Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Why Does It Take So Long To Build A Custom Bass?

This is a question that I am all too familiar with. Not only am I a frequent recipient of the "Are we there yet?" phone calls and e-mails, but it seems like just about everyone involved in the high-end, custom instrument business is regularly solicited for updates, in-progress photos, and estimates for completion dates. These requests can take a lot of time away from the actual "building of basses", and the following paragraphs are intended to explain why the process can take so long. It is important to note that the point of this blog is not, in any way, intended to poke fun at or belittle anyone who has ever asked these types of questions. Checking up on the progress of one's instrument it perfectly legitimate. It is part of human nature to be excited about a custom bass. I repeatedly tell my customers that the process should be fun...it shouldn't be something to worry and fret about. Further, if one doesn't have a good understanding of the process, the long waits, pushed-back deadlines, and frequent lack of progress at various stages of the game can be mystifying, if not just plain frustrating. Therefore, in an attempt to shed some light on what really goes on behind the workshop doors, I thought that I would tackle the issue of the "wait list" in this installment of the BHB blog. For those who are about to order a custom instrument, I hope that this better prepares you for the wait (whether it's 3 months or 3 years). By understanding what happens, when, and why, I hope to provide custom bass customers with a more realistic expectation of what to expect during the build process. For those who are just plain curious....enjoy!

First, it is important to remember that many custom bass shops are operated by one person. Even for the "larger" companies that advertise in bass magazines and have dealer networks across the globe, the owner may only have a handful of employees helping out in the shop, and when I say "handful", I mean two or three. When one person is responsible for keeping track of orders, answering the phone, answering a large volume of e-mails every day, attending trade shows, keeping dealers happy, keeping their spouses and children happy, occasionally taking some personal time, growing their business, AND actually building basses, it becomes obvious that there are very few hours in a day to perform all of these tasks. If you factor in a little bit of success, the hours in a day can fill up very quickly as orders begin to flow in. More orders usually lead to more demands on the builder's time (which we have already established is at a premium to being with), and when the workload becomes too much to keep up with, delays become inevitable.

When you have a situation where one person, or a handful of people, is performing labor-intensive work, and when demand far exceeds supply, keeping on top of things can be very difficult. For those economists in the crowd, you're probably asking yourselves "Well then...why doesn't Mr. Bass Builder just run out and hire more employees?". Unfortunately, it just isn't that simple. The cost to do so is not offset by the increased output. When you factor in the cost of downtime to train new employees couples with the increased cost of paying those employees, the numbers often don't add up. The increase in output does not always couterbalance the increase in expenditures for most small shops. Keeping quality high is a major consideration when work starts to be shared, which is why you see many small builders turn to CNC machines. These machines enable smaller, low-output builders to keep quality high while still maintaining control over every aspect of what they do.

The other main factor that often contributes to long build times is the wait list itself. Many customers feel that progress should begin immediately as soon as a deposit is placed with a builder or a dealer. If you're first in line and the builder you have chosen does not have a backlog of orders, then I agree with you. But...if there is a waiting list (per our discussion above), then you must wait your turn. Again, it is unfortunate, but implementing a waiting list to organize backlogged orders seems to be the only fair way to do things. Therefore, even though you have submitted your deposit, have speced out your bass, picked out your top, etc., the reality of the situation is that Mr. Bass Builder will probably not even think about your bass for several months. It isn't that he doesn't care...it's just that he is busy devoting his time and attention to the order that was placed three or four months before you placed yours. Several months down the line, your turn will finally come up and then a lot of attention will be devoted to your instrument while the person who placed an order a week ago patiently waits until all of the basses that were ordered before him/her are finished.

For most bass builders, it generally takes little time to craft a bass body. Instrument necks take a lot longer. If they are being made by hand, they must be glued up, rough cut, and then sanded to perfection. Then the fret slots must be cut, frets must be installed, leveled and crowned. Then, the nut must be cut, and the neck will also need to be sprayed with a finish at some point as well. These steps are far more intricate and detailed than what is normally involved in making a body. So...you may receive photos from your builder very early on that shows the body of your bass very near it's completed stage. This is great, but keep in mind that the REAL work is involved in crafting the neck. Until you see photos of a neck that looks like it could be immediately attached to a body, your bass is still a long way from finished.

Ultimately, there are an infinite number of reason why a custom bass project might be delayed. I have attempted to describe some of the more common reasons and hope that this has given you a better understanding of the challenges that small shops face. But even though the wait might be lenghty, it will most certainly be worth it!


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