Cool job: Guitar builder (luthier)
Most kids growing up want to be firefighters, professional athletes or astronauts. Not Micah Bruce. Even in seventh grade, when his English class did a career test, he wanted to become a luthier (guitar maker).
"I don't remember even thinking of being anything else," said Bruce, a luthier at John Allison Guitars (allisonguitars.com) in Austin, Texas. "I did my essay on that and gave a presentation to the class. I never really thought it would actually happen. It was kind of a dream."
Bruce got into cabinet making, furniture building and trim carpentry out of high school, before working at a music store in his hometown, Omaha, repairing stringed instruments. Through personal connections, upon moving to Austin in 2010, Bruce broke into guitar making.
What specifically does your job entail?
We build acoustic guitars and some electric, but mostly acoustics, from the ground up. We also repair stringed instruments and restore vintage instruments.
What makes your job so cool?
I get to build guitars and make something that's artistic in and of itself but it's also methodical and scientific. It's creating a piece of lasting value, like a handmade instrument, compared to a lot of factory instruments out there.
What kind of skills does someone need to do this job successfully?
They need hand skills, most of all. What I mean by that is not just going through the motions of how to sand something but being able to be aware of the forces going on and the different nuances of the mechanics of everything. You'd be surprised how many really smart people I work with that just don't quite get how to really understand a three dimensional object and how the lines are flowing into each other and how to achieve that shape with certain techniques.
Does this job require any formal schooling or training?
Yeah, there are a lot of luthier schools out there, like associate degree programs and one- or two-year programs. Probably more than half of the people I worked with at Collings Guitars (where he worked before now) went to luthier schools and maybe 30 percent didn't go to school. It definitely makes you a more attractive employee.
I had the fortune of having a lot of woodworking background and meeting the right people to get my foot in the door but the schooling is probably more of a sure way to do it.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
Well, I make a pot of coffee. Then I usually take the clamps off something I glued up the day before. Then I make a flow chart of what I'm going to work on for the day. It's tough because I do repair and new production work, so I'm always juggling multiple things at a time. So yeah, I'll do the things that need to be glued and sit around first and then I'll do something else during that -- I might put frets in the deck of a guitar. I'm always working on some sort of finished work. I pop into the spray booth like once an hour and spray whatever I'm doing and let that dry for the next coat.
At the end of the day, I'll be stringing up a guitar I've been working on. Sometimes I take 10-15 minutes to play it to "test it out" (laughs), but really I'm just enjoying the instrument.
What kind of salary do luthiers make?
People probably start at like $22,000 a year and you can maybe get up to closer to $40,000 a year but that's after you've been doing it a long time. The way to really make money is to do it on your own, to be your own maker, your own brand. That's what most handmade guitars out there are: just one or two guys at a shop. It's hard to say how much they make.
What thoughts and emotions run through your mind when someone buys a guitar you made?
I made an octave mandolin for my best friend and to watch it being played was this coming together of his creativity and mine. The music being made at that moment was his music and his hands but with an instrument I made. And just everybody appreciating the quality and complimenting it was really neat. To make something of value and quality and have just done it finally after all these years.
More about Micah Bruce
1. What did you eat for breakfast? A cup of orange juice and I'm drinking water now.
2. Which day of the week is your favorite? Tuesdays because they have cheep beers at the Draught House.
3. Which day of the week is your least favorite? Probably Mondays. Kind of cliché but it is Monday.
4. What was the first job you ever had? I was a bus boy at a Mexican food restaurant.
5. What makes you angry? Abuse, in general.
6. What makes you joyful? Good friendships and community.
7. If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? It'd be an engineer of some sort, probably mechanical.
8. If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would you choose? Maybe music or art.
9. What did you want to be when you grew up? Luthier.
10. Can money bring you happiness? No.