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Students from around the world flock to Newtownards guitar-making school

By Ricky Thompson

Published 16/04/2015

Students are travelling to Northern Ireland from across the globe to learn how to professionally make guitars in a unique setting.

The Lagan Lutherie School in Newtownards is the only place of its kind in the region where students can learn the step-by-step processes of guitar making and receive a recognised accreditation by the end.

Run by Sam Irwin, who has more than 40 years’ experience in making and repairing stringed instruments, the school attracts people from as far away as Australia, Hong Kong and North America.

Lagan Lutherie was set up in 2010 and Sam now tutors up to 50 students each year in how to design and build acoustic, classical and electric guitars, as well as mandolins, bouzoukis, harps and lyres - learning from hands-on, practical demonstrations.

“I’ve been guitar making since the early 70s”, Sam said.

“People used to come to our house and have a session and guitars got broken and I thought I could fix one of those and I did and then I thought I could make one of those. So I started to investigate how it was done and eventually I got started. On and off, the rest is history.

“I ended up teaching guitar making in Belfast Metropolitan College in the 90s and then during the financial crisis, it ran out of money and I decided to start a private initiative so in 2010, Lagan Lutherie School was born. It was in a house in Belfast which belonged to one of my students where we started up.”

After two years, Sam moved his business to an industrial estate in Newtownards, and now occupies a room above guitar manufacturers Avalon.

Sam continued: “It’s good even after all these years, I still get enjoyment out of it. This is possibly the most satisfying time of my guitar-making career. You get a real buzz out of seeing guys finish a guitar and be very happy about it. It’s intense but it’s brilliant. I'm enjoying it, even at my age”

Sam described the process of making the instruments: “We take them through a list of components they’re going to need. The sound board with the back and sides are the first items on the list. We help them joint those and put on the bracing to make the sound box. The sound box then has bindings on it and various other cosmetics.

“We then bring the neck forward which is shaped, then the finger board is put on with the truss rod underneath it – a head facing for the head stock. Then it’s carved into shape and we drill for the machine heads and put a dove tail on the neck and body of the guitar. After the neck is carved we join the two together and that’s when it really looks like a guitar for the first time.

“After that we do fretting and a very detailed final sand before lacquering which takes well up to ten days. We then put the bridge on and the machine heads. We put a nut, a saddle, strings and off you go. That’s basically what we teach the students to do and if they have a difficulty we take them through it.”

Full-time student Norman Coates said the experience is unique: “I think there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world.

“Sam is probably one of the best tutors you could have for something as complicated and technical as making a guitar. Almost everybody who comes here to make a guitar comes back and make another one. The course is that good. People are coming from all over the world because there is nowhere like it.”

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