Inspired by Andrés Segovia’s famous 1912 Manuel Ramirez guitar, I chose Western red cedar top and East Indian rosewood back and sides from my collection of tone wood once owned by the late John Weissenrieder, an American guitar maker who lived in Italy.
Friday, December 8, 2023
Monday, October 30, 2023
Facing up, or “taking out of wind”, is the producing of a practically true surface upon a piece of wood so that every part lies, in the same plane.
George Ellis, Modern Practical Joinery, 1902
I don’t remember when I purchased this back and side set of palo escrito, maybe twelve or fifteen years ago, when Luthiers Mercantile decided that they could no longer offer that wood for sale, their buyers were having problems finding palo escrito that was legally harvested. I thought I would get a set and see what kind of guitar it would make.
When the tone wood arrived, I unpacked the back and sides, stickered everything, put weights on it and placed it in the closet space under the roof of the house. One month later I pulled out the wood and discovered that the back wood was badly cupped, the sides were still nice and straight and flat.
Friday, September 29, 2023
The guitar maker who was at the next table was fairly well known for his double top classical guitars, the guitars he had on hand were very nice to look at, high quality wood and a wonderful finish. I played several of his guitars, but they didn’t sound like they were made of wood, they were just loud. I didn’t find their sound too attractive.
This maker started looking at my guitars and the first thing he said asked was “What do you use to finish your guitars?”
“I French polish all mine.”
“Why? It’s an inferior finish! It doesn’t stand up to abuse! You need to use UV cured polyester! That’s the stuff! You can finish an entire guitar in two days and the polyester stands up to all sorts of abuse! All you need is a spray gun, a spray booth and a UV light to cure the finish!”
“I work in a tiny shop…”
“Shellac is antiquated, no one should use that stuff!”
“How long did it take you to become proficient in applying the polyester finish?’
“About two years. It’s great stuff! You just have to wear a full body suit to protect yourself from the UV light and a respirator. I got bad ‘sunburn’ on unprotected parts of my arms when I first started.”
“Like I said, I don’t have the space to operate such an outfit.”
“Well, you should! French polish is a thing of the past! And you could do a better job since you are using it!”
Needless to say, I didn’t talk to this guy for the rest of the festival. And he never played one of my guitars.
I recently heard that this maker no longer uses a UV cured polyester finish on his guitars, he French polishes with shellac and claims that it is the only finish that really makes his guitars sing.
Wednesday, August 30, 2023
Last week this popped up in my email, the famous Luthiers Mercantile is closing its doors for good! Sad news indeed!
If you don’t know Luthiers Mercantile, or LMI, was THE place to buy materials to make all manners of chordophones (guitars, mandolins, etc.), tops, backs and sides, tuning machines, fret wire, glue, shellac, etc., etc.
I first purchased tonewood from LMI back in 1992 when it was under different ownership than today, that was in the days when the company would mail you a small catalog printed on newspaper and you either called in your order or sent in the order form with a check. That first purchase was tonewood to make two mountain dulcimers, and at the time I asked that it be delivered to my parents house, I was living in a remote cabin somewhere in the Sierra Nevada of California, and one day while visiting my parents there was a call for me from Luthiers Mercantile. The voice at the other end of the line wanted to double check the address, he couldn’t quite understand that there were two luthiers in my parents little small town and wanted to make sure that my order would go to the proper address. At the time, there was a small music shop in the town where my parents lived, the owners offered instrument repairs and also made mountain dulcimers for sale. After a bit of discussion the proper address was agreed upon and a few day later the wood arrived and I started building the dulcimers. I have no idea where those dulcimers are today and the music store on Front Street closed around 1994.
This week I ordered enough fret boards, bone nuts and saddles, pieces of MOP, East Indian rosewood bridge blanks and I forget what else, that will see me through the next three years at my current rate of production. I have a good cache of tonewood, I tend to buy that from individual purveyors of tonewood and there are other sources to buy fret wire, etc.
The day that LMI closes its doors for the last time, I will take down from a bookshelf the Luthiers Mercantile Catalog/Handbook published in 1992 and leaf through it, reminiscing about the first days when I started down wonderful and exciting road to become a maker of fine classical guitars.
Friday, June 16, 2023
This is Catalina, a guitar I completed in 2022. It is a double top classical guitar, the top is Engelmann spruce with a honeycomb Nomex core, with an inner veneer of Sitka spruce. The back and sides are flamed maple. SOLD!
The back fillet and bindings are East Indian rosewood, the "Ramirez racing strip" in the Spanish cedar neck is East Indian rosewood with BW purfling. The scale length is 648mm.
This guitar has sold at Savage Classical Guitar.
Friday, May 19, 2023
Look, listen and do, never ask why!
Kennosuke Hayakawa, master Japanese carpenter
I started learning the technique of French polishing about seventeen years ago, I watched Ron Fernandez's video, French Polishing for Guitarmakers, 2.0., followed his instructions to the letter on a guitar and was stunned by the beauty of the finish! Before I purchased this video I had used several well known varnishes and various recipes gleaned from wood working magazines on my guitars, the resulting finishes were very disappointing. Yes, French, or English polishing, depending on who you learn from, can be a difficult technique to master, it requires much patience and many hours at the workbench practicing with shellac, alcohol and wadding wrapped with a piece of cloth.
Tip #1: Practice, practice, practice!
Tip #2: Don't be afraid to experiment! Try different grades of shellac, try a 1lb cut versus and 2lb cut, use olive oil as a lubricant instead of mineral oil, etc., etc!
Tip #3: Practice, practice, practice!
Tip #4: Do your research! You can still find many out of print books on French polishing, many were published over 100 years ago when shellac was the finish for fine furniture. Yes, there are many online videos that you can watch on French polishing, but many of the old shellac recipes are superior to just straight up shellac.
Tip #4: A drier pad will build up shellac faster that a dripping wet pad. Watch Mr. Fernandez's video.
Tip #5: Experiment! Try some of the old recipes, many of the additives help build a shiny finish more quickly than just straight shellac.
Tip #6: Research varnish recipes used by violin makers. Violin makers work with a 400+ year old varnish tradition, they know what they are doing.
Tip #7: A truly fine and exceptional French polished finish can't be completed in one day, be patient and don't be afraid to spend time working.
Tip #8: Buy the best quality shellac that you can afford. Shellac prices are rising do to loss of shellac crops, thanks to global warming and loss of habitat, but the highest quality shellac gives the best finish!
Tip #9: Remember, grain alcohol, along with 2F and 4F pumice are your friends! I use 90 proof grain alcohol and an expensive brand of olive oil for my work.
Tip #10: Practice, experiment and research! Becoming adept at French polishing takes work and dedication!
Books that I recommend are:
Adventures in Wood Finishing, George Frank
Staining and Polishing, Charles H. Hayward
Traditional French Polishing for Beginners, Les Holmes
The French Polisher's Handbook, A Practical Book by a Practical Man
French Polishing and Wood Surface Finishing for Amateurs, C. Harding
And there are many articles on French polishing that you can find, I often re-read the article by George Frank which can be found in the archives of Fine Woodworking Magazine.
Now, get out into the shop and work!
Thursday, April 20, 2023
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