British Columbia·Inside the Craft

Making a luthier: B.C.'s Michael Dunn explains how he became a guitar builder

B.C. guitar maker Michael Dunn explains what led to his career as a prolific luthier.

North by Northwest's Inside the Craft runs Feb. 24 to Apr. 22

B.C. luthier Michael Dunn says being an avid guitar player is really helpful when building guitars. (CBC)

It was 1965 when North Vancouver resident Michael Dunn first began working with guitars.

Dunn is now an accomplished luthier, a builder of string instruments, but back then he was just an aspiring guitar player.

Dunn had just bought a hand-made Spanish guitar from a store on Vancouver's 10th Avenue called The Mediterranean Shop.

The shop is no longer there but, in its day, the store sold Spanish furniture and other finely crafted wooden wares. Dunn needed a job, and the shop's elderly proprietor needed an assistant, so Dunn began work there.

It wasn't until his first day at the store that Dunn found out what his job would be. The owner showed Dunn to the back room, where there were dozens of broken guitars hanging from the walls.

"There were 35 guitars to fix in the backroom. They'd come from his shop in Spain," said Dunn during CBC Radio One's North by Northwest series Inside the Craft.

"He was a guitar player and he said 'if you can set these up so they're playable, that'll be your job here.'"

So Dunn got to work.

He had no wood working experience, and first he started with the easy fixes — restringing the guitars and smoothing rough frets. Gradually, Dunn moved to the more complicated repairs.

When all the guitars were good to go, the old shop owner announced he was going back to Spain to build more guitars. He told Dunn that if he paid his own way to Europe, he would have a job as a luthier waiting for him when he got there.

"He didn't have to say that twice," said Dunn, laughing.

Dunn rounded up enough money to get on a train to Montreal and then a freighter to Casablanca. He then travelled to the Majorca region of Spain where he met up with the old man at his guitar shop in Palma.

Dunn then spent three years apprenticing under two, third-generation luthiers.

"I walked into that room full of half made guitars and realized this was what I wanted to do in life," said Dunn.

"That was it, no looking back."

Now, years later, Dunn is considered a master luthier and has built more than 500 guitars.

Tune in to North by Northwest on Sundays at 8:10 a.m. from February 24th to April 22 for a special series, Inside the Craft.