Hello gentlemen.  I'm pretty new here, so forgive me if this seems an inappropriate topic or has been discussed to death already.

Here's the story: 

Several months ago I had a young lady come into the shop with an old Roy Rogers "toy" guitar (NOT the collectible Martin guitar!) that was falling apart.  She explained that she had borrowed it from her grandmother, and that the guitar technically was her uncles.  It had been stored in a closet for decades (of course).  So, this young lady was in college and was living in a basement apartment (see where this is going?) and was planning on learning to play.  Well, it sat in her closet in the basement and when she took it out...wrecked guitar. 

Without going into a ton of detail, lets just say that the amount of work needed to make the guitar playable would have ran into the hundreds of dollars.  In fact, I questioned whether or not the guitar could ever really be made to play correctly.  I explained this to the customer, and told her that I just didn't feel it was right to put that much money into a guitar with little to no value and then end up with something that may not really be playable anyway. 

The problem was that she felt guilty for letting this happen to a guitar that was not hers and didn't want to have to tell her uncle and grandmother what had happened.  I told her that, if it came down to it, I would be willing to explain the whole scenario to them, but that I would just not do the work.  I could sell her a nice Seagull for what the repairs would cost, and that she would then have a very playable guitar, not an old toy that may have never played that well in the first place.

She didn't want to do that, so I told her the name of another shop in the area where she could get a second opinion.  I asked her if she could contact me when she found out what the other shop would do for her.  She said she would and we parted ways amicably.

Fast forward several months (4,5,6 ?).  I'm in this other area shop checking out some guitars with my daughter and in walks the young lady.  I approach her and say hi, she remembers me and immediately tells me that this shop took her guitar in to repair right after she visited me and that she was there to check up on it.  She was not given a repair tag or an estimate of cost or a time frame for completion.  They found the guitar in the back and she allowed me to take a look at it.

The guitar was far from complete at that point, and some of the work that had been done was not, well, perfect.  There was no paperwork with the guitar and the luthier was not in, so she couldn't talk with him.  I could tell she was somewhat disappointed, but still had hope (this girl had a very positive attitude, to say the least!). 

I thanked her for letting me take a look and she said she would contact me when all was said and done.  I hope she does, just to increase my knowledge of situations such as this...a good 3 months have gone by since we met the second time.

For me, this scenario presented two problems based on one issue: the repairs required far exceeded the value of the instrument.

1. Given the extent of the damage and quality of the instrument, I felt that it was ethically wrong to take on the job.

2.  What if the customer decided the instrument was not worth the money and did not pay after the work was complete?  I'd be out a significant chunk of change with no way of recuperating it.

I was quite surprised that the other shop took the guitar in...and it has made me wonder if maybe I'm just a little too picky, or maybe get a little too personal with customers.

What are your opinions of this scenario?  How often do you turn away work?  Do you ever have customers not pay?

I live and work in a small town and my main job as a luthier is to build folk harps, so I don't get to do a lot of repair work at this point, so these situations don't come up much.

Thanks for your time.


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Hi Brian;I'm not about to judge you for the position you took with the toy guitar.I know the situation you were put in,however, I would not lose much sleep over this problem.I'ts really not much different then a parent buying a clunker for their child to learn to play.It's so not cool for a music store to sell an impossible to play guitar to a parent knowing up front that the childs success with the cheapo guitar is so not really going to happen.Explaining to a parent why they would be better off buying the two hundred dollar guitar in lieu  of the $89.95 special.We know the two hundred dollar instrument is a better buy if for the resale value if nothing else.Excuse my French here but at one time in my life I was a car salesman.I was taught that there is an ass for evey seat.You know you did the best thing for the young lady,however,you also showed not every one out there is as conscientious as you are.You are entitled to sleep well at night my friend.Welcome to the forum.Sounds like you will fit in well here and I respect your decision.Best regards Lonnie

I have done several projects that cost way more than the guitar was worth.  In each case the customer knew the cost of the repair would exceed the replacement value of the instrument but wanted the work done.  One such case was a MayBell parlor made of birch.  The top braces had come loose the the top collapsed. The guitar belonged to the clients grandfather.  It was the first guitar he played as a child & remembered his grandfather playing it to him.  I removed the back and rebraced the top.  He recently returned the guitar for a new rosewood radiused fingerboard.  It still sounds kinda boxy but the client loves it for its family connection.  If you feel it necessary, ask for partial payment up front.  Musical instruments have sentimental, as well as monetary value.  It is not up  to me to place a dollar value on the sentimental.

Brian this is just my opinion

1. Ethically it's your job to provide accurate information, it's up to the customer to make the decision.

2. I think it's reasonable to ask for a deposit on this type of repair.

Sometimes the customers sentimental value is worth more than their money and as repairmen we should respect that. I did a restoration job on a Russian 7 string guitar a few years ago. The repairs cost more than the guitar was worth but apparently the smile on Omas face that Christmas morning was more than worth it. Twice in the last year after quoting $200 in repairs on a $300 guitar I've had people say, I'm paraphrasing  "I like this guitar and I'm tired of throwing things out, fix it" On the other hand you don't have to take on work that you don't feel good about ....I hate working on autoharps.

I will turn away any job that I feel won't turn out the way a customer may expect. I've turned away many instruments like the one that you described. I find that working on instruments like those is more time consuming and can be down right annoying. I always let the customer know that the repairs will exceed that value of the instrument and that even after all the work is done it most likely won't play or sound as good as a $200 yamaha. I will also turn away work from people that I feel will be problem customers. I provide what I feel is excellent customer service to each and everyone of my customers, but sometimes you have the one that can not be satisfied no matter what. I think the ethics are more about how you go about turning the work away than just turning it away. 

Hi Brian.

You're correct that this has been discussed in depth on this forum.  A search will let you see the previous discussions.  This, however, is a good question to re-visit every now & then.

Here's my POV:

I only accept work of which I'm confident the end result will be viewed by other potential/current customers or my peers, as "well-done work".  I think all of us can turn most sow's ears into playable purses given the time, resources & funds and there's the rub. What I won't do is a "quick & dirty" repair on any instrument that will gave my name attached to the repair tag. It's a reputation killer.

We're seeing more & more "a few-years-old OK quality imports" coming through the shop with deformed tops, nightmarish bridge problems and in need of neck re-sets.  These are easily accomplished on quality instruments but require the same or more time on imports due to what the folks on this forum call Mystery Asian Glue and non standard construction methods. I foresee a dramatic increase in similar work in the future so I'm gearing up by trying to come up with a variety of respectful & understandable ways to say "No" to customers.

We (I) routinely reject repair requests when the cost far exceeds the true value of the instrument.  If an instrument was marginal when it was new (think low end 60's Harmony arch tops without adj. truss rods which were of poor quality when new) and the customer has a sentimental attachment, I ask them if it's going to played or displayed. 90% of the time the customer has no desire to play or learn how to play it.  They simply want it to evoke memories of the original owner etc. In those "display only" cases (and because I'm a sentimental old softy) I offer to clean & polish it for free and restring it (for looks only) for $5. 90% of the 90% folks are thrilled with that alone. It's cost effective and compassionate.  Bottom line: Happy camper.

As far as the remaining 10%....well, I prefer they go somewhere else as pouring my time & energy into a black hole of a project doesn't fit in with my "service" philosophy.

I think the best approach in those cases is to let them down gently without seeming like you have a personal grudge against their instrument or request.  Depending on their demeanor, that can be tough sometimes too.

As a final note: I work as a tech primarily for enjoyment, tool, gear & fun money and for the love & passion of the craft. I'm blessed with a retirement annuity from my former day job career.  That pays the bills. 

IF tech work were my sole source of income, I'd most likely have the proper business attitude of "Here's how much it will cost. You decide if you want the work done. Payment in full is required at pick-up time".  In summary, economic situations also have a major impact on whether or not to accept a project. 

Best of Luck Brian (-:

Brian my read of your excellent post and question tells me that there are a number of seperate questions and issues here and in my way of thinking I would have to take all of these issues individually first before determing how I wanted to proceed, or not.

First there is the issue that the young woman felt guilty for letting time and neglect ravage an old family heirloom guitar.  Regardless of if the guitar has any value to the rest of us a family heirloom can be priceless to that family.

Next we have the separate issue that she desires to learn to play guitar - this is something that I see all of the time, someone finds an old guitar in a family basement and thinks what the heck, I'll use it to become Elvis....

And then there is the issue of taking in work on an instrument that is not worth the price of the needed repairs.

And lastly there is the issue too of taking in work, or not, that we may or may not feel comfortable doing OR we may have some doubts that the client is capable of paying for the extensive and expensive work quoted and agreed upon.

Do I have this correct?

I had a client who brought me an old cowboy guitar that belonged to his father who was in the final days of his life, in hospice, and not long for this world.  The son, in his 60's, wanted to fulfill a stated dream of his father that his father wanted to play this old cowboy guitar just one more time before he left this world.  This was also the gutiar that the father used to court the 60 year old son's mother.  The son wanted the gutiar fixed and playable....

The bridge was split and lifting and other than being generally a pretty lousy guitar even when new everything else was still functional or at least could be with a bit of a tune-up, cutting nut slots, etc.  But the bridge was toast.

I quoted $200 to make and install a new bridge and of course remove the old one and properly, this time... locate the saddle so the thing played in tune.  He agreed that this was fine and I took on the job again even though the gutiar was not worth $200 it most certainly was priceless to this family...

Two weeks later he picked up the guitar and I ripped up the invoice and did not charge him a dime.  I did make a request however and that was that if his dad actually played the gutiar that my client give me a call in his leisure and let me know how he liked it.  I received a call about two weeks later from the 60 year old son who told me that his dad beamed from ear to ear and even started strumming songs that he once played for his wife who was in the room.  He died a few days later.

The question of what something may be worth is not always for us to judge and in our shortsightedness to look for comps on ebay or elsewhere we may neglect to consider the human cost, the human price, and the human value of something.  As a repair guy I was happy to have had the opportunity to help and if given this "opportunity" again I would do it all the same way once again...  Here is a not great pic of the cowboy gutiar with my shop-made bridge waiting for pick-up.

Regarding using the old gutiar after repairs to learn to play it's our job, as you already did, to give good advice and indicating that a FAR better guitar could be purchased for less than the price of repairing this one was what I do and would do again.  Even a $200 Asian import is hands above in terms of playability what I learned on from Sears that the action was so very high you could slice hard boiled eggs with it....

Issue #3 was addressed in addressing what something is worth and our inability to be the judge of this when it comes to a family heirloom.

Issue #4 was the issue of not taking in work that we are not comfortable for some reason with.  If it is the type of repair, for example I don't spray finish in my home shop and won't take in work requiring this.  To me we all have to be the judge of what we are comfortable taking in and on.  Remember too "scope creep" where so very many repairs seem to turn into bigger deals than at times we anticipate...

I have been known to refer clients to other Luthiers who have specialities or who are better than I in specific areas.  I see my role as still important in not mucking up a client instrument AND providing the service of the referral.  I do turn work away and recently turned away the rebuild of a family heirloom gutiar that is 60 years old and needs to be rebraced, neck reset, and a host of other things.  I tried to discourage the client indicating that costs would exceed $1K and she didn't bat an eye....  When she added that the guitar probably should not have been kept under the skirt of her trailer home I suggested that she would be better suited taking this elsewhere in that I am pretty busy.  The prospective client's ability to pay does become an issue especially when the nature of the work creates a large "opportunity cost" for the Luthier in so much as if this time is spent on other projects it may be more profitable time spent....  I'm also the last one on earth to believe that a prospective client's economic status should or could be held against them - everyone needs music!

I do do charity work, usually one client a month gets something done for nothing or nearly nothing.  With this said if I am not comfortable with a prospective client in terms of their possible willingness to pay... or ability to pay... or personality... I pass.  Besides - this is what the rest of you guys (men and women) are for so you can tear out your hair spending countless hours doing very fine work and then not getting paid..... ;)

Kidding of course about the last statement...

Great responses.  Thanks for the advice and suggestions.

Hesh, the guitar that the young lady brought in was almost the same as your "cowboy" guitar.  The main difference is that the one I saw had a black finish, instead of natural.  It also had the stenciling on the top.  The bridge was also split, and the back was coming off, and all the back braces had come unglued, and the necked looked like it may have needed resetting...although with the body in such terrible condition, I couldn't tell for certain.  It probably had other issues that I have simply forgotten about.

From what I gathered, the guitar was not a family heirloom, but rather an old "toy" that never really got thrown out.  I could be wrong about that, but that is the feeling I got from the customer. 

Thanks a bunch, it's been an interesting read.


Surprise!,. I have the same guitar in my sweaty hands!
The back is almost all unglued. One of these days I will make it a project.
I have done in the past some Gibson guitars that were basket cases and for the $1 or 2 thousand got talked into the job. It is a challenge.
I had a old harmony arch top that was solid and looked ok so charged him for a new set of strings sand I thought
A simple fret leaving job and for being a good boy installed a truss rod. It was for his son and a guitar that he had for years. The kid a grown man, sold it to hock shop and they brought to me and wanted to sell it to me!
I said no I have lost enough money on it now!

I never learn.

I agree, it's not an ethical question if you present the facts as you know them, and allow the owner to make the choice.  And, it's not unethical to decline any work for any reason at all.  Clearly it IS unethical to misrepresent and take on jobs claiming things that are untrue, such as value, quality, etc.

Every week I turn away work on instruments that are simply not worth enough money to justify the repair, telling the owner just what I know about the entire situation.  Usually, the knowledge that it's likely to be money poorly spent is enough to dissuade the owner from pursuing the repair.

Now and again I'll take on a project where the repair is way more than the cash value of the instrument, provided that we are all in agreement with the advisability of doing it.  Not long ago I did $2500 worth of work on a guitar that, in my opinion, is worth half that after the restoration, but all hands agreed that sentimentality trumped resale, so everyone was happy with the outcome.

Last week I had a fellow in with one that he "insisted" was worth doing despite my recommendation to the contrary, and it was obvious from the outset that he would be serious trouble for me because  he would simply not listen to my estimate of the value of his guitar.  It took some creative weasel-words, but I was able to squirm out of the situation - there was no way I'd be able to work for him!

As to payment for jobs that exceed the value, the path is quite clear to me - a deposit equal to what I'd be happy with if everything turned out badly and no further payment could be expected.  With that exact situation in mind, I recently took on a job to rebuild a seriously falling-apart and abused 1940 Martin 00-17 - a real veteran bar-brawler to be sure.   Its owner agreed that it would not matter how by how much we exceeded the cash value of grandpa's guitar, and he backed up his statement with a 50% deposit on the spot.  Unlike the guy in the previous example, I have all confidence that he'll continue with that focus.

So, like so many other things in life, it's a wide open gray area, and I try to do the best I can to guess how I, the customer, and the community at large will view things in the future. . .

To me, hearing the words, "Sentimental value", means, "Cash upfront".

Oliver Wendell Holmes said that " A professional is one who does what is in the best interest of his client, even if it is not in his own best interest."

That phrase has been invaluable to me through the years.


I'm not a luthier--I'm just 3/4 finished with my first mandolin--but this discussion reminds me of my days in private practice.  It took me about 3 years to learn that turning away bad cases actually made me money.  I found that the bad cases and the unrealistic clients took up 99% of my time and paid about 10% of my income.  Once I realized that, the economic decision was easy.  (I also learned the working for family for free was a quick way to discover all sorts of cousins who I never knew I had.)


I also learned to avoid bad clients.  The bad clients were the ones who said "I don't care what it costs . . ."  Because they did.  My final bill was what helped educate them about how much they cared.  I eventually adopted the practice someone mentions here: a deposit of the minimum amount I would be happy with.  Most of the people who 'didn't care what it costs" walked out the door right at the beginning when asked for the deposit.  But if the potential client wasn't interested, better to have them walk out the door EARLY (before I did any work) than late (after I did the work). 


Finally, as to the ethics.  My experience was and continues to be that no client takes expert advice.  They want what they want: which is perfection, and for free.  My ethical obligation is to tell them what it's going to cost and what the likely outcome will be.  Then, if they want to proceed, ethically I've met my own personal ethical minimums.  If they want to go to the lawyer next door (or the Big Box Guitar Store's "luthier") who is willing to lie to them for a fee, well, they get what they pay for.


But ... like others here, I agree that there are some jobs that even if I can ethically do them, I can't ethically do them.  I won't do something for someone that will cost more than the job is worth.  I know they're adults and it's their choice, but I just think it's karmic trouble.  This is a tough call and I don't criticize anyone who makes the other choice.  I just think that doing this is trouble.


Being a lawyer, I'd just like to make one other point.  I'm sure none of you have written contracts.  So in the event of a dispute over the value of your work, there are two ways to value it.  (1)  The value of your time, usually a by-the-hour calculation.  (2)  The value of the instrument.  I don't know how you'd prove the value of your time in court.  But if we're talking value of the instrument, then a $5000 repair on a $2000 instrument looks like a losing proposition.  Again, I'm a lawyer so always thinking about worst cases and the court room, but for whatever it's worth.  (Would it do any good to suggest that you all have written contracts that spell out, among other things, the value of your time?) 


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