Jonathan: How did you first start selling your work and when? If you don’t mind me asking, how much was someone willing to pay for your first few sales?
Michael: After I had been building for a couple of years, I tried to sell my third and fourth guitars on consignment at a local shop. They sat there for a few years. Plenty of people liked them, I had priced them much lower than the list price of any other handmade archtop guitars I knew of, but they didn’t sell.
One well-known folk artist almost bought one, but I think he was hoping to get it for free, you know, “for the exposure it would get me”. I didn’t take that deal, and I still have that guitar.
I didn’t sell any of them. When my kids were babies, I took care of them for a few years, so I didn’t build very much or try very hard to sell anything. I eventually tried bringing some guitars to Toronto (bigger city, more money, more musicians) and was eventually able to put a couple on consignment at a shop there. No sales in Toronto either.
Things finally came together when I took a job as the guitar repair tech at yet another local music store. Part of the deal was that they would sell any of my guitars on consignment for a very low rate.
I had my own space to build (8 feet by 8 feet!), and a budget to buy some modest tools. I hung up those archtops and slashed my prices in half, built some electrics to sell for cheap ($1000!), and finally started to sell some of them. It had taken me almost ten years from when I had started building.
Jonathan: Where does your inspiration come from, and why are you so driven to innovate?
Michael: A) To quote someone who’s name I forget, “inspiration is for dilettantes; the rest of us just work.” I find the best way to get ideas to flow is to drag them kicking and screaming out of my groggy morning brain. Just draw, eventually something is bound to look good. You know the statement about a million monkeys eventually writing “hamlet”? I’ve got a few in my head.
B) In a sense I’m a pioneer (in an admittedly esoteric field), and once you get used to the wide open spaces you can’t go back to familiar trails. Maybe I’m impatient, or impulsive, but my attitude is “been there, done that, not gonna do it again”. It is both a blessing and a curse.
I can’t help but admire the impeccable workmanship of many other builders, but I know that they have achieved that standard in large part by repetition.
Repeating something, to me, is a waste of an opportunity to do something different.
It can be mentally fatiguing trying to come up up with a revolutionary, excellent new design for almost every guitar I make, when to make ends meet I have to sell at least a dozen a year. That being said, I always have more ideas than I have time to execute them. I must have 20 or 30 unique designs for guitars and guitar parts, sitting on a shelf in my workshop.
Jonathan: Yes, I’ve certainly been there. I do know what you mean about new designs being mentally exhausting.
Jonathan: What would you say are the three tools that you couldn’t live without?
Michael: My hands, my ears, and my eyes, in that order. Given a knife an awl and some string I can make a guitar, and I could make those myself if I had to.
I made my first guitar with no power tools except a drill and a router (borrowed from school for a day).
More and better tools can make it go a lot quicker of course, but having had the experience of working by hand gives one a fine appreciation not just for the design of the final product, but of the design of the process.
The finished product is a result of the build process after all; I find that very few luthiers appreciate this. If you make a guitar using a milling machine it might as well be made of plastic or billet metal.
Wood is such a wonderful material in that within its limitations you can shape it almost directly, with only a piece of steel to amplify the force of one’s fingers. And I’m working on a method to eliminate even that. You might see it eventually.
Jonathan: Yeah, very cool stuff. Definitely looking forward to seeing that.
Jonathan: What are the biggest lessons learned or advice you can give to those looking to get into lutherie, or to those that are not yet to your level?
Michael: Lessons… I dislike the notion that I have something to teach. I have long had a healthy disrespect for authority, the authority of prior knowledge included. That might be why it took me so long to get to where I am. I’m stubborn enough to need to learn things the hard way, on my own. As I mentioned earlier, this has both advantages and disadvantages.
I also don’t think it’s honest to talk about “being at a certain level”. Quite frankly, we are all often not honest about money, success, and the relationship between them.
So here’s my disclosure: I am not successful as a luthier. Yes, I have a nice little house, a car that always starts when I need it too, and even a cat. But this more to do with my abilities as a father, husband, and homemaker than as a luthier.
Jonathan: Very nice and important statement right there.
For most of our working lives my wife has been able to earn more than me, so we juggled jobs and childrearing between us to take advantage of the best opportunities. Now she is a freelance artist who keeps the mortgage paid, and this is why I am able to build guitars.
She in turn couldn’t have gotten into that position without me taking on some serious parenting responsibilities. So I suppose if I had any advice to offer aspiring luthiers, it would be to work on your diaper-changing skills.
Okay, I admit that’s not very useful advice. But again, to be honest you will probably only succeed at lutherie (or probably any other low-payoff profession) if you have a working spouse, a nest egg, or a line of credit.
I’ve heard other folks say it was easy, and that by the time they finished their second guitar they had a full book of orders on strength of word-of-mouth from friends and family; I don’t know how that’s possible. I certainly never hung around anyone who could afford handmade guitars.
Jonathan: I know what you mean. I have friends, etc. who consistently push me to build guitars for money, but I know that none of them would buy one if I did.
Maybe one just has to be in the right place at the right time, but that’s not something that we can control. So my advice would be, basically, keep your day job, and spend every spare penny and every extra minute focusing on lutherie to the exclusion of everything else, and you might have a chance. Would it be worth it? I don’t think so.
Jonathan: Hmm interesting advice coming from someone who continues to do what he loves. Real truth.
Jonathan: What are your other interests and hobbies?
Michael: Other interests besides building guitars? Building amplifiers, maybe. But I’ve sold a few of those too, so maybe it’s work. Same with music. I’ve played guitar for a long time, been in a couple of bands, played some gigs that occasionally paid more than a few drink tickets. For me there’s hardly a dividing line between a work interest and an “other” interest, and that’s the way I like it.
You could say that I never stop working, but I prefer to think that I never stop playing. It all blurs together into this thing called Life.
Jonathan: Yes, the last bit. Work/life. I suppose when you’re driven to do something you love, it really does all get sort of blurry.
Jonathan: So Mike, what are your goals for the future? What else would you like to accomplish?
Michael: So, my plan for the future is to keep doing what I’m doing, only better and, y’know, different, because life gets different as it goes along. Maybe I’ll find the wherewithal to record an album of music.
Or maybe I won’t. I’d love to be in a position where I can sell my guitars for so much that I get to be purely experimental, and pursue whatever ideas I want. Or maybe I don’t, because it’s the constraints that sharpen the mind. So I’ll do whatever I do.
Jonathan: Thanks Mike, it’s been a great pleasure talking to you. Best of luck to you.
Thanks for tuning in to this interview with Michael, I hope you got as much out of it as I did, especially if you are an aspiring luthier.
Leave your questions and comments below!
Here’s Part 1 in case you missed it: Interview with Luthier Michael Sankey – Part 1