In 1908 Henry Ford introduced the Model T, a relatively affordable automobile built for “the masses.” Not satisfied with the time and expense involved with building each one separately, he came up with the innovative idea of a moving assembly line. Five years later, in 1913, Henry put his idea into practice. As the vehicles moved down the line, at a rate of six feet per minute, workers installed specific parts repetitively. Production time was cut by nearly 80%, costs were reduced significantly, and quality was improved. American manufacturing was changed forever.
I toured the Martin Guitar Factory in Nazareth, PA, and saw this process firsthand. As guitars move down the line parts are cut, routed, sanded, finished, etc. by sophisticated CNC equipment (computer controlled machinery that replicates each step precisely and exactly). The human element is still evident, however, as experienced craftsmen oversee and execute many of the steps by hand, producing superb instruments. Very impressive!
So I thought (always risky as my mind is like a bad neighborhood – dangerous to go in there alone) why not employ old Henry’s assembly line in my own little shop? After all, as long as I have one tool out and set up wouldn’t it be just as easy to do multiples instead of just one? I could effectively reduce the time involved for each guitar, save the hassle of having to get out and put away the necessary tools so many times and, as long as I’m making a mess, gather up large quantities of sawdust instead of just a little. A most excellent concept BUT, as I’m finding out, not well-suited for my situation. I’m learning that this only works well if the guitars I’m building are all meant to be the same. They’re not.
I’m currently working on four cigar box guitars and all are very different. The wood, measurements, string scale, components, box, and intended purpose are unique to each. So the creative design and engineering that goes into the thought process fluctuates vastly from guitar to guitar. And while it is, indeed, easier to have just one tool out at a time it is not conducive to speed. I have to be very careful to make sure that I do not confuse measurements and specs as I move from piece to piece. Upon completion each guitar will be great, I will be proud, and their new owners will be happy. I will not, however, be building this way again in the near future. For me it’s not about efficient production, it’s all about the creativity.
I love designing guitars in my head. I love selecting the wood, choosing components, carefully measuring, cutting, gluing, assembling, and applying finish. I love sitting back to admire and learn from the step I’ve just completed. Every guitar I build develops a personality, “soul” if you will, along the way. It comes alive and actively helps modify and choose what it will eventually become – an instrument producing beautiful, mystical music through the hands of a skilled player. The guitars I build deserve individual attention.
I’m no Henry Ford.