Year One research summary: How do luthiers learn their tradition and teach their craft?

Today, I talked about my research at the annual conference of the Journal of Vocational Education and Training.

The slides below are an overview of some of the data and observations I have collected over the past year. As you will see, I have completed a survey of classical guitar makers in the UK and just last week, I completed 30 interviews of luthiers across the country as well as interviewing students and staff at Newark College. I have also been researching the history of classical guitar making in the UK and am currently writing up a journal article on this. Fragments of that history can be found on this blog as I came across interesting publications. I continue to visit Newark College and will spend the next year analysing and writing up my findings from the interviews.

Between July 2017 and February 2018, I visited Roy Courtnall each week to learn to make a guitar. It took about 180 hours over 26 days.
Roy is the author of Making Master Guitars (1994), which is the most popular book in the UK on classical guitar making. It is valued for its detailed step-by-step approach and for the inclusion of several scale drawings and biographical information of famous makers. Roy had access to those instruments in the late 1980s because a local dealer, Ray Ursell, was actively buying and selling worldwide and would call Roy when he had an interesting instrument. Shortly after the book was published, Roy was asked by Newark College to set up a guitar making course alongside the existing violin, piano and woodwind courses. The course was based on the methods in the book. It began as a classical guitar making course, and today includes steel string acoustic guitars, too. The current tutors, James Lister and Adrian Lucas, were both taught by Roy. James was first a student at London Guildhall University and then a student at Newark. Adrian was a night school student of Roy’s in the 1990s.
Another early motivation for the research came from listening to a BBC radio programme that discussed the Radcliffe Red List, which is recent research into the sustainability of heritage crafts. Stringed instrument making was deemed ‘viable’ but a number of threats were recorded, most of them relating to ‘training issues’ and the ‘dilution of skills’.
I then looked at the state of craft education as a whole and found that it too is in decline. Between 2010 and 2018, there has been a 53% decrease in the number of students taking Design and Technology at GCSE and a 4% decline in Art and Design GCSE. The number of people taking Level 1 & 2 craft courses in Further Education (FE) has increased from 7,290 in 2007/8 to 49,920 in 2015/16 but only 8% of these go on to advanced level 3 & 4 courses. The number of students taking craft as a first degree is relatively stable between 16,000-18,000 between 2007-2015 but the number of students studying craft for HNC/HNDs has dropped 60% between 2009 and 2015. There has been a small (4%) decline in the number of students studying craft in Higher Education (HE) but the number of courses dropped by 50% between 2007-2015. There has been a rise in craft apprenticeships, but the number is relatively small to the overall decline in FE and HE.
Source: Craft Council: &
I asked 101 luthiers 27 questions. I have since learned of 4 more and there will be additional amateur makers. With the population of 105, the sample of 61 respondents produces a margin of error of 8% with a confidence level of 95%. Here are some highlights:
67% are aged between 55-74
51% fathers worked in skilled trades or professional occupations
62% consider themselves proficient or good players
56% consider it their main occupation
26% consider college to be relevant to their work as a luthier
28% said that working periodically with an experienced maker has been relevant to their work as a luthier
61% consider themselves mostly self-taught
34% have a specific musical instrument making qualification
61% have benefitted a lot or a great deal from player feedback
62% have learned a little or nothing at all about lutherie from the Internet
56% have learned a lot or a great deal from the study of other instruments
43% have taught someone to make a guitar
18% teach up to 40hrs/month (i.e. one week/month)
30% have taught more than 10 people
Full-time luthiers teach more than amateur luthiers (22 vs 3)
Entirely/mostly self-taught luthiers teach more than luthiers who are somewhat/little/not self-taught (15 vs 11)
Slightly more teachers have a musical instrument qualification than not (14 vs 11)
‘Self-taught’ does not mean ‘unqualified’. Luthiers may have a qualification but still consider themselves mostly self-taught.
The institutional history of musical instrument making in the UK is over a century old, starting with piano making at the National School for Musical Trades, which became the London College of Furniture, then Guildhall University and then London Metropolitan University. It closed its course in 2016, ending a century of full-time instrument making in that institution. London Metropolitan University is still advertising an evening course. I have spent time in the Met archives and came away with over 200 photographs of course brochures, curricula, and programme validation documents going back to about 1920. What’s clear is that modern fretted instrument making (e.g. guitars) has been taught on accredited courses in this country since 1972. Note in the above slide how there was a lot of activity in the early 1970s. At the moment, I speculate that this is related to an increasing interest at that time in hand crafts, self-reliance and DIY culture; the increasing role of the VET sector in meeting the needs for craft skills, and a growing appreciation of Early Music, which placed a greater emphasis on the historical authenticity of the music, its performance and construction of the instruments. i.e. players became more knowledgeable and discerning.
My case study of Newark College involves visiting the guitar workshop for one day a week each month. I am following students through their three-year degree. I’ve interviewed most students, and the staff who run, tutor and support the guitar-making element of the Musical Instrument Crafts degree. I have extensive field notes and photographs, too. Here is an outline of the curriculum and a few of the photographs. 
The guitar pathway curriculum of the BA in Musical Instrument Crafts at Newark College.
This photograph shows Manu (left) and Adrian (right) working together in a race to build a guitar. To save time, they are sharing the task of scraping the sides of a guitar smooth. The race between two teams is held early in the academic year to enculturate new students and promote peer learning. It is tiring but fun, too. New students can observe more experienced students and participate in the making of an entire instrument in just a few days, whereas it could take them a year to build a guitar of their own. 
In the photo on the left, James Lister shows Pascal, a first-year student, how to carve the heel. The student records the demo on his phone. On the right, Adrian Lucas gives a demonstration of French polishing one of his own guitars. Group demonstrations such as this are infrequent. On a regular basis, tutors walk around the workshop, stopping to observe and talk to students about their work. In effect, students receive one-to-one tuition and also learn by observing and talking to each other.
Students are given a set of instructions written by the tutors for each step of the build process. They also have access to jigs, plans and templates.
Students bring their own tools. The college supplies tools but students say that they spend too long having to sharpen them. Tools are very personal objects. Good, sharp hand tools are highly sensitive, providing feedback to their owner who gets a ‘feel’ for the tools and the materials.
Two students share this workshop in the front room of their house (photo provided by student). I was told that except for machinery, it is better equipped than the college workshop. I think this comment reflects the personal nature of workshop design rather than being a reflection on resources at Newark College. A number of properties in Newark are continually rented by students on the musical instrument making course and so workshops are passed on.
The construction of the soundboard is key to the sound of the guitar. Here, Manu, a second-year student (although with further experience of making violins), is flexing and tapping the braced wood to determine whether he has worked it enough to achieve the tone he is aiming for. This is not something that can be quickly learned and results from repeated individual experience. Books, video tutorials and measuring tools are available to guide and assist with this judgement but repeated experience is key.
Students take two tool making modules during their degree, making at least four tools, one of their own design. Here is tutor, Gavin Hartley, advising Adam (in red) on the use of a milling machine. Many of these machines are decades old, some having a ‘war finish’. They used to serve engineering courses that ran at Newark College but since these courses moved to the Lincoln campus, the well-equipped workshop is used exclusively by instrument making students. Some tools are unique to lutherie and expensive to buy so being able to make their own tools will be of long-term benefit to students. In the image on the right, you can see examples of tools that students have made, exhibited at the end of year show. The circle cutter and binding cutter are beautifully made and could be sold commercially, as some luthiers do.
The end of year exhibition room, where students show their work to the public. Professional musicians (in this photo Amanda Cook) are invited to assess the instruments and give feedback to the students in front of peers, parents and the researcher. In the evening, a selection of instruments will be played at their graduation ceremony in a local Methodist hall.


Glasgow Clyde:

Merton College:

Newark College:

West Dean:

Courtnall, R. (1993) Making Master Guitars. London: Robert Hale. See also:

Radcliffe Red List:

Craft Council:

Classical Guitar Making Bibliography:

UK Classical guitar-makers:

Classical Guitar Makers UK Map:

Joss’ blog:

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