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“…making musical instruments is like every craft and art… you need to be an artist and you really need experience!”
Tom Ziegenspeck – Ukulele Luthier
TZ Ukuleles – Leipzig, Germany
Specially and for Everybody
Here is a story from a young, enthusiastic and well studied ukulele luthier. A clear passion for design and woodwork teamed with an excellent understanding of his craft, gives Tommy the drive and ability to study hard, learn and progress through the long and difficult journey from student to professional luthier.
Tell me about your journey… Were you a player first? What inspired you to take the plunge and build?
Making music has always been a very important part of my life. My plan to study classical guitar was complete when I was 17 and then I did everything I could to go the instrument making way. So I went to a special school for art and design in Leipzig and then worked in the classical guitar workshop of Philipp Neumann where I learned a lot, before I applied to the University of Musical Instrument Making in Markneukirchen the hometown of Christian Frederick Martin, Sr. (the founder of C. F. Martin & Company).
Initially I just made classical and steel-string guitars, then progressing, I have made a lot of different plucked instruments over time and now finally specialising in ukulele making.
In the beginning what was the building process like? Were there any unforeseen events?
I learned my craft under the supervision of the best guitar makers in Germany, Christoph Sembdner and Armin Gropp. Of course you make a lot of mistakes while learning each working step and you never stop learning, but eventually one day you will know the route and your own way to make instruments. For me the hardest working step to learn was hand bending wood. With the different types of wood, thicknesses and controlling the heat, would produce many different results, some breakages!
What choices were you faced with during the build process?
For me, there have been two important questions…
1. Offering a lot of different plucked instruments: classical guitars, steel-strings, bouzouki and ukuleles… or specialise on one.
2. Making Instruments simple, fast, cheap or extravagant, unique and expensive… I think I found a very good compromise of all.
What advice did you seek and where did you get it?
Throughout my studying I have been lucky to work together with several high quality and very skilled luthiers from around the world. At the moment I am working in the UK, at the workshop of specialist ukulele luthier Pete Howlett. Where among other things, I have learned to define clear working steps for all parts of the ukulele build, including timing and as much detail as possible. Pete has an excellent commercial artisan approach to building, he has taught me methods to builder faster, while maintaining very high standards.
What about the results of your first attempts at building? Were you delighted or devastated?
The first time making an instrument is so demanding, if a peer is watching over you and you really want (and have) to do the best you can. But making musical instruments is like every craft and art… you need to be an artist and you really need experience!
So at the beginning there were some steps when I really was devastated, but I reminded myself how much I wanted it and never ever gave up, or turned my back.
What motivated you to continue and become a professional luthier?
I have spent a lot of my lifetime on the learning path, gathering information, building experience and contacting luthiers all around the world. I can’t imagine sitting behind a desk and doing paperwork, I really love woodwork combined with an exceptional design, so it was an obvious progression for me to start my own workshop and become a professional ukulele luthier.
Where are you now with your luthiery and what do you see for the future?
At the moment I am finishing my studies, taking exams in theoretical subjects around the instrument and making. I am doing my master’s certificate in Germany and working with Pete Howlett.
In the near future I will be focusing on the marketing of my brand and letting people know what TZ Ukulele stands for.
How about an insight into your luthier’s philosophy? Do you have a message to the amateur luthier community?
Between us ukulele makers/luthiers there is not so much competition, compared to that between the guitar makers. I am really open for everyone who needs help and maybe a good tip.
The philosophy for my luthiery and TZ Ukulele brand is… High standard, custom instruments that are affordable for everyone.
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