Guild Factory Tour
Published by Just Jazz Guitar
by Charles Chapman
Most JJG articles focus on the private luthiers (who have been sorely under represented in other magazines), but I thought it would be interesting to check out how guitars are made in a factory setting. Not every guitarist can afford, or can wait for, the handmade guitar of their dreams, so historically the factory alternative is usually the choice for most working guitarists.

Willie Fritscher
Charles with an X700 Stuart and Willie with an Artist Award

On December 9, 1998 I was invited to the Guild Factory in Westerly, Rhode Island. The following is a brief synopsis of the great fun I had on that crisp New England morning. To document it accurately would fill a book, but hopefully through my words and photos you can get a little insight into the unique "birthing place" of Guild guitars. This factory is definitely not the computer controlled, mass production type I have viewed in the past. It seems to achieve a good balance between machines, that speed up many of the luthier steps, and "hand work" that requires a great deal of training and expertise.

Under the masterful direction of Plant Manager Willie Fritscher, I was lead through the process from where the raw wood is delivered, to the final stage where the plethora of Guild guitar models are shipped. The Westerly factory has 55 thousand square feet of work area and 120 employees. They average 60 finished guitars daily, shipping them throughout the world. Westerly makes all standard models of Guild guitars both acoustic (flat top and archtop) and electric. A few custom models are made in Westerly, but the majority of individually designed guitars are now constructed at the Guild Custom Shop in Nashville, TN. Before we embark on the tour let's first review a little Guild history.

Guild was founded by Alfred Dronge, a guitarist and music store owner, and George Mann, a former Epiphone executive. They formed a partnership and registered the name in 1952. The partners set up shop in a 1500 square foot New York City loft, and after one year the partnership was dissolved and Dronge continued alone. In 1956 the success of Guild's early efforts was so productive that a larger facility was needed and suitable accommodations were found across the river in Hoboken, NJ. During the 1950's and 60's, the Guild line attracted many of the well known guitarists of the day, and production demands increased until the plant could no longer function at that location. An old furniture factory, with the space and facilities needed for the increased production, was purchased in Westerly, RI. The offices remained in New Jersey, and Dronge commuted from the Westery plant to the NJ offices in the private plane that he piloted. On May 3, 1972 Al Dronge was killed in a weather related plane crash while commuting to his RI factory.

Over the next 15 years Guild had more than its share of managerial changes, but as Mr. Fritscher is quick to point out, the product never suffered as he considers Guild's quality control second to none in the industry. In 1995 Fender Musical Instruments purchased Guild and under the personal direction of CEO Bill Schultz has whole­heartedly committed all Fender's resources to the survival and prosperity of the company.

Guild Factory
Wood receiving area

The tour started in the area where the raw material is delivered and stored. The many types of wood and their individual places of origin is a geographic experience in itself. The Sitka spruce, used mostly for the tops, is purchased from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The Ebony is from Africa, Rosewood from South America, Mahogany from India and South America and the Maple is of the domestic northeast variety. At this point the wood is inspected and sorted then sent on to the drying room.

The drying room is kept at a constant temperature of 90 degrees fahrenheit year round, and large fans evenly distribute air circulation. The rosewood remains in this room for one year, the ebony for two, with various waiting periods for the other woods used in construction.

Unlike many modern factories nothing is "prefab" here. From the braces to the smallest wood blocks, everything is made at the factory and there is virtually no waste. All machinery, molds, and most of the assembly process used, was designed especially for this factory.

Guild Factory
Drying room

It takes 39 different steps to make a Guild neck, each crafted mostly by hand with only the rough work being done on machines. Of the 39 steps 19 are required for a bound fingerboard such as those on the Artist Award or the D55 acoustic. The neck is roughly sawed and end blocks are glued on so the headstock can be shaped. The neck moves on to several router operations preparing the neck for the Guild logo, faceplate and fingerboard. New Hydraulic presses apply uniform pressure gluing and setting the truss rods with precision accuracy. After the fretboards are applied, the necks are placed into a radio-frequency press, which excites the atoms in the glue and provides for the strongest possible bond. Hand chisels are used to cut dovetails and shape the heel of the neck for the eventual step of fitting it to the body. Endless hand sanding occurs after every step. If over sanding or wood flaws are discovered the neck is pulled out of production.

At the same time the necks are being manufactured, the bodies are in production in another part of the factory. The selected wood is cut to a rough shape and planed to the proper thickness (it never ceases to amaze me how thin the wood is on acoustic instruments). The sides are treated in a special solution and then placed into the side presses to bend the wood according to their preset molds. The tops and backs are carved or pressed according to whether it is a flat top, arch top, solid wood or plywood style of instrument. Sound holes are cut in the top and the specialized bracing is installed using clamps that are made specifically for Guild to hold all the top plate braces in their proper position while the glue sets. Bracing is installed in the side sections referred to as kerfing. When everything is set up and ready, the top will be glued to the sides. Now the top, back and sides are all assembled and bound. As with the necks, each step goes through multiple inspections and the endless hand sanding continues.

Guild Factory
Examining necks in different stages 

Guild Factory
Close up view of a side press

Before the neck is attached the joints of the body and neck are fine tuned with hand chisels and sandpaper. When everything fits to the satisfaction of the inspectors, the neck is glued to the body and a guitar finally starts to take shape. Most of the construction steps are now completed and the guitar enters into its final stages. Fretwire is fitted and frets are filed and crowned. The completed guitar is once more hand sanded, with a grade of sandpaper that seems only slightly coarser than tissue paper. The guitar goes to the spray booth for custom colors, sunburst or even a natural stain. The hard lacquer is then applied in multiple coats and is taken to the drying room where it sets for four days before the finish is buffed to a high gloss on the mammoth buffing machines.

The guitar then goes to the final stage of construction where the pickups, strings and hardware are installed. The intonation, string height and all final touches are now completed. When the inspectors give their stamp of approval the guitar goes to the shipping area where it is packed and shipped out to some happy guitarslinger.

By this time I was starting to suffer from sensory overload as Willie put the finishing touches on the tour by retrieving a few Guitars for me to inspect and salivate over. I checked out the Starfire, Bluesbird, X700 Stuart and the piéce de résistance, the Artist Award which was truly breathtaking.

Willie explained that most of the employees at Guild are in it for the long haul and do not consider it a stepping stone to another job. The majority of the employees are also "cross trained" and are able to work on all areas of operation on both electric and acoustics, even though there are a few individuals who definitely have a speciality.

Guild Factory
Kerfing is glued and clamped to the sides

Guild Factory
Top and back being rough cut

Guild Factory
Binding is installed, trimmed and sanded again

Guild Factory
Bodies waiting for necks

Guild Factory
Bluesbirds and Acoustics Drying

Guild Factory
Prepared for shipping

Personal Note: Willie Fritscher has been working for Guild for over twenty-five years and has to be one of the most knowledgeable plant managers I have ever encountered. It's not only his knowledge, but the caring and the true excitement he projects when he explains the lutherie process at the factory. He must have given this tour thousands of times, but from his attitude and demeanor you would have never known it. As a frustrated amateur woodworker, and a guitarist for many years, I could not help but notice the manner in which he handled the guitar in its various stages and the pride displayed when he handed me the finished product. Willie demonstrates an "Old World" work ethic that unfortunately is missing in most industries today.

Photos by Donna Chapman

Willie Fritscher Tim Shaw Bob Benedetto
Guild factory plant manager Willie Fritscher, Guild Custom Shop Product Development manager Tim Shaw and Bob Benedetto

Copyright ©2008 Westerly Guild Guitars