Handmade Instruments or CNC?

I’ve been thinking a little about ‘value-add’ recently and a phone conversation with a friend gave me a new angle on some of this stuff.

When I stared building guitars I made a big deal about them being handmade. Truth is I was just trying to sound fancy. And, while I don’t want to speak for an industry, I suspect anyone still making a fuss about handmade is just trying to sound fancy (or they may mean something else entirely — I’ll get to that in a minute).

Want to know the real, horrible, truth? I made a fuss about handmade guitars because I didn’t have the money or space for a CNC machine. If I could, I’d have a dozen CNC cutters, all whizzing away, all day.

Handmade guitar or CNC? What’s really important?

A quick primer on CNC if you don’t know what it is. It stands for Computer Numerical Control and (for our discussion) it’s a machining tool that can precisely cut a hunk of wood into the shape of a guitar body or neck. It can follow a ‘plan’ and rout body outlines, round-overs, recesses, control and pickup cavities, bridge post holes, neck pockets, tuner holes, fret slots, and on, and on. At a very simplistic level, you load up a wood blank, set the machine, and kick it off. The super-expensive ones are very fast and the less expensive ones, not so much. They are, however, precise.

It’s this precision that’s important. The ability to repeatedly make the same part to close tolerances. That’s the big benefit of CNC.

And that’s why I’d have happily traded my ‘handmade’ marketing for a good CNC router.

I’m not sure if it was smaller builders that started the handmade snobbery, or a player thing, or some hangover from before the industrial revolution but, for ages, ‘handmade’ was thrown about as a badge of guitar-honour.

This always seemed silly to me, even as I was participating in perpetuating the notion. What does handmade even mean?

I used a bandsaw and a router to cut necks and bodies to a template pattern. Is that handmade? I certainly held power tools in my hand or held the wood on a router table. Does that qualify?

Slightly bigger shops than mine might have a pin-router — a powerful overhead-mounted router that an operator can control with a foot pedal while guiding a template against a guiding ‘pin’. Does that still count as handmade? Someone’s using their hands to move the part being routed. Should the foot controlling the pedal also get a shout-out?

What’s the difference between these two methods for cutting a guitar body and a CNC? A persons hands load and set up the machine. That doesn’t count any more, does it? Why? The wood doesn’t care how the router was controlled. The wood’s not imbued with some mystical luthier-essence because I held a router in my mitts.

In the biggest guitar factories, CNC will cut out the basic elements of a guitar. From the CNC machine, bodies and necks will be loaded on palettes and moved on the rest of their journey.

That journey will see many hands. Some hands will use tools like belt or orbital sanders, drills, or whatever. Some hands will use hand tools; hammers, knives, files, etc.

Where is the handmade line? Most of us wouldn’t count a Squier or Epiphone as handmade. What about a Fender or Gibson? Is Custom Shop stuff handmade? Is there a percentage of hand-tooling that qualifies? But, like we mentioned, what counts as hand-tooling in the first place? Do we count boutique guitars as handmade?

So many questions. Sorry.

It seem like there's less fuss about the handmade thing in recent years. Maybe that’s because entry-level CNC cutting machines have fallen in price to where they’re in the realm of many small builders. It’s harder to decry the horrors of CNC when the benefits of CNC are now affordable. 😉 Maybe it’s because the next generation of players just don’t care about artisanal guitars. Maybe my generation caused them to be so broke they don’t think about it because they can’t afford it (Jeez, this is getting heavy — sorry).

I think it’s good that handmade isn’t used as a marker of guitar quality quite so much. I think, for a long time, quality really should have had a more nuanced descriptor than ‘handmade’. That’s been a clumsy and broad term for a while.

I’m really glad to see nuance is coming, though. I think we’ve realised there’s something at work other than the laying on of hands, and that the quality we seek is the result of time, and attention, and pride.

The phrase ‘made with pride’ has become a marketing cliche, which is a pity because it’s important. How a hunk of wood is cut doesn’t speak to the quality of the end product. The time, attention, and pride of everybody that’s worked on that wood, from when it’s loaded into a CNC cutter to when it’s strung to pitch and set-up, is what’s important.

The best makers bring these qualities to their instruments and their work, and that’s the real differentiator. That’s what some builders mean when they say ‘handmade’. And that’s ok, but I really feel that we can do better than claiming ‘handmade’. Handmade hasn’t meant anything meaningful for ages. Claim time and attention instead. Claim pride.

But, do back it up, of course. 😉

Many larger makers are working hard at improving these qualities within the constraints they’re working under (a little more on that next time, maybe). Many of us with different sets of constraints can already boast this.

Time, attention, and pride are the ‘value-add’ components. In everything. Look for them.

P.S. For anyone that’s ever had a new guitar delivered late — by me or anyone else — that’s almost certainly a different thing to the ‘time’ element I mentioned above. That’s more related to a failure to plan than an attention to detail. Sorry about that. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This article written by Gerry Hayes and first published at hazeguitars.com