Aesthetic design

 

In this video I’m discussing a few things I think about when coming up with a new aesthetic design or detail.

Staying true to myself artistically and creating my own style are both very important to me as an individual craftsman but also from the standpoint of business and branding.
We are never really truly inventing anything. Only just building upon what has already been done. But, the hope is that we can incorporate it and revision it in a way that allows us to make it ours.

The most important aspect of design is that you are creating an experience between the object and the viewer. That experience is what then translates into recognition of your work, brand awareness, potential sales etc.

I play around with some psychology in my design work. A favorite concept is the minds ability to fill gaps. I also like to create motion, dissonance, and focal points that guide the interest of the viewer or player.

Complete holistic design in instrument is important. A nice rosette is not enough… the rosette must tie in with the peg head, the end wedge, back strip etc… The design must be well thought out enough that it is consistent and coherent from all angles, particularly from straight ahead (as thats how most people view guitars from a distance) transitioning into playing position.

Another important concept of design for me, which is not mentioned in the video, is the wood. My designs are always meant as complimentary to the wood itself. The wood, is by far, more beautiful than anything I can ever design, so I use designs as a means of drawing focal points and highlighting wood features as best I can. Some believe that the best way to do this is with minimal design, and I agree in some cases. But, in other cases, I think design and detail elements can help frame the timbers beauty.

everyone has a different approach and this is one area where there is absolutely no right or wrong way. But this is a snapshot into my approach and I hope that it inspires.

Be well

Working with the clients budget

 

In this video I’m discussing the approach I take when working with a client who is committed to proceeding with multiple repairs that need done on a single instrument but would like to do those repairs over a few visits for the shop. Usually this is because of budgetary reasons but sometimes its got to do with timing and their schedule.

Basically, in situations like this, what I try to do is establish a sequence of repairs based on priority. You need to talk with your client and figure out what they are trying to accomplish and what their needs are in order to figure this out.

On this particular guild he brought it in because his under the saddle piezo was very “quacky”… it had a trebly and nasal tone to it particularly in the G, B, and high E strings.

After looking over the instrument I saw a few issues

  1. the bridge plate needed repaired. The ball ends of the strings were rising up into the rosewood plate. This can cause some odd harmonic buzzes, and rattling sounds well as make it more difficult to maintain intonation
  2. the neck was “underset” which means that the neck angle is coming in too low at the bridge causing a very low saddle. This means there is not enough downward pressure on the saddle piece from the strings (which can cause irregularities in volume and tone on the piezo strip) and it also means there is not enough torque on the active part of the top which is diminishing the acoustic volume and ton.
  3. The frets were in bad need of replacement and dressing. There was a lot o noticeable fret buzz up the board, particularly on the G string
  4. The client also wanted a new bone nut and saddle

After reviewing these things with the client he was sure he wanted to fix everything but didn’t think he could swing it all at once. So the question then becomes what to do first?

I look at two factors in this situation

1- What do I suspect is contributing to his problem (in this case, the “quacky” sound of the pickup) VS what do I know is contributing to it

In this case, I suspect the low neck angle and bridge plate damage is at least contributing to some degree to the tone he doesn’t like. But I know for sure that the fret buzz up the neck is definitely coming through his system and so that makes the fret buzz a priority. This of course is only because the neck angle is low, but not low enough to make the guitar inoperable

2- Which repair is going to offer the biggest noticeable improvement when the client picks the instrument back up.

In this case, a neck reset will improve the tone and volume of the guitar overall while maybe eliminating some of the undesirable tone he is getting from his pickup but he will still have a ton of fret buzz. So thats not ideal.
On the other hand, if I do the fret work first, at least when he picks the guitar up it will play much better, with no buzz, better intonation, and all that fret buzz that existed before will no longer be contributing to his pickup tone.

So by the standard of both factors, Bang for his buck and what I know VS what I suspect, the fret job becomes the priority.

I don’t expect it to solve his problem 100% but I do think he will notice quite a difference and then when he’s ready, in a month or so, we will go a head and do the neck reset and get the guitar back to being as it should be.

One thing I didn’t mention in the video which I should have, is that a lot of this process is about setting realistic expectations with your clients. The best I can do in a situation like this is begin chipping away, eliminating issue after issue and hoping that each time the problem becomes a little better. There is no way for me to know exactly what one things (likely its a combination of things) is causing the problem. It could very well be just the pickup system or the amp or a number of other factors too, which I also explain to him.

The point though is that I am being clear, explaining how all these issues are potentially contributing to his problem, and I’m setting realistic expectations like “we may get to the end of all of this and we find that it was the pickup all along… but if thats the case, you will still end up having fixed all these issues which are diminishing this guitars performance and tone”

So thats my approach, and so far its worked well. If you have a different approach or different ideas I’d love to hear them. please leave comments or shoot me an email.
Let me know what other topics you would like me to cover and I’d be happy to do so. Also please subscribe for more content.

Till then, thanks and be well!

F-hole design video up

I just uploaded a new video about f-hole design and binding. please check it out and I hope it is educational or some! Let me know what you think!

 

 

For those who prefer reading, I am basically talking about form following function in design here. The arch top guitar is historically prone to feedback issues. One of the main issues is the f-holes. You have a tall narrow bridge supporting a downward and uneven string load. As a result, there is a lot of odd movement in the bridge… a lot of back and forth movement and twisting. The bridge is being supported by the top right where the f-holes are cut. This creates a situation where the top actually can being to oscillate between the two points of the f-holes under the bridge and create feedback issues.

One remedy builders have used for this is to forego the f-holes entirely and move the sound hole somewhere else on the guitar (usually somewhere in the upper player side shoulder)

Another remedy is that manufactures have just beefed the guitar up with thick tops and back (or laminated tops and backs), beefed up bracing, added blocking etc…

This can solve the feedback issues (although sometimes it doesn’t), but it essentially renders the guitar electric. As a result many people now are under the false impression that the arch top is primarily an electric instrument.

One way we can solve the feedback issue, while keeping with the more iconographic f-hole, and while building a truly viable acoustic instrument, is to design more rigidity, stiffness and strength into the F-hole.

If you take a few moments to look around the internet at arch top f-holes you will probably find that many of them are not bound at all (the edge is just rounded over) or they are bound very minimally. Typically only one or two lines of purfling (if any) and a thin piece of wood or plastic binding. This is done usually to save time and effort because binding F-holes is one of the trickier parts of building f-holes. It just doesn’t make sense to most builders to take on the nightmarish task of spending 2 days binding f-holes with multiple layers of purfling and a thick piece of wood for something that is ultimately just an aesthetic feature which isn’t going to set you apart much.

But here in-lies the problem. The F-holes are not just an aesthetic feature. I view my f-hole binding as a structural lamination. Thats why I take the time and effort to always bind with a minimum of 3 layers of purfling, and the wood binding is at least .090″ thick. I also make sure the height of the binding is pretty tall. Instead of graduating the top carve out all the way to the edge of the F-hole I flare it up right before the edge so the binding remains taller.

This added width, the multiple layers, and the height add a lot of rigidity and stiffness back into the perimeter of the hole. Also, the added height means that the miters become functional joints instead of just aesthetic details.

The design of the f-hole depends on the purpose of the instrument and the tonal goals. On an instrument that is going to be played mostly acoustic and in small venues… maybe solo up to trio… I will keep the traditional open f-hole. IMG_4128

On an arch top that is meant to be more “traditional sounding”, percussive, with an airy sounding high end, , I will forego the binding to let it really move freely, close the hole down to restrict air movement and tighten up the top and I will run the f-hole back into itself so that it closes off by the top and bottom circles. cnfxz1yezit2vbrwzvav

on an electric guitar like a 335… I will design the f-hole to have a number of joints, directional changes, and I will use the binding as a structural brace.  (seems Instagram for some examples of that)

This all speaks to my philosophy on design… I believe that a lot of people approach design as aesthetic only but I think good design really comes off as aesthetic while playing a larger role. Solving a problem or serving a function in an eye catching, beautiful, unique package is really, to me, the mark of great design.

I hope this was helpful for you and you enjoyed the video. Please subscribe to this blog and/or to the youtube channel for more content like this in the future.
Till then, be well and enjoy yourself!

S

Why its crucial for young luthiers to think outside tradition

Let me preface this article by saying that it is my opinion that a luthier isn’t really a luthier unless they understand and have a pretty solid command over traditional techniques, build styles, and materials. I believe skilled trades work and move forward on solid legs because they are always stepping on the ground that previous generations have made solid. When someone who does not understand tradition tries to make improvements, there is a much higher likelihood they will be “speaking out of school” and end up creating something without a strong foundation. This is where, as a repairman, I see obscure guitars from obscure makers come into my shop with serious structural issues and design features which just don’t make a lot of sense.

Having said that, I think its important, once you have your feet under you in this trade and you have spent your formative years studying and practicing traditionally, that you begin to start thinking outside of those boxes. I think this is especially important for makers who are currently in the earlier stages of their careers. The reason for this is survival. The industry in terms of economics and in terms of natural resources has experienced and will continue to experience massive changes. It will become imperative for younger makers to adapt in many ways if they wish to have long term careers and if they wish for lutherie to remain a vibrant trade. Trends in music, ecology, the timber industry, climate change, global economics all play large roles in this business. To ignore the changes unfolding within those worlds is a mistake. To not be preparing yourself to move with the times is an even bigger mistake.

I’ve found it helpful to look to sources outside of lutherie for better understanding. There is a wealth of knowledge out there about structural integrity and various methods and materials in the worlds of – architecture, aerospace, sailing, golf clubs, fine art, auto and motorcycle engineering, and even fashion,  – that a luthier can pull from and extrapolate into better understanding things like string tension on brace structures, long term load fatigues and breaking points.

So with that said, I’ve put at least a moderate amount of effort in recent years into learning about, experimenting with, and ultimately implementing various alternative materials and methods. By no means have I re-invented any wheels or stumbled upon any seismic insights. But I think that learning more about mechanical properties and various methods of construction has helped me to de-mysticize some things and given me some confidence in the future of my craft. I’ll talk here a bit about some of the core things that I’ve learned and am trying to implement more of in my instruments.

First is material. There have been plenty of in-depth articles written about “alternative tonewoods”. I doubt I can improve upon them so I’ll just say a few things in this regard. Whether we are talking about tonewoods or structural components like pick guard mounts what we are really talking about is mechanical property. Mechanical properties (if that phrase is alien to you) are the empirical/measurable properties of a material like density, specific gravity, elastic modulus etc… These are the properties that determine how a material is going to behave under various types of loads, deflections, vibrations etc..

When we understand mechanical properties we get to an understanding of whatever material we are working with that is more reliable, consistent, and grounded than what we end up with when we use subjective adjectives to describe them. Its is more meaningful to say

“This piece of African Mahogany has a specific gravity of .53, a density of .63 (10^3 kg/m^3) and a modulus of elasticity of 1.5 MOE(x10^6 in/lb^2)”

Than it is to say

“Mahogany has a rich warm characteristic with a nice fundamental”

In contrast, that second statement (the one that really is the conversational default amongst instrument makers and buyers) is essentially meaningless. Its meaningless because it doesn’t provide substantial, objective information or data which can then be used in any meaningful way. At its core, the language used in the second statement is simply marketing. Its a flowery and poetic way to describe something void of any real technical info in order to romanticize the wood.

I’m not saying its never appropriate to speak in those terms either. Of course, we don’t want every conversation about instruments (particularly with clients or music lovers) to be an analytical run down of empirical metrics. But as builders, during the process of creating an instrument and choosing materials, it is absolutely a more fruitful way of seeing everything.

Importantly, understanding mechanical properties in this way opens the door to alternative materials. Because when we strip away all the history, nostalgia, iconography, and flowery language and are left with a simple data set as a guide, we can start to see that other woods we aren’t used to using, may have mechanical properties similar to or are even more desirable (in regards to our goals) than that special fairy dust wood from the far reaches of some unheard of jungle.

Mechanical properties are not the only things that matter about wood of course. They are measurable properties of wood… but there are some unmeasurable properties of wood and thats precisely, in my opinion, what makes wood special. There are chaotic elements within the structure of wood, and characteristics which, from piece to piece, can only be translated in a meaningful way by someone who has experience listening to and touching wood in the process of making instruments. A particular piece of wood for example may have a specific density when measured, but that won’t tell you about the size of the winter growth rings or the grain orientation, or any number of other factors which make wood wood. Understanding this is important because it helps us make decisions about when it is or isn’t appropriate to rely on mechanical properties or when it is or isn’t appropriate to rely on our touch and sight instincts. Carbon fiber may, from a purely empirical stance, seem like the perfect material to make a guitar top out of. But every time we do that we notice it lacks something. My take is that what it lacks is what is not measurable in wood.

Looking at mechanical properties and thinking outside of the box in my practice has led me to discover “rocklike” and other similar products which mimic ebony. Mechanically they are the same if not more superior than genuine ebony and aesthetically they look like the best jet black ebony out there. I’ve also begun experimenting using cherry as a neck wood (cherry has almost identical mechanical properties to African mahogany. Its a great, stable, and beautiful neck wood that is domestic and plentiful and almost nobody is using it. how come? Of course i’ve also opened up to carbon fiber, plastics, and other materials. I don’t see the need to use wood for everything. Again, if we strip down all the poetry and just look at properties, we find that each material has optimal uses and there is no reason why we should say no to plastic purfling, for example,  for no reason other than tradition.

Another thing that I have become increasingly interested in over the year is lamination. Lamination is simply a method of building up structures with multiple layers. I feel that a lot of people think of construction grade plywood when they think of lamination.  Construction grade plywood certainly is an example of lamination, however its really important to understand that its not the only possibility of lamination. Laminations are not all created equal. Some laminations are multiple layers of the same material glued together. Some have alternating grains. some are two skins (exterior layers) that house a core of a different material. Some have thick cores and thin skins. Some have thin cores and thick skins. Some are all wood, while others use wood as a core and steel and carbon fiber as skins. Some use foam core, or cardboard, or other more advanced synthetic materials. Thats not even touching the variances of adhesives and binding agents possible. The possibilities are really pretty endless and what you use will be determined by the goals of the object you are making.

For a long time in the world of manufactured guitars laminations were used chiefly to serve two goals.
1- cut costs. By not using solid pieces of expensive wood and instead using cheaper grade woods as the core materials and a better grade wood just as an aesthetic veneer- or in the case of arch topped instruments being able to get multiple guitars out of a piece of wood that would only make one carved instrument.

2- And in some cases to quickly and easily reduce feedback issues without having to dive into the world of individual voicing and nuance design changes to correct those issues.

As a result, I feel that the most common perception of lamination in guitars is “cheap”. But this just isn’t true. Lamination, as a method performed with goals of improving sound or structure, can be used to great advantage in high end hand crafted instruments. It just depends on how it is utilized.

The possibilities are endless but just to name a few of the ways in which lamination can be utilized in guitars

  1. Weight reduction without sacrificing strength
  2. increased stiffness, strength, and flatness of sides
  3. increased stability of less stable materials
  4. generally increase stability over time (less potential for cracking)
  5. Increase strength of components like arch top tailpieces
  6. add stiffness and load bearing capabilities
  7. reduction of excess waste of increasingly rarefied materials (ecological)

Those are just some of the benefits I know to be true of laminations depending on how and where on the instrument it is utilized. But there are probably many more potential benefits of incorporating lamination as a method.

Many woodworkers attribute the increase in attributes like strength and stiffness of laminations to things like the adhesive, grain orientation, and evening out of wood defects over many layers. But whats often not discussed is the basic physics of laminations. Its worth understanding at least in laymen terms, how the neutral bending plane (or neutral axis) functions in regards to sheering, compression, tension, and load in order to best utilize lamination and not mis-utilize them.

I’ve been laminating my sides now for 2 years and I can’t see myself ever going back. The process laminating is more labor intensive than just bending a solid side set. There are some additional steps. But in the long run I believe its a time saver because there is less fighting with the sides in the mold (once they are laminated they are rock solid and don’t move around on you), they are dead flat which means less finish sanding, they keep their shape for ever, and it allows for less internal structure like side stiffeners. I’m also experimenting with different ways of laminating tail pieces and pick guards for my arch tops which will minimize my use of hard woods, and ultimately give me more stable and stronger pieces.

The last thing I have time to talk about here is resins and epoxies. Chemistry in this field has evolved tremendously over the last 50 years. Its really a fascinating but somewhat overwhelming world for someone who doesn’t know much about chemistry (me). But I’ve found, through a lot of experimenting, that there are a lot of very neat things, both aesthetically and design oriented but also structurally, that can be accomplished with the use of various resins and epoxies.

I think the most notable advantage we have now is that resins offers us the ability to use woods that we previously wouldn’t have touched. Woods that are very burled, spalted, punky etc… would have previously not been of much use to instruments makers because of their lack or stability and workability. But now, particularly in electric guitar and aesthetic appointments, we can stabilize these woods through the use of resins and turn them into useable and beautiful pieces of wood.
Structurally, I’m still a fan of hide glue, fish glue and the occasional application of wood glue. But for particular things I find that epoxy really does offer some great advantages. I think its important not to over use it because I do believe its application is pretty limited in instruments. But I use it a lot for things like installing carbon fiber, various laminating, and sort of the hidden structural elements I never want to come apart. It also offers some interesting pour filling and finish options.

Anyway… I’ve now spent too much time writing what was supposed to be a short little blurb. I have to get back to work. The three things I mentioned in this article really only scratch the surface. I didn’t talk at all about bamboo which I think will play a big role in instruments down the road, finishes, CNC, or metal. But the point here wasn’t too get too specific or technical, it was more to just bring attention to the importance of opening your doors to what is still considered “alternative” materials and methods of building high end hand made instruments.

I will just close by saying that I think these areas are all worth exploring if you are a young luthier interested in a long career in this craft. I believe that the future of lutherie is going to depend on a nuanced balance between tradition and modern and the smart utilization of “alternative” materials and methods. Not only for ecological reasons but also because, in many of these cases, it just makes for better outcomes. But the ecological pressures is the thing that will force the hand no matter what and I think its better to be prepared for that forced adaptation than to be caught with the pants down.

The real challenge is changing the mindset of guitar buyers on some of these issues… educating them on the advantages and trying to shift the conversation of woods away from the “bell-like chocolatey response and velvety mid range” of a rarefied and increasingly unethical timber to the “very desirable modulus of elasticity and density of this very stable and ecologically more available domestic hardwood”

Cheers and keep the digits

 

 

 

 

 

Branding

 

bitch

I recently gave a lecture at the A.S.I.A. symposium on the challenges of building a career in lutherie. During that lecture, I touched on several things which I will put down in article form in the coming months. I wanted to touch on one subject though that seemed to generate the most questions and confusion from my audience. That subject is branding.

What is branding? Why is it important in contemporary lutherie? How can you improve your branding?

Of all the non-instrument making skills that are required to make a successful business in lutherie (bookkeeping, marketing, networking etc…), branding is probably the one that I have the most natural interest in. I never studied it formally so keep in mind that my ideas on branding come more from intuition and experience. I’m no expert and am always trying to improve in this area, but I do seem to get regular compliments on this part of my business. So, I figured I’d share what I do understand about it.

The first thing I need to point out is that marketing is not branding. Marketing is part of branding, or more specifically it is a tool for branding.

Branding at its core is simply story telling.

A brand is a mental object, or an icon, that tells the story, and conveys the ethics or driving forces, behind a company. A good thing to research on your own is marketing archetypes. Understanding them can help you a lot in defining and understanding your brand.

So, let’s look at a company that I think has excellent branding. I started following Westerly Richards and Co about 2 years ago on Instagram because of their branding and because I loved all the detail work on their guns. That right there is the first thing they do well. They bring people not interested in guns into their world through their branding. Great photography, but more importantly consistency. If you scroll through their Instagram feed you will see that not only are the photos of their work exceptional, but that the entirety of their page has a very distinct look and feel that is created through consistency from post to post.

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This attention to detail, consistency, and feel conveys a story of craftsmanship, history, luxury, art, expertise, and value.

If you then visit their website https://www.westleyrichards.com , that vibe remains consistent. So now we have multiple platforms through which they are conveying the same story. On the website, you have access to new content, like the biography of the company, shop tours etc… but the feel of it all remains the same.

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In the end, after spending some time visiting their site, Instagram feed, and watching videos on YouTube, you are left with a very defined feeling. This company has a rich history of excellent craftsmanship, they build some of the finest rifles in the world, they have exclusivity and rarity, they are experts in their field, and despite not being into guns or hunting, I want one. Most importantly, they have conveyed all of that without saying any of it. That is brilliant branding. Again, the big thing here is consistency. The photos on their own are examples of nice product photography but that’s it. But taken together from Instagram to show room, it builds a story and definite feeling through consistent messaging.

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This is a shot of a showroom in their factory. Notice that it is consistent with their online image, their history, story and attention to detail.
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This photo (and its placement on their website) tells a story of late nights, craftsmanship, skilled labor, attention to detail, and community.

It’s possible you may think this is too involved. That its overkill and you don’t have the budget or need for that kind of marketing campaign. You may also already be getting sales and so don’t see the need for all of this from that angle too.

The question then becomes, why is this important? Well, branding, like any good marketing has a goal of driving sales. Any business owner who doesn’t want sales probably shouldn’t own a business. But branding is more than a sales driver. Branding builds long term and sustainable value. It also, counterintuitively, doesn’t have to cost all that much. With social media, access to high quality but affordable digital cameras, and a little research, a lot can be done very cheaply to create a meaningful DYI brand.

In the world of lutherie we have a few companies who really exemplify the power of branding. One that stands out to me, as an arch top maker, is a company who has built a business off the name of a famous arch top guitar maker.

There really is no existing strand of continuity from the original maker and the company today. They build instruments that he didn’t build, his family has been bought out of the equation, the company has gone through multiple renditions of production in multiple different countries, and they have deviated from his designs in ways that I doubt he would have. And yet… they carry his name, some signature design elements, and sell instruments for extraordinary prices. Why? Branding. This is an example of how storytelling, consistency, and iconic imagery can create so much value in a brand that it even supersedes the namesake and founder themselves.

So, therefore, in addition to driving sales, its worthwhile putting some effort and thought into building a solid brand. Because the value added to your company through good branding can open a lot of doors for you in the future in terms of your ability to expand your business, stabilize revenue, generate interest, and if it’s something you are ever interested in, it could even potentially give you a way to sell your company and retire (not that most of us have that goal).

Ok, how do you do it?

First and foremost, you must be genuine in your branding. If you were creating a cola company I’m not sure this would be as necessary. But in a creative industry such as lutherie, where your clientele tends to be well educated about the craft, and who tend to want to interact with you a lot throughout the process, it becomes imperative that your brand is built on a foundation that is genuine to you as a person, your philosophy as an artisan, and your products. If you try to build a brand that inflates some trait you have little of or fabricates some aspect of what you do then it will all collapse eventually.

From there, without making it more complicated than it needs to be, to start building a brand you need to sit down and think about what aspects of your personality and your personal story are intrinsic to your craft. Then think about what you want people to understand about you and your instruments. What message are you trying to convey to people? What do you want to be known most for? And if you could fast forward 100 years and look back on your career what would you want to stand out to people?

Maybe you want to be known for your artistic creativity. Or maybe you want to be known as a maker who built solid instruments for real gigging players. Or maybe you want to be known for building a solid business and being one of the only luthiers to drive a Porsche. Whatever it is, try to visualize a very complete and detailed image of it. That is your brand.

Branding then becomes, in short, the consistent and continual messaging that cultivates and reinforces that brand to the world. The key here is consistency. So, across all platforms – your website, your Instagram, Twitter, the marketing material you have at trade shows, or when you’re going out to meet people in person at shows – it should all have the same consistent vibe which conveys your brand to people at all times.

It’s tempting of course to feel like this is “salesy” and a lot of people (including myself) are uncomfortable with that. Larger companies that have big marketing budgets can simply get around this problem by outsourcing this process to a dedicated employee or agency.  But if you are a luthier you are probably running a one-man or one-woman show. That’s where the rule of being genuine comes in. This is not putting on a show that is inconsistent with who you are. This is simply defining an image for your business – that is in line with you – which you reinforce through your professional/public interactions.

A big part of this is in what you don’t do. You can achieve a lot by just eliminating things which distract from your brand. For example, … I have worked hard the last few years at trying to minimize posts on social media that are more personal in nature, like photos of my dog. Because as much as I love her, she doesn’t do much to contribute to my brand. What ends up happening is, for people who don’t know me personally, pictures of my dog just end up distracting them from the messaging that I am trying to hit them with. You’ll notice that I do have occasional personal posts because people like to have that personal connection, but I really limit them.

I understand that this topic can come off as too contrived or awkward and it makes some people uncomfortable. I want to be clear that I don’t sit around every day thinking about this. But, I have noticed that in this industry a lot of people just never think about it. I think that’s a mistake… particularly for younger luthiers trying to come up in the highly competitive and digital contemporary landscape of lutherie. Many people in the older generations of lutherie never thought about this stuff. Their brands sort of just got built around them automatically because of the era they existed in. But with the landscape we have now I’m not sure it works the same way.

Branding shouldn’t ever feel awkward and it shouldn’t make you or your clients feel like you are engaged in the sale of a used car. But you should think about what your brand looks like and how you relate to it. You can put as much or as little effort as you want into marketing. But if you give this subject some thought, you know that at the very least you are bringing some intention to the process of your brand. Because if you aren’t building it intentionally then you could be building it inadvertently and the last thing you want is to inadvertently build a brand that doesn’t represent you or your values well or even worse actually reduces your value.

I hope this helped some of you get your minds around this subject and that it got some wheels turning. Till next time!

Be well

upgrading an arcthop

Recently a client from Hawaii sent me an arch-top guitar of his from a Chinese manufacturer. It was a pretty nice instrument, it had a nice top, some really nice maple back and sides, solid ebony and I could tell it had some real potential. But tonally it was very unbalanced, hollow sounding, lacked focus and dynamic range. It just wasn’t a very pretty musical sounding instrument. It sounded like so many manufactured arch top guitars sound… thin and tiny.

 

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The task at hand was to

improve the tone of the instrument

-Replace the stock pickup system with a floating Bartolini

-Pretty up the guitar with my own custom tail piece cap and pick guard

-Full fret job

– install a bone nut and set up to my clients specs. (very low action, light touch)

– Create a re-engineered bridge to improve the activation of the top

In this post I will just speak a bit about my thoughts and approach behind the modification of the bridge in order to improve the tone of an instrument.

I’ve learned from bowed instruments that there is a tremendous amount of movement in the bridge of an arched top instrument. That movement is not the same across the bridge. From the lower strings to the higher strings that movement changes in type, speed and duration and creates twisting and some erratic behavior. All of this translates to a lot of wasted energy. Now, in the a bowed instrument, with the continuous application of a driver (the bow) this doesn’t have the same negative effect as on a plucked instrument. A bowed instrument is getting continuous energy driven into the bridge. But, when you pluck the string of a guitar that energy immediately starts to dissipate. So what we want on a guitar is to get as much of that kinetic energy into the top and bracing as possible. So, in my mind, movement in the bridge is a bad thing.

On this particularly arch top (and many that I see being manufactured) the bridge was originally very narrow and tall. I guess you could say this is the “traditional” style arch top guitar bridge since this is the same bridge that Gibson was using (and still uses) on their arch-tops. So the first thing I wanted to do –  to answer the problem of energy killing movement – was to widen the footprint of the bridge and use my wide diameter handmade thumbwheels to add stability to the system. This helps to solidify the bridge structure to prevent some of that movement.

The second issue is mass. I think there is a fine line to walk between too much or too little mass in instruments. energy travels fastest through solid objects. This is why the denser materials like ebony make good bridges. because the molecules of Ebony are packed together much tighter then, say, sprue. But, heavier objects also require more energy to vibrate than lighter objects.

So, my theory – which I have developed over the years by experience and also talking with some great arch top builders – is that while we want the material we use for the bridge to be dense, we don’t necessarily want it to be a solid heavy mass. How do I achieve a wider footprint, with added material, but at the same time reduce the overall mass of the object? This is where I depart from conventional wisdom.

I hallow the bridge out. Using a series of holes in the underside of the bridge and saddle located in ways that allow me to maintain the strength of the saddle and contact with the top, I remove as much material as I can.

This particular bridge started with a weight of 34grams. I added material and brought that up to 40 grams. When I was finished I was at 16 grams.

 

here is a photo of one of my own instruments with my bridge and thumbwheel design
here is a photo of one of my own instruments with my bridge and thumbwheel design

 

After intonation each string on the saddle piece the bridge was finished.

After the bridge I added the Bartolini pickup with my own wiring harness. I love these floating pickups for arch-tops. They don’t add much to the acoustic tone of the guitar which is why  use them on my instruments as a default. But combined with a good capacitor they do have a wonderful smoky warm tint to them.

The results were significant. The instrument sounded much fuller. It had a much more balanced and dynamic tone, and felt much more responsive. There was still a healthy brightness in the full acoustic range but now it wasn’t tin sounding and hallow. Aside from the more subjective colorful characteristic, it also empirically activated the top and back better. I couldn’t feel the back vibrating much when it came into my shop. When it left it was vibrating noticeably more.

I’ve been asked to re-engineer the bridge on 6 different arch-tops by various clients to date (including a second instrument from this same client in Hawaii as he was so impressed with the difference). Every time the result is the same.

I would be lying if I claimed I understood exactly what is happening on a physics level. I don’t. I’m constantly learning more and just haven’t gotten to the point yet where I have a quantifiable/empirical explanation. But, from a theoretical basis, what I believe is happening is two fold.

-The increased stability of the bridge, through a wider footprint and my larger more stable thumbwheels,  means that less energy is wasted in the  extracurricular movement of mass.

-The strategic removal of weight in the bridge while still providing full contact with the top, allows for the kinetic energy of string movement to activate the system of the bridge, top and braces more freely.

 

Here is the finished product (sans the pickup which I hadn’t installed yet when I took this photo). In addition to eh bridge, I also created a custom pick guard and tail piece with gold leaf inlay accents in the style of my church model.

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In conclusion… Many manufactured arch-tops are not properly voiced. They sound hallow and thin but unlike the flat top guitar where the core of tone is generated in the internal structure of the instrument and the bridge is a fixed component, an arch top guitars tone can be easily improved by modifying the bridge and the tailpiece (length of behind the bridge string and down work string pressure angle) in order to work better with the curvature and bracing design.

Thanks for reading!

 

Apprenticeships

fullsizeoutput_d6In 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.

If you do what you love….

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A common phrase is that “if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life”. I have heard this phrase more times than I can count. Usually the people who say it to me have the best intentions. They are trying to validate my choice to follow my passion, they are in some sense trying to internalize and understand their own feelings around their career choices, what ever they may be, and its generally a good willed slogan all of us have probably uttered at one point in our lives. But I’d like to just take a moment to speak directly to young people who are on the cusp of trying to start a career in something they love. This phrase is dead wrong.

In my experience, and as far as I can see in the experiences of people I know, if you choose to pursue a career in something that you truly love it seems to be that you will work 5 times harder. You will need to put in 60-70 hour work weeks. Holidays will not exist in your world. Every penny you make will need to be fought hard for and dumped right back into your passion. You will have to constantly go out on limbs and try to excel at things way outside your comfort zone. In short, it is HARD work to follow your passion and do what you love as a professional career.

If that phrase actually rings true for some people I have yet to meet them.

But it’s not as grim as it sounds. I mean, it is very true that you will need to work very hard and fight constantly for your ability and right to pursue a career you are passionate about. But the key word in that phrase is “love”. So, while you are working those 60 hour weeks you will feel good about it. It is rewarding to strive towards a goal that you determined for yourself instead of someone else determining it for you. It feels good to wake up every day knowing that you are your own boss and you have control over your own schedule.

So, if you do want to pursue lutherie (or some other love of yours) as a career what can you expect? What challenges await?

Well, I think first and foremost, the barrier you will first have to overcome is the barrier of pressure from those close to you. I think everyone who embarks on this type of journey is met first with a lot of doubt and pushback from friends and loved ones. This is only natural because they care about you and often they can see the risks involved much more clearly than you can because your vision is clouded with passion. I wouldn’t say you should approach this barrier with reckless abandon cutting off ties with everyone you know but you are going to have to come to terms with the fact that if you do indeed decide to pursue this path you will lose relationships and you will have to develop a pretty thick skin for the criticism and doubt that others you care about throw your way. This process will only make you come to appreciate those who support and believe in you even more. The people who stick by you from the beginning, even when they don’t understand it, are pretty remarkable folks and as you go you need to make sure to care for those relationships.

Once you sort of prove to people that you are in it for the long haul you will then  experience constant advice. Everyone will want to tell you how to do what you are trying to do. At first its helpful. But, while always well intentioned, after you gain some competence the endless unsolicited advice can become exhausting at best and at worst can actually muddy the water for you making it more difficult to act on your intuition and guide yourself through decisions that ultimately you are alone in having to make for yourself. So, try to strike a balance between letting people in, embracing them, but also knowing and trusting yourself. Follow through with what you know is right for you.

Something else that you will experience is just tons of self doubt, fear and uncertainty. Nobody in this world starts a business or embarks on a large artistic endeavor without having to trudge through these feelings. We could lump all these sorts of feelings into the term “suffering”. In my mind there are really three ways to deal with suffering.

   –The first way is to run or avoid. This is what we are biologically wired to do and its what most of us do. Avoiding the suffering is the main reason I believe most people don’t start their own business or pursue their passions in any real way.

   –The second is to resist it. This is when you really turn what you’re doing into a fight. When you are resisting these things you feel like you are constantly running around trying to figure everything out and solve all the worlds problems. Sometimes its helpful but usually its just mentally and emotionally exhausting.

   –The third way is to change your perspective and embrace those feelings. Instead of seeing these emotions as negatives, try to see them as positives. Criticism from others? Use it as information to make yourself better.
I once had a complete stranger write me 3 long emails informing me that I was nobody. Seriously. I think they were trying to be helpful in some way but it really was done clumsily and ended up really kind of ruining my mood for a few hours. But, I just became aware of the fact that it had effected my mood and I started to try to switch my perspective and tell myself “you know, they could have worded it better, they could have been kinder about it… but at the end of the day forget the emotional part of it. What information were they providing me that can be helpful?” And I spent the next day or so thinking of different marketing approaches and advertising. My point is these feelings are socially seen as negative but that doesn’t mean you have to view them as such. You can turn them into motivation, insights, and fuel to work harder or smarter.

Another big challenge is time. Time hits you in two different ways.

-The first is the realization that begins to dawn on you as you get a little older that there just isn’t enough time in the day or in life to accomplish everything you’d like to. Unfortunately thats just a fact of life and the sooner you come to terms with that the sooner you will be able to start prioritizing and managing your time and stop spreading yourself too thin. I always wanted to write a rock opera. I’m not the kind of person to say “never” but I’m at peace with the fact that most likely, I won’t.

-The second way time gets you is that when you pursue a passion, more often than not, it takes a long time to find some success. More conventional careers have the advantage of being pretty standardized. You work your way up a ladder like everyone else does at a similar pace with similar efforts. But in a less conventional career like lutherie… there really isn’t a formula or a standard. And because the product themselves take time to build, it takes even longer to accomplish enough to even begin to build any sort of reputation or resume. So, once you decide you want to do it, you got to commit to the long haul. It is a marathon, not a sprint and you might as well just settle in.

Another challenge is money. This one is pretty self explanatory and is different for everybody. The situation we find ourselves in when we start to try our hand at lutherie (or whatever our passion is), and the circumstances of our lives really dictate how this one will effect you. But I think its safe to say that unless you are independently wealthy there is no getting around this being tricky for you.
Let me take this opportunity to say, in no uncertain terms, that it is very very hard to make a living in any creative field but particularly in lutherie. I will probably write about this in more depth in a later post. So right now here is what I will say about this. If you are serious about pursuing your passion, you must take the business end of your passion seriously. You can’t shy away from it or think of it as this terrible part of it. Its part of it just as much as chiseling or painting or photographing is part of it. Take the business seriously, take classes or teach yourself about basic business management, finances, taxes, marketing. Know what cashflow is and get good at monitoring it. In an industry where you will operate as close to the bone as you will in lutherie it is absolutely imperative that you are good with your money.
The biggest thing that this means for younger people especially is that you have got to come to terms with the fact that if you want this you will have to give up a lot of your social activities that involve spending cash. For the majority of my career I have spent my Friday and Saturday nights in the shop. The only times I really ever spend money anymore going out are at guitar shows and occasionally when I go out to network. You will just simply have too many business related expenses to spare any dough on things that don’t directly contribute to your craft. Thats the bottom line. At least it is for me.

Building upon the time and money challenges-  its very common and tempting to begin to compare your track with others. People you see as your peers. You will look at your time and money situation and theirs and more often than not you will be tempted to ask yourself “why am I not as successful as them?” or “why am I not getting the attention they are?”. What I will say is this. Understand that nobody is ever going to show you their full deck of cards. As you get to know other people in your industry better, what you will find is very few of them really and truly built their success by themselves from nothing. For the most part there is almost always a previous career or a supportive partner, or an inheritance, or a benefactor, or any number of other advantages that are selectively omitted from their website’s biography. The other thing I will say on the subject is that is all ok. You can’t begrudge peoples advantages or the fact that they used them. The reality is we all have our own unique set of advantages and disadvantages and our success depends on how well we play to our strengths, improve our weaknesses, and use the tools available to us. Having a spouse who earns good money and supports your beginnings does not take away from you the years of hard work, late nights, and other sacrifices you’ve made to get to where you are. Don’t hold advantages against people but also be realistic in how you view their success. Don’t compare your own success (or lack thereof) to anybody else. There is just so much to their story that you don’t know. Looking at other people and comparing your life to theirs is a recipe for negativity, unproductiveness and a giant chip on your shoulder. None of which are helpful to you on your journey.

Of course there are many other issues you will have to deal with as you pursue your passion. I’ve just touched on a number that I think are pretty universal. The truth is, pursuing a passion and turning it into a successful and workable business that has longevity and can provide you a sustainable living is one of the hardest things a person can do. It takes guts, relentless determination, the ability to continue to pick yourself up off the floor over and over again, an obsessive drive, and inspiration. You will need to set goals and drive hard towards them but have the flexibility to change course and adapt. You’ve got to be determined to be the best and fight continuously for your place at the table but at the same time you have to be compassionate towards yourself and accept your imperfection. Its a tricky balancing act.

However, if you have the temperament, and you can deal with failure in healthy ways, I think that pursuing your passion, turning it into a business and trying to be the best business owner you can be, is an incredibly rewarding experience. Once you feel that sense of control over your own life it becomes very difficult to think about working for someone else. The sense of ownership is overwhelming sometimes because the responsibility is all on you all the time. But its also very empowering because you are the master of your own story. It has taught me so much about life, myself, what I’m capable of, and my limitations. Its been humbling but also has built a level of confidence in myself as a human being that I never had. Its quite the experiment and I think its a very worthy way of living one’s life.

Its important to know at all times that you can fail. In fact, statistically you are likely to fail. But thats ok. Its cliche but I would rather look back and say that I was brave enough to give it my all and try my hardest then to have never even given myself the opportunity to see if I could do it. Failure is a figment of the imagination when you really look at it. Life is simply a series of events we ascribe meaning to. I always like to keep in mind that if I ever reach a point where my business and passion is clearly just not working as a sustainable career and I have no logical choice but to throw in the towel,  I still win. Because I had my moment, I learned more than I could have in any college course about life and survival, and I can move onto anything else with the skill sets that I’ve developed. And with that in mind, I do feel that following my passion is a calculated risk worth taking.

Just make no mistake…. doing what you love does NOT mean you never work a day in your life.

the importance of self care part two

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Last week I posted about the general rules of thumb in regards to diet and good discipline principles while working that should help prevent tendonitis and similar issues in the hands and harms.

This week I will share with you the various physical practices that I’ve picked up in physical therapy, researching on my own and just finding what works for me. Like I said, I did have a bad bout of tendonitis and it took me some time to figure out a routine that helped me heal and has helped me prevent reoccurrence.

As stated before, I am not a medical professional. Any advice or information that follows is simply based on my personal experience. It’s helped me and I hope that it helps you but please do your own research, work with physical therapists when needed, and follow these tips under your own discretion.

Unfortunately, the only real cure for tendonitis if you have already developed it is rest. Your tendons, through high strain, repetitive motion and even incorrect motion, have become inflamed and then torn. Tiny micro tears occur, then scar tissue can develop which can decrease flexibility of soft tissue which can easily exacerbate the issue over again. So, if you have developed tendonitis its very important that you let those micro tears heal completely and allow the inflammation to die down. Otherwise you get stuck in a cycle of repeated occurrences and flare ups. This is why prevention is absolutely crucial if you are someone who makes their living with their hands.

BUT, ideals aside… what if you get it and you have to work? Well, here are the steps that I have taken which have worked well.

First and foremost, you should see a physical therapist. They can test things like grip strength and range of motion to determine exactly what’s going on and how best to handle it.

Second is ice and heat. Typically, I will try to start my morning with a cooler of hot water. I will submerge my hands and forearms in water that is just hot enough to stand without pain. After a minute or so you might start to feel tingling. The hot water I find really loosens me up in the morning. I actually start stretching gently in the water by spreading my fingers on the bottom of the cooler or bucket and pushing my palm down. I also massage each palm and stretch the thumb while submerged in hot water. Along with ice and hot water I love a product called tiger balm. It’s amazing!

Ice on the other hand is great after a work day. A cooler of ice water works great but isn’t necessary unless you are experiencing a lot of inflammation throughout your hands and forearms. But what works really well is putting a half full Dixie cups of water in the freezer. You can take these out and tear the Dixie cup down to expose the ice while leaving the bottom of the cup as a place to hold. Rubbing the ice across your forearm where you feel a little pain for a minute or so is really enough to reduce inflammation.

General rule of thumb – Heat loosens tight muscles but can increase inflammation in soft tissue. Ice Reduces inflammation and numbs pain but can tighten things up. So I use heat in preparation of work and ice as recovery.

Sometimes, if I am experiencing a little more than a normal amount of tightness or pain I will fill one cooler or bucket up with hot water and another with ice water and I will alternate between the two. Leaving my hands or arms in each as long as I can stand before switching. For some reason unknown to me this seems to really increase circulation and has helped me a lot in recovering from tendonitis. This was actually the trick that put the nail in the coffin of my real bad bout of tendonitis in my forearms. I had gotten the issue to be almost completely better through physical therapy but it kept lingering, then I tried the alternating between hot and cold baths at night for a week and that was it. no more tendonitis after that.

The next really important thing is stretching.

Here are the stretches which have helped me. I would like to say I do these daily but I’m not that disciplined. But I definitely keep up on them at least a few times a week and I think it’s really important to find some kind of regular stretching routine.

One thing I have found is that the stretches physical therapists have shown me don’t always work and I have had to find my own adjustments to hit the area correctly. So I would suggest trying to these stretches but then making little positional adjustments until you find the position that stretches the target area best for you. The palms, fingers, thumb, both sides of the wrist, forearms, biceps, triceps, shoulder, neck and backs.

This first stretch is what I typically do when my hand is submerged in hot water. I start by spreading the fingers as far as I can and slowly start pushing down through my palm. this stretches the fingers out, the palm and thumb. Then, as I bring the palm to the bottom of the cooler (or table in this case) the stretch moves up the inside of the wrist. I do this slowly, a few times, each time taking the stretch a little further.

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This is a good stretch for the rotator cuff. You can do this on a wall like seen here, in a corner, or doorway. Your arm is held at about a 90degree angle from your shoulder and you are leaning your chest slightly forward. You should feel this in the front of your shoulder, across your chest.

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I like this stretch because it also stretches the rotator cuff and shoulder a bit but the stretch also extends down into your biceps and forearm.

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This stretch is one I learned from a physical therapist. It works the inside of your wrist and forearm.

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This stretch is one of my favorites. You put one hand into a loose fist. With the other hand you grab just above the knuckles and slowly roll your first inward as you straighten your arm. By gently pulling up on your knuckles and fingers you will feel a great stretch in the wrist, top of the hand, and forearm up through your elbow. You can move the stretch into different places in your forearm by raising or lowering your straight arm straight out away from you.

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This stretch helps get the back side of your shoulder across your upper back. I also turn my head in the direction of the shoulder I’m stretching for a bonus stretch of the opposite side of the neck.

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This is a stretch I sort of came up with on my own. I was trying to get a good stretch on the top part of my forearm by my elbow and biceps and the stretches I was being given just weren’t really cutting it. You can rest your arm on a table like seen here or you can even raise it up and behind you. If you have trouble getting your arm up high, you can use a chair or something a little lower. If stretching your arm back like that bothers your shoulder you can target the same area by twisting your arm out, grabbing your hand with the other hand, thumb into the palm, and slowly pull your hand back.

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This is a good stretch for your triceps down through your shoulder blade and the traps

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This is one I do throughout the day. Interlocking your fingers for leverage I gently pull the fingers away while using my thumb to push the other way. This stretches the pad of your palm by your thumb through the middle of the palm of your hand. This one helps with thumb pain quite a bit.

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Similar to the stretches I do under hot water, stretching your wrist and fingers by pushing them into each other in front of your chest. The raised arms slightly shift the stretch a bit and hit some other areas. Another one I do throughout the day.

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Another for the wrist and inside of the forearm. Three variations dependent on your comfort level and flexibility

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This one is great for the thumb. Be careful with this one not to put your body weight on your thumb. But just slowly and controlled get a nice stretch in the thumb be driving straight down through the fingers with the thumb on the edge of a table.

 

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With all stretches its important to pay attention to your body. ANY pain is a sign you need to stop right away. You are pushing yourself too far at that point or you have an injury that needs addressed. I typically will hold a position for 10-20 seconds, relax and then do the stretch again, pushing slightly farther for another 10-20 seconds. With the hot water stretches, I will keep working my hands under hot water until I start to feel tingling in the tips of my fingers. Thats when you know you have really loosened everything up and blood is circulating well in your hand. You will find that slight changes in position can drastically change the stretch. So explore and find what works best for you.

The next thing you have to consider is strength training. You do not need to join a CrossFit gym or become a weight lifter to build instruments. But you do need to understand that your muscles support movement and when there is an imbalance in strength or a lack of strength then the load of your movement is placed on your tendons, ligaments, and joints instead. If you have never been much into physical fitness then you may not know that your body is composed of large muscle groups (the biceps, triceps, quads…. the muscles you’ve heard of) and small muscle groups which are your flexors, extenders, extensors, abductors…. the things you haven’t heard of.

These small muscles groups are hugely responsible for movement, particular fine motor skills, and for supporting the larger muscle groups. Often times, even very fit people, neglect these smaller muscle groups and that’s when injuries occur.

But, you don’t need to know much about these to be a craftsperson. The one group that’s most important to you if you work with your hands is the rotator cuff grouping of muscles. This is the area by your neck and shoulder, on the front and back which control the movement of your arm. When these minor muscle group is weak it put a lot of stress on the surrounding large groups and tendons, which results in tightness in the neck and forearm. This is a very important cause of tendonitis and similar issues in the forearm, wrist, thumb, in addition to issues with the neck and upper back.

Core work is also important as it sets up a solid base for the rest of your body. If you workout nothing else, your core can still create a stable and fit body capable of working physically.

You can do some of these light exercises with rubber bands or light weights. Remember, These are small supporting muscles groups. That means you don’t need to be lifting heavy with these. 5lbs could be enough even for a big guy. these muscles are typically under developed and they are not designed to get big. I tend to do 3 sets of 10-12 reps with low weight with these.

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So that’s it. I sincerely hope that some of this information helps you prevent, heal, and recover from any issues related to hand work. musicians, woodworkers, metal workers… thank you for reading and good luck!