Four years ago Ben Wilborn made a life-changing decision to give up contracting to become a luthier.
For all the challenges he faces in his new life as a maker of fine guitars, Wilborn is back in touch with his passion and background in music.
Now he needs to decide how successful he really wants to be.
“I started playing the violin when I was 6 years old and continued until it wasn’t cool in high school. Then I started playing guitar,” he says. “And I continued playing violin as it got me out of typing class.”
He was talented enough to win acceptance to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he earned a degree in 1992.
He returned to Reno, his home since he was 2, and founded The Lazy Eights, a popular local band.
“It was a pretty meager living,” Wilborn recalls. “So I started taking up some carpentry and really liked it.”
But breaking up the band after 10 years to become a cabinetmaker and contractor wasn’t fulfilling.
“I liked it less and less as I went along. I decided to make a guitar because I always wanted to merge those two things,” he says.
Uncertain where to begin, Wilborn bought a book and built his first guitar.
“It was kind of clumsy but it was successful enough to make me want to continue doing it,” he says.
He turned for help from an old family friend, David Daily, a luthier in Sparks with a worldwide reputation for his classical acoustic guitars.
Daily graciously set aside his own work for a bit to help the newcomer.
“I quickly realized that making guitars isn’t magic, but it’s really a series of processes that have to be observed or the guitar just doesn’t work mechanically,” Wilborn says.
Both men build acoustic guitars, but Daily creates guitars for nylon strings. Wilborn’s guitars use the steel strings favored by folk and rock musicians.
“They’re cousins and have the same bloodline. But one’s the country cousin and the other the city cousin,” Wilborn explains.
Construction requires precise joinery in which light, thin pieces of wood are shaped, curved and handled carefully. One slip can result in a need for a new piece — or may even require the luthier to start over.
If all goes well, Wilborn devotes about three months to each instrument.
His biggest challenge? “Selling the guitar.”
That’s not an easy task in a crowded niche market.
“The most important tool you can have for selling is to have somebody that’s recognized and respected playing one of your instruments publicly and declaring that it is good,” Wilborn says. “People like me, if I had any interest from a noted artist I’d bend over backwards to get them a guitar.”
The first artist to use and recommend Wilborn’s guitars is Gillian Welch, a singer-songwriter well-known in folk and acoustic circles.
Wilborn is increasing his marketing efforts, including an exhibition at the big Healdsburg Guitar Festival in California, the biggest show of acoustic guitars in the country, this month.
“I’ve been there once as a visitor, and it’s just mind-blowing,” Wilborn says. “There are about 50 luthiers, hundreds of guitars and they’re all really nice.”
He appears, too, at forums of guitar-playing consumers, and reaches out through a Web site at www.WilbornGuitars.com.
How much success he wants remains a question.
“Believe me, I make a pointed effort in not thinking of my work in terms of commercialism. But I have to be realistic as I’ve got to sell them,” he says.
“My goals are rather modest, as I don’t want to open up a shop and have employees. I want this to be a solo gig. I want to produce maybe 25 guitars a year at the most. And the growth would be in the value of the product I’m making or the perceived value so I could charge more.”