The Making of a Luthier: Adam Buchwald Talks Shop
It’s mid-May, late on a Friday morning at Circle Strings, Adam Buchwald’s custom build-and-repair shop in the South End of Burlington. The workshop has the honeyed scent of cut wood while fumes drift from a finishing room in the back, where a mandolin is hanging to dry. Today Buchwald is tasked with fitting a guitar body with wire-thin Brazilian rosewood bindings. He’ll miter the narrow decorative purflings next, and then sand the seams. It’s quiet work. For today, anyway. Next week he’ll rev up the CNC machine, an automated milling device, to carve guitar necks to precise dimensions, and the shop will be rattling. This is about midpoint in the building process. Once this round of guitars is complete, the whole cycle will begin again with the orders on deck.
Making an acoustic guitar first begins with a conversation. The would-be player and the luthier together carve out the idea of the instrument: the sound it should produce, the style, body shape. What softwood for the top, which hardwoods for the back and sides? Will it be played with a finger pick? A flat pick? Is the desired look traditional or should it have some bling? What about the inlay? Pearl, plastic, wood, ivory? What of the bindings, fret wire, string gauges, tuners, bridges and pickups. Some musicians know exactly what they want, others know less, but the luthier soaks it all in and gets to work.
Assembling ideas and raw materials into something that looks and sounds beautiful is a tall order. Buchwald’s certain it requires as much skill as a musician as it does a craftsman. “There are thousands of guitar makers out there. Some of them are great builders; some of them are great musicians. You have to be both.” It’s his doctrine of the craft that took shape from his own experience, an education in two parts bound seamlessly together like the joinery of his instruments.
The making of Buchwald the musician began in the fourth grade, not with a string instrument, as one might expect, but with a saxophone. It was his first taste of music — and notoriety when he won a contest for holding the longest note — but his interest in the sax was short lived. Only a year later, a friend introduced him to the guitar, and Buchwald was hooked. He spent his middle and high school days strumming and studying music, and as a college freshman at the University of Vermont, he branched out to other instruments with a box and a neck. After falling in love with the sounds of blue grass, he taught himself how to play the banjo. Knowledge of classical guitar enabled him to incorporate the right-hand rolls and, having studied music, he understood the fingerboard. Next came the mandolin, which today is Buchwald’s instrument of choice.
The making of Buchwald the luthier began when he was a kid, thanks to time spent at his father’s manufacturing business. The factory employed craftsmen from Germany and Italy who could fashion complex tools out of metal. Seeing that level of skill fostered an appreciation for people who could build with their hands. As Buchwald recalls, “They could make anything.” It wasn’t until after college, when Buchwald met his mentor, Bob Jones, that he began to bridge this interest in building with his love for music.
The college graduate’s versatility as a guitar, mandolin and banjo player helped him land gigs playing in New York City, which is how he met Jones. Buchwald joined the Singing Conquerors, a bluegrass gospel band that had him playing and singing songs about Jesus, “which was pretty weird,” he says, “being Jewish,” but the female vocalists were so remarkable he didn’t mind the subject matter. Jones, the band’s bass player, happened to be the city’s go-to guy for repair work and it didn’t take long before the young Buchwald approached him about learning the trade. The answer was a hard and fast no.
One day at band practice, in a twist of fate, Buchwald’s banjo fell over and the head snapped right off. Thinking the piece was done for, he brought it to Jones, who in proper gospel fashion resurrected it with relative ease. Buchwald was amazed. Again he asked about an apprenticeship and again the answer was no.
So, he took matters into his own hands. With the equipment at his dad’s factory, a couple instruction books and some gumption, he built a banjo and a mandolin from scratch. With something to show for himself, he approached Jones again and this time was made an offer. Buchwald could come into the shop Friday mornings from 9 to 1 but there was a catch. He couldn’t touch a thing. For six months he could only observe and listen. “I’m grateful for that,” Buchwald reflects. “It made me really watch everything he did.” After some months, he graduated to cleaning banjo hardware, but on the side he was using a small space in his dad’s shop to do repair work of his own for musician friends.
It was through Jones that Buchwald landed a job at Retrofret, an underground vintage-guitar shop out in Brooklyn. “(The owners) didn’t need to see any of my work. They just handed me some instruments and wanted me to look at them. One was Lefty Frizzel’s guitar … and some early classical guitars that were very rare.” A recommendation from Jones was enough for the guys to hire Buchwald on the spot.
Over the next couple years Buchwald honed his skills at Retrofret. Certain at that point that he wanted to pursue lutherie as a career, he enrolled in a two-week guitar-building course at Vermont Instruments in the town of Post Mills. He got on well with the school’s owner, but it was a shock nonetheless when Buchwald was later approached with an offer to buy the school. A chance to build instruments and raise his family in Vermont with his wife Sarah was Buchwald’s version of living the dream. He agreed to co-ownership, and his family transitioned to the Green Mountain State, but after a couple years, when the business partnership fizzled out, the Buchwalds were faced with having to move back to New York City.
Michael Millard, the world-renowned luthier and owner of Froggy Bottom was just a few miles up the road in Chelsea, VT. When Millard caught wind of Buchwald’s dilemma, he offered him a job. Buchwald credits Millard for teaching him how to make a specific instrument for a specific musician. In Buchwald’s first days with the company, Millard handed his new hire a book of old Chinese poetry that spun ironic verses on the importance of striving for perfection despite never being able to achieve it. It was that degree of striving that Buchwald also learned at Froggy Bottom. There were days Millard would hand him a piece that he knew was being made from the rarest sets of wood. “This guitar was going to be a $30,000 guitar. So you had to focus.” Knowing that the reputation of the company rested on his craftsmanship, Buchwald developed his ability to focus under pressure. “It really taught me to ground myself.”
After two years working at Froggy Bottom, Buchwald was ready to go into business for himself. In 2012 he opened the doors to Circle Strings, the same name he had used as a fledgling guitar maker out of his dad’s factory years back. He’s come a long way from his early guitar building. Today his workshop is outfitted with large machinery ranging from sanders, side benders, band saws, drills and his latest acquisition, the CNC machine. Buchwald’s home base, however, is the sun-drenched work area near his hand tools — he’ll stand there for hours over an instrument, working the smaller articulations, an impressive arsenal of files, chisels, saws and scrapers within reach.
It’s mostly guitars on order this month at Circle Strings. Three custom pieces are in process, with about another four on spec. Buchwald likes to keep these stocked for perspective clients to try out and they all sell eventually. Normally he’s making pieces for musicians from all parts of the country. This month, however, the clients are local, which is an added bonus since he can have them come test the feel of certain parts.
He employs one other person and works with an architect to help model select parts on the computer for the CNC machine. When asked what the vision is for Circle Strings, Buchwald says he’s content with its size and pace. If the operation were to get bigger, Buchwald thinks it would compromise the quality of the instruments. Going smaller would mean a rise in prices, but he isn’t interested in pricing-out real musicians and making pieces for collectors.
It’s Buchwald’s belief that when a good musician is handed a fine instrument, their playing improves exponentially. “When I’ve taught musicians, I’ve always said, ‘Get an instrument that’s better than you.’” While the making of a custom acoustic guitar begins with a conversation, it ends with fine instrument. “Making that for somebody,” says Buchwald, “is one of the best feelings in the world. You’re giving them a tool to make music with.” Spoken like a true luthier.
Photographs by Dylan Griffin.