In Praise (and in Awe) of Luthiers

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Growing up, I remember that there were always a few dads in the neighborhood who were really good with their hands.  Of course, it seems that ALL the dads in the ‘hood could build a fence if needed, and probably a doghouse, or maybe a birdhouse.  But there were some whose garages were filled with mysterious machines and tools.

Some were mechanical whizzes.  They enjoyed working on their own cars in their spare time, and would usually be glad to help a neighbor get his or her car running like new again.  They could listen to a car, and know just what part needed to be replaced or repaired.  The inner workings of a car were nothing mysterious to these people – they had an innate understanding of the systems.

From what I could see, working with metal was a brute force affair.  The skills required were the understanding of the mechanisms, the ability to precisely measure what parts were needed and where, and if a part couldn’t be bought, then a lathe would laboriously force a piece of metal to be the right shape, and then precisely located bolt holes would ensure its proper and triumphant installation.

And there were woodworkers too.  Like the other craftsmen (I’m not being sexist – all the ones I saw were men – in the mid-60’s, women weren’t encouraged to explore their acumen with tools as such), they spent their time working in the medium of their choice – wood.

Wood is a more organic and temperamental medium.  The woods come from different kinds of trees, and each has its particular characteristics with regards to grain, strength, workability and durability.  You could brute force a cut on a piece of wood, but how well it will serve its purpose might necessitate a cut along the grain, or against the grain.  Wood requires feel, and finesse.

I took both metal and wood shop classes in Junior High (they were required, but I think I would have took them anyway).  I did learn that some training, and good tools can go a long way.  But I was never a “whisperer”, and the materials never whispered to me, either.  They just sat there, and never gave me a hint as to how to finesse them into objects of amazing utility or beauty.  I did make a jewelry box for my mom, and she had it until she died, so there’s that.

Then, as I got into music, I began to meet people who made musical instruments.  Not just facsimiles of musical instruments, but real, professional quality instruments.  They took pieces of wood, coaxed them into the right shapes and bends, smoothed all the right spots, affixed pieces together, installed frets, and bridges and nuts, and made beautiful, functional instruments.

Here’s the remarkable thing – none of the people I know who can do this will acknowledge that it’s magical.  They’re nonchalant about this sorcery!  “Oh yeah, I used bookmatched Martian Mahogany for the back and Venusian Spruce for the top.  Made a 21” scale with 22 fat frets on a Jovian Ebony fretboard – it was…interesting.”   They’re just as nonplussed about taking an instrument apart – another process I find incredible.  “Oh yeah, I steamed off the back, removed a squirrel’s nest and scalloped the braces, reset the neck, then threw ‘er back together – all before breakfast.”

They probably can’t remember a time when working with wood wasn’t in their blood…These are wizards – complete wizards.  And I admire the heck out of them.

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