According to Google’s currently featured result as of 11/1/2021, the definition for the word luthier is as follows:
Luthier: A maker of stringed instruments such as violins or guitars.
But is it really all there is to it? This post will dive deeper into all of the requirements to become a Luthier and other important aspects of the profession.
Whether you’re simply curious about it or trying to decide if this is the path you should take, we’re positive that there is something for you in this article.
The origins of the term
The word derives from the French word for Lute:
The Lute is an old instrument that gave origin to the modern acoustic guitar as we know it today.
Though the name was used initially for lute makers only, its meaning expanded to name all stringed instrument makers, like violins, cellos, and others.
What do I need to become a Luthier?
In order to become a luthier, there are a few things that must be in place. They range from actual skills to proper installations and machines/tools:
Working with wood has been a very common profession since… well, nobody can say for sure, but it’s a very old one.
Working with wood requires expertise. Wood is becoming increasingly expensive, and some types that are ideal for building instruments are becoming rarer as time goes by.
Understanding of the material characteristics such as
Rigidity, porosity, how it reacts to cuts/sawing, sanding, painting, finishing, and all chemicals involved in the processes… not to mention how every type of wood reacts to environmental changes and most importantly, have an impact on the final sound of the instrument is essential to achieving good results and avoid ruining good wood pieces.
There’s no way around it, when starting out, it will definitely be a steep learning curve full of mistakes (sometimes expensive ones) until the apprentice learns what’s best.
But in the end, seeing the beautiful end result that you’ve worked so hard for being played by good artists, and sounding awesome will be well worth it.
Right tools, supplies and knowing where and how to use them.
Every stringed instrument is different from the others
Most luthiers will want to build more than one kind at a certain point.
A Luthier will need power tools, hand tools, and the right supplies to build guitars, bass guitars, violins, and others.
Having the woodcut to the right shapes, assembled, and finished perfectly results in something that isn’t of much use, musically speaking. I mean, you can tap and knock on it and make a beat but… you get the idea.
Luthiers will need:
Power Tools like Bandsaws, Router Tables, and Spindle Sanders are essential to achieve a good production rhythm with consistent results.
Though it is possible to make instruments using only your hands and manual tools, it is certainly way more difficult and time-consuming.
But that’s how it was done long ago, and it certainly rewards those who are patient enough to become skilled at it.
Top-notch, custom hand-made guitars can be sold for astronomic figures.
Supplies and parts
Think about everything that makes an electric guitar: Strings, Tuning Machines, Pickups, Frets, Bridges, Jacks, potentiometers, nuts, electric wires, paint… The list goes on and on.
Soldering Irons, screwdrivers, chisels, files, sandpaper, hand saws, rulers, pencils, clamps, rubber hammers, glue…
There’s seemingly no end to all the aids a Luthier will need to complete different projects with different requirements.
A Business-Oriented Mind
Though many choose to start building string instruments just for fun, offering luthier services can become a business just like any other.
If the Luthier desires to achieve commercial success, taking care of things like:
- Researching the market beforehand
- Having a proper location and facilities – To accomodate woodworking machinery, tools, and clients.
- Calculating costs and revenues
- Taking care of advertising and marketing
These should all be well planned and executed.
Building decent musical instruments isn’t cheap. The professional should aim to cover all of the costs, including their time and expertise, to make the business grow and make a living out of it.
You can be the best luthier in the world, but without professionalism and exposure, people won’t know you’re there or won’t be willing to do business with you.
What makes a good luthier?
To make valuable instruments, a good luthier should understand what musicians are looking for.
Build quality and “personality of the instrument”
Instruments that stand the test of time, and satisfy the taste of musicians taste have a few similar qualities:
- Comfort and playability – related directly to anatomic properties, meaning the way they fit the user body, and how pleasing it is to perform on it. A rough guitar neck with frets standing out won’t get you many fans, for example.
- Design and finish – Good-looking instruments look good =) – Being creative or following industry standards are two different paths that will need careful planning and flawless execution.
- Characteristic tonal properties – A Les Paul has a different tone from a Stratocaster. Sounding good while allowing for the artists to express themselves to their fullest should be the goal of every aspiring luthier.
- Good quality hardware – The best wood in the world won’t make a guitar sound good with cheap pickups. Guitar hardware can be expensive, and usually, the better it is, the more it’ll cost.
Do luthiers make good money?
The answer ultimately depends on the market for building, repair, and customization of string instruments where you live, mainly because it is a type of business that people like to do in person (taking the instrument physically from/to your shop).
The electric guitar has certainly seen more popular days. Researching the market in your region prior to starting is a very good idea.
Not only that but the revenue will also be tied directly to the quality of the instruments/services that you offer. The better your work is perceived by customers, the higher your prices should be.
What is a luthier salary?
A very broad estimate is around 30k for a year, in the United States.
This will vary drastically depending on where you live. But as a general rule, prices have been increasing for the past few years. Instruments and repair services are becoming more and more expensive.
What are the skills of a luthier?
First and foremost, a luthier should have some musical knowledge. It’s not necessary to be a very highly skilled player, but having intermediate music knowledge and playing abilities are essential.
Knowing musical styles and having a general understanding of what each one requires in terms of instrument capabilities and setup is essential to satisfy every type of musician out there.
Otherwise, the professional won’t be able to communicate properly with their clients, to relate and understand the requirements for each project.
Other than that, a luthier will need to develop skills such as:
- Knowledge of instruments (brands, models, characteristics)
- Accurate Measuring
- Wood machining.
- Wood gluing.
- Knowledge of electrical components and connections
- Painting with spray cans
- Good hearing skills
What does it take to be a luthier?
To become a certified professional requires going down the path of formal education.
On average, a basic luthier course will be complete after 2 years of study and practice.
However, having a certification to be a luthier isn’t a requirement per se, but It’ll certainly bring more confidence to your clients, and help you to make your business legal and attractive.
Many luthiers start being apprentices of a more experienced luthier, and though they may be well instructed, they won’t have a certificate to show for it.
But there is no arguing that following a complete course combined with hands-on apprenticeship experience is the absolute best path to follow.
A Luthier school curriculum will cover everything you need in order to start a successful business.
In conclusion – What Does a Luthier Do?
A Luthier is someone responsible for building string musical instruments and will need to have the knowledge and tools in order to do it competitively.
Good Luthiers are responsible for creating really iconic instruments that have left their mark and sound all over music history, and some have revolutionized the whole concept of string instruments for generations with their creativity and building skills combined.
Modern musical string instruments result from very complex building processes, and it’s not a coincidence that the best instruments are also the most expensive.
But at the end of the day, being able to create dreams isn’t an easy skill to develop,
Regardless of other people’s opinions, it is a very rewarding activity independent of whether you aim to get serious about it or do it just for a bit of fun.