One of the most common questions related to building guitars (other than "where do I start?") is whether or not you can make a living solely building guitars. While the general answer is "it's really tough," Doug Kauer of Kauer Guitars offers the most insightful, comprehensive answer to this question that I've ever read over in the Luthier's Corner at the MyLesPaul forum. I asked his permission to share it here, which he graciously agreed to, so I give you the best answer I've ever seen to this question.
Thanks for sharing this insight, and being "crushingly nice" to me in every interaction. You're a hell of a guy, sir.
Without further ado, here's Doug!
Q: "Can you make a living in the luthier business?"
Doug Kauer: Here's the long and short of it for those of us doing it for a living:
1. It's tough.
2. It's expensive.
3. It will consume all your time.
4. All of us... well the overwhelming majority of us have a spouse that is also supporting us to some extent. I'll come back to this.
Let me extrapolate further:
I fell into doing this. In 11th grade I wanted to be a teacher. Actually, I wanted to teach history as early as 5th grade, its what I knew I wanted to do. I also grew up working for my dad from a very young age and I knew first hand the ups and downs of being self employed and vowed I wouldn't do that.
I went to CSUS, got my degree in Sociology and was working towards a teaching credential. My wife was a bit of head of me (damn those people who can stay focused!) and finished first so I agreed to continue to work my normal job (cabinetry and kitchen design working in the family business) to make house payments while she student taught.
This is when the economy slowed down. Having a previous back ground in running my own internet business that started from a hobby and having said hobby ruined by that business I also vowed I wouldn't do that again. When work slowed, I built more guitars because frankly there just wasn't much else to do with my time. Built more and more and started seeing what I was building improve and catch on with the general public.
Now mind you, I had a (at one point) million dollar shop at my disposal, an incredibly supportive (now working) wife and two sets of parents (mine and hers) who believed in what I was doing. This gave me a leg up on problem #2. (It should be clear that over the last 5 years I've actually bought the majority of equipment from my parents as part of their retirement plan).
Now, was I suddenly a luither? Hell no. Was I in the business of building and selling guitars? Barely. I started off swinging for the fences knowing that I had a lot of ground to cover quickly, which I did. I still look at those early guitars and pride myself on knowing that I've never built a guitar that played poorly and only a couple IMO that were duds (yet their owners love them- just not my bag tonally), those early guitars were rough.
Every year, every month, every day I put a new guitar together, its better than the last one and it should be. I once read someone say that it takes a 100 guitars to really be putting out a quality, near flawless product consistently. I have to agree with that. I'm happy with what we build but I strive for myself (and my team now) to be better every guitar.
Now by all accounts, I've made a successful business. My sales double every year, I have dealers globally. Am I making a living yet? Nope. My two guys do (somewhat) and we all have the startup mentality and it gets better every day. This year we haven't struggled to pay rent, last year we did. Maybe next year I'll start taking home a "salary" instead of just what we need to survive on. Have I mentioned how grateful I am to have a wife with a steady pay check and great benefits?
Before I move onto the next thing, I bet you are wondering why I didn't finish my credential. Funny thing happened, at one point of listening to all the bullshit and hoops my wife has to put up with (the district, the state/fed, whinny bullshit parents, ect ect) I realized you know what, being self employed isn't the worst. At least when I get someone that really pisses me off i can fire them, tell them to GTFO or whatever. Sure, I don't make money but the freedom is nice. (business rule #2- don't tell everyone to go fawk themselves). Ironically, I get to volunteer teach at the local high school from time to time in their guitar building program so I get best of both.
The Pitfalls and the awful truth
This is the part nobody tells you. There are 3 basic camps:
1. You are really talented luither/building guitars
2. You are really talented at running a business
3. You are good at both.
Item 1 has lots of contenders. More than I can shake a stick at as witnessed by the "hobbyist" (I don't mean that as an insult) talent on MLP alone. The internet has been an amazing way to share idea's and information from the most gifted master down to the weekend warrior and I for one am grateful for that. It has also made friends of mine I would have never made otherwise.
It does make the talent pool so deep its hard to be noticed.
Item 2 of course has vast numbers of people. Most of which do not build guitars.
Item 3 is the kicker and IMO there are very, VERY few people who excel at this category. It really seems to be a sliding scale to me. I personally feel I'm a good guitar builder but I'm better at running a business. I learned on the job first hand for over 20 years so I have a leg up there.
Running a business is more than just remembering to pay your tax bill and keeping the lights on. Its marketing, its networking, its how, where and what to spend money on. Its about having a concrete goal about what you want your business to be. Do you want to build 10 guitars a year or 50 or 500 or 5000 or 50,000. How are you going to get there. What are you good at and what are you weak at. Are you willing to let someone improve the areas you are weak at (or hire them to do it). ect ect
Running a business is hard. I've thought often about going back to school and getting a business degree (though it has been suggested by many people who I respect that the 20 years practical experience and contacts gained are just about as good). I do often look back and think that my degree in Sociology actually buttressed and maybe gave me some advantages in other areas of my business.
Make a plan
Should you become a luither? To be or not to be... that really is the question. I've been thinking about this with the soon arrival of my first child, if he was to ask me the same thing or want to take over the family business.
First off make a plan. Set a goal. Research that goal. Ask people who work in that field. Read EVERYTHING you can. Obsess over it. Drive your friends to the point of desertion, make your parents wish they had ear plugs and stop just short of making your significant other want to bean you over the head. This applies to whatever you might devote your life to.
Second, go to school. College, trade school, community college ect. You will invariably learn important life and social skills there that will always help your future endeavors. If you have a goal, you'll find classes that will directly apply to what you want (and make the ones that don't bearable).
Third, as suggested find locals who work in the field you want to be (again, this applies to most things). Every town has some one who is a luither, tech or goon of some sort. Doesn't mean they are the best or even good but you will learn things. Be proactive, go out and find these people. In the future, no one wants to hire the recluse. I want proactive people working for me, so does the rest of the world.
Learn everything you can. Be open minded. Maybe just being a local tech is all you want and let the business worries fall to someone else. Maybe you want to go work for PRS, Taylor, Fender ect. Learn and experience and maybe open up your own shop one day.
Or maybe you just want to dive in with both feet and let the chips fall where they lay.
My future luither/builder specific advice
Network. Be crushingly nice. Be social. Dont steal. Be original. Work hard. Take constructive criticism.
I LOVE what I do. I also hate it from time to time (anyone of us who has has this moment... mine usually comes from my 4th or 5th fret job for the day). I wouldn't trade it for anything ('cept flying F16's!).
The thing I love most about building guitars is the boutique community. I have done lots of things over the years and NO ONE shares like this community. If you're original, not stealing someone elses designs and your a nice chap to boot, you're in. We ALL talk to each other. There are only (imo) a couple of ego's in this entire community that I can't stand. I've hung out with Roman Rist, Ken Parker, Pete Swanson, Linda Manzer, John Monteleone, Nik Huber, Ron Thorn, Juha Rukongas, Saul Koll, Greg Platzer... have talked to Bob Taylor, met big artists and small, right down to guys who I consider on my level (size wise), Dan Nefeasy (DGN), Mike Potvin, Sam Evans, Michael Spalt, Frank Demiel, Paul Rhoney ect ect. This doesn't even touch the amp guys Adam Grimm, Andy Fuchs or people like Rebecca Dirks and the rest of the PG staff ect ect. There are literally hundreds of names I don't have room to mention.
The one thing you'll see over and over and over again is this is the nicest group of people on earth. We all have the its us vs the big guys mentality so we all help each other out. I share dealer info, building tips, frustrations ect. We all do with each other. If you want to do this for a living, this is the way you should act and treat each other. Listen to those who have been doing it longer than you when they offer insight or advice.
Be ready to work, A LOT. I work 7 days a week, 6 in the shop 10+ hours a day with every spare minute at home used to answer emails, phone calls, drum up business ect. It will be your life.
OK, now you've seen (I hope) what it's like to be on the inside. Decide for yourself, make that plan and get to work!
BTW this is how long I've been working in the family business.
I take a lot of pride in being where I'm at for 29 years old and keeping alive skills and traditions that tend to be lost more and more with each generation. I also have a father to which I will always be eternally grateful to for not just building the shop I use today but being the role model that proved to me a smart head and hard work can get you far in life.