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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


The art of making the strings sing

By Sharon Aschaiek

He's apprenticed under renowned luthier Jean Larrivee, has spent 33 years running his own luthier business, has made up to 1,200 classical guitars in his lifetime, and has shared his skills with hundreds of eager students.

But Sergei de Jonge has never made a guitar for himself.
When Sergei de Jonge, above in his former Oshawa shop, began apprenticing under master luthier Jean Larrivee in 1972, he never imagined it would turn into a 30-plus year career and a highly successful guitar making school.

"I never did make a guitar for myself," he says without a trace of surprise at his admission. "I've had the wood for it since 1972 -- bird's eye maple that was a gift from Jean Larrivee's teacher."

That was his intention back in the winter of 1969 when he began apprenticing for the master luthier who was at that point an unknown. Before then, he had been taking guitar lessons, and admired some of his teacher's guitars -- including a Larrivee -- but balked at the cost.

Months later, he met Larrivee at a guitar concert, and asked if he could work with him. He ended up spending a year at his Toronto shop learning the trade, with the goal of making his own guitar.

"It was really exciting working with Larrivee -- he was a really good craftsman," he says -- but his creation got away from him. "The first guitar I originally made was for me, but I needed some money at the time so I sold it to a friend," he chuckles.

But while his first creation slipped away, the time in the shop and the relationship he forged with Larrivee offered something far more valuable: the know-how of a trade that would become the basis of a successful career and lifelong passion.

Using what he had learned, De Jonge set up his own shop in 1971 in the basement of his Toronto home. He studiously plugged away at his craft, creating classical guitars for sale.

"It was exciting. It was a real rush," says de Jonge, who is still amazed it turned into his life's work. "It kind of crept up on me. I thought I would do it a few years and see what else I could do, but I never got out of it."

In between making guitars, de Jonge married and had a family that encompasses six kids, ranging in age from 10 to 24. They all grew up in the shop watching their dad at work.

"They've been in and out of the shop their whole lives," says de Jonge, 54. "I worked with the shop with them on my back, and they'd be falling over my left or right shoulder to get a better look at what I was doing."

All of his children have taken an interest in their dad's trade, with most of them having made their own guitars, and his youngest, 10-year-old Corin, is in the process of making his first. His oldest child, 24-year-old Joshia, is following in her dad's footsteps, having opened her own shop in Montreal with her husband.

Since he loved sharing the intricacies of his craft with his children, it was only natural that in 1996 he began offering guitarmaking lessons to the public at his shop, then based in two side-by-side houses in Oshawa (along with a third for living).
"They've been in and out of the shop their whole lives," says luthier Sergei de Jonge of his six children. Here, de Jonge poses with Sagen, 22, wife Devorah, who helps run the guitar making school, Corin, 10, and Joshia, 24, who has followed in her father's footsteps and opened her own guitar making shop in Montreal.

In four or five-week sessions, at a cost of $2,500 US, students became virtual apprentices, immersing themselves in de Jonge's world. For an additional $500, they even had the option to lodge on the grounds and eat meals prepared by his wife, Devorah. At the end of the session, every student walks out with a finished guitar.

The demand to study under him went unabated, with students from the U.S., England, Portugal, Singapore and Canada completely filling up each course since 1996.

"I love it! I love interacting with people, the enthusiasm, and everyone's really happy that they made a great guitar. It's really exciting for me to be able to share that."

He says that the courses account for about half of his revenue, with the other half still coming from making and selling guitars. He says he cuts most of his own wood from lumber form, and work with rosewood, mahogany, spruce, ebony and more.

He estimates it takes about 80 to 100 hours to make one guitar, and he sells steel string guitars for $6,500 and classical guitars for $7,500. With the demand for his work going strong -- he sells to dealers and private buyers in the U.S., France, England, Japan, Germany and Canada -- he puts in 12 hour days, six days a week.

"We work hard, but it's not like work when you love what you're doing."

Recently, de Jonge and his family moved to Ottawa to be closer to his oldest daughter in Montreal, and open a new shop, which will open in early December, and courses will still be offered.

de Jonge says he feels fortunate to be living his passion, but advises others interested in the field to be ready for a serious commitment.

"One of the bugaboos of guitarmaking is that it takes s a few years to build up before you can make comfortable living. To develop the skills to make high end guitars and to develop the reputation is probably about a five-year process," he says. "But if someone is passionate about it, they will be successful. There definitely is a demand for it."

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