Small Fortune

Q: How do you make a small fortune in the guitar business?

A: Start with a large fortune.

The following is an excerpt from an online blog:

When you see a guitar builder charging $3,500 for a boutique bolt-on instrument, do you think somebody’s getting rich? I don’t, and here’s why: The “small fortune” adage has been applied to many hobbies-turned-businesses for good reason. Passion for the product is all well and good, but in business—even the guitar business—it may have to take a back seat if you want to survive.

Guitar building—either from scratch or from parts—has become a cottage industry in recent years. It seems like every starry-eyed dude with a board and a butter knife calls himself a builder. Web-based luthier-supply stores have empowered thousands of hobbyists to create instruments at home. These outlets offer just about everything you need to become a fledgling guitar maker. In fact, these vendors have become so sophisticated that many of the large factories now buy from them.

Assembling guitars in a basement or garage gets many people daydreaming about a home-based guitar business. After selling guitars to a few friends, this may seem like an exciting adventure. But if you’re used to getting a steady paycheck, you may be in for a surprise.

Counting costs. In addition to building my own brand of guitars, I work as a consultant for both small and large operations that are serious about not only making guitars, but building a business as well. (Let that sink in for a moment.) No matter how much you love guitars, you have to be prepared to put that aside in order to see things objectively. And sometimes that means putting business first.

When I’m hired to help streamline or improve a guitar shop, the first question I always ask is: Do youreally know how much it costs you to make and deliver a guitar to a customer? I often find that people have no idea. Many builders tally the cost of parts and materials, and maybe throw in some extra dollars to cover miscellaneous expenses. If they are paying people to help out, they might add their salaries to the tally.

Passion for the product is all well and good, but in business—even the guitar business—it may have to take a back seat
if you want to survive.

Whatever profit they think they’re making is likely kept in a pool for things like new tools or the rent for a small space. They probably aren’t planning for the day when a stoned employee puts an X-Acto knife blade through his thumb and decides to sue. Did you figure liability insurance into your business plan? That increases the cost of your guitars. Your time mopping up the blood is a cost too.

The best way to view your operation is to consider anything you do an expense that must be offset by your billings. Turn on a light? It’s a cost. Turn on the heat? It’s a cost. Use the phone? All of these and more are ongoing costs that figure into every instrument you sell. Other services that get used occasionally, such as hiring an electrician or an attorney—yes, there will be lawyers—should be built into a financial plan ahead of time in order to smooth out your cash flow and help you establish your pricing structure. I advise asking an accountant to mentor you. This is going to be fun, right?

Material matters. Acquiring raw materials is another area where planning pays off. You need to know how much wood is needed for a single guitar, including the waste that inevitably occurs. For example, if you buy 1,000 board feet of neck wood, you will not be able to convert all of it into product. Your wood supplier will do their best to sell you usable lumber, but there are always defects in every board that must be worked around or scrapped.

A good place to start is to add at least 30 percent to what you think you will need and include this in your cost estimates. You may find that you’re doing better than that on average, so you can adjust downward for future buys. Another helpful tip is to ask your supplier to cut your boards to a length that is a multiple of the individual blanks you need, which helps eliminate waste, reducing your cost.

The same logic applies to hardware. No matter how well made your vendor’s hardware is, there will be occasional duds. You won’t have to pay for a replacement, but it might stall the completion of your customer’s guitar, and every day it’s delayed is money you will never get back. The knee-jerk reaction is to keep loads of hardware in stock, but inventory costs you money. Be sure to inspect and test as soon as a shipment arrives so you can get replacements before your cash flow stalls.

These are all basic business and manufacturing concerns, and we haven’t even gotten into promoting, selling, or the most basic streamlining of the actual building process! When you endeavor to turn your passion for guitar into an avocation, the very thing that got you interested may be last on your “to-do” list.

And oh—don’t forget to include the cost of that shipping box.


sMg Guitars – Summer Update

August 20, 2013

Yes, I am still here.  What’s not here is a shop to build guitars.  I haven’t handled a chisel or squeezed any glue or set any frets since well before this summer began.  My shop was in my house which sold in July.  I located a new space which since July has merely been the storage location for all my tools, benches, wood and components.  I have been slowly organizing the space to allow me to do actual work, but summer treks, settling into new accommodations, and preparing for the new school year have taken me away from shop work.

Life has interfered with making dust, but it hasn’t squashed it entirely.  Every day, I’m a bit closer to picking up the chisel.

sMg Guitars to Move to New Location

April 17, 2013

Due to changing circumstances, I am relocating my workshop for sMg Guitars to a new location starting May 1st.  I’m excited about the new space, but have to put my building efforts on hold while I make the transition.  The new space will be larger than my current space, and comes with the bonus of an existing spray room, central compressed air, and central dust collection.  I will have the honor of being in the building with other woodworkers, a violin maker, a photographer, and glass artist.  I know several of these gents already, and expect the transition to be quite smooth.  I’m looking forward to working in a shared space, almost like going to the office, but to build guitars with colleagues rather than collating the TRS Report.

Girdis Guitar Finish Work Complete

March 29, 2013

After considerable wait time, the finish work on the Girdis guitar is complete and the box arrived yesterday.  Very nice finish, very nice guitar.





If I can’t take scrutiny I can’t improve

January 27, 2013

I sent my uke to a fellow who applies lacquer finishes to guitars and ukes as a service (read: $$$) to guitar builders who avoid finishing their own.  I got a call last week essentially letting me know the uke wasn’t ready for lacquer application.  I could tell he was a bit nervous having to inform me of this situation.  He was kind enough to say this is typical of the dance he goes through with new clients, but that his interest was only in producing the best finish possible.

He will put post-it notes on the uke with a description of the issue for each post-it.  He implied there would be many post-its.  In the past, I may have felt that this was an insult to my building ability.  But today, I consider it a healthy critique of my process and understanding of how detailed I need to take an instrument before it is ready for finish work.

I’m standing by, awaiting the return of my uke, so I can detail it down to “finish ready”.

Guitar 1202 – Binding and Purfling

January 27, 2013

I have finished installing the binding.  I’ve taken an alternative approach to this guitar.  When purfling the top with Abalam, I have, previously, installed the binding, purfling, teflon, purfling sandwich all at once.  It has been a tricky juggling process which guaranteed binding cracks, gaps, unseated purfling strips, all because I had to weave 4 different layers into the channels which were slathered with glue, then with my third hand (which I don’t have) apply the binding tape to hold it all in place.

This time, I installed the binding solo, and will clean out the glue overage, then drop the purfling, teflon, purfling sandwich into the open channel.


The photo shows the purfling strips with teflon between, and abalam in the channel after the teflon is removed.  Currently, the binding glue is drying, and a variety of cracks are being repaired under clamps.


Guitar 1202 – Butt Graft

January 4, 2013

Love to say “butt graft”.  Attached the top, cut off the scarf and installed the butt graft.  Next, binding!



Guitar 1202 – Box On Garth

January 3, 2013

Good news from LMI:  KTM9 water based lacquer has shipped from the manufacturer.  Availability to me starts January 9th.

Did some packing of the uke after fully prepping it for lacquer finish.  I’ve sent it off to Athens, GA for finishing.

The box for the OM aka “Bob” is closed in.  I did neglect to install the electronics, but justified my mistake by saying that I need practice installing these after the fact anyway, so we all say.

First, completed sanding and prepping the back and sides to accept the top.


In the past I have wreaked havoc on spruce tops while bracing.  I learned since to mask the top while I’m bracing to avoid dings and dimples.



Hey, it was from a calendar my WIFE gave me.  The top is all braced and trimmed back ready for installation.


A couple of hours to dry, then I can cut off the scarf and start thinking about the binding and purfling.

Happy New Year to All

December 30, 2012

This will be my last post of 2012.  Some things were accomplished in 2012, but all in all, the pace of this year’s building has ebbed in relation to previous years.  I could chalk that up to a new career teaching mathematics, but really it’s a case of shifting priorities.  I have endured a few crisis moments all around finishing with spray lacquer.  As reluctant as I was to put down the spray gun, it is for the better.  I cannot continue to subject my families health and my health to the lacquer fumes inherent with nitrocellulose lacquer application.  My options are twofold:  send guitars out for spray services ($500) or procure hard to find water based lacquer and spray with this less toxic alternative.  I’m still on the hunt for water based with mixed results.

I have been working diligently on my uke, Rachel’s parlor and Susan’s OM.  What follows is an except from recent work.

Rachel’s parlor has taken a step forward with neck shaping and fret dot design.


The fretboards for Rachel’s parlor and Susan’s OM are seen below the beautiful Myrtle back.


The parlor neck is on top with the Cocobollo headplate.  The OM neck is shown with the rosewood headplate.

I’ve managed to shape bracing and install the back to the sides as well as lay down the top bracing for the OM.



The second picture shows the back after the scarf has been trimmed.


Uke 1201 – Fretboard Installed

November 18, 2012

Uke 1201:  Frets were radiussed then cut to length and placed in a holder.  Except for fret 2 and 11, the frets were hammered into place.


The fretboard was dry fit to the neck, and index holes drilled into the 2nd and 11th fret slots to hold the board in place for gluing.


Glue was applied to both the fretboard back and neck, then pressed into place using index pins.  The clamping is a big old rubber band wrapped around the neck several times.  The fretboard extention over the body is clamped down with a simple C clamp.


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