Are you making jigs or making guitars?
A recent thread on the Australian/New Zealand luthiers forum inspired me to write. The author of the thread was writing about jigs and wondering about how much effort he might put into making them if he wasn’t planning on making guitars for a living. Anyway, here is my contribution:
“What is considered “craftsmanship” has changed greatly in the last few years. It’s been a gradual change, but craftsmanship used to be “what a skilled person can do with a chisel or a plane”. Now craftsmanship is “how much you can remove all signs of human contact with your materials”. Our tastes in what craftsmanship looks like have been conditioned by the consumption of mass produced goods. In my first book, I wrote a whole chapter on it, talking about “the workmanship of risk” vs “the workmanship of certainty” as well as touching on subjects like wabi sabi, and the roughness of first class old English violin bows. It was after writing all this, I realised I was p******g in the wind. Customers want visual perfection and despite a few romantic ideas about handwork, they don’t really care how it’s achieved. As long as it is.
What it means is jigs have become a huge part of instrument making.
When I started woodwork professionally in the late 80s there were still around older craftsmen who thought you a bit of a sissy if you used a router. Or a jig for sharpening your chisel. “Router joiners” they called them. These old fellers were often shipyard trained and highly skilled with hand tools and larger machines. Amazing fellers really. And in their minds, “router joiners” weren’t craftsmen, they were people who went to great lengths in order to avoid developing hand skills. And there is some truth in this.
It all depends on your motivation for making things. If you want to spend the time learning and developing hand skills, spend the time doing that. Make guitars, not jigs. If you want to make perfect looking guitars, to sell or show off with, spend the time making jigs, then make guitars. If you’re somewhere between the two, then you’ll find your own balance. So it all depends on your motivation and the financial pressures you might be under.
There is a Japanese chap on Youtube who makes Classical guitars, entirely by hand. And without jigs, beyond a shooting board. It’s a joy to watch. I’ll dig out a link if I can find him again. So, what we do know is, he’s skilled and does lovely work, and I imagine he enjoys his time in the workshop very much. What we don’t know is if he does this for a living. Or if he does, does he live in abject poverty? Is he already stinking rich so can take his time…Whatever the answer is, he’s chosen to work in such a way that he could make very few instruments a year like this, even full time.
I’m making guitars for a living, so jigs are a big part of my working day. Customers don’t notice things if they are right, but they are very quick to notice if things are not, so uniformity is vital. And after nearly 30 years, it’s all woodwork to me, regardless of if it’s jigged or not. But for you, if you’re not doing this for a living, see which you enjoy most – the workmanship of risk, or the workmanship of certainty.
You may find you enjoy making jigs more than you enjoy making guitars. There are folk who do. Then great. I’m amazed at how polished and complex some people’s jigs are. Mine look like junk. But my priority is making nice guitars, not nice jigs.
You’ll find your balance for sure.”