Fraser Chute loves music. He is a formally trained drummer, but he has also “dragged around” a steel string guitar for over thirty years.
He also really enjoys working with wood. Over the years Fraser has built a number of things, including his own canoe.
Music took a bit of a back seat in Fraser’s life for a few years, but in 2004 he met his wife Cecile, and he credits her for bringing music back front and centre into his life. In 2005 he switched from “playing around” with his steel string guitar to taking Flamenco guitar lessons.
“I enjoyed playing but as I improved I wanted a better guitar than the one I had. Turns out prices for a really good guitar are outrageous. Then I saw an article about a 92-year-old man who had built quite a few guitars for his children when they were growing up. One of his children, Andrew Mah, is a world-renowned Classical guitar player. That was when I had my epiphany – I could make my own guitar.”
Building a guitar isn’t quite the same as building bookcases or even a canoe. Fraser spent two years just reading and researching everything he could find on guitars and has bought and read most if not all of the best books on the craft. Once he felt he was ready he started collecting the tools he needed.
“It took some time before I finally built my first Flamenco guitar. I started it in late 2008 and it took about a year to build it, a bit at a time. So it went from learning how to play Flamenco guitar to building my own guitar. It is one of the most wonderful experiences to be able to do this. And after I built and played it I realized – I know how to build a really good guitar. And that was it – I was hooked.”
Even though he already knew how to build a guitar Fraser wanted to study with an expert. In early 2010 Fraser took leave without pay from his job and enrolled in Sergei de Jonge’s five-week guitar building course. Sergei de Jonge is a world-renowned luthier who lives in Chelsea, Quebec. Students come from around the world to study with him. Fraser was only one of two people from Ottawa – the rest were from Denmark, France, Kentucky, New Jersey, Hamilton, Calgary, and Montreal. It was during this course that he built his first Classical guitar.
It was also when he decided to become a professional luthier.
If he was going to get serious about building guitars he needed more space and a permanent shop, so in the fall of 2010, he and Cecile started renovating their detached garage.
“It had electricity and insulation but pretty well everything else had to be redone. A new gas line was brought in from the house and a gas radiant heater installed to heat it. A new door and window with a new insulated ceiling and floor, a new paint job and I was ready to get the machinery in. Once the shop was done then came the task of building a solid workbench, shelves etc. to accommodate everything. The machines were delivered in 2011. It took the next year and a half to get it set up properly.”
None of this was cheap. In addition to what he invested in the shop renovation, tools, and machinery there is the ongoing cost of the specialty woods and all the other materials that go into a guitar. For example, tuning machines can vary from $120 to over $750 a set. It also takes a lot of time – easily 150 hours to build a guitar to custom specifications and another 50 hours for the French polish finish, which is thinner and produces a better sound than regular production finishes. French polish is only found on custom guitars because it must be applied one coat at a time.
But why go to all this trouble and expense when production guitars – lots of them – are so readily available?
Production guitars are manufactured and each model is assembled exactly the same way, regardless of the natural variations in the wood used. Any unique characteristics in the wood can be lost during the process. The advantage is that there is uniformity – all guitars made by manufacturer X will look more or less the same as the others of that model. The disadvantage is they will not necessarily sound the same. The other advantage is the cost. Guitars made on a production line are much cheaper to make. These days many of them are made in China, where production costs are even lower. The disadvantage is that a guitar off the shelf is made for anyone and everyone, which means it isn’t necessarily perfect for you. And while some of them have good sound or even great sound, many may never be more than adequate.
Properly built custom guitars, on the other hand, will have a great sound, but they are expensive and time-consuming to make. Because no two pieces of wood are exactly the same building a quality guitar means fine-tuning and adjusting the top, neck, back, and sides in order to get the optimum sound possible. The sound comes from the combination of woods used (top, neck, back, and sides) and the design of the guitar, and each combination can give a very different result.
Maple burl wood. Pieces will be used for the rosette or decoration around the sound hole.[/caption]
Some customizations are obvious – left or right handed – full or 3/4 size? Most customizations, however, are very much about personal preference. Some musicians prefer a mellow sound, while some want a really sustained sound. Some players like a wider or narrower neck, a higher or lower bridge, a smaller or larger body, a cut-away, custom sound holes, and custom woods and inlays. To further complicate matters, no two guitar players play exactly the same music in exactly the same way. Do you play with picks or are you a finger picker? Do you want a high velocity of sound and a “punchy” quality because you play country blues, or a more balanced, warmer sound better suited to country ballads or folk. The best wood for your guitar top may be Sitka spruce, while your friend would do better with cedar or another species of spruce. The neck, sides, and back of a guitar can be various types of wood, each potentially affecting how the guitar will ultimately sound.
When you consider everything that goes into a top quality guitar it really isn’t surprising to learn that world-renowned luthiers charge anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 for a guitar. Fraser doesn’t think he will ever see that, but he does believe he comes very close to their quality. His prices start at around $2,500
And while he wants to be successful, that really isn’t why he does this.
“I do it more because of my love of music than for a business. I can spend hours just talking about guitars and music. And I do spend hundreds of hours in my workshop, building them. I can get lost in my workshop; time just seems to stand still when I am working on a guitar. I love making something tangible – thinking about it, planning it, then building it. Building guitars scratches this itch because it includes all kinds of skills and it combines two of my passions. I really get a lot of satisfaction out of it.”
To contact Fraser email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 613 862-2731
Building custom guitars – the story in pictures
Copyright © JD Cottier
All Photos Copyright © Fraser Chute
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