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Unread 11-25-2003, 09:34 PM   #1
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CNC Machines vs. Hand-Made

I've been seeing a lot of discussion about this, and I think it needs its own thread. So, CNC or handmade?

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Unread 11-25-2003, 09:58 PM   #2
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I'm not seeing why it makes much of a difference.. it's either well-made or its not. Either method can go either way.
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Unread 11-25-2003, 10:40 PM   #3
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I have yet to see a piece of wood smart enough to know the difference. If it did, it would probably prefer the CNC method, since the traumatic and painful cutting, routing, and drilling process would be over a lot sooner - a lot less likely to produce a guitar that suffers from depression, anxiety, or in dire need of psychotherapy.

CNC machines are merely aids to an essentially human process. They perform repetitive grunt work in a very consistent and accurate manner, eliminating a lot of human error and the need for old fashioned jigs for routers, drills and the like that tend to get sloppy with use. Guitars that are mass produced in guitar "factories" are a lot more handmade than people might think. Its totally different than something like the production of injection-molded plastic toys, or Bic lighters. A good piece of wood, a good design, quality components, and good craftsmanship = good guitar. Bottom line is that higher volume, modern manufacturing techniques can yield a high quality instrument at an affordable price.
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Unread 11-25-2003, 11:07 PM   #4
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Tom,

what you say is what I've been told by a friend of mine, who works at the Taylor Guitar factory here in San Diego (El Cajon, CA...the home of Bob Taylor Guitars). Basically the machines cut everything, but the gluing and such is all done by hand. A great example of how hand built they are is the Taylor "liberty tree" guitars. Although the wood was machine cut, all of the inlays are done by hand. I believe the liberty tree guitars have something like 200 pieces (maybe more)...and each one has to be done exactly. I think the machine cuts the holes to drop the pieces it, but the placement is still done by hand, because a machine can't do that.
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Unread 11-25-2003, 11:47 PM   #5
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It tends to be associated with more quality guitars, simply because that's how most of the smaller "botique" guitar manufacturers do it. I really don't think the finished piece is any worse or better because of CNC machines, but often if you take the time to hand-cut and route the guitar, it means you're going to take your time for the rest of the process.

I like the idea that an individual labored over something, though, for what it's worth.

Also, there's the practical side of things - CNC machines are extremely expensive, so it's often the case that a low-volume maker just can't afford one, or doesn't sell enough instruments to justify the purchase.
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Unread 11-25-2003, 11:50 PM   #6
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Handmade does have its advantages though (but only if it is a highly skilled luthier doing the work) and that is that all pieces of wood are different, and a machine can't detect these. A good luthier can see these and use them to their advantage, therefore creating a better guitar that looks and feels a lot better.
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Unread 11-26-2003, 10:01 AM   #7
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Piano Man - the CNC machine has to be loaded with a blank that was selected and prepared by a human, that was hopefully cut from a log or a load of rough-sawn lumber that was inspected for it guitar-use suitability and then purchased by a human. The machine isn't involved in the selection jprocess. Think of the CNC as a robotically controlled router and driller - the craftsman cuts blanks from a plank of wood, if its got ugly spots, or splits, or whatever, those sections won't get used. Kinda like when you cut around the moldy part of the cheese. He then clamps it(or them) onto the bed of the machine. After it is shaped and drilled, he pulls off the piece(s) that is now ready for inspection, sanding, finishing, assembling, etc. If the shaping process uncovered an ugly spot, or void, or whatever that wasn't seen before, and didn't meet the standard for that part, it would be tossed in the garbage. Again, its only a mechanical device to aid a human process.
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Unread 11-26-2003, 11:23 AM   #8
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what I mean is that if there is a particularly good piece of wood with tight flames/quilting etc. a luthier can take special care to bring this out. A CNC machine just cuts it the way it has been told.
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Unread 11-26-2003, 11:54 AM   #9
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Have any of you watched the shows on T.V. where they build the chopper (motorcycles) like OCC and Jessie James? Especially the ones where they make the rims for the bikes. That's a CNC machine, only for metal. What ever you dial in that's what you going to get out. You can make it cut any shape or drill any hole anywhere you want it to be. So putting it together is basically like putting a puzzle together except with the wood you have to consider that the wood doens't stay put. It move and breathes to humidity so you consider that and make the adjustments.
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Unread 11-27-2003, 01:33 AM   #10
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Okay . . . .

Quote:
To CNC or Not to CNC, that is the question . . .
- Shakespeare's Luthier

The Greatest Trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the World he didn't exist.
- "Verbal" Kent
Okay, first, let's shed some light on this issue and get down to the nitty-gritty. BTW, I don't know how long this might be and I might tackle this in several posts.

Quote:
I think some people have the wrong idea about CNC machines and guitars [Editorial note: Yeah, no kidding. But not in the way you perhaps think.]
First, I think there are a number of misconceptions about what exactly CNC machines are, or/and, more importantly, what their true impact is.

Quote:
CNC machines are merely aids to an essentially human process. They perform repetitive grunt work in a very consistent and accurate manner.

They are fitted with router bits, drill bits, stuff like that; cutting and shaping. Once a guitar body blank has been glued up and is ready, it would then be jigged onto the CNC bed and then shaped and routed for pickups, etc.

Mostly what they do is a lot of the "grunt" work like cutting out the body shape, contouring, routing out for pickups and neck pocket, drilling holes for the bridge, stuff like that.
First, the CNC machine is not the tool of a luthier, or of any carpenter that I am aware of. Also, the idea that a CNC was used for any significant woodworking project would amount to utter sacrilege and loss of reputation. More on that later.

Basically, no Luthier that I know of uses a CNC machine, unless he got backing from investors to pay for one (they can run for $20K out of the box, not to mention the expense of programming it) and they were setting up production of one specific model of guitar, or making one specific part, or they got one for steal, perhaps even a homemade one (ironic, no?), or perhaps got a bank loan.

Now, Tom makes the point of gruntwork and what not. Well, Luthiers traditionally have never used a CNC machine to deal with gruntwork.

They use a Duplicarver!

A duplicarver is an ingenious jig used to follow the contour of a 3D reference plate to render the 3d shape of a piece of wood, in our case, the top of a guitar. Duplicarvers are totally legit in the context of handmade, because it is completely guided by hand, same as a handheld router would be, and it is completely controlled by the Luthier. A Duplicarver does all the things that you guys outlined that CNC's are supposed to do, but you have to be a true Luthier, or carpenter, you actually use it.

This was one of the methods that Paul Reed Smith used to make his early handmade guitars.

With a CNC machine, on the other hand (or not, as the case may be - "on the other machine"? ), any person who can put a block of wood onto a cutting surface, line up the edges, lock a clamp in place, and push a button, can use it. So, IOW, it takes absolutely no talent, skill, experience, lutherie knowledge, or expertise to use it. None whatsoever. That will be important later on.

Now, how does using a Duplicarver differ from using a CNC machine if they both accomplish the same goal?

Well, simply put, the Duplicarver is the tool of a Luthier who wants to insure quality control and consistancy. But it is still a Luthier using it, also allowing for and being guided by his years of experience, expertise, trained eye, and artistic skill. As we pointed out above, all those attributes are completely absent when using a CNC machine.

Why is this important? Well, this following story (from http://www.zacharyguitars.com in a tech article) helps to illustrate it rather eloquently . . .

Quote:
Hey Alex I have a little story that might interest you. A few years ago I was working at a music store with a guy named Rob who was a very talented guitarist, builder and repairman. Rob loved Fender guitars and his life dream was to move across the country to go to luthier school and eventually work for Fender. Today, Rob is building Fenders and he's miserable. He says they treat their employees like slave labor, and instead of building guitars, he's pushing buttons on machines that do the work for him. Confirmation that big guitar companies are the devil. I never liked Fenders anyway. Sam [Editorial note: His website is pretty over-the-top and a little (read: a lot) tongue-in-cheek, but he shoots straight, none-the-less.]
See, here's the deal. There is a major difference between a small team of Luthiers, with a Master Luthier and his apprentices, or a colaboration of expert Luthiers, working on a guitar, and maybe there's some division and/or specialization of labor for efficiency (but each one of them could build a guitar on his/her own from scratch) and perhaps 50-100 years of collective lutherie experience between them, vs. a whole workforce of CNC machine operators and assemblers, with 0 years lutherie experience between them, where not one of them, save maybe the shop foreman, could build a guitar completely on his own, from scratch!

BTW, that's the litmus test of a Luthier. Can he or she build a guitar from scratch. And that doesn't mean loading a blank into a CNC machine. From Scatch ~ blocks of wood + (hardware, electronics) + basic carpentry skills + (basic carpentry tools * lutherie tools & jigs) = completed guitar.

Which brings us to the next point. If your conception and paradigm of a guitar builder is someone who operates CNC machines for slave wages vs. a master luthier who has years of precision carpentry experience, then a lot of the following statements are understandable in their origin, and are equally as far off the mark as possible.

Quote:
eliminating a lot of human error and the need for old fashioned jigs for routers, drills and the like that tend to get sloppy with use.
Okay, I know upwards of about 20 full-time luthiers who sell their guitars for several thousands of dollars (to many working pros, no less) who would vehemently disagree with you. First off, the purpose of jigs is to increase precision, rather than allowing for the luthier to slack off, relying on any surrogate accuracy of the jig itself. IOW, while following the guide of a jig in routing a hole or seating for a saddle piece, we can relax in the knowledge that we will be accurate, we still get to exercise masterful carpentry, measuring twice before routing once, and moving slowly and deliberately towards making a clean and precise rout.

IOW, in the same way that it can be challenging to draw a perfectly straight line without a ruler, the artist, carpenter, and architech doesn't just carelessly slap down a straight line with the use of a ruler or straightedge, but rather still draws the line slowly and deliberately, and making lite guide lines to mark the way before commiting to a heavy, hard to erase line. It's the same with jigs of any kind!

But, referring to the distinction I made above, and the comment you made about sloppiness, I'm sure if you took one of the CNC operators from PRS or Gibson and put them in a Master Luthier's Guitar Shop, and gave them one of those "old fashioned jigs" you referred to, to do some guitar building, I'm quite confident that they would be quite sloppy indeed, making lots of human error. Such is the case with zero lutherie experience.

Quote:
Guitars that are mass produced in guitar "factories" are a lot more handmade than people might think.
Perhaps, but they are a lot more machine made than people ACTUALLY think. That's the reality of the matter. Go into any GC and ask any of the 17 year old, commissioned saleskids in there if PRS is handmade. They will respond with a resounding "yes"!!! Angels will sing, light will shine down from Heaven, and everyone will be moved by the Spirit of His Holiness, Saint Paul Reed Smith, I. Then ask the commissioned saleskid if PRS uses any CNC machines. After he wipes the tears from his eyes, he'll respond with, "'CNC' what? Is that a kind of pickup or something?"

Long story short, they haven't a clue!! And PRS has been trading on that misconception, or lack of conception, ever since April, 1995. People who bought up the PRS's after that thought they were getting handmade PRS's like the ones pre-1995.

Quote:
Its totally different than something like the production of injection-molded plastic toys, or Bic lighters.
Not really. CNC is still CNC. Just different materials, CNC programs, and make and model of machine.

Quote:
A good piece of wood, a good design, quality components, and good craftsmanship = good guitar.
THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT!!!! THERE IS NO "CRAFTSMANSHIP"!!! For there to be craftsmanship, you need a craftsman!!! By definition, someone who loads a woodblank into a CNC machine and presses a button ISN'T a craftsman!

BTW, "quality components" is highly questionable. More on that later.

Quote:
Bottom line is that higher volume, modern manufacturing techniques can yield a high quality instrument at an affordable price.
Once again, that is very subjective, and based on your definition of "high quality". If, in your paradigm or model of the world, a CNC'd PRS or Gibson represents a "high quality" guitar, then, sure, that's high quality. But that's not what I guage as a high quality guitar. For me, high quality is an Alembic, or a Ron Blake, or a Quicksilver, or a JET, or an original pre-1995 PRS, or a Warr Guitar, or a Warrior, or a Parker Fly, or guitars of their ilk. Those are quality guitars. Those are worth every penny, and then some, and they will mostly go up in value (in and of themselves, without the need to artificially inflate the value. More on that later.).

Quote:
The book matching thing is done by hand - only way it can be done. . . . I think the reason most of them don't look lined up is because of the nature of the wood and that process - a piece of maple is split, opened like a book, run thru a jointer, and then glued together. Whatever 3-dimensional visual magic property it has would be "polarized" one way on the left side, and polarized the opposite way on the right side. I think the deeper the flame effect, the less lined-up it will actually look.
Clever explanation, but not accurate. The only important place for the flame or quilt to book-match would be along the centerline where the book-match ends meet. You are accurate in that were you rout deeper, the ends of the grain will "drift" out of match from each other. However, this will not be as strongly pronouced along the center line as it would near the perimeter of the guitar where the carving/profiling goes rather deep. But this really isn't an issue because as long as the origin of the flame, or quilt, starts along the centerline and radiates out, it can drift a bit and it will still have the same beauty and impact because the centerline matchs up.

Unless, of course, if you rout to deep on the centerline while profiling/shaping/contouring. Then the bookmatch will drift out of focus, you will lose that compelling bookmatch, and they two grains will just bare a resemblance, but nothing more. Much like most of the PRS's I see these days. Why is that? Simple. This is where the eyes and hands of the Luthier comes in.

A Luthier will take the time and effort to work around the top/centerline of the topwood, preserving as much of the bookmatch as possible. He'll plane it from the bottom and get the tolerances tight, before laminating onto the back wood. He'll take off as little from the top as possible. The CNC operator, on the other machine, frankly, won't know, won't care, and will just slap a new blank into the CNC machine and press a button.

Quote:
CNC machines are not so sophisticated that you throw a log into one end and several guitars are spit out the other.
Darn near close! There may be more human handing off between CNC machines in guitar making than other products, but there are many manufacturing operations that are almost, if not completely, hands-off. And, I guarantee you 100%, if guitar companies could do it, they would! Without compunction. (Some probably are!)

And, remember, guitar construction, especially of most CNC'd guitars, is really quite simple. There are companies who manufacture electronics and applicances which are totally automated, and are on the order of 100's of times more complex than a plank of contoured wood with magnets and strings bolted to it.

Quote:
Mostly what they do is a lot of the "grunt" work like cutting out the body shape, contouring, routing out for pickups and neck pocket, drilling holes for the bridge, stuff like that. In addition to cutting some labor $, they also yield a more consistent product, and less rejects.
Once again, you are equating Luthier's with mass-producers. Luthiers very rarely have "rejects" because they are in control of the entire process from the beginning. They have trained eyes, trained hands, trained movements, experience, and so on. Besides, guitars are very simple in their construction next to, say, building cabinets or wood sculpture, like those little jig-sawed puzzle boxes. Compared to some of the popular woodworking projects out there, guitar construction is stupid simple!!! The only time rejects become an issue is in a mass production operation.

Quote:
This is the repetitive, not-so-fun woodworking stuff anyway!!
Says you!!!! Once again, thinking like a manufacturer. For a Luthier, this "repetitive, not-so-fun woodworking stuff" is Zen-like. For a CNC operator, this is interminal boredom.

Quote:
These cost savings result in more affordable guitars for poor guys like me that can't afford a $3000 or $4000 hand-made guitar.
HELLO!?! REALITY CHECK!!!! I don't know if you have been keeping up on current events, but the very guitars we are describing all list for $3000 or $4000!!! Hello? Remember? Machine-Made Guitars at Hand-Made Prices!?! (You just proved my point.) If we were talking about an CNC'd Ibanez for $200, I'd say "fine, whatever, go for it".

Quote:
Trust me, the wood doesn't know the difference who or what is cutting it.
No, but the question is, does the CNC machine know what kind of wood it's cutting? A CNC machine doesn't. Nor does a CNC operator. But a Luthier does.

A Luthier will have intimate knowledge of what each and ever hardwood species is like to carve, what they sound like, how best to bring out it's intrinsic qualities, how to combine it with other hardwoods/tonewoods to make a rich sonic palette and signature. A CNC operator will only know how to stick it in a CNC machine and press a button. And he'll probably know what it smells like when it's CNC'd - provided he even hangs out to watch over the process. Working CNC machines are a lot like running washing machines. You start them and they do their thing, whether you are there or not. Do you really think a CNC operator is going to vigilantly watch the machine to make sure it properly routs the guitar necks, as if it will be any different from the other 100 jobs it's done? They buy wood in bulk. If a neck blows out, they just chuck it and write it off.

Also, as great as Quilted and Flaming Maple are in terms of tonewood/topwood, they are actually pretty cheap. They are the cheapest woods of the exotic category. Not a big step for PRS or Gibson to carry those.

Also, while top Luthiers will tap test individual pieces of wood in order to match natural resonant frequencies, do you really think a CNC operator will do that?

Don't think so.

Quote:
The entire process of guitar building still has to be overseen at each step by humans.
Right. CNC operators plugging wood blanks into CNC machines and pressing buttons, just like corporate told them too. There is a huge distinction between overseeing a guitar, and actually building it. I know of several world-famous Luthiers, but I don't know of any world famous Overseers. Well, maybe PRS has an Overseer of the Month Award. He probably get's his own parking space for a few weeks.

Quote:
A good chunk of wood, a good design, skilled labor, quality hardware make a good guitar.
Skilled labor? Once again, what's so skilled about plugging a woodblank into a CNC machine and pressing a button?

Quote:
I wonder if the guys who feel that strongly about the CNC thing only wear clothes cut from hand-loomed fabric and stiched by hand, drive a Rolls Royce because they aren't made on an assembly line, wear only hand-made shoes, and have their houses furnished with only handmade furniture, etc, etc.
Not in particular, but many other people do. That sounds like a rather clever analogy, but it is imperfect and misdirected. All of the items you listed are radically different in terms of their use and socially contracted authenticity. For instance, the car I drive, as simple and straight-forward as it is (doesn't get any simpler than a Honda Civic) is still a complex machine needing incredibly high tolerances and technological integration, all of which being delivered in the most cost effective way possible. In that case, I have a very low value assessment and designation over being handmade. This also applies to the whole OCC and WCC allusion and reference.

As for clothing, a great deal of clothing is actually produced by cheap hand-labor, with the add of an electric sewing machine. Same with hand-made furniture, tho, truth be told, I do prefer handmade furniture. Also, I am designing a future home which will be in large part handcut log. Being a carpenter, I have an appreciation for these things.

But, the point is, while these aren't things that I place a high-value on, in terms of being mass-produced vs. completely handmade (with the exception of the furniture), I go into the process knowing that full well, and fully expect to pay Machine-Made Prices for Machine-Made Goods!!

Remember, all of these over-priced CNC'd guitars that we have been talking about are Machine-Made Guitars at Hand-Made Prices!?! They are TRADING on this misconception.

To reframe your analogy, I think a better question to ask would be this:

Quote:
I wonder if the guys who feel that strongly about the CNC thing would be upset if they were led to believe that a mass-produced shirt was custom made and were charged $80 instead of $12; that a Special Edition Cadillac was custom-built by a crew of auto-engineers, and cost the same as a Rolls Royce, when in fact it rolled off an assembly line with only a fancy new name plate to differentiate it; That this $500 pair of shoes where totally handmade/handtooled by a top shoe designer, when it actually was made by slave labor earning $10 a day in a sweat shop in East L.A., and cost $20 wholesale; and this $5K antique, handmade French Armoire actually rolled off of an assembly line in Taiwan, or parts unknown in Indonesia; etc, etc.
My guess would be that they would "feel very strongly" and probably feel "very pissed". I know I would.

The above scenarios are exactly what certain guitar companies are selling.

Quote:
Advanced manufacturing techniques (along with cheap off-shore labor) are one of the key ingredients to our high standard of living.
No, the finer things in life, some of which you alluded to, are the key ingredients to our high standard of living, and ultimate refinement. And they are also the things we value and aspire to, from a lifestyle perspective.

That said, our cost-effective industrial economy definitely creates the economic climate to make that possible, but usually such cheap labor is shunned, and only embraced by corporations who exercise cost-cutting practices to increase their bottoms lines, while usually keeping their list prices the same, thus, artificially inflated.

So, if your vision of America is that we get to get fleeced in exchange for being able to buy more stuff, then I don't embrace your ideal of the American Dream. What I will say, while jobs going oversea, leading to a substantial downturn in our economy and and an epidemic rise in unemployment, may have helped us buy more stuff in the short term, the lack of income has caused most Americans to radically slow down and curtail buying more stuff. Also, I don't know of many people who consider American jobs being replaced by cheap labor to be a good thing, nor a good trade off for being able to buy more stuff, at least in the short term.

Quote:
what you say is what I've been told by a friend of mine, who works at the Taylor Guitar factory here in San Diego (El Cajon, CA...the home of Bob Taylor Guitars). Basically the machines cut everything, but the gluing and such is all done by hand. A great example of how hand built they are is the Taylor "liberty tree" guitars. Although the wood was machine cut, all of the inlays are done by hand. I believe the liberty tree guitars have something like 200 pieces (maybe more)...and each one has to be done exactly. I think the machine cuts the holes to drop the pieces it, but the placement is still done by hand, because a machine can't do that.
Well, machines can actually do that, tho I am sure that that wouldn't be cost effective, because it's cheaper to pay cheap help to do it all. So, basically, the Luthiers are all CNC machines, and the only humans to speak of in the process are just doing jigsaw puzzles with inlay pieces?

Quote:
It tends to be associated with more quality guitars, simply because that's how most of the smaller "botique" guitar manufacturers do it. I really don't think the finished piece is any worse or better because of CNC machines, but often if you take the time to hand-cut and route the guitar, it means you're going to take your time for the rest of the process. I like the idea that an individual labored over something, though, for what it's worth.
Well said.

Quote:
Also, there's the practical side of things - CNC machines are extremely expensive, so it's often the case that a low-volume maker just can't afford one, or doesn't sell enough instruments to justify the purchase.
True, but it actually goes a whole lot deeper than that.

Quote:
Have any of you watched the shows on T.V. where they build the chopper (motorcycles) like OCC and Jessie James? Especially the ones where they make the rims for the bikes. That's a CNC machine, only for metal. What ever you dial in that's what you going to get out. You can make it cut any shape or drill any hole anywhere you want it to be. So putting it together is basically like putting a puzzle together except with the wood you have to consider that the wood doens't stay put. It move and breathes to humidity so you consider that and make the adjustments.
Not exactly. There isn't a setting on a CNC machine for adjusting for weather conditions or the wood curing. Nor is it something you just "dial-in".

Quote:
I have yet to see a piece of wood smart enough to know the difference. If it did, it would probably prefer the CNC method, since the traumatic and painful cutting, routing, and drilling process would be over a lot sooner - a lot less likely to produce a guitar that suffers from depression, anxiety, or in dire need of psychotherapy.
What? Tom the Tree-Hugger!?! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Here's the deal. The minute you get into mass-production and the big, corporate business model, the whole game changes. In the world of the Luthier, only one criteria reigns supreme = high quality standards. In the corporate world, two rules apply and reign supreme: Cut Costs and Increase Revenues, both by ANY MEANS NECESSARY. Corporations will do anything to realize these two cardinal rules of Big Business. You might think that Increasing Revenues has something to do with putting out a quality product. It doesn't. But it has everything to do with increasing marketing efforts.

Now, what about cost-cutting, which is an incredibly lucrative practice? Well, I think this piece of an a tech article covers it well and goes into the numbers. It's by Ed Roman. Love him or hate him, this does make for food for thought. For the full article, click here: http://www.edroman.com/rant/costcut.htm

Quote:
Cost Cutting: What Does It Really Mean?

Many people wonder why large companies try to shave pennies off their costs. Especially when the product sells in the multi thousand dollar range. Most people don't grasp the reasoning behind it. I mean it's obvious that cost cutting saves money but in the grand scheme of things, most people tend to think it incredulous that a company, any company would be concerned over saving $6.83 on a set of tuners for a $4,500.00 list price guitar.

Let Me Explain It:

Lets say for example, a company shaves a meager $6.83 off the cost of building their guitar. If they can do this in a way that doesn't greatly effect the overall quality, Great! But more often than not this is how quality slips slowly down the toilet.

OK Here We Go!

PBS company has just reduced their cost per guitar by $6.83
PBS company builds 141 guitars a day which equals a daily savings of $963.03
PBS company is open for business 275 days a year
PBS company has saved a whopping $264,833.25

Two hundred sixty four thousand dollars is more than a quarter of a million dollars.

That money goes straight to the bottom line. In other words it's pure profit savings! Pure Profit Savings is the best kind of profit because on most profit you have to pay taxes, Pure Profit Savings is non taxable. [note: there are a variety of tax loopholes and incentives for businesses.]

Now, Imagine the difference between a $64.00 tremolo system and an $11.00 stop tailpiece system. If you use the same numbers the saving would be approaching 3 million dollars.

Have I made my point?

Ed Roman, 01/15/99
Here's the deal.

The temptation to cost-cut is a slippery slope indeed. The minute you get a CNC machine, that slope goes vertical.

You can easily employ people for cheap labor to push buttons, and spit out mass produced parts, and do things cheaper, than to hire Luthiers to make these guitars by hand.

And if your uneducated buying public doesn't know any different, all the better.

Chesh
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Unread 11-27-2003, 03:46 AM   #11
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Perhaps the thread should be titled "Production vs Handmade Guitars".

What I have been trying to say is that a CNC is only a tool, a fancy automated Duplicarver. Its purpose is for producing high quantities of a consistent product. They are a lot more than $20K, though -more like $200K or more. There is nothing inherent in a CNC machine that produces items of any lesser quality than any other tool - its the material used and the people who set up the process, supervise it, and perform the work. Just because a shop or factory has a CNC, doesn't mean they grab people off the street, pay minimum wage, and let them run amuck. A high production guitar shop is like an assembly line - each worker is trained to be an "expert" at their specific function - selecting woods, finishing, or sanding , or whatever. They are very good at that one function, understand what they need to do, and are very fast at it. There have to plenty of qualified luthiers/woodworkers to engineer, supervise, QC, etc. or they would not be able to produce pro-level guitars.

Oh, yeah, coincidentally I used to work at a production woodworking shop (not a guitar mfr, though ) as a production planner, and production manager. We had a couple CNC machines. Actually, the guys there who operated the CNC's were very skilled, experienced woodworkers. They do take a fair amount of "babysitting" -bits will get dull or broken, or something will drift and need to be reset, etc. We had skilled experienced woodworkers, semi-skilled, not-so skilled workers, and supervisors in each dept. Each step in the process from purchasing the materials to packing it in a box was supervised, and quality checked. If something didn't meet the standards for that product, it didn't go any further. We could make museum-quality stuff, or Formica counter tops in high quantities, because we had skilled people with the right tools.
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Unread 11-27-2003, 05:05 AM   #12
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Perhaps the thread should be titled "Production vs Handmade Guitars".
Perhaps.

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What I have been trying to say is that a CNC is only a tool, a fancy automated Duplicarver.
From an Industrialist's standpoint, I concur. From a Luthier's standpoint, I fundamentally disagree. From a carpenter's standpoint, not even.

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They are a lot more than $20K, though - more like $200K or more.
Yeah, I wasn't sure where that comma and decimal point went. Either way, way too expensive for my tastes.

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There is nothing inherent in a CNC machine that produces items of any lesser quality than any other tool - its the material used and the people who set up the process, supervise it, and perform the work.
While I don't consider a CNC a tool in terms of Lutherie, in essence, I agree. And that was largely my point. Perhaps in your world, they are used with intergrity, but in the Guitar World, that's anything but! When you couple a CNC with an agressive cost-cutting program, quality goes straight down the toilet.

Couple that with maintaining the fraudulant illusion that these guitars are handmade, and you have downright charlantanism, in terms of Lutherie. Remember, in the case of PRS, they have been trading on Paul's reputation of handmade for the last 8 years.

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Just because a shop or factory has a CNC, doesn't mean they grab people off the street, pay minimum wage, and let them run amuck.
Well, that's actually not too far from the mark. Granted, it doesn't occur as absurdly as that, but as higher levels of expertise in the Lutherie Arts are less and less necessary, especially as all the design concerns get hardwired and codified into the design software for the CNC's, these companies will gradually seek to pay less and less, continually cutting costs, til they reach equilibrium, which, more often than not, seems to settle in with the staff just knowing how to run the CNC machines.

The same thing has been progressively happening to the cast and staff of Saturday Night Live (and Mad TV for that matter). They have been gradually bleaching out all the talent from the SNL cast 'til now they have a bunch of no-talent hacks for writers and cast members, who probably couldn't survive a single night of live stand-up on their own. The whole show seems like a pointless exercise now, and is patently unfunny, with the cast going thru the same cliched motions.

Like I said, PRS has been trading on the mystique of a workshop full of Luthiers or "Craftsmen" handmaking their guitars. PRS came clean and said that 80% (or whatever) of what they do is all CNC, and charged prices accordingly, then I wouldn't have a problem with it.

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A high production guitar shop is like an assembly line - each worker is trained to be an "expert" at their specific function - selecting woods, finishing, or sanding , or whatever. They are very good at that one function, understand what they need to do, and are very fast at it. There have to plenty of qualified luthiers/woodworkers to engineer, supervise, QC, etc. or they would not be able to produce pro-level guitars.
Well, that's a romantic notion, but I don't buy it. Besides, very good/expert at what function? Loading up a woodblank and hitting a button?

Also, something else. "Pro-level guitars"!?! Ever heard of ghostbuilding?

Quote:
Oh, yeah, coincidentally I used to work at a production woodworking shop (not a guitar mfr, though ) as a production planner, and production manager. We had a couple CNC machines. Actually, the guys there who operated the CNC's were very skilled, experienced woodworkers. They do take a fair amount of "babysitting" -bits will get dull or broken, or something will drift and need to be reset, etc. We had skilled experienced woodworkers, semi-skilled, not-so skilled workers, and supervisors in each dept. Each step in the process from purchasing the materials to packing it in a box was supervised, and quality checked. If something didn't meet the standards for that product, it didn't go any further. We could make museum-quality stuff, or Formica counter tops in high quantities, because we had skilled people with the right tools.
Cool. Here's my take on this. I think you are taking the obvious esteem and admiration that you held your teams in, as well you should, and perhaps you are projecting it onto the "craftsmen" at PRS and Gibson, and wherever. Well, perhaps that's the case. I could see how from your point of view you would have respect for them as manufacturers. I can appreciate that.

But, also, understand. I've designed and built 3 guitars, and I am working on my 4th, plus radically upgrading my first one, which would constitute/count as a 5th. It's getting a new neck, new custom pickups, hardware, plus a bunch of new technological upgrades. I'm also resculpting part of the body. So, I am approaching the CNC puzzle, not as a industrialist or a manufacturer, but as a Luthier. (Not that one is better than the other.)

Reconsider that story I listed, about the guy's good friend who wanted to go work at Fender:

Quote:
Hey Alex I have a little story that might interest you. A few years ago I was working at a music store with a guy named Rob who was a very talented guitarist, builder and repairman. Rob loved Fender guitars and his life dream was to move across the country to go to luthier school and eventually work for Fender. Today, Rob is building Fenders and he's miserable. He says they treat their employees like slave labor, and instead of building guitars, he's pushing buttons on machines that do the work for him. Confirmation that big guitar companies are the devil. I never liked Fenders anyway. Sam
Going from the Joy of making guitars from scratch - true works of art - to pusing buttons on a CNC machine. I hope that illustrates it from a Luthier's point of view.

Considering that, since you have a design/woodworking background, here's an idea. Make your own guitar! Seriously! Try it out! It's quite an experience and you'll have a much deeper appreciation for what it really takes.

Chesh
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Unread 11-27-2003, 10:08 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by Major Tom
Perhaps the thread should be titled "Production vs Handmade Guitars".
Shall I change it?
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Unread 11-27-2003, 12:15 PM   #14
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CC- the CNC machine has nothing to do with a company's treatment of their employees, or the type of instruments they want to manufacture, its an inanimate object; just a tool for high volume production. There were sweat shops in this country way before Computer controlled equipment was invented, and for that matter, before the industrial revolution. My only point is that a tool is only a tool, this particular one is capable of producing rough cut, routed, and drilled pieces that will be further processed by humans and other tools. The quality and functionality of the final product is a result of the humans involved in the entire process. It could be used to make guitars like PRS, Gibson, Warrior, or even better - or it could be used to make $99.00 strat copies, or gunstocks for $129. specials sold at Wal Mart, or $3000.00 Browning Anniversary Special Limited Editions...

And yes, people on an assembly line are very good at that one function, whether its bolting on the alternator of a Ford Focus, or polishing the frets of a guitar. (don't have to be a luthier to just polish frets, do you?). This is the whole basis of high production manufacturing, and why working class people in our society (like me) can afford things like automobiles, guitars, televisions, VCR's, computers, etc, etc. and have such a high standard of living. Henry Ford rolled over in his grave...

One more point - When I was a teenager (in the late 60's and early 70's) and lusting after a real electric guitar there were essentially 2 grades of guitars - pro stuff like Fender, Gibson, Gretch, etc. and really cheap crap guitars that were usually made in Japan, nowhere near as good as today's Affinity Squire for example. CNC machines had not been invented yet, I guess Fender used stuff like Duplicarvers, or other manual tooling. A Fender Strat retailed for around $360. Might not sound like a lot for an American made strat, but at the time that was something like 2 to 4 weeks of wages for a typical adult supporting a family. (I didn't get one for Christmas..). Anyway, as the years go by, with more modern manufacturing techniques and tools, an American made strat is now retailing for closer to 1 weeks wages of a typical adult supporting a family. Some will say that todays Fenders aren't as good -hogwash- they are. They also have a finish that won't crack and disintegrate after 10 or 15 years, and a trem that is easier to set up and keep in tune. I have a '64 strat (paid $125 for it used around '71) and a mid 90's American strat, I like the newer one much better. It sounds like it does because of the design and the piece of wood that was purchased, cut from rough stock, etc, etc. It would not sound any different if it had been shaped with a hand plane, belt sander, or sharpened rocks - but I was able to afford it.

Actually the CNC debate is just an excuse for a contest in verbosity between me and CC...

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Unread 11-27-2003, 02:33 PM   #15
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Tom - I think you are missing the point here just a bit. Go back and reread my post, vs. skimming it.

I'm totally fine with CNC machines, or whatever, cranking out economical, affordable starter guitars, which in my book would be a Fender MIM Strat or Ibanez RG. And if you can get it used, all the better!

And I fully concur that mass production has greatly improved the lives of Americans (and the World) as well as our Standard of Living. The bit I don't like is cheap overseas labor driving costs down while we still pay mostly the same prices, and we lose jobs in the process. But that's another thread.

Also, I think CNC's are great for specific functions that are very exacting, like small, intricate pieces of hardware, for instance, that would be very challenging to make totally by hand. That's fine.

But, that is not what all of these guitar companies are selling! That was my whole point!

The are selling Machine-Made Guitars at Hand-Made Prices!! And they are selling the illusion that these Machine-Made Guitars are Hand-Made. I mean, seriously. The Spin doctoring is unreal. These guitar companies marketing departments are spinning more marketing concoctions than the CNC's are spinning router bits in their CNC machines!!

When Paul made his guitars by hand, he had every right to say they were hand-made and charge in the several thousands for it. That's legit. But when they went CNC, making the guitar with the same speed and facility as a Strat clone that would retail for $99, shouldn't the price have proportionately dropped as well? Based on industrial pricing and the governing principles of the marketplace, yes. Based on the egotistical whims and snobbery of the guitar/collecting world, no.

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CNC machine has nothing to do with a company's treatment of their employees, or the type of instruments they want to manufacture, its an inanimate object; just a tool for high volume production.
I agree, and I am referring to aggressive campaign of cost-cutting practices fueled by corporate greed. CNC machines just make it a whole lot easier. Nothing against the machine itself, but it's usually a litmus test of corporate greed in the guitar world. If Orville Gibson walked into Gibson today, I think he would be shocked. He would look like the Native American Chief from those commercials on littering from back in the 70's. He's probably turning over in his grave. I know that Leo Fender probably is, given that he watched the Rise of the CNC Machines until his death in 1991.

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My only point is that a tool is only a tool, this particular one is capable of producing rough cut, routed, and drilled pieces that will be further processed by humans and other tools.
Yes, and can't you also add a sanding and a buffing attachment as well? It's not that hard. And if you are going to spend $200K on a CNC machine, why settle on only some routing?

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The quality and functionality of the final product is a result of the humans involved in the entire process.
How so? Explain.

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It could be used to make guitars like PRS, Gibson, Warrior, or even better - or it could be used to make $99.00 strat copies, or gunstocks for $129. specials sold at Wal Mart, or $3000.00 Browning Anniversary Special Limited Editions...
Exactly my point! So, why does the PRS cost 10 times as much as the Strat copy? I guarantee you, the wood doesn't cost 10 times as much, and even if it did, wood is a lot cheaper than you can imagine. And, remember, Maple is a cheap exotic wood. Much pricier than, say, Poplar, or the cheap construction woods at Home Depot, but in terms of exotics, it's really cheap. And you almost never see any high-end exotics on PRS's, or Gibsons, or Fender. And even then, you would only add about $50 to the actual cost.

Quote:
And yes, people on an assembly line are very good at that one function, whether its bolting on the alternator of a Ford Focus, or polishing the frets of a guitar. (don't have to be a luthier to just polish frets, do you?). This is the whole basis of high production manufacturing, and why working class people in our society (like me) can afford things like automobiles, guitars, televisions, VCR's, computers, etc, etc. and have such a high standard of living. Henry Ford rolled over in his grave...
(don't have to be a luthier to just polish frets, do you?)!?!!? Are you kidding? Well, no, you don't have to be a luthier to polish frets, but I was thinking more about actually installing them in the first place, filing them, crowning them, and let's not forget truing up the fretboard first. You need to be a Luthier, or a highly proficient Guitar Tech, to do an excellent fretjob.

Also, as I mentioned, you are comparing these "high-quality, hand-crafted" guitars to other mass-produced products like automobiles, televisions, VCR's, computers (and don't forget microwaves and toasters).

The only other people in the guitar world who make that comparison are the CEO's of these guitar making companies. Everyone else is caught up in the illusion of Lutherie Excellence.

Quote:
One more point - When I was a teenager (in the late 60's and early 70's) and lusting after a real electric guitar there were essentially 2 grades of guitars - pro stuff like Fender, Gibson, Gretch, etc. and really cheap crap guitars that were usually made in Japan, nowhere near as good as today's Affinity Squire for example. CNC machines had not been invented yet, I guess Fender used stuff like Duplicarvers, or other manual tooling. A Fender Strat retailed for around $360. Might not sound like a lot for an American made strat, but at the time that was something like 2 to 4 weeks of wages for a typical adult supporting a family. (I didn't get one for Christmas..). Anyway, as the years go by, with more modern manufacturing techniques and tools, an American made strat is now retailing for closer to 1 weeks wages of a typical adult supporting a family. Some will say that todays Fenders aren't as good -hogwash- they are. They also have a finish that won't crack and disintegrate after 10 or 15 years, and a trem that is easier to set up and keep in tune. I have a '64 strat (paid $125 for it used around '71) and a mid 90's American strat, I like the newer one much better. It sounds like it does because of the design and the piece of wood that was purchased, cut from rough stock, etc, etc. It would not sound any different if it had been shaped with a hand plane, belt sander, or sharpened rocks - but I was able to afford it.
Hey, I agree! Like I said, I'm totally fine with CNC machines, or whatever, cranking out economical, affordable starter guitars, which in my book would be a Fender MIM Strat or Ibanez RG. So, here's my question: why charge handmade prices for it and insinuate that they are handmade? You make a great point, yet the actual practice flies in the face of your argument.

Quote:
Actually the CNC debate is just an excuse for a contest in verbosity between me and CC...
Well, perhaps for you (read: speak for yourself), but this has been brewing for about 2 years, and I have never really gotten into it because there wasn't a base level interest in it, or awareness of it, so it wasn't appropriate. As Ranier123 pointed out, now there is that awareness, so it is now appropriate.

To have a really good idea of what these companies are trying to sell, based on their marketing and PR, go here: http://www.alembic.com/info/featured_construction2.html
http://www.alembic.com/info/featured_construction.html
http://www.alembic.com/info/FBC_2.html
http://www.alembic.com/info/FGC_1.html
http://www.alembic.com/info/FBC_1.html

Alembic has a CNC machine, which they sparingly use for specific functions. Most everything else is done by hand, and takes about a month and a half to two months to do, not three days to a week. And they are totally custom! Totally to your spec.

They're the real deal.

PRS, on the other hand, isn't nearly as technologically advanced as an Alembic. The construction of a PRS is about as simple and basic as it gets. It doesn't really get any more basic. Yet they still charge out the wazoo for a guitar that has less intricacies of an LP, and they charge Alembic prices for them, as far as list goes.

And PRS must hold the crown for cost-cutting with that ridiculous one-piece bridge/tailpiece combo. What, like high quality Tune-O-Matic bridges are hard to come by or something?

Chesh
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