Building Custom Guitars Cost-Effectively from Sustainable Materials
Article From: December 2020 Manufacturing Engineering, Born Custom Guitars
Designing and building unique, custom guitars was the goal for Jonathan “Jay” Miller when he founded Born Custom Guitars. The Hygiene, Colo.-based electric guitar company builds guitars that aim to fit the tastes and preferences of each individual player. Miller’s passion for music and for building beautiful, eminently playable stringed instruments prompted him to leave a career in the financial services industry and establish the company in 2010.
A guitarist himself, Miller strongly believes that playing a guitar tailored to an individual can make a tremendous difference in that musician’s playing ability, musical output, and development. His belief in designing and crafting a specialized guitar for each player—instead of one-model-fits-all guitars—and his desire to produce guitars in a sustainable, environmentally conscious manner were the inspirations that led him to found his guitar and accessories company. Building on his two business degrees, including an MBA in sustainable business from the University of Colorado Boulder, and having grown up around his father’s woodshop, Miller began to research the best production solutions to allow for high levels of customization and quality.
“I took my business skill set and decided to do something that I was passionate about,” Miller recalled. “Our primary focus is sustainability and quality. Those two goals take priority over everything else, but we still need to be efficient and control costs to succeed as a business. That’s where CAMWorks milling software comes in. I already knew a lot about woodworking and guitars, and my business background made me realize that if I could learn and leverage CNC technology to automate some aspects of the guitar-crafting process, I could save time and money, realize consistent quality, and allow sufficient time for the details that are so critical when crafting a special, one-of-a-kind instrument.”
Miller is so focused on the details for each guitar that he hand selects individual pieces of wood for every customer, instead of just using the next one in the stack. In order to allow for the detailed craftsmanship that has made Born successful, he needed an automated method for customizing guitar necks and bodies to each customer’s exacting specifications. Fortunately, he had struck up a friendship with Michael Buchli, a local SOLIDWORKS and CAMWorks power user, who stopped by Miller’s shop weekly in the beginning to help him out.
“I really liked the idea of how SOLIDWORKS design software and CAMWorks machining software are integrated and work in unison,” Miller explained. “CAMWorks Milling Professional software was easy to learn and is the best solution for running my machine—three-axis milling on a 4 × 8′ [1.22 × 2.44-m] CNC router table—to make flowing curves and modify the geometry on every guitar. I also value the knowledge-based machining database, which learns and replicates common tooling operations.”
With no engineering background, Miller worked with Buchli once a week and studied SOLIDWORKS and CAMWorks at night after work. “Within three months I was able to machine high-quality guitar parts, and I’ve continued to improve our process. Our operational feedback loop allows us to increase efficiencies and improve quality in real time,” Miller explained. “I’m always learning and refining, which is a fundamental part of my process. My abilities have improved incrementally since the beginning, and new CAMWorks machining methods have improved our toolpaths, reducing cut times and increasing tool life.”
“I’ve always been a hands-on learner, and CAMWorks was so intuitive that I was able to pick it up quickly,” Miller continued. “At first, I’d run simulations and test runs, but I don’t have to do that much anymore unless I’m making major changes in machining methods or developing entirely new designs. Once you understand your machine and how it reads code, it’s easy to make adjustments within CAMWorks so that your programs run perfect the first time, every time.” He noted that maintenance is important, such as keeping tools sharp and machines oiled and clean. “My goal as a luthier is to make the best possible guitar available on the market for your money. The skills I’ve learned working with CAMWorks help me achieve that goal on every guitar,” he said.
Although Born Custom Guitars incurred upfront costs for the software and equipment to mill guitar bodies and necks, Miller has seen substantial return on his initial investment in CAMWorks Milling Professional software. “With the efficiencies that we’ve been able to realize using CAMWorks, the software has paid for itself many times over and is helping us recoup other capital costs as well,” Miller said. “CAMWorks is definitely among the leaders in CAM technology. I’m not just saying that because I was able to learn how to use the software to drive my business. I also see the value in their knowledge-based approach to machining. We currently have a database stretching back seven years that documents how we like to cut things. That’s a big deal, especially when we want to make a design change.”
Previously, it would take him a full day to carve a body or neck. “With CAMWorks, I hit ‘start’ and go do something else. With the CAMWorks tooling program and my CNC router, I can complete a fretboard—fully shaped, slotted, and routed for a custom inlay—in about 30 minutes,” Miller noted. “CAMWorks virtual toolpaths allow me to evaluate my machining files before they are used in the shop. With the level of automation we’ve realized with CAMWorks software, we are saving a bunch of time—a 90 percent reduction in labor time and an 80 percent reduction in time overall—and money, which allows me to focus on the design features that make each guitar unique, such as custom inlays, custom finishes, and customer-centric modifications.”
Because of the automation and efficiency that Born has realized in milling guitar bodies and necks with CAMWorks, the company has reduced the amount of hand sanding required for each guitar. “The details are everything in creating a guitar that fits the player,” Miller explained.
There are a number of questions to ask to get the right design. What kind of player are they: jazz, funk, rock, or metal? What vibe are they seeking? What’s the player’s hand size and playing style? Should he or she play a solid or semi-hollow body? What type of wood should be used for the body and the neck? What layout should it use on the fret board? What is the tap tone of the selected woods, and how will they sound together?
“The answers to questions like these drive the artistic side of the luthier,” Miller said. “In essence, CAMWorks and milling technology help me to be more artful because they automate the heavy labor of shaping and sanding bodies and necks, as well as the attention to detail required for completing those tasks by hand. This allows me to spend the extra time needed to add the artistic touches that make a guitar special, such as finishing the neck by hand for feel or finalizing our deluxe fretwork. Many of my customers say that their Born Guitar is the best instrument that they’ve ever owned. That means we’re doing our job, and CAMWorks is helping to make it possible.”