There is something very special about the smell of wood in a workshop, the sound of hammering and sawing, the lack of noisy power tools, and the relative calm at which artisans go about their work. Which is why we travelled from Jerez to the white village of Algodonales for a day trip rather than to Cádiz or Tarifa.
We are both passionate about anything handcrafted and admire the work of craftspeople, artisans, bespoke designers, textile-makers, and so on. A musician myself, visiting the workshops of musical instrument-makers around the world has become a bit of a hobby of mine.
We’ve visited everyone from violin-makers in Cremona to oud-makers in Cairo and saz-makers Istanbul. So when Jerez based flamenco guitarist, Sebastian Lapostol, who gave me a flamenco guitar 101 invited us to visit the workshop of luthier Valeriano Bernal, maker of Guitarras de Artesania, we leapt at the chance.
The Artisans of Algodonales – A Visit to the Workshop of Master Luthier Valeriano Bernal
It’s an easy and enjoyable drive to the village of Algodonales, 80km (50 miles) from Jerez, on the way to Ronda. The scenery is picturesque with traditional bodegas surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, and white farmhouses dotting undulating hills blanketed in lush green alfalfa. Although there’d been a lot of rain and it’s considerably more dry in summer.
The workshop of Valeriano Bernal is understated, tucked down a backstreet that you probably wouldn’t find without asking for directions. A luthier since 1946, Valeriano Bernal Leo is now retired and only works if there’s a special request from the likes of a flamenco legend such as Paco de Lucía. His son Rafael now runs the workshop, along with his sister Chari and her husband Ramon, and with help from a cousin.
The atmosphere is relaxed. Chari greets us then continues to chat to a friend while Sebastian and I test out a couple of guitars. Lara thumbs through a photo album on the counter. It contains wonderful old black and white images of Valeria with the flamenco greats who have visited his workshop and who he has made guitars for over the years. It’s a veritable who’s who of the southern Spanish flamenco world.
Chari offers to take us on a tour of the workshop and we head upstairs. First she shows us the shelves of wood they use to cut out the various pieces used to make the guitars. The instruments are mostly made from Cypress wood from Spain, although rosewood and other woods are also used, and the wood is generally 10-30 years old; the older the wood, the better it is. There’s a huge market for the stuff – when another luthier retired and the Bernals inherited some wood from him, they were pretty excited.
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Each stack of wood is labelled with the model of guitar that they’re destined for. It does look like there is a lot of guitars on the go, but the Bernals only make around 150 a year. It takes them around 2-3 months to make one guitar and they have around 10 guitars in progress at any time. Each guitar can take anywhere from 50 to 100 hours of labour to produce.
The techniques they’re using come from guitar making from 19th century Spain and, aside from a couple of processes, virtually everything is handmade.
The ‘s’ shape of the sides of the guitar is one process where there is a little help – with a special machine to heat and bend the wood into shape. The back side of the top of the guitar is very important so braces are placed here as much for the harmonic tone of the guitar as to give it strength. For flamenco you want a brighter tone and less sustain than a classical guitar and the position of the braces are a vital part in obtaining those sound characteristics.
In the centre of the room, about 10 rough-hewn guitar shells lie flat on their backs in brackets to hold the glued pieces of wood together, and they sit in these contraptions for a couple of days.
Chari takes us into an adjoining room where Rafael and Ramon are each working on a guitar, sanding and gluing wood. Chari reveals that when they were children all the sanding was done by hand, and if they were naughty, their punishment was to sand the guitars!
After gluing the back of the guitar onto the body, we watch as Ramon then cuts a strip of the trim edge that runs around the guitar and cuts it to just the perfect length. Ramon then wraps the guitar in what looks like a super-long rubber band and leaves it for a few days. He works fast. After this the fingerboard and the bridge are placed on the guitar.
We head downstairs where Chari takes us to another room – her room – where she applies layers of varnish to the guitars. They will often apply 3-4 layers of varnish, sometimes more, depending on the quality of the wood, then sand the guitar back again each time until it’s absolutely perfect. For her it’s a process that takes a lot of patience and she admits to getting frustrated with just how long it takes!
The machine heads and frets are next and then the top and bottom strings are placed on the guitar and tested before it goes any further. Given the hand-made nature of the instruments, we ask whether sometimes the guitars don’t quite meet their expectations. Chari say that sometimes when they experiment with different woods or techniques things don’t always turn out as they hoped – they don’t label or sell those ‘experiments’!
Just under half of the guitars are custom orders. Increasingly people are realizing that they can order custom guitars for roughly the same price as a guitar off the shelf. Surprisingly, while you’d expect musicians to be more interested in the sound, and wanting this sound or another, most guitarists who custom-order are concerned more with design and the appearance of the guitar.
On the way out we cross a courtyard, passing rooms filled with kid’s toys, cubby houses, bicycles, and baskets of washing. Chari explains that they all live on the premises. Just as the people of Jerez live, eat and breathe flamenco, the Bernals live, eat and breathe guitar-making.
But it’s not just about flamenco guitar. Despite being surrounded by the traditions of flamenco, Chari admits her brother Ramon is not as interested in flamenco as he is in rock – he loves his rock en Español!
If you’re interested in buying a Valeriano Bernal guitar, you can visit the workshop in Algodonales, shops in Jerez and Seville, or order online. See their website for details. If you love the area so much you want to stay a few days, HomeAway Holiday-Rentals also has properties in this region.
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