Turnstone's Rosie Heydenrych on What It Takes to Be a High-End Luthier

As you begin to master the guitar and develop musical skills, you come to discover your own tastes in sound and playability—and those tastes may not be catered for by mass produced instruments. That's one of the reasons why some discerning players search out specialist luthiers who can accommodate those specific tastes.

Among the younger generation of makers catering for this demanding (and usually quite wealthy) market, one UK acoustic guitar maker is increasingly winning accolades from customers and fellow luthiers alike. Rosie Heydenrych's Turnstone Guitar Company offers guitars that not only sound and play superbly but are often visually stunning.

How Rosie Heydenrych established herself in such a niche, prestige market is a story in itself. Her guitars are different, not least because she likes to use British woods rather than sometimes potentially scarce imported tropical woods—though she does offer traditional woods, too—but also because she possesses a skill that quite a few specialist guitar makers lack: business acumen. In fact, anyone considering setting up as a professional guitar maker would be well advised to consider how she has gone about it.

After studying business at university, Heydenrych went to work in the charity sector. She was successful, but her past life as a guitarist nagged away at her. She began to realize that she really wanted to get back into the world of music, though not as a musician. Touring held no attractions, she says.

An evening course in guitar making caught her eye, and a year later she found herself between day jobs. She filled the gap, thanks to an introduction from her course tutor, by working with another guitar maker in London. As she gained experience, Heydenrych regularly attended guitar shows, meeting people and making friends. Eventually she found a position as a part-time intern with a luthier in south London. By 2015, she was ready to go solo, though she continued to test the ground, working part time. She followed this cautious path for a further two years, well aware of how unpredictable life as a guitar maker can be, especially one still to make her name.

"One of the particular trials of a guitar-making startup is that it just takes so long," she says. "Even though I'd had about five years of training, it wasn't enough to launch myself as a business. I needed the branding, a website, all the stuff that you need to have a business these days. So that whole next year was just me going into my workshop, filling the gaps in my skills, starting to develop my models, starting to see where I would come from as a business."

Following the received business wisdom, Heydenrych believed that making an impressive website was critical to attracting customers. That turned out not to be true, she says. "It really isn't the case. In today's world, there is so much noise out there. What I found was that toward the end of my first year I started going to small regional British guitar shows and doing that—meeting people, getting invited along to other events that I possibly wouldn't have known about. And then the orders started to trickle in, although I was pretty much clinging on for life as the months went by." Things really began to pick up during her third year, and she finally made the jump to full-time guitar making.

Talk to any guitar maker and they will tell you that you never stop learning the craft. Different tastes, different styles of both the guitar itself and playing styles, even changes in materials: these all need to be explored and mastered. It isn't even just about wood. There are glues and finishes to consider and these are evolving all the time.

In the case of finishes, for example, these are handled by Rosie's husband, Karl. The couple now do the finishing of Turnstone's guitars in-house rather than send instruments out for finishing, which is what Heydenrych had been doing before. This change required not just the outlay on spraying facilities but it also meant learning which finishes worked and why—a skill probably more important to acoustic guitars than to their electric equivalents.

What about being a being a woman in a male-dominated world? Did Heydenrych face skepticism, or even hostility? "If there was any, it wasn't apparent to me. I'd imagine that there was some skepticism, but no one ever said it to me—they probably just didn't contact me! I do know from other female makers who have been going longer than I have that they have encountered it. But for me personally, I saw it as an advantage, because there are tons of guitar makers out there, so how was I going to stand out?"

For budding guitar makers wondering how on earth they can get started in such a crowded field, she suggests taking it slowly. "Don't max out the credit cards and jump straight in. Ease into it. Get as much feedback as you can on your guitars, go to shows, start meeting people. Seek criticism. And remember there are two sides to your business: the building and the business itself. I'm a bit unusual, because a lot of luthiers think marketing and business are the devil, that they are artists and creators, not businessmen. OK—but don't complain when your guitars don't sell. It's really boring stuff, but it has to be done."

That said, it is her fine craftsmanship and particularly her artistic inlays that make Turnstone's guitars stand out from the crowd. And then there is the exceptional choice of woods. Heydenrych made the decision to offer exclusively British-grown woods such as bog oak, sycamore, yew, apple, London plane, and English walnut in her E Series models. Partly it's because of the sounds she can get from them and partly, she says, it's because she plans to have a long career ahead of her, and who knows what the availability of traditional tropical woods will be in 20 years time? She does offer more traditional woods on other models, of course, but she speaks with real knowledge and enthusiasm about the British woods she uses, and clearly it's an area that particularly inspires her.

Ordering a custom made guitar should be a carefully considered process—not least because a guitarist will be spending several thousand pounds or dollars. And like most luthiers, Turnstone offers a bewildering menu of options, not only in styles and features but also in hardware fittings and, of course, tonewoods. But for a guitar designed to last a lifetime, why wouldn't you want an object of beauty that offers exactly the things that you as a player want from a guitar? Why not opt for an instrument with none of the compromises a mass producer has to make with guitars designed to appeal to the majority?

Oh, and why Turnstone? Heydenrych says her company is named after a seabird that turns over stones on the beach looking for food. "A hidden beauty that likes to leave no stone unturned," she says. "We thought they were pretty cool and named our company after them."


About the author: Gary Cooper is a journalist working in the musical instrument and pro audio fields. He contributes to a number of music magazines and websites. He lives in Sussex, England.

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