I started making guitars in 1996 after a trip to the C.F. Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pa. I’m not certain what I expected to see there but most of the workers were women with a few younger men assembling instruments. Each work station had a very limited scope of work. For example one station just glued the back braces onto the back using a jig to show where they were located. Another just put the purfling (black and white plastic strips) around the sound hole. I thought that this was something I could do if I could find the parts. I asked the tour guide if they just sold parts and she told me where the old factory was in town. They sold kits for about $400 that contained all of the wood parts and hardware for a single dreadnaught guitar. I remember thinking that was expensive and decided to wait when I noticed several people in the back of the store gathering parts and piling them on tables. I asked who they were and she said they were “Luthiers” buying parts for their guitar projects. She asked if I was a “Luthier”; I said “yes, I am” and went back to join them. They helped me gather enough parts from the factory rejects to make six guitars. There was a complete neck with frets installed and tuner holes drilled with the Martin logo sanded off. There were several tops and backs with the braces glued on and bent sides with the kerfing installed. I could glue together four pieces to make a guitar. What could be easier? The pile cost me $100 and I was on my way.
I have attended several Luthier symposia and read a lot about guitar design and assembly. I bought a thickness sander, some chisels, glue, etc. and started making guitars in my basement. I started teaching a guitar-building class at the Woodcraft store in Springfield, Va to see just how much I really knew. That lasted 15 years and it let me see every possible mistake you could make and figure out how to recover. I now saw all of my own wood, make all of the parts except the necks and have produced about 350 guitars.
I started making violins when Arthur Conner of Copper Hill, Va. bought one of my guitars and offered to teach me fiddle making. He is 95 years old and has been making fiddles by hand for over 60 years.
I started making ukuleles to use the smaller pieces of wood left over from guitar building. I’ve made several banjos (mainly just making a neck) and mandolins (similar to fiddle-making).