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An empty bench-luthiery and the art of zen

An empty bench.  Looking at it, I am filled with emotion.  To some, you may only see a table but to me It is represents a fresh start, a new beginning, possibilities.  It represents all of my efforts for the past two decades and I find myself reflecting on the path it took to arrive here.

 

A clean bench was the rule at the Galloup shop where I came up.  Before every lunch break or the end of the day, you were to clean your bench.  I was never the best at following this rule, I liked leaving work out so I could more easily come back to it, but after 20 years of guidance (read: daily stern lectures) from my employer, Bryan Galloup, I got a little better at cleaning my bench.

 

In the spring of 2020, the world changed.  For the safety of my family, I elected to leave my position at the Galloup shop to quarantine till everything got back to normal.  This meant I would be leaving the place I called home for the last 20 years, the place where I became the maker I am today, and one of the finest shops you could dream of for making guitars.  My house has always been ready for a home shop, but I never took advantage of my space because I had a ready-made dream shop at my fingertips. Now faced with uncertainty, I took advantage of the pandemic quarantine to build my shop at home.

 

“Who are you?” Is a question of existential consequence.  We all strive to be “something” whether it is a good person, a good musician, or in my case, a good guitar maker, but what can be so easy for others to see, is often hard for the self to realize.  I needed time to reflect on this question and although forced quarantine due to a global pandemic is not what I had in mind, it brought lots of time for introspection.  I was finding my thoughts drifting to past memories, friends, and things I had done.  All of those events were what led me to where i am and who I am.  When given time and distance, it is easier to gain perspective and to see the true value of your experiences for what they are and how they shaped you as a person.

 

“Who are you” as a maker is another heavy question that many artists often struggle with.  I am certainly no exception.  In fact, the fear of inadequacy has always been a major motivator for me, both as a musician and a luthier.  I have wrestled with the question and what does it mean.  Am I a special?  Am I good?  Why am I doing what I am doing?

 

I have realized that, in fact, I am not particularly special.  Some may say that being able to make a beautiful guitar is a special skill, but I would say that, like anything else, it can be achieved with enough practice and dedication by just about anyone.  The level I have achieved as a musician or as a craftsman is due to a grain of talent and a ton of hard work.  So, if I am not special, am I good and why am I doing it in the first place?  It may be arrogant to say, but after taking a perspective look on my career, I can confidently say I am, in fact, “good” at making guitars.  And that brings me to the crux of the biscuit, the why. 

 

Many years of practicing luthiery has made me realize that making a guitar is a practice in Zen.  It shows you who you are.  You can try to hide but the process of making a guitar will show who you are in the end.  It forces you to be in the moment.  When you are making a critical cut, there is no tomorrow or yesterday, only now and in that moment I find clarity.I know I have been humbled time and again on my path as a luthier, some lessons taking longer than others to sink in.  I have realized that mastery of building comes through mastering of yourself.  When you are the master of your own mind, you are the master of the possibilities.

 

The Master can show the apprentice many things, how to shape and to glue, how to sharpen and how to sand, but many of the true lessons are the simplest but yet the hardest to understand.  A clean bench is important in the shop for practical reasons but to clean your bench is to clean your mind and spirit, to prepare for what is next.  There are many new and exciting things that will come out of my new space and I look forward to sharing them in the days and weeks to come, but it all springs from this simple looking workbench.  Some see an empty desk.  I see what is possible.  So, who am I? I am a sojourner, I am a seeker of truth, I am an artist, I am an explorer of possibilities.  With a clean bench and fresh slate, the possibilities are endless.

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