Many people come to the MIMForum with a big dream but little or no experience in woodworking, instrument building, or business; and with very unrealistic expectations. We wrote this FAQ to help you think through some of the issues of becoming a full-time professional builder. Much of what we offer below may sound discouraging because we're waving a caution flag. The gap between the dream of being a full-time pro and the reality of supporting yourself through instrument building is a very large one. We'd like to point out just how large this chasm is before you quit your day-job and sell off all your earthly possessions in pursuit of your dream.
Q. What is the MOST important factor to consider if I want to become a full-time professional?
A. You are going into BUSINESS, and there is absolutely no romance in running a business. One of the biggest impediments to success as a full-time self-employed instrument maker is not becoming a builder, plenty of people get that right and build perfectly serviceable instruments. But if you don't know how to budget both your money and your time, if you don't know how to locate and sell to your target market, it won't matter how successful you are as a builder. A failed business is a failed business regardless of the quality of the product. Anyone with good business skills can sell crap. The best product will remain on the shelf without the proper marketing tools.
Q. OK, I get it, you're telling me not to just jump in with both feet and hope for the best. So what is the best way to go into business as a full-time pro?
A. Slowly. Don't quit your day job - we mean that very seriously. Don't buy a shop's-worth of tools before you know what you need. Don't hang out a shingle until you can build instruments the quality of which won't hurt your reputation down the road. Get plenty of experience as a hobbyist and see if you like building enough to do it full time, and most likely for less than you're making now. Maybe a whole lot less. You may well find that being a weekend-warrior in your shop is plenty pleasing enough. You may find that what you want to build is not what other people want to buy. You may find that you don't really enjoy building. You may find that, no matter how much you charge, you'll never be able to make enough to live "in the style to which you've become accustomed." Or to which your significant other has. Keep in mind as well what's in your future. Starving in your one-person shop in your youth may be just fine, but what if you plan to get married and have kids some day? Will your projected income support a family? Send your kids to college?
Q. I want to make a lot of money by selling my guitars. What are my odds?
A. We'd all like that, but in reality the odds of that are about as good as your odds of winning the lottery. If money is your only motivation for wanting to do this, you're setting yourself up for failure right off the bat. Most builders are not wealthy people.
Q. Should I attend a school to learn instrument building?
A. Schools teach instrument building skills. The acquisition of these skills is never a bad thing but you'll need to weigh the cost of the schooling against the savings of acquiring these same skills on your own. One thing most of these schools and courses will not teach are the business skills you'll need. Don't expect to come out of any school with the guarantee of a profession you'll enjoy, regardless of what they may claim.
Q. Will getting a job at a guitar factory be useful in advancing my career as a guitar builder?
A. Probably not. Guitar factories are assembly-line productions, and many of the tools and techniques they use are well out of reach of the small shop. You'll be a cog, not an artisan. You may learn to do one operation well, but you're unlikely to come out of the experience with much training that will be truly useful to a luthier in a one-person shop, and you certainly won't come out with a well-rounded building education.
Q. Where can I find a builder who will pay me to work in their shop while I learn?
A. No builder will pay you to learn in their shop. The time they spend teaching you is time they *don't* spend earning a living. If you want to apprentice with a builder you should be prepared to pay, and to pay well, for the time you spend acquiring skills in their shop.
Q. Will doing this for a living take the fun out of it?
A. It could. The first chord you play on a guitar you built gives such a big rush that is very addictive. Like any addiction it can distort thinking. A lot of the fun comes from building for pleasure, without the need to sell what you produce. Once you have to build, sell what you build, and build what will sell, it may take all the joy out of the process.
Q. How do I build a reputation?
A. Get your work seen by as many musicians as possible. Get your instruments into the hands of your potential customers. Do setups and repairs and always have one or two of your guitars ready to play in your shop. Go to jam sessions with a couple of instruments; invite people to play them. If you're a player, play your own instruments at jams. If the sound and look is unique, they'll get noticed. If you have the courage and backstage access, do what Paul Reed Smith did with Carlos Santana: get your guitars into the hands of a star.
Q. Is buying advertising worthwhile?
The cost of an advertisement in even a local community paper is significant. And, advertisements need to run frequently to be effective. Most hand builders produce less than 20 instruments (most significantly less) each year. Look at your business plan. How many instruments to you expect to sell? Divide the number of instruments into the cost of the advertising. You will likely find that you are working to pay the advertiser. Look to the question on building a reputation for effective marketing advice.
Q. Should I trade instruments for endorsements?
A. No. Unless it's someone like Santana who will give your guitar wide exposure (and won't just put it in the rack next to all his other guitars). Tell musicians that your instruments are fairly priced and that you fully support them with after-sale warranty and service. Musicians can be moochers. Don't get sucked in by promises.
Q. Should I sell my guitars on eBay?
A. No. The market for custom instruments in online auctions is weak; you'd be lucky to recoup the cost of materials. However, it may provide some useful low-cost advertising if you post your instrument with a high enough reserve or "Buy It Now" price.
Q. Should I place instruments on consignment in local music stores?
A. Probably not, unless you have no problem writing off the value of the display instrument and replacing or refurbishing it periodically. It will get thrashed and trashed. Wall space is valuable to retailers and unless the store owner is a personal friend, he's likely to want a large portion of the selling price, the majority of your profit. Also, ask yourself whether the guitar is enough of a standout that it speaks for itself or whether it requires selling or explanation. Don't count on others to tell your story.
Q. What's the most important thing I can do to get recognized?
Create a USP - a Unique Selling Proposition. Find ways to differentiate your products from everyone else's, but they have to be things that people actually want. PRS created a middle ground look and feel between Fender and Gibson, hired a world-famous pickup designer, and created a quality mystique with hand-signed "10" tops. He identified his audience and built the guitars they wanted to buy. If you go after the Death Metal crowd, make sure that your guitars are so scary that children burst into tears when they see them - and that you do Floyd Rose setups better than everybody else.