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Understanding a Hand Built Instrument

To begin with, let’s be clear about what we mean.  Our Instruments are truly hand built in the traditional fashion.  This means no routers, no shapers, no jigs (except for fret slots), no forms.  Parts and joints are free cut with hand saws and smoothed with spokeshaves, planes and scrapers.   These hand operations apply to stringing and marquetry as well.  Inlay is cut by hand.  The canals where they are set are made with hand cutters.  In the case of the headstock, the marquetry is shaded in the traditional fashion by dipping the edges of the tiny individual pieces in hot sand to darken them.  Bone parts are not purchased in blanks, but are hand selected for tightest density from the offerings of the local butcher shop, and then hand cut for each instrument.   In contrast, even high-end, one-man luthier shops today are heavily invested in machine protocol.  Often you can find more variety in the way of jigs and forms in some of these small shops than you will find in a production factory.  Does this mean they have lost their way?  Does this mean that instead of investing in machinery and forms, they should have invested time in learning how to use traditional hand tools?  No, we would not say that.  There are two reasons. First, the best way to learn the nuances of traditional hand built trades is in a traditional guild apprenticeship program.  Simply put, building in this way takes a higher level of skill, and as a result, a higher and more intense training than building with a machine.  It requires great sacrifice on the part of the apprentice, and in this day and age, from a financial standpoint, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  As a result, true guild apprenticeships, the training ground of the hand trades, have essentially ceased to exist. The second reason is the more important.  It is that while in the past, a hand built instrument had the reputation of superiority, when it comes to the actual ability of an instrument to produce beautiful sound, there is no essential difference between the two approaches.  The famous contemporary luthier Ervin Somogyi wrote an article on the differences between a factory made guitar and one built by an individual luthier.  He calls the latter “hand built” instruments, although he strains quite a bit in his explanation of how this term can be stretched to apply to instruments with parts cut by machines.  Still, if you care to read the article (here), you will see that the essential advantages of a luthier built instrument (care in the selection of materials, and adjustments to produce fine tone, for example) are independent of whether the instrument is truly built by hand or not. If that is the case, then the so-called superiority of one approach or the other has little truth.  The only advantage in a hand built instrument that we can truly claim is that the feel of the neck will seem more natural to many.  Human fingers are not “flat or radiused”.  Even this, however, is not an inherent advantage.  While I’ve never heard of it, machinery could conceivably be configured to give the neck a shape more contoured to the human hand. The real difference is in Aesthetics To begin with, a hand cut instrument will not have the precision joinery or the symmetry of an instrument built with machine protocol.  Inlays and marquetry are less perfect - less uniform.  The curves of backs and tops may lack perfect uniformity as well.  But as hard as it may be to understand this today, in traditional craft, the goal of perfect symmetry and flawless execution in joinery and detail were attributes that were simply not aspired to.  To begin with, they’re not realistic goals when working by hand, but even more, work of that sort was actually considered to be undesirable and tasteless.  Traditional craft had a different aesthetic. You can see it throughout all traditional hand crafts.  With musical instruments, it’s easiest to use the example of the best known luthier in history, Antonio Stradivari.  The tone of those instruments is legendary, and it is a tone that is easily called out.  They are considered by many to be the most stunningly beautiful musical instruments ever made.  Yet in any modern violin factory, a Stradivarius violin would be thrown in the dumpster. Stradivari, as with any true luthier, made a variety of instruments, including guitars.  His guitars would not pass quality control at, for example, the Taylor or Martin Guitar factories.  But if you were somehow able to show a Martin or Taylor Guitar to Antonio, after his surprise at the precision of the workmanship, he would likely tell you that these instruments were cold and sterile. There have been numerous theories as to why the Stradivarius violin has such a wonderful tone.  Those of us who are students of finish love to believe the theory that the magical sound is a product of a secret varnish formula - a tone that rises through the golden color of Cremona.  But there is always a bit of asymmetry in his instruments, and so another theory is that a truly symmetrical soundbox is subject to unwanted overtones, and that he never built a symmetrical instrument for that reason.  There may be some small truth in these theories, though I can’t see how either could be the primary explanation for the wonderful sound.  I personally feel the asymmetry may have been an aesthetic choice.  There is no doubt that in the design of the necks and heads, for example, the asymmetry was purposeful.  The grace and beauty of these elements is often cited as a mark of his genius, and his craftsmen were of the highest order - in other words, execution in these areas that would be considered defective in a modern factory, were purposeful aesthetic choices in the shop of the master. Traditional craftsmen have alway followed this path.  Our instruments are built this way as well.  To give two examples of this traditional aesthetic, you will not see our headstocks uniformly cut.  One shoulder may slightly higher than another.  Of the two points in the center, one is often higher, or at a slightly different angle.  In addition, the next instrument will be asymmetrical in a slightly different fashion.  You will not see two different instruments that are exactly the same. To give a second example, the same aesthetic applies to the bridge design.  They are hand carved bridges, and the design is one of the most beautiful and elegant I have ever seen.  The center portion, however, is never exactly in the center - the wings are not always exactly the same length.  Again, these are purposeful choices, and again, seldom is one bridge made like the next. If you are like most buyers, when seeing an instrument for the first time, you notice it’s looks to begin with.  Generally you see the form, the woods, the finish.  You pick it up and feel it, then you play.  There are also aficionados of the modern aesthetic who examine an instrument in minute detail, looking for imperfections.  With machine work, of course, these imperfections would perhaps be a sign of some sort of carelessness.  In older times, people concerned with these things would also examine a fine instrument in minute detail, looking for signs of imperfections, hoping, however, to find them - to know, then, that their work was indeed done by hand.  Our work will always fall into the latter category. Perhaps you may feel that if the advantages of a hand built instrument are so slight in terms of function and sound, it is simply an affectation to still build this way.  Many obviously take this point of view.  It is why there are almost no hand built instruments available in North America today.  But in Latin America, the old aesthetic still reigns.  Family businesses are still common, where the knowledge and skills of traditional handcraft are passed down from one generation to the next.  The men there who still build in the old fashion take great pride in their abilities.  And the tradition is kept alive there because their customers, the players of Cuatros and Guitars who see their instruments as part of a society where hand work is still felt to be a vital aspect of the culture.   People there simply don’t look for or want the perfection of a machine cut instrument.  They want to be able to say that their instrument was built “a la rustica” - in the old handwork fashion.  Anything less is somewhat of an embarrassment.  They also, of course, posses great pride in the quality of those instruments, to the point where many of the builders will tell you that even the Spanish themselves now no longer know how to build a true guitar.  There are simply two different cultural views on this matter in the Northern and Southern parts of our hemisphere.  While both approaches can produce wonderful results, our instruments come with the Southern aesthetic.             
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