Meet the maker - Tom Sands
This series is somewhat self indulgent of me, I love discovering brands and guitar makers I've not come across prior, including the aspects of guitars I'm perhaps not familiar with either. Along with getting a chance to speak with the luthiers I've been a long time fan of too. I enjoy hearing about all the different luthiers approaches and influences, from a guitar geeks perspective it's really quite insightful. But one thing the series was lacking so far, was an acoustic guitar maker's thoughts.
Rewind about a year, and Nick Pourfard of Prisma Guitars asked me if I knew Tom Sands, an acoustic guitar maker friend of his. I hadn't sadly, and to my surprise he was UK based, and I was hooked instantly after a look at his website and media content. You could tell there was more than just guitars that Tom was influenced by. Super clean designs, that seemed to balance beautifully between pure functionality and getting the very best from each aspect of the instrument, to being incredibly aesthetically pleasing and unique. Over the course of the time first hearing of Tom's work, to speaking with him a little over social media, I knew he had to be the first acoustic guitar maker to join the Meet the Maker series and luckily he was keen too! So let's find out more about Tom, his influences, processes and work...
J - I always find it interesting to talk about early musical influences in our guitar respective journeys. So! What did you grow up listening to, or perhaps what was the music/artists that sparked your interest in the guitar? Do you think they influenced your guitar making too?
TS - The two are completely intertwined. My best friend at school, Si, was a massive Primus fan and by extension a massive fan of bass playing virtuosity, so we listened to loads of funk and jazz, it was all about Jaco, Stanley Clark, Larry Graham, Victor Wooten, with a blend of guys like Flea and Tim Commerford. Les Claypool of Primus played a couple of really unusual basses made by Brooklyn based Luthier, Carl Thompson. Si and I were spending most of our free time in the art and design department at school, specifically in the workshops. Si decided that he wanted to make a Thompson-esq bass for his A level design project and asked for my help in exchange for bass lessons.
We had no idea what we were doing, I had a few basic hand tools, an old router and a table saw, we went to the local wood yard, bought wha we thought looked pretty and went about canibailised a second hand bass we picked up from the now defunked 'Music Ground' in Leeds.
Si would come round most weekends and we'd hang out in my Dad's garage, listening to Primus, playing bass and gluing bits of wood together. After a couple of months or so, we ended up with an absolute beast of an instrument. Being made from a solid slab of African Padauk, It weighed probably twice a much as a Fender Jazz bass . Funnily enough I dusted it off the other day, I'm planning on bringing it back to life!
TS - I definitely caught the bug with that first bass, throughout art school I'd always a have some project on the go but it was never something I thought I could make a career out of. The boutique guitar world and the makers I so admired seemed to all be based in the States and the whole thing seemed pretty out of reach, it wasn’t until much later that I realised it was something I could pursue.
J - Obtaining an apprenticeship with Ervin must have felt like a huge step, a leap of faith perhaps in equal measure, particularly seeing as it also involved an up and move to the other side of the world during that study time! How did the opportunity come about, and were there experiences/teachings along the way that you simply didn't expect whilst with him?
TS - It came at a time in my life when I was directionless, I was totally stifled creatively and just down right miserable. Something had to give. I’d been working in the bespoke furniture industry for 6 years and slowly falling out of love with it.
It all started with an email, one which I just followed as the thread unraveled. Ervin invited me out for an interview, I spent two weeks living and working in his shop, sleeping on the floor surrounded by jigs and fixtures, teaching aids, Ervin's endless library of guitar related literature, his oddities and curiosities filling every inch of available wall space. I remember feeling a gravitas being there, it was honour to be standing at the same bench as many of Ervins former apprentices, makers who’ve gone in to be world class Luthiers in their own right. During the two weeks I spent my time doing a series of skills tests, designed to assess my knowledge, patience and ability to solve problems. Ervin and I would take walks, drink coffee together, shoot the shit and generally get to know each other, the whole time he had this poker face as to how he felt regarding the possibility of working together long term.
Ervin offered me the apprenticeship at the end of the two weeks as we debriefed in the shop kitchen. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted, I still remember him sat opposite me drinking his almond chocolate iced coffee concoction, with a knowing smile on his face. There wasn’t really much to think about in that moment, of course I was going to accept, I’d just have to figure out the myriad of logistical complexities later.
The apprenticeship was incredibly intense, long hours, demanding projects but it was so much more than learning how to build guitars. It taught me resilience. It taught me that there will be times when you accidentally damage a $50,000 guitar in week two of your apprenticeship, or you melt the french polish on a guitar the day its supposed to be delivered. It taught me to develop a critical eye and most importantly it stoked my creativity and restored all of my factory settings, there was definitely a sense of rebirth. Perhaps that's a little meta.
J - I can imagine that a number of your processes are directly reflected from your time as Ervin's apprentice. But how have you grown further from that and perhaps refined those processes to suit your own luthiery style as you began, and continue to develop via your own designs? Do you have any stages of a build in particular that are your favorites time and again?
TS - Most of what I do today is firmly rooted in the Somogyi method in terms of voicing, construction and critical thinking but I blend that with my own understanding of how wood behaves from my days as a cabinet maker and my aesthetic choices as a design graduate. Most of the processes I picked up from Ervin I’ve tweaked slightly to use techniques I’m more comfortable or have more experience with. His template is a pretty successful one after all!
I love voicing a guitar and carving the neck, both processes take me a couple of days each and both are fundamental to the success of the instrument. Both are done patiently by hand and I think the tactile nature of these two tasks really helps to build a bond and understanding with the guitar.
J - How did you approach those first few commissions that rolled in? Any learning curves that affected how you do things today?
TS - I was very lucky in that I got a commission pretty much straight out of the gate. At the time I was dealing with so many separate learning curves, all steep ones at that. So it was import to get organised and to learn how to manage peoples expectations. Not just my first clients but also my own expectations for myself. Learning when to stop pushing and to take a break, understanding when my brain was at full capacity and working harder or longer would only yield diminishing returns.
J - Among many details, your rosette ideas, materials used for them and the designs they capture was definitely something that really caught my eye. Unique materials seemed to be a common theme here, is this something that has been client requests, or something you perhaps present them with and go from there?
TS - When I was making furniture I’d be surrounded by stacks of material swatches and I always found those really inspiring, its something I wanted to carry over into my guitars and so now I have my own swatches and samples that I’ll present to clients.
I find that there's a very fine line between the beauty of intricacy and craft and craft for crafts sake. Its very tempting to throw out all your chops at once and very quickly you’ve got something thats ‘all flash and no smash’, the eye loses a focus point. When something becomes increasingly ‘ busy’ its easy to lose sight of the design basics such as proportion. Increasingly the challenge I set myself is to say the most with the least, so for me its all about exploring colour and texture using interesting techniques and processes. In doing this you get a mulitfaceted effect, One of my favourite guitars featured a Japanese washi paper rosette. At first glance its just a plain black ring, but then you catch it in a different light and you notice the texture, this draws you in, then you see all the interwoven fibres and ask yourself, what is this material? It opens up a dialogue. Its important that the materials I use say something about my ethos as a builder more broadly.
J - One thing I have picked up on since following your work is the bond with your clients/guitar owners, the 'stories' appearing to be so important to both yourself and them. Where do you think that stems from & do you think it's important when making a guitar for someone to have that bond? It's something that isn't necessarily apparent in the mass guitar market, so always something I think shines through when it's there, I'd love to hear your side of things as the luthier.
TS - One of my biggest qualms with making furniture, especially when I was working in the bigger production shops is the disconnect I felt with the client and by extension the final product. Often I wouldn’t meet the client, sometimes I’d meet a representative, say, an architect or an interior designer, I’d possibly have one or two conversations with the guy in charge of installation, I wouldn’t have clue where my materials were coming from, someone else would deal with that. So most days would start with a pack of drawings landing on my bench accompanied by a breakdown of my hour allocations. It became very linear. The satisfaction of making something comes when you can stand back at the end and be proud of what you’ve achieved and its always nice to have that validated by whomever it is you’re making it for. That was totally missing, so there was no payoff, I was working for a paycheck. And so I basically stopped caring and when that happens you’re in trouble.
Working for myself, working directly with my clients, with my suppliers I am engaged from the second that first enquiry drops into my inbox, right up til delivery day and often well beyond. The cycle can take up to 3 years, and thats a long time to get to know someone. I always say that half of what I do is build guitars, the other half is build relationships. If I really get to know my clients then theres a much better chance I’ll understand their needs and build them something they’ll love.
J - I always find it interesting to discuss different makers processes, right from the early stages. When Developing your guitar designs, from a luthiers perspective, what goes into the design processes and decision making for you? In terms of material choices, bracing and construction etc. Do you have a core recipe and develop further from that, trial and error or well planned from knowledge gained over time building?
TS - Usually it starts with the sound. Given that sound is so subjective and everyone experiences it differently, its important to build up a shared vocabulary with a client. What does ‘ bright' mean? what does ‘open’ sound like?
As far as a recipe goes, to borrow from Ervin, I am most concerned with the three tonal pillars, the three things that in my opinion have the biggest variable impact on how a guitar sounds 1 - the rim assembly, its structural integrity, and its definition of the air mass of the soundbox. 2- the top as the primary vibrating diaphragm and 3- the back and the interplay between the previous two ‘pillars'.
A guitar can take up to 2 months to build start to finish and represent considerable investment so theres limited room for trial and error, so my approach tend to be analytical and socratic, if I’m going to change something especially in relation to my ‘tonal pillars’ then I have to be pretty sure I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. When I do get time to experiment, its usually incremental, ultimately what I’m really trying to develop is an intuitive sense of exactly whats going with the instrument.
J - January of this year saw the introduction of your latest design, the Model L. Could you talk us through this design and any differences in construction compared to your other models in the line-up?
TS - Up til this point I’ve been using Ervins models, templates jigs and fixtures. Ervin was really generous in letting me do that with the stipulation that I don’t carry it forward after my apprenticeship. So, my primary motivation for redesigning my line was to honour that but also more plainly to differentiate and to bring things into line with my own aesthetic sensibilities. The Model L is my take on the dreadnought, something big a powerful with plenty of bass. I’ve just completed my first Model S which is at the other end of the spectrum, a short scale 12 fret guitar more akin to a parlour size and later this year I’ll be releasing the Model M which will fill the gap in-between. The idea is that I'll have 3 guitars which are all very different from each other.
J - Where do you see yourself taking Tom Sands Guitars in the future? Do you have any dream projects, or models/shapes perhaps?
TS - I want to expand and share space, either with an apprentice or other makers in different fields. Working alone kills creativity, it’s also really boring. I see huge value in sharing skills and knowledge, it pushes us all forward. So many other creatives have helped and inspired me over the years that I would like to pay that forward.I really love to collaborate, theres something so exciting about getting fresh eyes involved, ideally someone who has no contextual bias. Almost immediately the lightbulbs start popping, it makes you question everything. Right now I’m in the middle of a massive transition, overhauling pretty much everything I do and reflecting on everything I’ve learned over the last 10 years, so for now I’ll concentrate on refining what I’m doing, as soon as I start to feel like I’m getting comfortable with that I’ll most likely flip over the apple cart and light it on fire!
A huge thanks to Tom for taking the time out of his work and personal time to answer these questions and in giving us an insight into what he does so well. I highly recommend keeping an eye on Tom, his work is gaining a trusted following of very devoted acoustic guitarists and in a sub-genre of guitar where high end acoustics are incredibly precise and competitive, for his name to shine so early on is a sign of things to come. Can't wait to see what he does with his work, I'll be following in awe along the journey.
All photos are credit to Tom Sands and Nic Kane (All black and white) - http://www.nickane.co.uk/
So thank you to both Tom and Nic for their photos to supplement this interview.