Guitar making is a form of lutherie (from the French luth, or lute) – the craft of building stringed musical instruments that also encompasses violins and mandolins.
Luthiers are highly skilled in fine woodwork, metalwork, inlay, and increasingly, electronics. Luthiers evaluate timbers (‘tonewoods’), cut and carve component parts, ‘tune’ complementary individual pieces acoustically, steam bend guitar sides, assemble parts, rout channels for bindings and embellishments, install metal frets and tuning pegs, and sand, coat and polish the final instrument.
Following the antecedent traditions of Spanish classical guitarra, modern steel string acoustic guitars emerged in the early 1900s in the United States. In Australia guitar factories commenced in the 1940s, and a flourishing scene of independent luthiers emerged in the 1970s with the revival of acoustic folk music, and renewed appreciation for handcraft skills.
Luthiers select timbers for their strength, straight grain, beauty, and resonant acoustic qualities. Few tree species meet all these needs, notably spruces (Picea spp.), mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), and rosewoods (Dalbergia spp.). Many have become endangered. Some, such as Brazilian rosewood, are now restricted.
Australian guitar makers have pioneered use of alternative native timbers, including blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) and Queensland maple (Flindersia brayleyana). Australian timbers are exported to guitar makers globally, and finished instruments are played on stage by renowned musicians. Guitars made from Australian timbers are distinctive aesthetically and acoustically: typically grainier in appearance with a more open resonance than European or American designs.
Maton and Cole Clark are two major Australian manufacturers. There are no definitive counts of independent luthiers, but judged by national guitar-making festivals, there are likely many hundreds, a number that grows with the popularity of guitar playing. Esteemed luthiers include Trevor Gore, Gerard Gilet, and Jack Spira; they are among the few who make full-time livings from their craft.