Bend, Don’t Break: Mastering the Art of Guitar Building

It’s hard to say whether Glenda Skinner wanted to keep her husband Sam from being lonely or keep him out of trouble when she gave him a guitar building kit five years ago. Sam Skinner was just starting a position at Georgia Tech Savannah, which included a 300-mile commute back and forth to Acworth, Georgia, every two weeks or so. Little did either one of them know how this do-it-yourself venture would change their lives.

When he started building his first guitar, Skinner was extremely apprehensive about how to bend wood without breaking it. Since the kit was for a Martin guitar—one of the finest and most famous names in acoustic guitars—Skinner sought out a certified Martin dealer. He happened upon one near Savannah in Pooler, Georgia.

Skinner walked into the guitar shop with his kit in hand and met owner Randy Wood, a master luthier, who looked at the kit and told Skinner he wouldn’t build his guitar for him. When Skinner replied he just wanted to ask a few questions, Wood changed his tune.

“Great,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

So began a five-year friendship that grew until Wood invited Skinner to bring his project to the guitar shop to work on it. As their relationship grew, Skinner began helping around the shop to “pay” for his tutoring, doing everything from painting the shop to computer repairs.

Along the way Skinner found out that Wood learned to be a luthier from Tut Taylor, one of the most famous Dobro players in bluegrass music. The Tut Taylor connection led to Wood working for such renowned musicians as Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. As Skinner continued his project working in Wood’s shop, he too met a number of famous musicians: Chris Hillman of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Australian guitar wizard Tommy Emanuel and multi-instrumentalist John McEuen of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame.

Five years and 20 guitars later, Skinner is back working on the main Tech campus in system support for the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, making space for his hobby in the basement of his Acworth home. It is crowded with exotic woods, woodworking tools and guitars in various phases of construction, all stashed about in a plethora of guitar cases and Rubbermaid containers. Skinner has enough fat, reddish-brown mahogany boards lying around to build guitars for the next 20 years. He will carefully slice it into thin sheets, bending them into a mold to produce some of the sweetest sounding instruments imaginable.

Meanwhile he has definitely gotten the hang of this guitar-building thing. In fact, he now tutors other aspiring luthiers in guitar building. One such aspirant is neighbor Gene Camp. “When you work with Sam you have to be meticulous,” he said. No doubt a lesson learned from Wood’s own instruction.

Overall, Skinner says that in some ways guitar building is harder than working with electronics. It is a labor of prep work—building molds, patterns and jigs with close tolerances and virtually no margin for error—all before he even touches a piece of the wood for the guitar.

So has Skinner overcome his fear of bending wood? Pretty much, though he does admit, “when you pay $1,500 for a piece of Koa or Rosewood, you are a little more antsy.”

Among those guitars he has completed, Skinner has sold a few and donated a few more. He recently built a guitar that was a Georgia Tech special: featuring all of his unique touches and attention to detail, including mother-of-pearl inlaid interlocking GT and Buzz on the pick guard and headstock. (As he does with all his creations, he gave the Tech guitar a name: George.) He donated the instrument to the Alumni Association for its silent auction in June, selling for more than $2,000.

Glenda Skinner no longer worries about her husband being lonely. Maybe some day soon the Skinners’ home will become a destination for famous musicians searching for that perfect sound. No doubt Sam has enough in the works to keep him around the house for a long time.

—David Arnold, Georgia Tech Communications & Marketing