Asian crafted guitars are no longer associated with poor workmanship, sub optimal tone and dismal playability. In fact, instruments from the Pacific Rim are beginning to make an impact on the higher end of the flattop scene. Thanh Cam musical instruments in Vietnam is a family operated atelier style workshop. The workshop was started by Do Van Thuoc in 1953 at the tender age of fourteen. He learnt the art of the luthiery from his uncle who was a famous instrument maker in Ha Noi during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Prior to 1960 Van Thuoc learnt to build Guitars, Mandolins, Violins and traditional Vietnamese Instruments like the Dan Bau and Dan Tran. In 1976 he was sent to the Beijing Musical Instrument Enterprises in China where he studied the craft of constructing Chinese musical instruments. Three years later, he was promoted to the post of technical expert and manager.
In 1990 he left to start his own shop, the Thanh Cam Workshop. “Thanh Cam” in Vietnamese means “Sound of the instrument”- a key philosophy he has passed down to his son, Do Viet Dung who now runs the family business. Dung has joined Guild of American Luthiers to improve and exchange ideas on instrument construction and is constantly elevating his craft.
Thanh Cam Workshop occupies the top 3 levels of the 5 storey family property in Ha Noi. A group of luthiers produce around 400 instruments a month, the vast majority student grade. Dung is now expanding his own atelier style made high end guitars. These guitars are predominantly slated for export, for OEM sales or custom orders.
The student grade instruments are constructed using locally sourced woods and produced to a high although not cosmetically perfect standard. Playability and sound of the student classical guitars are comparable to larger factory made instruments.
The high end guitar are a different story altogether and I will concentrate on these. Timbers are sourced locally and internationally with Sitka spruce tops and Indian rosewood imported directly from source.
Local timbers used for atelier guitars are of higher quality and rarer woods such as Vietnamese Rosewood, a true dalbergia with similar properties to cocobolo, and brazilian rosewood. It also possess a beautiful red hue and is often sound with spiderwebbing.
The guitars I have seen and played at the workshop featured an X top. The tops were around 4mm thick and all joints were glued with white poly glue. Finishing was done with either shellac or nitrocellulose. Necks were dovetailed and the guitars were then setup in a dedicated room at around 50-60% humidity.
More recently, Dung has been making Weissenborn guitars as an OEM supplier and finds that his long experience in building various traditional and western instruments invalubale in new projects such as this.
Let me give a first hand account of my experiences in the workshop. The fit and finish are good with minor purfling and rosette bleed, the routing for the binding is clean and the joints are tight. The interiors are clean, with a few glue spills. Any pearl inlay work is outsourced to artisans. Vietnam has a long history in inlay and engraving work and the quality was very high with tight fits and delicate, accurate work.
Setup and action on the 2 demo guitars I played were excellent, surpassing many high end guitars. The OM guitar I played was Sitka Spruce/ Vietnamese Rosewood. It featured a soft cutaway, which was well executed. The other demo was an archtop with 4 piece carved Sitka top and 2 piece Curly Maple back and sides. The fit and finish of the archtop was excellent….
Right, now to the hard part. The tone. I would stick my neck out and say that the tone is within the Martin influenced sphere. The tone of the OMc offers clarity and poise with crisp trebles and a balanced mid range. The Archtop has good chop with woody, but well balanced overtones.
Throughout the tour, I found that the workmen were all focussed on the tone of the instruments and trying constantly to improve the aesthetics and playability of their instruments.
©2009 Terence Tan. firstname.lastname@example.org
The author and Guitarbench.com wish to thank Dung and the team at Thanh Cam Workshop for the opportunity to tour the workshop. Also a special thanks to Andy Depaule for putting us in touch with Dung.
Disclaimer: No part of the trip was financed by Thanh Cam Workshop or their associates. The author received no gifts or incentives other than honest hospitality received at the workshop to produce the article above. The author does not own or represent or otherwise vests interest inThanh Cam Workshop at the time of writing.
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