Most of us love watching other people work and seeing how things get made. Construction sites include windows in their safety barriers for sidewalk peepers, cooking videos proliferate on the air and online, and the popular How Do They Do It? documentary series ran to 16 seasons. The process of making musical instrument is generally out of the public eye, and there’s often a mystique about how those particular tools-of-the-trade are created. During some idle hours of the long lockdown, I went deep down the YouTube rabbit hole and discovered scores of fascinating videos capturing all manner of fine artisans — luthiers, brass wranglers, wood turners, and more — exploring the alchemy of turning raw materials into the precision instruments musicians depend on to work their magic.
Offered without commentary, here are some of my favorites. The makers range from solitary artisans completing every step of the process by themselves using centuries-old methods to mid-size shops with numerous craftspeople to big factories with assembly-line style production. The selections depict the making of everything from orchestral instruments to folk instruments to electric guitars. Some provide and overviews of the complete process, while a few offer in-depth looks at how the fine details are rendered.
The solo violin maker holds pride of place in our imagination about how instruments are made. The materials and methods were codified centuries back and well known, and the lore of the trade places great value on the maker’s ability to transcend formulaic steps and bring out the magic in the wood through perceptive touch, precise cutting and carving, and perhaps a secret ingredient or two in the varnish. Here are a couple of videos showing luthiers at work on violin and cello, as well as a detailed look making a bow and fitting a bridge.
And now for something completely different. In this video, the maker uses CNC (computer numeric control) technology to turn most of the process over to a robotic machine. CNC technology is common for certain basic steps in many shops — carving neck blank, for example — but this is the first example I’ve seen taken to this extreme by an individual.
This world was completely new to me. I’ve been in repair shops to see brass instruments adjusted and repaired, but didn’t have a clear picture of how the building-process worked, and frankly it was an eye-opener. In addition to an overview video, there’s are films about making a trumpet and a French horn, The latter is reputed to be the most complicated brass instrument to build.
Some scholars argue that bone and ivory flutes are the very earliest of tonal musical instruments, with examples from as long as 43,000 years ago. The videos in this show the making of a simple end-blown kaval, a Baroque flute, modern flute, clarinet, and bassoon. You’ll note that the process of whittling a few holes in a hollow bone or stick has evolved dramatically over the years. Finally, as every double-reed player knows, reed-making is an essential skill, but few of us have seen the process from start to finish. Here's a glimpse.
Every culture has percussion instruments, and the heartbeat of a drum is fundamental to both dance and listening music. Take a look at a factory making high-quality wooden-frame instruments for a contemporary drum kit, see the creation of a kettle drum from scratch, and take a tour of the renowned Zildjian cymbal factory.
Keyboards offer a particular set of challenges, not the least of them is the sheer size of the endeavor. A bow maker can work out of a closet-sized space, but building a grand piano requires some elbow room. A full-sized pipe organ demands a church or concert hall. Follow the birth of a harpsichord, a Steinway grand piano, and a pipe organ in the videos below.
Unlike most orchestral instruments, which are fairly standardized and allow for only minor variations in the details, guitars are incredibly diverse. There are flattops, archtops, six-, seven-, and 12-string models, electric, acoustic, and hybrid types. Here is a sampling of videos showing the construction of nylon-string, steel-string, and archtop acoustics, plus a tour of the Fender guitar factory in Corona, California, and the Hofner factory in Germany, where we follow the making of an iconic "Beatles bass." One of my favorite videos of the year wraps this selection. It follows a pandemic project by a Belgian craftsman who used hand-building techniques to make a copy of the iconic Gibson ES-335 from a thick plank he had been using as a bookshelf. It’s wonderful.
This is just a sampling of many such videos available online, and we haven't even touched on banjos, bagpipes, and accordions! Do you have a favorite instrument-making video? Share the link in the Disqus section below.