Eric Sahlin’s customers all have two things in common: a love of classical guitars … and patience.
That’s because the current wait for one of Sahlin’s custom guitars is nine years.
Talk about job security.
Sahlin works in a remote studio skirting the Palouse. On his bench sit three pairs of glasses – different prescriptions for different tasks. There are also binoculars for observing deer, coyotes, porcupines, muskrats and the assorted birds that populate the meadow beyond his workshop’s glass wall.
It might be Paradise, were it not for the sawdust and chemical fumes – occupational hazards.
And the isolation. Sahlin works alone, as many as 12 hours a day.
He recently put down his tools long enough to discuss his craft and its rewards.
S-R: How many full-time classical guitar makers are there in the country?
Sahlin: Probably two dozen.
S-R: Do you play guitar?
Sahlin: No. Instrument makers typically approach this from two directions: either as players or craftsmen.
S-R: How did you get into it?
Sahlin: I started out making custom furniture and building guitars as a hobby. I made my first guitar in 1975.
S-R: How’d it turn out?
Sahlin: It was OK. I built it for my brother, and it’s still around. Later, I got some lucky breaks, and by the end of the ’70s I was building guitars full time.
S-R: Lucky breaks?
Sahlin: A distributor was looking for someone to build seven-, eight- and 10-string guitars, which are kind of unusual.
S-R: What steered you to traditional guitars?
Sahlin: During a recession in the early 1980s, the guitar market dropped out completely. So I built lutes for a while. Eventually the guitar market recovered, and I’ve been busy ever since. I’ve built my reputation almost exclusively on (nylon-string) classical guitars, although I also build the occasional steel-string guitar.
S-R: How many hours does it take to build a custom guitar?
Sahlin: I really have no idea. I usually build three or four at a time, and that takes three to four months. If I build more, it’s too much like work. And if I build fewer, it bogs down.
S-R: What woods do you use?
Sahlin: For the back, sides and neck I use exotic hardwoods from Brazil, Central America, Africa and India. Most of the wood I’m using now I bought about 15 years ago. The older the wood, the better, because you get more resonance as the wood’s resins crystallize. The soundboards are made out of 300- to 400-year-old spruce or cedar from around here.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Sahlin: Not really. I taught myself, mainly through books. It’s really not that difficult to build a guitar, but it takes a lifetime to learn how to build one well. You can’t teach those subtleties.
S-R: What’s the secret of building an exceptional guitar?
Sahlin: You have to be sensitive to your materials – the resonance properties of the wood. And if you want to make a living as a guitar maker, you must be consistent enough that you can repeat your work, guitar after guitar. I very rarely have a guitar that’s a dud anymore.
S-R: What qualities distinguish an exceptional custom classical guitar from an off-the-rack, manufactured one?
Sahlin: Every piece of wood is unique and has to be approached in a different way – taken down to a certain thickness, and adjusted so all the elements balance with one another. A manufacturer can’t do that.
S-R: You’ve handled centuries-old classical guitars. Can you reproduce what someone in Spain was doing 200 or 300 years ago?
Sahlin: I can copy it, but it’s not going to sound the same, because age has a lot to do with how guitars open up over time. They’re like babies – they develop as you play them. The resonance and volume increase. Also, almost every builder develops a certain sound, and they almost can’t help building a guitar that sounds like one of theirs. So even if I copied someone else’s guitar right down to the tenth of a millimeter, it would still sound like one of my guitars. I don’t know why, but they do.
S-R: How do musicians describe your guitars?
Sahlin: They say my guitars have a warm, musical sound, as opposed to brash and loud. But every guitarist plays a little differently, so you can give the same guitar to two musicians and the guitar may sound completely different. Instrument makers become known for a certain kind of sound, and people will go to them because their playing style works best on that guitar.
S-R: What’s a typical workday?
Sahlin: I usually come out to the shop around 10 in the morning and knock off about 10 at night. But there’s no way I could tell you how many hours a day I work, because my personal life – running errands, whatever – is so integrated with my workday.
S-R: How many guitars do you build in a year?
Sahlin: The most I ever built was 16, but that was a long time ago, before they got so sophisticated. Now I build about 12 in a good year.
S-R: How long can you make guitars?
Sahlin: Stradivarius was building violins at age 93. Most guitar makers don’t really retire – they just build fewer instruments as they get older. Unless you have some catastrophic illness, you can build guitars until the day you drop dead. But there will come a time when I have to close my waiting list.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Sahlin: The craftsmanship part – working with wood. And being able to look at something at the end of the day and say, “I made that.”
S-R: What do you like least?
Sahlin: Some parts are pretty tedious, like the finishing. And the isolation gets to me sometimes.
S-R: Do you feel any sense of professional competition?
Sahlin: No, because at a certain point you can’t say any one guitar is better than another. But guitar makers have an idealized sound in their head – the perfect guitar. We try different experiments, but we never get there. So there’s always that challenge.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who wants to build custom guitars professionally?
Sahlin: Listen to as many guitars and guitarists as you can. And be willing to be in this for the long haul, because reputation is everything, and there’s no shortcut to that.
S-R: What’s your favorite client reaction?
Sahlin: When they get a guitar and immediately order another one.