Interview with Luthier Michael Sankey – Part 1

With anything in life that you aspire to do, a great strategy to get you started in the right direction or to continue on toward achieving your goal is to talk to someone who is already doing what it is you want to do.

Looking to those who are where you want to be and asking them how they got there can provide insight into what it takes to be successful and can also help to eliminate many unnecessary frustrations along your journey.

Today we are going to learn about a gentleman who has established a career for himself doing what he loves: building handmade guitars.
Luthier Michael (Mike) Sankey of Sankey Guitars lives in Ottawa, Canada and has been building and repairing guitars for 17 years. He likes to craft each instrument individually, making them slowly and carefully by hand.

Mr. Sankey has recently exhibited his work at the Holy Grail Guitar Show 2014 in Berlin, Germany, where he had a great chance to show off some of his work as well as meet and greet with some of his luthier heroes in the world of guitar building (know as lutherie).

If you are interested in one of his guitars for sale, or in your own custom guitar made by Mike, you can contact him at his website: Sankeyguitars.com. You can also visit his Facebook: Sankey Guitars Facebook.

Mike if filled with insight into what he does and has provided us with plenty of great info; and as a result, this post will be divided into 3 parts. Make sure you check out the others as they are published.

Now that you know a little about Mike, let’s hand it over to him to tell us more.

Jonathan: So Mike, first of all I have to know, why do you do what you do?
michael-sankey-archtop-guitar-cherrybomb
Cherrybomb by Mike Sankey

Michael: I do what I do because everything else is boring. Believe me, I’ve tried. Thinking about guitar design, and then making them real, is a sort of mental home base to me. I always go back there, because it’s home. And once one has a certain amount of expertise in a field, it seems like a waste of knowledge not to continue exercising that.

 Jonathan: How did you get to where you are now as a luthier, and how did you start? Would you tell us a little about your background?

Michael: Mostly I got where I am (building guitars for a semi-living) by not NOT building guitars. I never lost interest, and always found a way to keep building, even when I didn’t have a workshop, which was pretty much all the time until only 4 years ago. I can’t say I’ve earned my success through persistence, because I’m not successful by most standards. I just keep going.

I was a guitar player first. Well, actually I was a cello player first, then bassoon, then guitar. Most of the instruments I used were cheap and imperfect; it annoyed me when they didn’t work properly so from a young age I began tinkering a little bit with the mechanical bits. Since I was very young I’ve always been a builder of things, from model ships and airplanes to treeforts, so when I started playing guitar as a teenager it was almost inevitable that I a few years later would start tinkering with them and eventually building one.

Jonathan: Can you elaborate a bit on your first couple guitars? How did they turn out? michael-sankey-working-in-shop Mistakes and lessons learned? 

Michael: I made my first guitar when I was 19 and studying visual art in university. It was way too ambitious for a first guitar- a thinline acoustic archtop guitar with both electric and piezo pickups! It was made of garbage, literally: thin birch plywood from a door, some scaps of wood leftover from a flooring project. The top was three pieces, made from a cedar 2×6 intended for a deck. Nicely quartered, though. The pickups, knobs, and even the tuners were all from the “misc” buckets of a couple of local guitar shops. It still cost good money… No ebay back then, and very little “made in china”.

I mostly worked at my dad’s basement workshop, ocassionally borrowing tools from the sculpture department. My father had been interested in baroque music and had even taken a couple of lutherie courses when he was in university himself. One thing he had made was an impressive english-style viola da gamba. This was a good inspiration to me, and I used some of its features in my own guitar. There were no real archtop guitars around, so I used that viol as a model for my guitar. High arch, flat back. Still got it, still works.

I eventually presented it as a school project. It did not impress. I made a bunch of other musical sculpture types of things for school too. They were often not well received – my sculpture professor was hearing-impaired, old, and cranky.

My second guitar was another archtop, though this time made from real mahogany. I made a deal where a friend would pay for the materials and I’d build it. He was an industrial design student, and designed it. It’s still around too, though in pretty rough shape. Third and fourth guitars were archtops too, of my own designs. They got better as I went, bit by bit.

Have a question or comment for me or Mike? Please leave your feedback below!

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview.

 

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