Step Away From the Keyboard

Admiring the Acoustics

As a gear nerd, I’ve always been fascinated by disassembling finished products and looking at the guts of a thing. That’s why so many “how it’s made” type TV shows and specials are popular — watching a bunch of random components get assembled into something useful is amazing. Many complex items are assembled entirely by machine, or need little more than some simple handling by a person to make a finished product. Some things, though, need the human touch and could never be fully crafted by a robot.
Before I even explain how amazing the place is, I want you to clear off some space in your schedule for a midweek trip south to Nazareth, PA. The C.F. Martin & Co. guitar factory tour is a must-see destination right around the corner for just about everyone. Even non-musicians will appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that goes into the creation of every fine guitar that passes through their doors.
Before it’s time to take a walk through the production floors of the factory, swing into the museum for a bit of company history. You’ll see the evolution of the company (dating to the earliest days when the founder produced 20 or so handmade instruments per year), as well as some one-of-a-kind limited editions featuring some of the most stunning inlay work you’re likely to ever see.
The factory tour itself takes visitors through the entire building with workers busy at their shifts. I nearly twisted my head off trying to take it all in — everywhere you look are guitars or pieces in various stages of assembly. On one rack might be a few dozen necks, on another might be several partially assembled bodies, another might hold a single, crazy custom job. Rarely will you see two identical looking pieces next to each other.
Some of the jobs are automated, particularly where safety is involved. Certain pieces are cut by machine, much of the lacquer and varnish is applied by robot, and the final buffing is done by a custom-designed robot that picks each guitar up with suction cups and turns it against a giant buffing wheel. Most of the intricate work, however, is done by human hands with woodworking tools. The x-braces inside every single guitar are delicately hand-scalloped by workers. Most of the custom inlays are cut from pearl or abalone by hand with a tiny little hacksaw — I saw tiny maple leaves no larger than a pinkie nail. Each piece of inlay work, naturally, has to be duplicated as a cut-out in the wood of the guitar neck or body so the inlay can be set and glued in place. It’s insane.
It’s amazing to see an army of people and just how much goes into putting together a single guitar, and the attention to detail makes it clear why these are considered some of the best acoustic guitars in the world. On the way out, past the people who play each guitar to ensure quality, I asked the guide what happens to guitars that don’t pass quality control (hey, I’d take a sub-par Martin any day!). There’s no reconditioning or outlet store. After all that work and hand construction, if a guitar isn’t up to standard, it’s sent to the wood chipper. They won’t ship out anything but the best.