A Traditional Luthier’s Tale: From Tree Trunk to Guitar

How Hand Tools and Tradition Prevail in Alex Potter’s workshop
By Lorraine Ferrier, Epoch Times

“You’d have a job spotting the repair,” said luthier Alex Potter of A.S. Potter Instruments. “I had to dip into my storeroom of damaged antique furniture to find a bit of appropriately color-aged mahogany to patch it up with,” he said.

Potter had postponed our interview due to an emergency repair on a musician’s guitar that had been “smashed by an airline.” The guitar’s owner, who remains a mystery, was headlining that weekend at “a rather large show at a high-profile London venue,” Potter said.

“It’s way more rock and roll than my usual work,” he added.

But there is a rock and roll of sorts that can be heard from his workshop in the New Forest National Park in England. It’s more the roll of hand planes over wood, and the rocking of a hundred-year-old handsaw to split timber.

Luthier Alex Potter at a show, playing his handmade replica of a circa 1650 cittern. (Jamie Trounce Photography)

Potter shared by phone how he came to his craft and how he translates the traits of the timber into making the finest traditional instruments.

The Epoch Times: How did you learn your craft?
Mr. Alex Potter: I come from a family of carpenters. My grandfather was an excellent carpenter. He would’ve been 104 this year if he were still around. He learned from his uncle, and I still use a lot of his tools. In fact, some of his tools have his uncle’s name still stamped on them. They must’ve been in my family for the best part of 100 years, at this point. However, I didn’t take the traditional route that my grandfather would’ve taken, which was an apprenticeship. I actually studied at university.

Of the two larger planes in the back, the bullnose (silver with a wooden wedge) was bought secondhand by Potter’s grandfather as a 16-year-old apprentice in 1931. It cost a shilling: one week’s wages. The larger shoulder plane next to it was cast in gunmetal immediately after World War II by an old Scottish planemaker. “Both remain two of the best tools I own,” Potter said. (Jamie Trounce Photography)

I had been rather unwell as a teenager, and I was looking at options. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve always loved instruments, and I’ve always been fascinated with carpentry. I found there was a course running in London that I could take, part-time, if I needed to. I turned up on the first day, barely knowing which end of a chisel was which.

It quite confused my granddad at the time, who was really happy that I was going to university, but very surprised that I was going to university to learn to be a carpenter. You have to remember that for the majority of his career, he was working at a time when craftsmanship was kind of taken for granted. If you were a carpenter, that wasn’t necessarily considered a very highly skilled, very highly respected, or particularly well-paid occupation. He, therefore, saw it as a difficult way of earning a living. I had to explain to him that things had changed a bit since then, because there are far fewer people that have these skills. They are more valued, and you now have a lot more control over the work that you do.

Holding a mountain dulcimer, Alex Potter makes his instruments entirely by hand, from start to hand-planed finish. (Courtesy of Alex Potter)
Alex Potter of A. S. Potter Instruments in his New Forest workshop in Sway in England. (Courtesy of Alex Potter)

It was only when I started bringing him the things that I was making, and he was actually able to hold them and see them, and to see that what I was doing he would consider to be a good job, that he actually really opened up about his experience and started passing on some of the wisdom that he’d acquired over the many years of his career.

Alex Potter’s workshop amongst the trees of the New Forest National Park. (Courtesy of Alex Potter)

The Epoch Times: Are there many people in England who make musical instruments?
Mr. Potter: Shortly after I left university in 2013, they closed the course. That was the only degree course in musical instrument making in the country. Even then, we had an intake of maybe 20 students a year, of which half would graduate, and maybe two or three a year would go on to attempt to make a career as a musical instrument maker.

It is a job where, generally, once you get established, people do it for a very long time. Certainly, in 10 years’ time, you are going to find a huge imbalance in the number of people who are retiring against the number of new people who are starting.

The Epoch Times: What is involved in making a guitar?
Mr. Potter: You start with the timber. Timber for making guitars or musical instruments, in general, has to fit certain criteria from the start, because you need wood that has the best possible structural integrity and stability. Some of the pieces of wood that go into guitars are millimeters thick. You have to have wood that you know is going to be strong and stable for the life of the instrument and that you know is going to sound good as well. This generally means that you need wood that has been taken from trees that have grown very slowly, for a very long time. Even when you’ve found that kind of tree, it has to be cut in a particular way and then dried in a particular way before you can even think about starting to make a guitar from it.

This has caused a certain number of problems. Firstly, there are a very limited number of trees in the world that fit the criteria. This has led to overexploitation of certain species—not purely for musical instrument making, but certain species are now essentially endangered that people consider to be traditional guitar woods. Things like rosewoods, in particular, ebony, mahogany, mostly tropical timbers that in the past were taken in huge quantities out of South America, the Amazon Rain Forest, West Africa, and from the islands in the Indian Ocean.

We use a lot of spruce in instrument making, and spruce is an incredibly common tree. But the spruce that is good enough is a tiny fraction of the total number of the trees in the world. So even the little pockets that tend to be growing at very high altitudes in the mountains have to be carefully managed now. We have to become a little more creative with the timber that we’re using and where we’re getting it from.

The Epoch Times: How do you then source timber suitable for making an instrument?
Mr. Potter: There are specialist sawmills that deal in musical instrument timber exclusively. In England, we have timber that comes in from Africa, from America, and Europe.

A selection of fretboard timbers grown in the UK as alternatives to the traditional ebony or rosewood (front to back: holly, pear, elm, plum, tulipwood, laburnum, walnut). (Courtesy of Alex Potter)

With my workshop in the forest, I am able to source materials as locally as possible, rather than relying on imported timbers. By working with local tree surgeons, I can sometimes even visit the site where the tree is felled and work out which parts can be used as it is being cut. In some cases, I’m going to where the trees are stored and looking at an entire tree that has been cut into planks and choosing one or two planks so that I’ll know they’ll make a good instrument. It’s a very time-consuming process.

Carving the headstock of a piccolo banjo. (Courtesy of Alex Potter)

When you’ve got the timber that you’ve decided you want to use in front of you, you then have to be able to interpret it, understand it to a degree, so that you can plan how you are going to use it: what the particulars of this instrument are going to be. Because when you are building instruments, you can never make them from a completely identical template. You have to work with the material that’s in front of you to get the best results.

That really is what sets a handmade instrument apart from a factory-made instrument. A factory-made instrument will have every single part machined to exactly the same dimensions, regardless of what the piece of timber looks like or what its properties are. Whereas, no two handmade guitars are ever quite the same.

After that point, almost everything that I do is done by hand. People sometimes expect I would use machinery for cutting the wood to the correct dimensions and getting things to the correct thickness. But I greatly prefer to do everything with hand tools, because all the time you are doing it, you are monitoring how the wood is moving, how it’s flexing, how thick it needs to be in this place that might be different from how thick it needs to be in that place, and so on.

Alex Potter’s tools of the trade, including many of his Grandfather’s and Great Uncle’s tools some are over100 years old. (Jamie Trounce Photography)

If you were to visit my workshop, honestly, it looks like it’s a carpenter’s workshop from 100 years ago, in many respects. I have old-fashioned handsaws, a dozen different kinds of planes and chisels, carving chisels, and rasps and files, and all the old hand tools that are not very fashionable in these days of electric saws and drills and everything like that. But it does ultimately produce a better product, although it obviously is a far more time-consuming way of going about things.

The Epoch Times: How long does it take to make a guitar?
Mr. Potter: It’s hugely variable, and it has to be said that some wood is a lot easier to work with than others. So even there, you can add and subtract in the tens of hours simply by the design and the materials. For a relatively complicated guitar, you might be looking at over 100 man-hours spread out over several months, because you do some work and you put it to one side for a bit while glue cures, wood settles, or vanish cures. So it’s quite a stop-and-start process. That’s why you generally have three or four instruments on the go at any given time, at slightly different stages.

The Epoch Times: Who are your clients and how do they find you?
Mr. Potter: Professional musicians tend to want something fairly specific and are not necessarily interested in customization or decoration. It’s very much about the function of an instrument; they’re looking for something they can’t get elsewhere. You get quite a few people who are buying instruments either for their retirement or as presents, and a lot more attention is normally paid to the appearance: to the decoration, the degree of customization, and how unique it will be. Then you also get guitar or musical instrument collectors. More often than not, they’re the hardest people to predict. They’re the most likely to just buy a nice guitar that you’ve already made because they see it, and they like it, and they want it then and there. They’re so used to purchasing higher-end instruments that the novelty of customization, or choosing all the materials or whatever, has worn a bit thin with them.

The Epoch Times: What is the starting price of guitars?
Mr. Potter: I’ve almost been making them for 10 years now, and I’m still very much considered almost a student maker. It takes a very long time to build a reputation.

For a full-sized guitar (I do make some smaller instruments), they’re going to start at about 1,500 pounds (approximately $1,970), which is low for a handmade guitar. I am still fairly early in my career and trying to build a reputation, so it’s more important that I can keep making them and consistently selling them. The price is equivalent to a mid-ranged Gibson, Martin, or one of any number of well-known brands. On the one hand, it’s not incredibly expensive, but on the other hand, you are also competing with that share of the market, which is not always easy.

Alex Potter playing a four-string guitar, a tenor guitar that he made himself. (Jamie Trounce Photography)

The Epoch Times: What surprises people when they hold or play your instruments?
Mr. Potter: People immediately feel that there is something different when they hold a handmade instrument.

There are a number of comments that I always get. The first one is that they’re incredibly lightweight, which always makes me laugh. It’s true, because factory-built guitars are often overbuilt to compensate for the fact that everything is made to the same dimensions, so they’re built for tolerance, where theoretically nothing will ever break, which is why they’re heavier than they need to be.

Alex Potter pays attention to the unique qualities of each piece of timber, each instrument is meticulously measured as part of the set-up before his handiwork leaves the workshop. (Courtesy of Alex Potter)

It does tend to surprise people who’ve never played a handmade guitar, because they feel different, they sound different, and they’re very easy to play. That’s because a lot of attention is paid to the setup. This covers small but important details like leveling, reshaping, and polishing all of the frets by hand; and making sure that the strings are the optimum height from the fretboard by making tiny alterations to the slots in the nut and the height of the saddle at the bridge. These adjustments can take a solid couple of hours on a new instrument, and there is no real way of automating the process. You need a skilled person to sit down and do the work. That doesn’t necessarily happen on a factory-made guitar.

It’s a lovely feeling to hear something that you have spent hours of your life making, in the hands of someone who can really play.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.