Monday, December 31, 2007

California Laurel Guitar


It's a cold and windy today here in Northern California, there's snow on the ground and it would be impossible for me to warm up my shop so I am using the kitchen table as a work bench. This is the top for the experimental Lacote guitar, it is redwood that is from a salvaged board off a redwood water tank that we once had here on the property. The top is made out of four pieces, the board was only 5 inches wide, the edges of the lower bout are where the narrowest pieces are. This redwood is fairly hard and has a great tap tone. After I glued on the bracing the tap tone became even louder! Remember that this is a small guitar, smaller than the Martin "parlor" guitars. This is the style of bracing that many luthiers used in the 18-19th centuries, it's called  "ladder bracing" and many players today are under the delusion that this is an inferior style of bracing compared to the "X" bracing of Martin and the fan bracing of Spanish classical guitars. This bracing system worked for luthiers back then, the professional players bought and used the guitars to high acclaim.



I admit that I am using some modern concepts on this guitar, the upper graft that you see between the 2 upper braces I put in to help prevent the top of the soundboard from cracking. On the lower bout, I added a graft underneath the bridge, again to prevent splitting and support the bridge. Restoration photos of period guitars almost always so the guitar had problems at the bridge and I want to help this guitar as much as I can. It is impossible to make an exact copy of a period instrument anyway, the quality of wood the luthiers used back then no longer exists, my workshop is different from the maker back then and I don't live in 1840, I live in 2007 with all the baggage of my life and society. I'll get off the soapbox now.


The back and sides are California laurel (umbellaria californica), the folks in Oregon call it Oregon myrtle, but the scientific name is the same. A friend gave me a wonderfully figured board from his wood stash just so I could have the experience of making several guitars out of this wonderful wood.

I need to make some more cam clamps, I was a little short for gluing the back seam graft on. Maybe tomorrow or Wednesday I can steal a little time to make the back braces for this little guitar. I'll glue those on next.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bubinga Tonewood


I bought a board of bubinga, aka African Rosewood, at a local hardwood supplier this summer and I finally got around to resawing some of it. I started out using a rip saw with 5 1/2 TPI (teeth per inch) but I quickly changed over to a saw with 6 TPI. That saw cut better, but resawing bubinga by hand is pretty much like sawing through a firebrick. I am sure that most of you have discovered that most kiln dried wood one buys at a lumber yard tends to want to do weird things when you open it up. It usually cups badly on me and affects the accuracy of subsequent cuts, especially since I rip by hand. I have gotten around some of this problem by ripping out the pieces all at once. A sharp saw helps, too.



I mentioned that resawing bubinga by hand is like sawing through a firebrick, it took me a total of four hours to rip out two backs from this piece of wood. It is cheaper for me to do this than to send it off to a custom resaw buisness which charges $60 an hour, plus shipping. If I pay myself what I make at my day job I still come out ahead and it keeps my right arm in shape.



I don't own a bandsaw, though there are days I wish I had one, but I enjoy working with handtools. I tend to get in trouble with power tools on my own projects, generally I make a mistake and ruin something because I was going to fast. I do use power tools at my day job, historic preservation for the National Park Service, but making classical guitars is a highly elevated craft. Luthierie not an art, but you need to approach it as an art, to make the best piece you can. I have more control with handtools. The less electricity I use helps our poor planet. Yes, I do use exotic woods, but I try to make guitars out of Claro and English walnut whenever I can. Think globally, act locally.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

My Workbench


Just a word about my workbench.

I built this bench in 1995 when I started to get serious about my woodworking. I was using the bench my grandfather made, 2 slabs of Douglas fir, with a leg vise, attached to the posts of his workshop with large drawers beneath the top. I can't tell you how many toys I made on this bench when I was a kid, using the tools that he had owned and were just laying around the shop abandoned. In 1995 I saw an episode of The Woodwright's Shop where Roy Underhill built a bench with folding legs. His bench was based on one from The Handyman's Book, by Paul Hasluck, which used a regular metal vise. Roy dispensed with the metal vise, instead he added an apron front (borrowed from Nicholson's English bench) with a holding crochet (borrowed from Roubo's French bench) so that one could use holdfasts to clamp wood. Roy used a bench dog with metal teeth for the top of the bench, I don't-I have a bench stop made from a board attached to the end of the bench with hanger bolts and wing nuts making it easy to adjust the height of the stop. Now, for the shocking part of my bench-the entire bench, top and the legs, with the exception of the leg stretchers which are red oak, are made from incense cedar.


Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) is one of the most beautiful trees that grows in Northern California. It was used extensively for fence posts (my grandfather split posts for extra money) because the heartwood is very resistant to rot and for many years was used in the manufacture of pencils. Unfortantely, most of the old growth cedar is gone, another victim to over-logging practices.

The tree that made this bench is from my property, it was up on the hill near the horse corrals. The top was dead, cedars often fall victim to a root fungus (spp. annosus) that can kill the tree quickly, within 2 weeks or it can take years for the tree to die. In 1994, I felled the tree and milled it with a chainsaw equipped with a Granberg Alaskan Mill attachment. It took about 3 days to mill the entire tree. I counted the growth rings of the stump when I was done and the tree was born circa 1847, the same year my great-grandfather was born, it was a seedling at the time of the California Gold Rush. That means it was not an old growth tree when it fell, the definition of old growth in California is any tree that was mature (150-300 years old) when the first '49'ers arrived in the region.

In 1995, I went back to work at Rocky Mountain National Park and I wanted to have a work bench that I could take with me. Thanks to Roy Underhill and a stack of cedar in the woodshed, I made a traveling workbench. I have made folk fiddles, dulcimers and guitars, assembled chests and windsor chairs on it and I can't tell you how much musical instrument wood I have ripped that was held in that crochet and holdfast. I have never missed a "real" vise on this bench, I am so use this bench I don't know if I can use any other bench. It is not a large bench, it's five feet long, two feet wide and not very heavy, I put 2 50lb. bags of sand on the stretchers on each leg tower. Ever year I contemplate building new legs for it out of cedar or oak from trees on the property and, of course, I dream about making a copy of Nicholson's English bench. For me, the Nicholson bench is the ultimate bench because I use the same basic bench.

The point I am trying to get around to is to make the bench that you have always wanted. Don't get hung up on what kind of wood to use or how many vises it needs, start with a simple bench and discover what it is that you really need a workbench to do for you. Great ideas for benches can be found in Scott Landis's workbench book, The Workshop by Scott Gibson and check out Chris Schwarz's new book on making workbenches. Please, though, don't forget to look at Roy Underhill's great series of books on traditional woodworking. Find a bench that makes your heart sing, you'll be happy to work that bench.

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