The Art of the Luthier

Story by Matthew St. Amand
Photography courtesy David Radlin

The family heirloom was more than a hundred years old: a Hensel acoustic guitar. The instrument had been played and hauled around and used as the creator intended, but the ravages of time took their toll: disintegrating Bakelite pick guard, damage to the back of the guitar, misaligned neck, bridge and nut in need of replacement, amid a general overhaul. It was difficult, delicate work. Who in Essex County could perform such a task? Belle River luthier David Radlin.

Considering the profound effective music has on human beings, it would not be inaccurate to refer to “musical” instruments as “magical” instruments and few speak to the human psyche like guitars. In the hands of the artists who ignite the airwaves with their music, the result is often otherworldly. What goes into building such an instrument? The domain of the luthier (professional guitar builder) is part science and part alchemy. 

David Radlin has built and repaired guitars for fifteen years. His love of music, his involvement with it, goes back to the beginning of his life.

“When I was just little my grandfather had an old Gibson ES 125 from the mid-’50s,” he recalls. 

David labouring in his workshop. Photo by Matthew St. Amand.

As David grew into his teen years, he discovered rock music and the personalities who created it—back when the rock guitar pantheon was peopled by Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, as well as young upstarts such as Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen. Rock guitar in the 1970s and 1980s was what the hot rod was to youth culture in the 1950s. 

David’s infatuation with music dimmed as he graduated high school and began college. In his professional life, he worked in mechanical engineering as a machine designer for automotive manufacturing.

The magic of music is that it can go dark in a person’s life and then re-emerge years later, full force. That occurred with David in his mid-thirties when he became involved his church’s music/arts program, playing guitar. 

“A friend of mine in that community who wasn’t particularly skilled or equipped had built a few guitars,” David remembers. “Inspired by that success, I decided to try one as well. I was already wood working, making canoe paddles, so I was not intimidated by carving a guitar neck. Other guitar playing friends gathered at my wood shop to each build a guitar. I still own that first guitar I made. I play and perform with it regularly.” 

Seeing the result of his work, David thought: “I have a knack for this. Maybe I should look into this a little bit deeper.” 

That opportunity came in 2008 when the Great Recession dried up his livelihood.

“I was looking to make a change,” David explains. “I found an ad in a guitar magazine for the Galloup School of Guitar Building and Repair in Big Rapids, Michigan. I showed it to my wife, and she said: ‘You should do that.’ So, I went  to western Michigan for the program.”

When David first hung out his shingle as a professional luthier, he primarily built steel string acoustic guitars. “As a player, I was captivated by acoustic music, country ragtime blues. Over time, though, my interest shifted to building electric guitars.”

It takes approximately fifty hours to build a guitar. 

“The way I built guitars years ago is different from how I build them now,” David says. “In the early days of building electrics, everything was patterned from hand made templates, with hand-carved necks. Today I use 3D design modeling and a CNC router.”

To the uninitiated, automation might seem like cheating. 

“Having built guitars fully by hand, the skillset I draw on is far more expansive using technology than if I do it all by hand. Each guitar receives the same attention to detail, either way. Where it really matters is in the shape of the guitar’s neck, which is an intimate fit. The technology is just for cutting. I sand and shape everything by hand and that’s where the nuance of a hand-made instrument comes in.” 

Having played music since 1980, this writer has strummed numerous guitars in innumerable guitar shops and there is nothing like the feel of a hand-made instrument. The experience of a Radlin guitar is at once… well, this is where alchemy enters the equation. 

The data pouring into the guitarist’s senses from a Radlin guitar are mostly intangible. The feel of the neck, the natural way the guitar’s body rests against the rib cage, the balanced weight of it on the guitarist’s knee, the smoothness of the fretboard that invites the fingers to explore regions they usually do not venture. The tone of the guitars is rich and deep and resonates within the musician long after the sound vanishes from the air.

David says the challenges of repairing guitars is equally satisfying. Each guitar either has obvious body damage or the owners provide vague descriptions of how the instrument’s tone isn’t quite right.
David takes each guitar in hand and using the luthier’s mystic tools slowly disassembles the guitar with the care and precision of an archaeologist uncovering an ancient discovery.

In the case of the century-old Hensel guitar, David succeeded in completely refurbishing the instrument in a manner that is not readily apparent to the naked eye. Everything that gave the guitar character and marked its long life remains, but many of its unseen corners have been shored up and made whole.

As for the electric guitars he produces, David says: “I have a certain artistic vision for my guitars, at this point. I have two different types inspired by classic designs. I also wind my own pick-ups, which gives the instrument its own voice.” 

For the magic he is capable of summoning, David does not live on an inaccessible mountaintop. He can be found any day of the week in his preternaturally tidy shop at the side of his house. To inquire about sales and/or repairs, David can be reached through his website

Check out the guitars he has built and repaired over the years on his Facebook page:


  • I am fortunate to be the owner of one of his electric guitars and it is perfect. I have played Every brand name guitar there is and his is my number 1 among 8 in my collection. I love so much I have asked him to build me another just because they’re that good.

  • David has repaired and set-up almost all of my guitars; as a result, my enjoyment and passion for playing my instruments has increased substantially. He is a true craftsman who treats each project as if he was working on his own instrument. He is the best.