Kit Manuals Compared


CF Martin & Co., Inc.

Title: Basic Instructions and Helpful Hints For Guitar Kit Construction

Manual Length: 20 pages; 16 pages of text

Illustrations: 14 photos, 5 diagrams

Versions: One version for all kits offered.

Full-size Plan: No

Video or DVD: No

Website: Click Here

NOTE: Click Here for a new independently published Manual for Martin-style Kits. (Aug 2008)

Building a guitar from a kit is a detailed process. It can be done very well and result in a beautiful guitar ... but for a beginner to do it that way requires detailed instruction. New kit-builders need to be led by the hand: They are not experienced guitar builders, and so do not know the many cautions that should accompany the making of a decent instrument.

Martin's little booklet just doesn’t do its duty, in my opinion.

Martin's booklet virtually guarantees that first-timer building a Martin Kit will make some big mistakes and probably build a so-so guitar, by shortcutting almost every step and ignoring many details. They apparently ignore the fact that a customer has spent over $500 for the kit and supplies, more for tools, and has invested a major chunk of his or her life into the building of what he or she hopes will be a good guitar and a rewarding experience. The first-time kit builder is in for a shock if he or she expects this 16 pages of text to provide good guidance.

Example: "Locate, mark and drill the six holes for the tuning machines ..." This is not a heading for a paragraph. No, this is all of the instruction in the booklet on installation of the tuners! The tuners are in the kit, so it isn’t as if they need to leave the subject open for your selection of tuners. Theirs require precise measurement, drilling of a 2-stage (5/16" and 25/64") hole for each tuner, etc. Tthere is a diagram with the measurements: On it, the numbers are correct, but it isn't accurately drawn, and it doesn't show important details (the 2-stage hole, for example). A mistake at this point will create an instrument that doesn't look good. There are many instances of the same lack of instruction.

This booklet is obviously not intended to be the only guide for building a Martin kit. However, it goes just far enough that the builder will probably think it is intended as such; he or she is therefore quite likely to get into building trouble. It's at this point, then, on the internet forums, that the following kind of topic appears (very, very frequently): "Building a Martin kit .... HELP!"

Out of the 16 pages of this manual, over three full pages are devoted to finishing. that could be a good thing, but these three pages dwell on the finishing method Martin uses, and states repeatedly and clearly that the home builder cannot do it this way—but does not give instruction on any other method to point the builder in a useful direction.

And, this booklet is all you get. (On the 1833 shop website and catalog, a full-size plan is shown, but it is no longer included with the kits.)

Bill Cory


Reviews of Guitar Kit Documentation

These Reviews, Like All Reviews, Are Opinions, And Represent One Point of View

A Summary Appears at the Bottom of the Page

Stewart-MacDonald, Inc.

Title: Triple-O (or) Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar Kit Assembly Instructions

Manual Length: 36 pages of text

Illustrations: 55 photos, 16 diagrams

Versions: Specific version for Triple-O and Dreadnought kits.

Full-size Plan: Yes

Video or DVD: VHS Video

Website: Click Here

Of the three major kit makers, Stewmac's documentation is the best, in my (not-so-humble) opinion. With the latest update of the documents, providing more accuracy in the Triple-O manual, they have provided what can be considered a "stand-alone" guide for building one of their kits. (It is also a good overview of one of the ways of building a kit guitar or scratch guitar, and should be read by builders of kits from other manufacturers. Especially Martin.)

The manual is well-written, easy to follow, well-organized and nicely illustrated. Stewmac doesn't waste words, but neither do they write in shorthand. Where procedures need to be explained in detail, they are. Sidebar "Kit Tips" are added that offer insight into more efficient or more accurate ways of accomplishing certain steps, or of building your own tools.

Other sources of information will of course be helpful to the builder of a Stewmac kit, and with that in mind, Stewmac offers a number of illustrated informational essays on their website, under the "Free Information" menu. In this section of the website, both manuals (Triple-O and Dreadnought) are available for free download, a very helpful service that should be continued. In addition, information is provided on various detailed procedures that every kit builder can use to do a better job.

Along with the written manual are the following: (1) A full-size plan, accurate enough to use for scratch building; (2) A DVD, over an hour in length, covering the entire process of building and filling in where the manual might not offer full explanations (and, although it shows the building of a dreadnought model, it fully applies to the Triple-O); (3) A vellum (translucent) overlay for transferring the brace layouts to the top and back. The vellum pattern was developed in response to a suggestion from a customer, and is a good example of the responsiveness of Stewmac to customers' needs and suggestions.

Not really documentation, but an essential part of building, is the mold Stewmac provides. Where they used to send cardboard for the builder to cut, they now send cut cardboard to make their elegant and excellent internal molding system.

With the information package that Stewmac provides, the beginning kit builder can start and finish an instrument that will be highly satisfying. Additional sources can take it even further, and help make the guitar much more than is expected from a "kit guitar."

Bill Cory

Luthier’s Mercantile, Inc.

Online: "An Amateur's Guide to Building an LMI Guitar Kit"

Length: Six sets of web pages, with sub-headings and pages

Illustrations: Many photos, each with a short caption.

Versions: One version

Full-size Plan Included: Yes

Video or DVD: DVD by Robert O'Brien for either Steel String or Classical kit

Website: Click Here

The instructional materials offered for LMI kits are somewhat scattered in their approach. The individual materials are good, with Robert O'Brien's DVD being the best part of the documentation.

David Painter, who created the online journal as a manual, apparently started building guitars in 2002, and by 2005, was displaying his guitars at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival. His introduction explains why LMI tabbed him to document the building of their kits: "Everyone knows that a Master Luthier can produce a spectacular instrument.  But to someone who is just thinking of dipping their toes into luthiery it is important to see that even an average hack like me can build a credible guitar without a gazillion dollars worth of special tools or years of experience."

What he writes there, compared with the workshop shown in his pages of online journal, doesn't quite match. It appears that the author indeed does have a lot of expensive and very nice tools — the kind that are only found in the shop of an experienced woodworker. The tools are used in a large shop. Nothing wrong with all these tools and nice shop, but they can give two wrong impressions: (1) that these tools are necessary to build the kit or any guitar (regardless of what he says in the introduction), and; (2), it doesn't show the novice builder how to work with the tools the beginner actually has, or that he can build a guitar kit with a minimum of power tools. (My own first guitar was built almost two power tools: A hand-held cordless drill and a $25 eBay Chinese knock-off router. Everything else was hand tools.)

Still, the illustrated journal approach, a version of which I use on this website, is a good one. The author is somewhat stingy with his words, letting the photos try to carry the load.

The DVD is the strong part of the documentation. Robert O'Brien's level narration and the many still photos used work well together to describe the complete building process. O'Brien's photos are excellent, showing each step from numerous angles. Overall, the DVD is excellent and extremely helpful to describe the various procedures. (O’Brien also has a great finishing DVD: Click here.)

The problem I find with this documentation package is that it is all electronics-based. The act of building a guitar, for the great majority of beginners, requires instructions that can be read and reread while actually building. (Robert O'Brien has stated that he might make available his narration of the DVD as a downloadable document, either PDF or Microsoft Word, but we have not seen that yet.)

Bill Cory

Email Me Made on a Mac

The newest addition to the manuals available is devoted to the building of Martin-style acoustic guitar kits. 108 pages, over 500 photos! Click Cover for info.