concerns though. First and foremost, would I be able to make a living from this. The schools can range from 6 months to 3 years and cost 15K+, offering different levels of certification or degree.
I know repair and set-ups will bring in a few bucks, but what could one expect?
Anybody out there with some knowledge of this profession?
I am also concerned about supply. With the decrease in supply and the rocketing cost of wood, will it be just the bigger companies be able to afford the cost of building guitars?
It probably won't be enough for a full-time gig. The guy I use works on guitars at night and the weekend - around his normal job. It is possible to make a living do this stuff - and undoubtably the school you go to will have great advice and assistance to help you get started - but my gut tells me that this is a part-time gig.
"If the moon were made of ribs, would you eat it?"
Clearly there are people today who are making a living doing just that (possibly interspersed with a bit of gigging and/or teaching).
Did you envision yourself as a "one man shop" making a dozen instruments a year, and doing repairs as customers brought them to you?
Here's one guy who is in my area who does that. Note that he also lives in a rural area where the cost of living is much less than in the city.
Or did you see working in a repair dept. of a store? That seems to be a viable career choice as well, though possibly not as fulfilling as being able to "follow your own muse" and building instruments from scratch.
Also, have you looked at the Guild of American Luthiers web page. On their links page they list instrument builders (who are members, obviously). Perhaps one is local enough to you that you can go and chat about the viability of a career in lutherie.
I wrapped a newspaper ’round my head
So I looked like I was deep
I am clearly interested in making instruments; although, I know the repair will be an important part in creating some extra cash flow. Obviously, just doing set-ups would not warrant spending 15K+ tuition.
I would absolutely love to have a small to medium size shop (I have a huge garage ready for conversion) and do all of the above.
I ask because I spoke with an older gentleman who is a luthier and asked if he was taking on pupils. He said he is not really in the business anymore because he couldn't make a living. I did not have the chance to go into it in more detail with him, so I came here to ask or get a feel for its viability from those who may need are have used the services of a luthier before.
I have to ask the question, why one couldn't make a living? There doesn't seem to be tons of luthiers around and it is a skill and art. Perhaps some of the lack of success is lack of marketing or making your work known. I fully don't expect I open the shop and there will be people waiting around the corner.
Open question is: how many people here bought a guitar from a luthier, have taken their guitars to luthiers to be fixed or adjusted? And maybe chime in on your experience.
I've owned two luthier made guitars, and I've taken several to a luthier for work. I know fewer luthiers today than I did 20 or 30 years ago, and I think it IS getting harder to make a living at it. There are lots of reasons; two are real big ones IMHO.
First is comparative value. Not too many years ago I was telling students that they should spend $300 on a first acoustic guitar - guitars that cost less generally didn't have good workmanship. If you wanted good materials too, you needed to spend about $700.
Today there are a number of $100-150 dollar guitars that have consistently good quality. Factories have become highly automated, and CNC machines do it the same way every time. On top of that, the new factories are being located in places like Indonesia, where the CNC operator is making $20 a week instead of the $20 an hour they'd expect here.
Since the price of a decent "starter" guitar has fallen by 50-70% - before adjusting for inflation! - the relative price of a luthier-built guitar has soared. Maybe 10 years ago you could get a luthier guitar for roughly triple the cost of a reasonably good factory instrument. Today I'd put the luthier one at about 10 times the cost of a good mass produced model.
Some people will always see value, but relative cost has an effect on the market. Imagine how many more cars Rolls Royce would sell if the price was $60K instead of $200K.*
But luthiers can't afford to drop their prices, because of the second reason: rising costs. As more factories use automated tools, there's less demand for hand tools... which means less hand tool <i>makers</i>, which means much higher prices. Tonewood cost is rising - a nice blank for a top might set you back $200 at times. Rents are going up - commercial space by me now runs about $5-6 per square foot for industrial, and $20 for retail. Not too long ago space costs here were about half what they are today.
I don't see the space situation changing soon, either. The last time I'd rented a storefront I dealt with the building owner. I've been looking at retail space lately, and I've seen only one building that an individual owned - most retail spaces in my market are now owned by REITs (investment corporations). There's not a lot of bargaining power - they're willing to let a store sit idle rather than take less money, for a bunch of complex reasons.
For the luthier, the squeeze is on. Each guitar represents 100+ hours of work on average (maybe 200 for a beginning luthier). If you work long hours, you might make a couple dozen a year. If you've got a great reputation and marketing, maybe you sell them for $10K each - so you gross 250K. Materials will eat up at least 10% of that, rent another 5-20%. Don't forget heat, electric, taxes, insurance, advertising, etc. - maybe you end up with 100K a year.
To make that 100K you're permanently investing 20-100K in tools, maybe 20K in inventory (wood, mother of pearl, tuners, etc), and you've probably got at least 30K in fininished instruments - which hold your investment in materials, labor, and overhead - hanging on the wall. So you're either borrowing a lot of money (and paying rising interest rates) or you're losing investment income.
Those are best-case numbers. In reality, you won't get 10K average, you will have more unsold inventory than you planned, and your costs will be higher than expected (you'll make the occasional mistake no matter how good you are). So a self-employed luthier might make 50K. If that's what the boss makes, the luthier-employee makes less - I'm guessing 30K.
I know two luthiers who make a really good living. One has a retail store, so he gets additional income from picks, strings, books, commercially built instruments, and renting studio space to teachers - and he's in enough demand after 30 yrs in business that some of his customers drive 300 miles for repair work. The other guy is in a really cheap industrial building with a lot of space, and no retail store. But he does pretty well...
by teaching luthiery! :)
Believe it or not, I see light on the horizon - for my grandchildren. My crystal ball tells me that eventually oil prices will drive shipping costs high enough that local craftsmen will again be economically viable, whether they're making guitars or baking bread. But I'm guessing that day is probably 30-50 years out, maybe a lot more.
*Side note - Lexus seems to do OK by hitting the middle market, and guitars don't have that option. A luthier with deep financial backing might do OK by importing parts and doing only assembly/finish work. Make 20 times as many instruments at 1/3 the retail, and the numbers might work out in your favor.
Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL
Thanks for the lengthy reply Note. You made some valid and interesting points.
A comment, and a suggestion ...
The comment first: I'm busy reading the September '07 Acoustic Guitar mag and you wouldn't know from reading it that there aren't many luthiers around anymore! The ad pages are choc-a-bloc with ads of every size for luthier-made guitars. There must be some kind of market, or would they still be there?
The suggestion: Have you tried buying kits and building them? It's cheap (Martin kits run less than $500) and doesn't require more than you might find at Home Depot to do. It might be a way to start out in your spare time and see what market you can find?
If wood working is a hobby of yours and you already have the tools you need, then you can make a guitar or two each year to start building your reputation. After a few years you will maybe have built the reputation to start making money at it.
The other way is in doing the maintenance work.
I know a couple of luthiers who do really well, but they make very few guitars, mostly they do repairs on factory made guitars. They service a couple of local guitar stores needs -- basically they drive over, pick up, and deliver, but the volume of work they can get doing refretting, setups, neck replacements, etc., is enough that they make a living at it.
Neither of them are rich. But they do well enough to pay the bills.
"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." -- HST