Why custom? Why handmade? Why factory?
An often-discussed topic among guitar players and builders concerns the benefits and shortcomings of buying custom or handmade guitars rather than factory-made. As a builder and former factory employee (though not in a guitar factory), I am understandably inclined towards custom or handmade guitars.
While working in the manufacturing facility of a well-known computer company in Silicon Valley, I learned a lot about how high-volume factories operate. While there is little in common between computers and acoustic guitars, many manufacturing practices apply to both types of products, most notably control of the manufacturing process and predictability. Control of the manufacturing process ensures that at each step, every item is built in exactly the same way, ensuring consistent final products. Predictability depends on the consistency of parts and materials when they are delivered to the factory to be incorporated into the final product. In most cases, customers want to know that what they buy off a shelf full of TVs, computers, or often guitars is of consistent quality, regardless of how many people may have participated in its manufacture, i.e. day or swing shift, stand-in for an absent worker, etc. Another benefit of process control for factories is cost savings, particularly in labor. With a well-developed process, the level of skill required for performing a particular step in the process can be kept at a minimum, with commensurately lower wages paid to that worker. On the face of it, this is a good thing. Those in charge of the process can rest assured that their workers are producing goods according to the dictates of the product designers, whose designs cannot be compromised by the factory that builds the product, although sometimes the design of a product might be changed to enhance its manufacturability, but that is another story. If a different worker has to perform a specific step in the process, due to turnover or sickness, adherence to the process ensures consistent work, no matter who performs it, so long as they are sufficiently trained. Control and decision-making regarding just how to build the product reside with designers and engineers at levels well above the assembly line worker. The worker makes few decisions and has few options, which minimizes the influence of the human element with the aim of minimizing errors while maximizing consistency and efficiency.
A guitar builder is more directly involved, making many decisions as the construction of the guitar progresses. Such decisions often have to do with compensating for the variability found in all wood, leaving a little more material to add stiffness where needed, or removing a little more because that particular piece of wood may be a bit stiffer. The experienced guitar builder makes decisions of this nature in the quest to build an optimal guitar, rather than meeting the requirements of a set of designer’s drawings created for an assembly line. The experienced builder must be able to compensate for differences in the materials used because no two pieces of wood are the same. Therein lies the dilemma for the high-production guitar factory. In order to compensate for differences in woods, the factory must overbuild their guitars. Here’s why.
Since wood is used, there will be variations in its strength and stiffness. It is simply the nature of wood. For example, a drawing calls for a dimension in top bracing which results in optimum stiffness and mass for the batch of wood presently onhand. That dimension is the smallest possible that will provide sufficient strength or stiffness to counteract the pull of the strings, while at the same time minimizing mass and providing sufficient flexibility for enough vibration to provide good tone. Later, that batch is gone, and the next batch to be used is weaker or less stiff than the previous batch. If the dimensions used for the first, stiff batch are then used for this weaker or less stiff batch, the bracing may no longer be stiff enough to resist the pull of the strings, resulting in excessive deformation of the top of the guitar, and/or poor tone. To avoid this situation, the designer must specify a dimension that guarantees sufficient strength or stiffness whether the wood used is optimally stiff or floppy. To do otherwise invites the burden of excessive warranty work for the factory repairing the guitars whose tops deform due to insufficient stiffness. It follows then that guitars built to identical dimensions with floppy wood may have optimal stiffness, but excessive mass; those built with stiff wood have excessive mass AND excessive stiffness. Both results can hamper tone. But the individual builder uses his or her expertise to ascertain the whether a particular piece is sufficiently stiff or strong, and makes changes in the dimensions accordingly, as the work progresses, ensuring that the bracing is as low in mass as is practical and allowing sufficient flexibility to be responsive, while still being stiff enough to maintain structural integrity. The builder’s method could never work profitably in a factory due to the high skill level and high wages required for such decisions to occur on-the-fly in a factory; the time needed to determine the need for special work would upset the flow of work down the assembly line. The resulting inconsistency in the rate of flow of products out the back of the assembly line precludes production forecasting, compromising another staple of control in a factory.
Thus the factory must standardize on the dimensions of its top bracing, resulting in some tops being stiffer than is needed and more massive than is needed, with the goal that none is less stiff than is needed. But to optimize the top bracing so that it is just stiff enough with minimum mass, those dimensions must vary according to the particular piece of wood being used, and the high-production factory cannot introduce that sort of decision making to the factory floor. So the very thing that should be variable, bracing dimensions in this example, has to be held constant. And that constant is often results in excessive mass and sometimes excessive stiffness, in order to maintain a margin of safety that will minimize deformation with resulting high rates of warranty repairs.
The buyer’s individual needs must also be considered. I don’t know of any guitar factory that can match the flexibility that a custom builder has to offer. For example, it’s unlikely that a factory can accommodate someone who needs an asymmetrical neck profile, or a special scale length. While many factories offer a wide array of options in terms of trim, wood selection and other visual options, the design and dimensions will likely adhere to that factory’s standard specifications. Car factories make a good analogy. They might offer several trim packages that may transform a particular model, with different trim, interior appointments, wheels, or color schemes, but it’s still the same car underneath. They can’t alter the specifications of their standard models because their tooling and processes are designed to handle only variations across different models. Same with guitar factories. The custom builder though, is much more flexible and can offer many more changes, such as wedge-shaped bodies, 13-fret necks, fanned frets, and so on. The custom-built guitar is designed from the ground up to meet the needs of the customer, whereas with the factory-built guitar, the customer must choose a guitar that’s already built, and hope it conforms to his or her needs.
Factory-built guitars do have their place, however. For a beginning player, it makes no sense to invest in a custom guitar. It takes awhile for a player to understand his or her requirements, sometimes years, so the investment in a custom guitar in the early stages of learning to play may not make sense. There are indeed many well-built factory guitars on the market for surprisingly low prices and some of them are quite decent instruments, so for the beginner, a factory guitar is probably the best bet, provided that is, that it has been set up properly to be played easily. The exception may be where factory guitars physically do not fit the body of the player, for example, where a player’s shoulders may not permit the extension needed for a conventional guitar. In such a case, a custom might be the only way to meet that player’s needs.
So, for something as personal a possession as a guitar can be to some players, a factory cannot provide the flexibility and range of choices that a good individual builder can. By commissioning a custom guitar, the player and the builder may discuss all aspects of the player’s needs and together design a guitar.