Guitarmaking in the Philippines

One of the questions I get often is, “What the hell are you going to do when you retire?” Of the many things that concern me getting ready to retire (when, where, how much cash will we need) this is one that I don’t worry about too much.

For one thing I am very good at being lazy. Spend an entire Sunday watching movies or surfing the Net – no problem. Spend three weeks on vacation in the Philippines hitting every beach, drinking San Miguels, trying to understand Filipinos, having fun with Janet and her family –  why can’t it be four weeks.

I work hard but don’t live to work!

But I am unusual in that not only do I have a lazy character but I also have an obsessive one. I set up and began this blog 1 1/2 years ago while on my 8-week sabbatical from work, intending for it to be one of my obsessions when I retire.

In short, when I get interested in something I get obsessive. Find a writer I like; next thing you know I have read all his books. Discover the Philippines; next thing you know I’ve visited 8 times and gotten married to my lovely Janet. This seems to be my pattern. Between being lazy and being obsessive I rarely suffer from boredom.

Twenty years ago when my son was a newborn, I got the wild idea to make a guitar. You would think that between running a business and caring for a baby I would have had enough to do but apparently I didn’t. I bought the one book in existence on how to build a jazz archtop guitar and told my then wife that I was going to do it.

She rolled her eyes and said, “Well, no loud power tools and nasty wood dust. We have a baby, you know.”

“No problem. The book tells you how to do it with hand tools.”

So as insane as it sounds, looking back on it, I began. I hit garage sales to buy old, cheap hand tools, obtained the materials and followed along with the book. Of course I had a baby and a nursing wife so any work I did in my 90 year old, bug infested basement, I did after the baby and mother were asleep. The obsession bit quickly and I was often up until past 1:00 AM happily working on the guitar and cleaning up any blood from the frequent self-inflicted injuries. Then up in the middle of the night for baby feeding, and up again around 6:00 to begin the day.

A year later I had a finished archtop. When I showed it around people would compliment me and ask, “Why did you choose the most difficult type of guitar to make as your first guitar?”

The answer? “Because I was too stupid to know it was the most difficult type of guitar to make.”

For the next seven years I spent nearly every night (early morning really) working in my shop building guitars and accumulating tools. Finally between a change in work, divorce, moving, caring for two kids and trying to make money, the guitarmaking came to an end. The tools and materials sat in my new basement, along with a 3/4 completed archtop. Other obsessions had taken over but when friends asked I told them I intended to get back to it in retirement.

Yes, you're right - I'm younger here :)
Yes, you’re right – I’m younger here 🙂


Over the past 6 months, downsizing in preparation for retirement, I have gone through my shop and sold off some of my tools. As an obsessive it was not unusual for me to buy 5 of a tool I only needed 1 of. So I sold the excess off on ebay, taking the money and putting it into my retirement war chest. But as I brought the tools out of the basement, prepared them for sale, showed them to Janet and explained what they were for or reminisced about the great deal I had gotten, I realized how much I had missed guitarmaking.

Chris Laarman finger planes on rough archtop top.
Chris Laarman finger planes on rough archtop top.
2 finger and 1 palm plane by Legendary English plane maker, Bill Carter.
2 finger and 1 palm plane by Legendary English plane maker, Bill Carter.

More importantly my wonderful Janet realized it too. “We still have plenty of time. Why don’t you finish that guitar in the basement?”

I knew myself too well and knew I couldn’t just spend a little time on the hobby; that like the old “bet you can’t eat just one” chip commercials, I would be unable to hold back the obsession. So I resisted.

Now, I own a couple of my own guitars including that first one. I’ve seen it daily for 19 years and never liked the finish on it and could see some of the woodworking imperfections.

After building that one I developed a co-obsession: French Polishing. It’s a very old form of wood finishing and perfect for my obsessive nature: time consuming, hand done and with natural materials. I studied and learned everything I could about it and from then on it became my guitar finishing method.

So I thought, ‘It won’t be too hard to sand the finish off guitar #1, fix most of the woodworking imperfections and French Polish it.” Janet was all for it and as a Filipina with a business administration degree said, “then you can sell it and take the money and buy supplies for more guitars.”

Ready for French Polishing.
Ready for French Polishing.

I began and of course it was like I had never left. The older hands, eyes and muscles quickly remembered. Immediately I began to think of the type of shop I might have in retirement. A nipa hut in the backyard?

BTW, guitarmaking is a growing concern in the Philippines. There are several well known builders in Mactan, Cebu. I’ve been there and watched them a couple times and the methods are fascinating. For one thing, their work bench is often the ground.

At least he's not standing like I do.
At least he’s not standing like I do.
I can't understand how they let it bake in the hot sun.
I can’t understand how they let it bake in the hot sun.

I was speaking to a guitar playing friend who’d visited the Philippines a couple times. “Why not teach classes on guitarmaking?” he asked. I thought that might be impractical (too long a class) but thought that a day class on French Polishing or other traditional woodworking methods might be fun to do. So that will be part of the obsession. Janet immediately volunteered to provide lunch to the students!






2 thoughts on “Guitarmaking in the Philippines”

  1. Looks like tedious work Dave. I think I’ll stick to the things I can accomplish in only one day’s time, like beach parties, fiestas, and blogging! When is your retirement date planned? I feel a party coming on!

    1. It’s hard work, Randy, but for me not tedious. Though I agree there has to be a balance with the parties, fiestas, and general drinking!

      Retirement’s next year. I feel several parties coming on 🙂

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