Lee Valley & Veritas
Woodworking Newsletter
  Volume 10, Issue 6 - July 2016    
Guitar Building 101
Spring 2016 catalog cover

When Gary Pattenden established the Guitar Building Focus Program in 1999 at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Kingston, Ontario, he had lots of teaching and woodworking experience, but no guitar-building experience whatsoever. The idea came to him suddenly when he saw someone playing a guitar and thought it would be great to build one. He admits that the first year of teaching the program was tough and continues to challenge him daily. “The learning curve has been significant ever since,” he says.

Prior to teaching high school, Gary, who graduated with a diploma in furniture design from Sheridan College and a diploma in technical education from the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University, was a self-employed furniture designer, cabinetmaker and retail store fixture contractor. His prior experience has served him well. Each year, 18 students enter the guitar-building program, many of whom have no woodworking experience. They spend five full days per week with Gary for an entire semester manufacturing an electric guitar or bass from start to finish.

As they create their own instruments, the students learn the skills required to achieve the highest standard of craftsmanship. They develop their design, create production jigs and templates and build a full-sized model prior to building the actual guitar. “We do everything by hand,” explains Gary. “We don’t buy any of the parts."

Guitar   Guitar   Guitar

During the process, the students keep journals that outline how to build a guitar from start to finish. These become the manuals they use to construct the actual guitars. “They hand me a complete document that specifies how to build whatever they built,” says Gary. This also counts toward their final mark in the class.

The class, however, isn’t just about the grades the students achieve. According to their teacher, some of the most important things the kids take away from the program are transferable skills. Students develop the ability to overcome problems, often learning through failure. Though this is challenging, Gary doesn’t worry about their motivation or discipline. “Those things are driven by their desire to complete their instrument.” They also come to understand the importance of planning, time management, risk assessment, seeing things through to completion and meeting a deadline. Finally, they learn to recognize value in labor and quality craftsmanship.


Many of the students enter the program as amateur woodworkers, but leave as reasonably skilled craftspeople. Some of Gary’s students have gone on to enter the construction trade, engineering, industrial design and architecture. He’s even sent previous students to cabinet-making competitions.

Regardless of what they go on to do in life, Gary considers his greatest accomplishment is getting the students to believe in themselves and to believe that they can actually build the instruments. “I use the guitar as a vehicle for other things, for life things,” he says. “My interest is in building them as people.”

Text by Lee Valley staff

Photos by Marc Demers

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