Meeting the makers: Furch
| Acoustic Magazine
Standing in the courtyard of the converted farm buildings that house Furch Guitars’ 70 strong factory, Petr Furch strikes an unexpected figure in the evening light. Casually dressed and tousled, he’s every inch the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, yet the story he tells has a distinctly Iron Curtain flavour…
IN THE BEGINNING
His father, company founder Frantisek Furch, was part of a local bluegrass scene which was an unlikely Rebel Alliance to the Communist regime’s Galactic Empire. American music attracted a foment of dissenting political opinion, but could not attract high quality instruments, so Furch, an engineer, resolved to make his own. Starting with a banjo, because the availability of a snare drum reduced the amount of building required, he soon graduated to guitars. By the time the Iron Curtain came down, good guitars with the Furch name on them were circulating, and as soon as it became possible to run a business, he was able to begin.
Today’s Furch factory is a far cry from those early days, but remains in the town of Velké Nemcice, in the South West of the Czech Republic, near what’s now the border with Slovakia. It’s one of the biggest employers in the town, employing very few people with a prior interest in guitar, but rather local people with a commitment to the area, who want to work with their hands and be involved in making something beautiful. Furch initially made Ovation-style roundback guitars, operating initially from a single room with only a couple of employees. But by the time Petr joined, things had changed. He did not initially aspire to work for his father long term; like so many of us, he thought his future would be in rock ‘n’ roll, but he took a job, initially finishing guitars, to make ends meet. The site where the factory currently sits was a long abandoned farm; Petr remembers playing there as a child, climbing in over the walls, and taking risks playing amongst rusting farm machinery. Furch Guitars, still under the guiding hand of Frantisek, moved there in the early 2000s, restoring the existing buildings and adding more.
As the company grew, Petr worked on each part of the production, learning more about how guitars were built, and starting to have ideas of his own. Frantisek always thought like a production engineer, rather than a craftsman; his aim was always to find ways to improve the process, to make the quality of the guitars more predictable and repeatable, and Petr, who had not always had the best relationship with his father, found that he thought the same way. “I gradually realised that I wasn’t going to add much to the world as a musician, and to think that maybe the best way for me to give something to the world is with building great guitars,” Petr explains.
21ST CENTURY AMBITIONS
Petr’s inspiration, and the company he aims to compete with, is Taylor; the desire to make very high quality guitars at scale, removing quality problems, and as a result, removing doubt from their customers’ minds. Whether you like Taylor guitars or not, there’s no question that you know what you’re going to get, and Furch shares that philosophy. This becomes clear as we stand in the wood store, discussing the selection of woods, and their utility in guitar making. We’re discussing the benefits of different fingerboard materials, and I mention that plenty of internet forum guitar experts claim to be able to describe the sonic differences between rosewood and ebony as fingerboard materials. Petr laughs and says, “No, you can’t tell the difference. We know the difference, we’ve measured it. You can’t hear it.” This refreshingly scientific attitude to guitar building’s sacred cows characterises Furch’s thinking in all areas. He’s not interested in entering into a subjective, philosophical debate about aspects of guitar construction, he wants to calibrate a measurement tool, find out an answer that’s close enough for all practical purposes, and get on with applying that knowledge to building excellent guitars. This comes through again as we discuss the quality of woods for top, back and sides of guitars. I mention the practice of tap testing potential guitar tops, and the response is instructive. “We make 7,500 guitars per year, and we aim to one day make 20,000. I don’t think that tap testing is the most effective way to get the right results anyway; we can do better by using the bracing and build of the guitar to get the right result, but if I did, is it possible to tap test 160,000 pieces of spruce?” Furch’s focus on repeatability and reliable quality precludes anything as subjective.
As Petr puts it, “We can 100 per cent guarantee the state and setup of the guitar when it leaves our factory. What we’re interested in now is trying to control how it is a year later.” To this end, Furch have innovated their truss rod design, running the rod through a carbon reinforced tube, and bracing it at the heel with an alloy casting which maintains position. Petr describes a visit by a sales rep for PLEK, a German machine which measures guitars, simulates the tension of strings, and dresses the frets to get a perfect setup. Gibson use this machine for their most expensive guitars, to ensure quality. When an employee placed a Furch guitar, fresh from the production line, into the machine, the results were, apparently, good enough that the conversation about whether Furch needed the machine was effectively over.
RIGHT FIRST TIME
This focus on doing everything right, first time, every time is evident all over the factory. Specially modified CNC tools for every task, and cleverly thought-out production processes everywhere you look mean excellent results every time. Petr Furch has even collaborated with a finishing manufacturer to create a new guitar finish which is many times harder and more durable than existing finishes, and invested in a CNC robotic polishing system which is not only innovative, but also mesmerising to watch. The Furch philosophy isn’t for everyone; looking at the laser cutting machine they use for inlay work makes me irrationally yearn for a zen-like craftsman with a chisel, but there’s no arguing with the results. The journey to the door of Furch Guitars for me began with a Millennium Line 24, sent to me for review, when I had never heard of Furch. I was blown away by that guitar, and a visit to a Brno guitar shop which apparently holds 70 Furch guitars in stock confirms that the quality really is outstanding across the board. I played five or six very different models on that visit, and was hard pressed not to put a 2017 Limited Edition model on my credit card and bring it home. Petr Furch is a man with a vision, and meeting him confirms the impression the guitar I reviewed gave me; here was a serious competitor to Martin and Taylor at a significantly lower price. If you want a beautifully unique handmade guitar, Furch are not for you, but if you want a high end, professional tool, which you can rely on to be good out of the box and every night thereafter, Furch should be on your list. They may not always be cheaper than the competition, but currently, they represent a genuine bargain.
Author: Sam Wise