Michael Dubova is the founder of Dubova Musical Instruments, an independent, handmade musical instruments company specializing in guitars and mandolins. We caught up with him to learn his thoughts on making instruments, starting a business, and marketing for creative entrepreneurs.
Can you tell us about your background?
Currently, a white wall…I’m in the kitchen right now typing this (I had to turn around and make sure that was actual wall color). I think there’s one electrical outlet to my left (yup…just checked).
Now, if we’re talking about where I grew up/etc….in the Crozet, Virginia area. Started getting really into music (Bob Dylan, Seldom Scene, Flamenco music, Grateful Dead, etc) around high school. Was addicted to bluegrass music and would always listen to ‘Bluegrass Sunday Morning’ on our local radio station, WNRN. I think all that laid foundation to eventually be interested in building instruments. It really hit home when I first heard David Grisman and the style and sound he was getting out of his mandolins. I was like…I want to play like David Grisman and I want a mandolin that sounds like what he has. I knew it would be impossible to buy a mandolin like Grisman’s so I started thinking that if only I could figure out how to make a mandolin then I could eventually create the sound I wanted.
I think being a musician helped shape the type of instruments I currently build. From how they feel, sound and look.
How did you learn to make musical instruments?
A lot of trial and error…that’s what kept me coming back to workbench each day. Trial and error and evolving ideas of what an instrument could look like, sound like, etc.
Did you start as a hobby, or go into it as a business immediately?
Started as a hobby and wanting to build myself an instrument that sounded better than what I could afford to purchase. Ended up building a mandolin that was not what the blueprints depicted and it sounded like….right off the bat I started to get tons of ideas of things to try on the build. Of course this is with no real woodworking or carpentry skills, so it was pretty rough looking end product. But, it fueled the fire to keep trying and trying and trying. Eventually when my skills got better people started to ask for custom builds and it kept evolving. I currently have a backorder of 14 instruments or so. So, over the course of 6 years it’s definitly snowballed from a self-serving task to a part-time business.
What were the hardest skills to learn?
The initial basic wood working skills and tool usage. I really had no idea how to use/sharpen a chisel, how to use sandpaper, how to use a block plane, basic joinery, etc, etc. So just getting a grasp on those simple wood working skills were the hardest part. Once you understand the use and application of those basic concepts everything else is easy. The flow of a mental image/idea and turning it into an actual instrument to hold and play is a lot smoother these days. I don’t have to think about basic tasks, they just flow. I now know what needs to be done for each task without having to reference certain tasks, etc.
What are the key elements of creating a high quality instrument?
So, once I have a conversation and really dial in how the customer will use the instrument, I start thinking about the various tonewoods that might really bring out the sound they are looking for.
It’ll start with thinking about the soundboard since that’s one of the most crucial factors in determining overall sound. Various spruces will provide different tonal spectrums and have overall trends for tonal spectrums.
This understanding really comes with experimenting for many years and coupling different spruces with different backboard/side materials.
Spruce needs to be well quartered and well seasoned. I take into consideration the grain count (grains per inch), initial tap tone before any major milling and overall flex. I want something that sounds like it has potential to really open up as I carve/brace it. Again, this really comes with experience.
I’ve spent good bit of time sourcing the spruce I use (Englemann, Sitka, Red Spruce). Each has a different ‘voice’ and responds differently from when first under string tension to years down the road.
When it comes to deciding on backboard and sides/neck, I’m a bit more flexible. Some customers like to have flash, highly figured woods. Some don’t care. I mill nearly all the lumber myself so I can really get what I want out of each slab of wood.
For sides I always think quartersawn is best and most stable. Backboard I’m willing to be more open minded on….though one has to be careful how thick/thin to carve or brace various species.
Being a musician helped shape the type of instruments I currently build
Another factor that goes into making a high quality instrument is the finish. I’m a firm believer that instruments don’t need as much finish as we’re used to seeing. These days if you walk into a music store and pick up an instrument, and had a blindfold on, you’d think you were picking up a piece of plastic. It kinda is….sure, it’s guitar/mandolin shaped, but it’s coated in so much laquer that’s it just kills the potential soul that instrument could have had….though if it’s a mass produced instrument it prob had little soul to begin with!
I mainly use shellac flakes dissolved in denatured alcohol and combine that with pure walnut oil and apply it via the French polishing method. I think it provides a durable, flexbile and beautiful finish that complements what a hand made instrument is all about. It also ages very well and is easy to repair. Most people don’t use that type of finish mainly because it’s more labor/time intensive, but in long run, and if it makes instrument sound better, it’s worth it.
One last thing I do with my instruments is attach them to a Tone-Rite for 10 days or so before I do final set up. It’s just a device that you attach to the strings near where they attach to the bridge. It then vibrates at different intensities and basically mimics someone playing the instrument.
Most folks have heard that the best instruments are those old, old vintage Martins or Gibsons. Well, a lot of that is because the woods used and the instrument itself has been under string tension so long and broken in an played and played and played. It’s racked up a lot of playing time. So the Tone-Rite expedites that process. So to have the instrument on the Tone-Rite for 10 days, 24 hrs a day, that saves the customer a lot of break-in time.
How did you make your first few sales?
First few sales were, more or less, by word of mouth and by harnessing the free marketing that’s on the internet these days (Facebook, Youtube, ebay, Craigslist, WordPress, etc).
It initially started with me posting some pictures of mandolins and guitars I had made from scratch on my Facebook page and then people started to notice as I kept building and kept posting. Maybe it was about being consistent in posting, but it lead to some friends asking what I charged and if I’d consider making one for them. Of course, as a new builder my resume was pretty scant….so I’d cut them a deal that if they covered materials then I’d make them an instrument.
There was a plan behind this. I knew that I could slowly gain steam if I used that ‘seed’ money from first few orders to buy raw lumber and mill it down myself and buy some cheap power tools. This would allow me to have more lumber to build more instruments and allow me more trial and error with ideas in my head. Some of those early customers were totally cool with me going with any idea I had in my head…to that I’m super grateful because I knew from the start that my brain isn’t wired to go out and churn out a bunch of F-5 or Dreadnaught knock-offs. I knew I didn’t want to be making what every other maker (big or small) was doing. Plus, it really wouldn’t have been true to my own inner image/ideas.
What also allowed me to use that seed money to put straight back into my future business was I had wasn’t relying on income from those instruments to pay my monthly bills.
So without that stress and with ideas and days off from work devoted to workshop time I could really rack up time experimenting and finding out what made an instrument really tick.
Another way I got my work out to the public, while using the free marketing that abounds, is by making a few instruments to sell as ‘no reserve’ auction on ebay. This worked incredibly well in free exposure and often led to folks who didn’t win the listed mandolin to inquire about having one built for them. That and posting some ads on craigslist for the local Charlottesville/Central Virginia area.
So yeah…it was word of mouth and social media that has really allowed me to continue pursuing and tweaking my business plan. Even to this day it’s a living breathing thing that requires daily attention and figuring out how to stay true to my own building ideas so I can continue to be relevant and have my work spread by word of mouth.
How do you market your instruments?
I’ve been pretty fortunate and haven’t had to pay for any marketing. I’ve done my best in harnessing the available free resources that we have this day in age (Facebook, Youtube, WordPress, etsy). I’ve tried to have a fairly decent web presence using all those things and so far I’ve gotten enough business through those. Other than that it’s just word of mouth from customers who have friends who then contact me. And so on and so on.
What are your goals for the future?
To always build what inspires me and try to create instruments that inspire people to play more music.