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Make a Guitar (at the Office)

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Apr 10 2016

Guitars have been a love affair of mine since childhood. I was surrounded by music at home: My father plays guitar and taught me to play my first chords. Since I am an avid tinkerer, craftsman, and maker, it was a logical step to build them myself.

Two years ago, I ordered wood, frets, a few parts, and a couple of guidebooks. After watching hours of instructional YouTube videos, I built a mold and got going.

I’m entirely self-taught. I learned mainly by doing, common sense, and from my experience building models as a product designer. There’s a violin maker next to our office who helped me understand old techniques like hot-bending wood, working with hot hide glue, and using and sharpening wood hand tools.

I’ve finished two guitars, and I’m working on a new one now. I do all of my work on them in our IDEO Munich workshop. The first took about 140 hours to make, over six months. The second one took less time. (A professional builder takes about 40 to 60 hours, for reference.) You can’t rush it and there’s not much room for iteration—it has to be right the first time. I sign the inside of each soundboard so people know where and when it was built, in case someone takes them apart after I’m gone.

I build off a 1930s plan by CF Martin, a German who emigrated to the US in the late 1800s and founded the famous Martin Guitar Company. He invented the American steel-string guitar. The model is called OM (Orchestra Model). It was the biggest guitar made at the time, and was for playing in orchestras and, of course, without amplification. I find its shape beautiful, and it has a fine voice. It’s still built today. It has passed the test of time, I guess.

Illustration By Christophe Grellier

My latest build is European: a gypsy jazz guitar like one played by famous jazz guitar inventor Django Reinhardt. Created by an Italian guitarist named Maccaferri, it was produced by Selmer, Paris, from the 1930s to the late 1940s. I love that genre, and this guitar has a unique sound.

With the shift to a management position, I’m turning my design skills more towards consulting and away from product design. I miss the focussed work that goes deep, spending time on one project, and having a tangible result after hours of work.

Guitar making gives me all of that. It is extremely rewarding. The result of your work becomes increasingly evident, and at the end you can make music on your own creation, while other guitarists can enjoy what you’ve built. It is an exercise in learning, prototyping, craft, and design.

  • Leif Huff

    Partner and Executive Design Director, IDEO New York
    As an IDEO partner and executive design director at IDEO New York, Leif is passionate about finding the most impactful ways to bring human-centered brands, products, spaces, and experiences successfully to market. He is happiest when collaborating with clients and colleagues to integrate innovation and meaning into the design process. Passionate about making things real and with a love of design, Leif has created strategies, comprehensive design languages, and award-winning products and services for renowned international, German, and U.S. companies.
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