Building a musical instrument is both easier and more difficult than you may think. It’s easier because its requirements are not extensive and the tools and materials are simple. It is difficult because there are too many variables, too many things that can go wrong and there is so little good information available about what to do when something does go wrong.
Many musicians and woodworkers are afraid to attempt an instrument. They don’t understand the instruments and they’re afraid of ruining their woodworking. To feel comfortable with making a musical instrument you need to understand the materials, how these materials work and what degree of perfection both from a musical and aesthetic points of view you need to achieve.
Without this knowledge, you are forced to go through all the agony and frustration of reinventing the craft, discovering everything anew, as if no one had made an instrument before you. You’ll eventually achieve some competence, but you’ll pay a steep price in failures and rework. With knowledge, making a musical instrument becomes fun. You can make intelligent choices to achieve the degree of perfection you want. You can add another dimension of artistic expression to your work. You can avoid potential problems. And you can correct mistakes when they do occur.
Musical Instrument Making is a Science
Information about musical instruments is riddled with myth, half-truth and hyperbole. This situation creates countless problems because it diverts you from the information you need to understand instrument making.
Some of the myths imply that the old materials and the old ways of doing things are somehow better than what we have and what we do today. Other myths suggest that musical instrument making is a sort of alchemy, consisting of secret formulations that are held in confidence by those who, somehow, already know them.
The physics of the instruments and its methods is a well-established science and there isn’t a lot of room for opinion.
Old materials and old techniques are not better
The idea that the old materials and ways of doing are better than what we have and what we do today is a common misconception. Up to nineteenth century, craftsmen had a very limited choice of materials, tools and methods for making the instruments.
Our ancestors used what they had. They used the best techniques at that time. The mistaken idea that old material and methods were better that our modern ways maybe the result of our tendency to associate those with woodworking. It is true that eighteenth and nineteenth-century makers were very highly skilled, the result of long apprenticeships available to few modern-day builders.
There are no secrets
Even more crippling to the development of the craft of instrument making is the persistent view that materials like glues and varnishes are shrouded in secrecy. At one time this may have been true. Individual craftsmen made up their own finishes from primitive raw materials, just as they made their own tools. But finish formulations has become a sophisticated science in the twentieth century.
Despite the changes, so-called secret formulas continue to circulate, seasoned with the notion that they have been passed down through many generations.
Possibly most damaging to the development of the instrument making craft is the incorrect information repeated over and over in books, articles and pamphlets. Most of the people responsible for this information are not makers, but professional writers who make their living writing rather than making instruments. Even if they have made some instruments, they do not understand the physics of the instruments. They do not know the questions to ask or the problems to expect. Nor do they recognize when they are repeating nonsense that some other writer has written or when they are being misled by a manufacturer intent on increasing sales.
As a result, you continue to see the same incorrect information repeated. You may see it repeated so often that you begin to question your own experience.