Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology


How to build an acoustic guitar

Although I have played acoustic guitar for some time, I had never considered the prospect of actually building one myself from scratch. Then one of my co-workers brought in an acoustic guitar he had built using the guiding principles contained within WIlliam Cumpiano’s Guitarmaking. I was truly blown away by the professional build and tonal quality of his guitar, and was immediately hooked on the hobby. Widely considered in many lutherie circles to be the de facto bible for the novice guitarmaker, this book makes the whole experience seem far less intimidating.

Cumpiano’s book can be approached as both a comprehensively detailed construction manual as well as a structural framework for creative exploration. Taken in its most straightforward form, the book will guide you step by step in exacting detail through the entire construction process — from tool and wood selection, through to lacquering and final string-action set up — enabling aspiring luthiers of any skill level to produce a quality final guitar. Each task is broken down in an assembly line-like manner, and is prefaced with exactly which tools and materials will be required; everything down to the number and placement of clamps to the glue drying time is provided. There are also explanations of beginner’s pitfalls and invaluable tips on how to avoid them.

One of the most striking points I garnered from this book is that an acoustic guitar can be completely constructed with very minimal tools. In fact, the book assumes you have little or no access to power tools. I live in a small condo without any extra space or anything resembling a workshop. Although I had some previous woodworking experience, I had never used tools such as hand planes, cabinet scrapers, and paring chisels. Still, with the book, I was able to confidently take on the challenging and rewarding task of designing and building a guitar about the size of the previously-reviewed Martin OM — in my kitchen. You don’t have to blow through three weeks of vacation time to enjoy this hobby either. I’ve been working on mine fairly consistently, but also off-and-on for a year now (I expect to finish around Janurary 2009).

If you read with an open mind and are willing to research modern construction techniques on the Internet and learn from other builders, I found you can also take what you learn from Cumpiano and slightly improve upon the book’s construction techniques in a few areas — a caveat that even he mentions in the preface in the book, as lutherie is a constantly-evolving art form. For instance, there is a chapter about “pinning” the neck to the body that reads as a fairly complex task. However, Cumpiano subsequently invented a more modern “bolt on” approach that is significantly easier and more successful, and he has continued to provide his readers with these construction tips and details on his web site.

-- Steve Summerford 12/23/08