By Lenka Simsic
Hidden away in a dorm room lies a guitar workshop. A normal study desk nearly fits next to the wooden workbench. Not book shelves but hammers and saws hang on the wall. Showing me around her home with a timid smile, is Anna Cermelli, a second-year sciences student and luthier. Luthiery, the craftsmanship of making and repairing instruments, is Cermelli’s passion. As she points out the different instruments in the room, she relaxes and gets excited. Different from most students, Cermelli spends just as much of her time on making instruments as on studying, averaging 20-25 hours a week.
Cermelli grew up in Alessandria, a small city in the north of Italy. In middle school, she became fascinated with the cello but her parents, who thought it was “too late” to properly learn to play, urged her to pick an easier instrument. After hearing Tyler Joseph, the lead singer of Twenty One Pilots, playing a cover of “can’t help falling in love” with the ukulele, Cermelli had found her first instrument. Shortly after, she picked up the guitar following in the footsteps of her older sister. To properly learn to play the electric guitar, Cermelli needed her own instrument. The high prices of electric guitars for someone just learning to play did not stop her ambition. She simply decided to make her own. Since her parents, a biologist and a math professor, knew nothing about manual craftsmanship, Cermelli dived into the world of luthiery on her own and bought a kit, containing the body, neck and other pieces of an electric guitar, online. Guided by a manual, she assembled, spray painted and wired her dream guitar, a blue lescaster. Instead of buying a new one for 600 euros, she spent less than 300 euros and found her love for luthiery in the process.
Her first fully homemade instrument was a cajon. Lacking the skills she has now, the wooden drum sounded horrible, but Cermelli kept going. She went from repairing guitars to making her own from scratch. Her first handmade electric guitar is the one she is still most proud of. The high quality wood and components added up to 600 euros, but she decided to invest in it as a big present for herself. For the last few months of high school, she went to sleep and woke up thinking about it. Reminiscing, she says, “I have a lot of memories of building it. It was a huge Odyssey to actually find out the proper way to make the instrument.”
The process starts with designing, researching and ordering the best price-value materials. Only then does the actual woodwork start. Cermelli enjoys the process of making an instrument, but acknowledges that it can be hard to not rush through it. She chuckles and says, “Usually when I am halfway through the build, I am already thinking of a new instrument to make”.
Through luthiery, Cermelli has become more patient and learned to slowly tame her perfectionism. Alecta Ugnė Preikšaitė, a second-year Humanities major and Cermelli’s girlfriend, says, “She would get really consumed by it emotionally.” She remembers it was difficult for Cermelli to look past the flaws of her nearly finished instruments, especially knowing she put so much time and effort into it. Now Preikšaitė can tell that it’s easier for Cermelli to push through. When Cermelli finally finishes an instrument, it makes it all worth it. She says, “the best moment is when you finally put the strings on and you hear the sound for the first time. It’s like, ‘wow, I have been waiting six months for this.’”
Only recently did Cermelli reach the quality of instruments needed to be able to sell them. She has already sold one bass ukulele and two electric bass guitars. The people who contact her are mostly friends of friends asking for a specific design. Selling her individually designed instruments is more difficult. “The hardest part currently is that I do not have a shop”, she says. Her instagram and the website she is working on compensate for this limitation. Since she is still learning, Cermelli only charges 180 euros on top of what the components of an instrument cost, even though making one takes her months. All the money she earns, she invests back into her craft by buying new tools or wood. The more tools she acquires and the more she practises, the more professional her fretwork, key to an instrument’s sound, becomes. Mastering finish, an instrument’s protective layer of paint, is another goal for improvement. Cermelli only uses natural finish to avoid exposing herself and the environment to toxins. This technique, however, takes years to master. She aims to minimise the visual imperfections still present in her instruments. Reaching these goals will allow her to charge more for her instruments and be less bound by a budget.
For Cermelli, who wants luthiery to be her future career, perfecting her craft is a top priority. She completed a three-day luthiery masterclass at the Cremona Mondomusica festival for making instruments last September and has already signed up for another one focusing on design this year. After visiting a guitar-making academy in Milan last year, Cermelli came very close to dropping out of AUC to solely focus on luthiery. Although she decided to finish her degree to have a backup plan, she aims to either go to the academy or do an apprenticeship with a professional luthier after graduating.
Even though working on commission is more financially secure, Cermelli sometimes does take the risk of making instruments in her own way to try out new creative designs. After the masterclass inspired her to think outside the box, Cermelli has started to embrace experimentation: from a Greek bouzouki to a gaudi-inspired stained glass guitar, there is no stringed instrument that Cermelli would not want to try out.
Besides these projects, Cermelli is also teaching Preikšaitė how to make her own ukulele. Preikšaitė says she has firsthand seen how difficult luthiery is. To deal with the physical exhaustion and repetitive tasks, one has to really love it. These aspects do not bother Cermelli, for whom luthiery is almost like meditation. “You are only focused on the wood itself and carving it, you cannot really think of anything else;I just love it”, she says. Preikšaitė laughingly remarks, ““She cannot keep her hands from making something”.
What an inspiring article! Anna Cermelli’s passion for luthiery is truly admirable, and her dedication to perfecting her craft is impressive. It’s great to see someone pursuing their interests and turning it into a viable career.
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