The luthier: ‘You don’t know if you’ve been successful until you put the strings on. That’s the moment when it comes alive’

Tom Sands brought the lessons he learnt from the California king of guitar-making back to Britain, where he makes stunning, personalised instruments for his clients. Tessa Waugh reports, photographs by Richard Cannon.

‘I’ve always made things,’ muses luthier Tom Sands. ‘When I was 16, my best friend asked me to make him an electric guitar in return for teaching me how to play. It didn’t occur to me that you could make guitars for a living.’

Having forged a successful career as a furniture maker, Mr Sands began to feel unsatisfied. He contacted the world-renowned king of guitar-making Ervin Somogyi in California and, to his surprise, Mr Somogyi invited him to interview for a position as his apprentice. He describes his teacher, who reinvented the modern acoustic steel-string guitar as ‘an elite maker. A cross between Gandalf, Yoda and Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid’.

Living National Treasure - Guitar Maker

Mr Sands was in California for two years: ‘It was probably the most intense period of my life.’ He came away with the skills to produce Mr Somogyi’s level of work on British soil and now sells to collectors and musicians, collaborating with clients to produce instruments to their exact specifications.

Each guitar involves about 200 hours of work: ‘You make this beautiful object, but you don’t know if you’ve been successful until you put the strings on. That’s the moment when it comes alive.’

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Mr Sands describes himself as walking a knife edge between performance and reliability. ‘The braces have to be strong enough to hold the guitar together and loose enough for the top to vibrate and produce the sound,’ he explains. ‘Remove too much material and the guitar will collapse; remove too little and it will sound like shutting a barn door.’

He’s recently employed Daisy Tempest, daughter of Tottering’s Annie, as his creative assistant. A fellow enthusiast, Miss Tempest simply says: ‘I’m learning from the best.’

To find out more about Tom’s guitars, read his client’s stories or to purchase one for yourself, visit