In order to talk about apprenticeships today it’s important to talk about apprenticeships historically.
Back in the pre-industrial days skilled trades made up the bulk of possible employments and occupations in societies. Actually, most of human history after the hunter gatherer stage was built on this kind of work. Semi skilled to high skilled work was what created what we would look at today as the middle class. Institutions similar to our universities have existed since Aristotle but instead of being gateways to good careers (as they are seen today) they were more for philosophers, astrologers and scientists. For most people though, it was trade work that offered a good life.
These trades were held together by guilds. Guilds had some similarities to unions in that they formed a cohesive collective and were responsible for maintaining education. The educational system of the trades was pretty crucial in passing on the tacit knowledge of a particular trade but was also irreplaceable when it came to instilling a trust between the public consumers and the tradesmen and women. When people hired a painter or carpenter they knew that that person had been through a systemized and rigorous education in the craft and depending on whether the person was an apprentice, a journeyman or a master, knew what quality of work, and what cost they could expect.
Because the trades guaranteed a decent living and quality of life, many families, with not much other work to turn to aside from farming, were eager to pass their children off to a master craftsperson to be an apprentice. So the positions were in high demand. Nepotism, unfortunately, was pretty common but that didn’t mean someone outside of the family couldn’t obtain an apprenticeship if they showed some aptitude and work ethic.
Generally speaking, once you were accepted as an apprentice, you would devote the next 6-8 years of your life in servitude to the master craftsperson. It would be grueling work, long hours, and you would be responsible for the dirtiest and most difficult jobs in the shop. In exchange you would learn and most often get room and board. In the end you would be tested on what you learned. These tests were pretty standard throughout each trade. You would be tested on your ability to use the tools of the trade to replicate the work of the journeyman or master. This assured that you had learned all of the basics and fundamentals of the craft.
Once you passed this test you would become a journeyman. For another 6-8 years you would work under the master. The journeyman phase was more hands on work. Assisting the master in their projects while teaching the apprentices what they needed to learn. Basically the journeyman were the ones who did the bulk of the work in the shop. The master would design and do the very specialized high skill work while the journeyman did everything else and the apprentice kept things organized and clean.
When the master saw fit, he would test the journeyman. Usually this time you would be tested on your ability to design and create your own work, and on your ability to teach and solve problems on your own. Once the master was satisfied, you would then be known to the rest of the trade guild as a “master” blacksmith, or goldsmith, or carpenter, or whatever.
Obviously each trade had their own idiosyncrasies and particulars but this was the general format of the education of a skilled worker. It was rigorous, serious, ritualized, and it created very capable workers and a lot of trust within the community. It was through this system that prices were stabilized and the skilled trades were able to progress and make advancements as a whole.
It’s often said that advancements were stifled by tightly traditional guilds. But this is really not founded in fact. Its impossible to say that an advancement didn’t happen because of a guild because if it didn’t happen we would never know about it. The truth is, trades did advance, knowledge was gained, and the work being done by these tradespeople is work that millions of people still flock to see in various parts of the world today. Every church, cathedral, palace, town square with awe inspiring stained glass, carved stone and wood, guilded effigies and murals seen by tourist throughout Europe is a testament to the validity of the trade guild system of education.
Now, today we have a different situation. I could write all day about the history of how we got from then to now but maybe I’ll save that for a separate article. In a nutshell though, while there were benefits to the guilds there were also some cons. People like C.F.Martin experienced those cons and decided to move to America. Many others joined him and this is the beginnings of the story of american lutherie as we know it.
Luthiers in North America never created a guild system. This has really shaped the evolution of the steel string, electric, and arch top guitars in profound ways both in design and construction but also in business.
There are lots of ways to talk about this subject and lots of corners to explore but I will try to keep my focus on how it applies to luthiers entering the business and how it applies to the value of luthiers in terms of the market.
The track into lutherie has changed drastically. Instead of a 12-16 year long process of methodical education before one could be rightfully considered a “master” of the craft, now there seems to be three main roads into the trade.
1- Self taught. For a long time the industry was dominated by this track as there were no schools, very few books, and no internet. But today Its very rare and very difficult to find any success in such a high skill and competitive trade if you are self taught. But it does happen. With the internet, books, some natural talent and some kind of exposure to woodworking or metal working it isn’t impossible to build yourself a career in lutherie.
2- School. There are now schools dedicated to lutherie which in the scheme of things are a pretty new edition to the industry. In addition to full blown schools there are also a whole bunch of workshops and other sorts of “formal” educational programs. At this point many people choose to go straight from formal education into trying to run their own business or they find a job at a local repair shop. I look at lutherie schools as sort of a crash course apprenticeship. You learn the basics, but still aren’t really all that proficient.
3- Contemporary apprenticeships. The reason I preface this with “contemporary” is because I think its important to differentiate between the types of apprenticeships I have described above vs the kind that are typical in the trade today. Contemporary apprenticeships are usually given to those who have already been to a lutherie school. They are typically only one to two years long as opposed to the 6-8 years of the historical apprenticeships. In addition to these differences, there is also almost never room and board in addition to being non paid. Which means the barrier to entry relies heavily on whether or not you can afford (or your family can afford) to dedicate a year or two of your life to working for free for a maker who may live in an expensive city. Also, without a guild that provides some sense of structure, apprentices become very unequal in both their educational standards and also the commercial value they add to the young maker.
Keep all that in mind as I’ll come back to it in a bit.
There are some other big changes that have happened since the days of guilds. The one change I want to focus on is the cost of doing business. One of the reasons that the historic model of apprenticeship has largely been forgone is because “master” craftspeople just can’t afford the burden anymore. Sure you are getting some free labor but an apprentice requires constant tutelage as well. They also make costly mistakes. As the cost of doing business has grown its become harder and harder for a luthier who’s operating increasingly close to the bone- trying to pay rent, buy food, keep up with material costs, and just keep the whole ship afloat – to take on the burden of teaching somebody from scratch.
Its important to understand that just in the last 20 years, let alone the last few hundred, costs of being a professional luthier (true of any skilled trade) have skyrocketed. Rents, utilities, cost of supplies have all gone up. Wood, bone, and shell have completely inflated in astronomical ways. Brazilian rosewood has increased in price by something like 2000%. That means that if you are in your 20’s or 30’s showing your work at a guitar show, you are in the same room as builders who, when they were your age, paid upwards of 2000% less than you do for wood. Wages meanwhile have stagnated which means if you are trying to supplement your budding luthier career with another job it isn’t as easy. Not only have hard costs of living and business ownership risen sharply but there are more hoops to jump through, more zoning, importation and exportation regulations, stiffer competition, and with the digital era booming the competition is now global. Also automated technology has improved the capacity for mass manufacturing to compete on a high caliber level…. the list goes on.
One other big change is immediacy. If you look at someone like Tom Ribbecke, when he was my age he was slowly building his reputation doing repairs and building $500 guitars. It took decades for him to be known outside of his immediate region. That was the way it was for everyone and no one expected different. But today, young luthiers experience an immediate pressure to perform at a high level on a global playing field. This pressure comes a lot from that high cost of doing business. You HAVE to make sales because there is no room with these high costs not to. But also, from the standpoint of reputation and competition, its just impossible to really make it in this business if your instruments aren’t top notch right out of the gate. Thats a huge difference because it doesn’t allow for the long developmental process as a luthier – which previous generations had the luxury of having – to unfold.
The bottom line is that it is not the cottage industry it once was. It is TOUGH. Its for all these reasons that contemporary luthiers trying to build their businesses and reputations now, must have a strong command over every aspect of the trade and business.
It is because of all of this that I feel we need to take another look at the value of the historic model of apprenticeship and why I encourage younger luthiers to think twice about jumping out on their own so fast. This is really why I’m writing this article. The 3 main tracks, which I outlined earlier, just do not (generally speaking) provide a thorough enough education to provide someone the competency required to navigate the industry as it is today.
Now, let me pause here and differentiate something. I’m not talking about being a guitar maker. Building guitars isn’t all that hard. With some design sense, woodworking chops, a fundamental understanding and some luck you can build some nice guitars and make some sales out of the gate. But what I’m talking about is being a luthier in the true sense of the word. A guitar maker can have some success but that success can disappear just as quick. A luthier though has a much broader and deeper understanding of the instrument and as a result wields much better control over tone, design, and playability of many styles of instrument in addition to the repair and restoration of stringed instruments. That lends itself to longevity. Thats a true career in lutherie. And thats what I’m talking about here. The other aspect to being a luthier as opposed to a guitar maker is the trade itself. Remember, in the guild days the structure existed not just to benefit the individual craftsperson. It also existed to cultivate and stabilize the relationship between the craftspeople and the consumers and that is what the middle to upper middle class living that many tradespeople enjoyed relied on. A guitar maker is an individual whereas a luthier is a member of a community. A luthier exists as a point on a continuum that spans back hundreds of years and hopefully forward for hundreds more.
Will your instruments last 100 years or 10? Will they age well? Do you know WHY your guitars are performing like they are? There are literally hundreds of important questions you need to ask yourself when building fine instruments and if you have the wrong answers and you don’t know how to find the right ones, then your career will be short lived in such a competitive atmosphere. So, it’s important not to confuse sales and brief success with mastering a trade as dynamic as lutherie.
But it’s more than that too. This is my last important point. Its not just the instruments themselves that are going to carry you. To me, this is probably the biggest thing lost when we lack a more historical model of skilled education. The direct building of the product is only one piece of the puzzle. I can teach you how to assemble a stellar instrument in 2 years. But I can’t teach you how to run a shop, build a shop, market, talk to clients, meet dealers, man a booth at a tradeshow, build a website and web presence, create a brand, keep books, deal with taxes, order material in a cost effective way, source wood, or really deeply understand any of the more nuanced methods and techniques involved in instruments or voicing in 2 years. And you need all of that to survive in this business.
So, based on what I’ve learned about the historic way guilds operated, how I’ve seen the current industry operate, and what my experiences in lutherie have taught me, I’ve started to think that there is a more ideal track that I’d encourage folks who are really serious about this craft to take. This recommendation is not meant to discourage or disparage anyone who went about it differently. What I’m talking about though is how we become the best luthiers we can become, how we push the craft forward, how we start to regain some footing on the commercial stability of the trade as a whole and how we maintain a general well being for the craft. Because we lack a guild, it falls upon us as individuals to do all of these things and so as an individual amongst this community my recommendation is as follows if you are interested in a career in lutherie.
Go to a reputable luthier school. Study hard, listen, be humbled, and put just as much effort into sweeping the school floor and cleaning your room as you do learning how to use a chisel. Those skills that seem like they don’t matter do matter in the long run.
Once you graduate from the school find somebody with whom you can apprentice with. Its hard as the opportunities are far and few between but if you beat on enough doors and you are unrelenting enough an opportunity will present itself.
After a year or two year long apprenticeship with someone reputable, go get a job. Don’t start your own business. Go work for another guitar maker or a guitar company. Spend 5 years there. Learn as much about their process and procedures as you can. Use your spare time to start designing and refining your own instrument, build moulds, jigs, templates, buy wood, buy tools. Also use this time to go to guitar shows, meet people, network, talk to guitar players, listen to them and pay attention to what they want and don’t want in an instrument. Play every instrument you can. Find yourself in the world of lutherie. What kind of luthier do you want to be? What kind of instruments do you want to put your name on? Take this time to grow your skills and knowledge, make some money, and figure out if this is really the career path you want to stick with.
If, after this amount of time (which would be about 8 years or so) you are still just as passionate and determined to build your own instruments as ever, then its time to really dive in and start your own business building. You may still need or want to keep your hands in repair or building for others. Or you may want to just dive in full throttle on your own. But its only at this point, with that much time and experience under your belt, that I believe you will be capable of building the caliber of instrument that you need to build to survive in a business as competitive as lutherie is for decades. Remember, you can sell guitars without all of this. But keep in mind that selling guitars and building longevity are not the same things. A dealer who can get a handmade guitar from a new “luthier” for $5,000 doesn’t care if that guitar will collapse in 10 years. They just want to turn guitars around. But you should care because if you sell 20 guitars now that dont last ten years it could ruin you.
Again, this article isn’t meant as a judgment of how things are. I think there are many valid and legitimate reasons that people have for not taking the route I took or the route I am suggesting. I’m hoping this article works more as a conversations starter and some food for thought within the industry. My experiences and my interests have given me some perspectives on this subject that I think now should be shared. Lutherie has experienced some big transitions and changes in a very short period of time and without any forethought about the implications of those changes. Without a guild there is no protective system in place for a trade as a whole and no real guide for individuals. I’m hoping to begin a conversation about that so that as we move into the future, a future made even more complicated and difficult with CITES and similar legislation, we can maybe bring a little more stability into the trade with a more structured but still informal way of educating luthiers and creating and maintaining standards and consistency.