C. F. Martin Guitar Factory tour
Just because I mostly, or exclusively, post about coffee does not mean that is my only interest. I play guitar and have built a couple of acoustic guitars from scratch. My interest with guitars is at least a decade older than my interest in coffee. It has been a long standing wish of mine to visit the Mecca of the steel string guitar, and last week I finally made it out to Nazareth PA, home of C. F. Martin & Co.
They run public tours every work day of the week from 11am till about 3pm, and all the tours are pretty much full. There is no lack of interest. Unlike the Hershey tour, you get to see the real factory and watch the real workers making real guitars. The size and capacity of the factory are both immense, with an output of about 200 instruments per day. They are also very heavily active in sustainable practices. The tone woods industry is one with a past (and present) riddled with clear cutting, smuggling, and general rape of the rain forests of the world. A minimum of 70% certified Forest Stewardship Council lumber is used in all instruments, and more in some cases. The long term goal is for 100%, but they have passed baby steps by now. They have quite an undertaking in this department given the quantity of woods they consume. There are several species of wood which are traditional to guitar building that cannot be bought an sold these days, and substitutions are made. Nonetheless, the quality and consistency of the instruments is actually much better now than in decades past.
Incoming wood must season in the acclimation warehouse for a rather long period of time before it can be shaped into the necessary parts. Down in the pit area, the rough cutting starts the process of more than 150 steps to completion.
The voice of an acoustic guitar is tremendously affected by the dimensions and configuration of the soundboard. We watched this woman in the brace shaping department shave down these braces with a fast and precise manipulation of her chisel at a level of skill and agility you might imagine Michelangelo carving out a marble statue.
Martin has been an innovator in regards to structural elements of the steel string guitar for several generations. This laminated head block for a mortise and tenon joint is something I have not seen before. It is strong, stable, and long lasting.
Probably one of the most crucial aspects of the guitar, the neck-body joint, is not accomplished by computer aided manufacturing (like many other components in the factory are). The experience and skill of the neck setter must be absolutely top notch. It was amazing to see him dry fit the joint, then shave down the dove tail by the thickness of tissue paper, then re-fit the joint. This step was repeated several times till the neck joint was perfect. The playability of the guitar, as well as the musician’s perception of the quality of the instrument, is dependent on this most vital step.
Building 200 instruments per day is nothing to shake a stick at, let alone making each one of them top of the line in a massive market full of high quality guitars. This rack of necks is only a small part of a hard day’s work.
Robots are taking over the world, but not in a destructive and maniacal way.
Martin will work on any guitar they once made, if you can afford to send it in and have them do it. This is a hundred year old guitar, made by Martin right here in Nazareth, now back for some TLC.
How about this for a job. String up Martins, tune them, play them for a bit, then string up another one. Don’t think I haven’t though about sending in my resume.
What is so mind blowing to me about their operation is that they have something like 600 employees. Most all of them do one small job on the guitars, like gluing on the ribbons that provide a surface on which to attache the sound board and back to the curved sides. Or glue in the lines that circle the sound hole. Or shine light through the thin soundboard material to look for imperfections. Most of these employees do not know how to build a guitar, they only know their small operation. In a factory with hundreds of workers, each knowing very little about the whole instrument, they manage to make a product that is absolutely top of the line. These guitars are world renown for their fantastic sound, fantastic set up and playbility, and perfect craftsmanship. That this can all be accomplished with a team of relatively low skilled and easily trained workers is astounding. Not to dismiss the skill level. Each job is performed with great precision. But if you have a new hire I think you can train them to work in almost any of the booths or cubicles quickly and within 3 months they will be performing a spectacular job at it. There must be only a handful of employees who are truly experts at all the tasks. There can only be a minute percentage of brains in the factory with all the knowledge of how a great acoustic guitar should be built, how to calibrate all the machinery, how to shape all the parts with precision. There is only about 10-15% of employees who even play guitar.
Another aspect of the company at which I marvel is the fact that it was started by a guy named Christian Martin in 1833, and it is now run by another guy named Christian Martin VI. Several generations so far and it is still in the hands of the original family. I love guitars, and I love this place.