Monday, March 31, 2014

Seven String Classical Guitar: Bending Curly Maple and Attaching the Sides to the Top

Bending wood by hand to the gentle curves of a guitar silhouette is an unusual skill, one that the guitar builder shares with few other wood workers.

Charles Fox, guitar maker, 1998

Some days it seems that no matter how hard you work you just can't get ahead. That was my experience last week.

Gluing one side to the heel block

Sorry, no photos of bending the curly maple. I will say that this curly big leaf maple that I purchased from The Wood Well, click here for the website, bent like a dream. Bad simile, but I have never had a wood bend so easily, it was even easier than California laurel!

Click here for a great discussion on bending sides.

When I started out in this thing called lutherie twenty years ago, every person and book that I consulted on bending wood said to steer away from curly maple. This is the third guitar that I have made from curly maple, this is great wood to work with, though a little difficult to plane well.

I have yet to work with curly rock maple, but something tells me it will be easier to bend than mahogany. Of course, I have read that mahogany is relatively easy to bend, I got some stuff once that was almost impossible to bend.

Using cloths pins to attached kerfed lining for the guitar back to the sides

I like to attach the sides to the top with individual tentellones, little triangular blocks of wood, instead of a kerfing strip. It takes a while to attach both sides this way (all day!), but I feel that offers a more rigid connection of the top to the sides (read "rim") of the guitar. I have seen guitars from the Jose Ramirez III shop made this way, also guitars by Santos Hernandez, Domingo Esteso, so I figure if the masters did it so can I!

Another option is to laminate strips into a solid lining. I just haven't gotten around to doing that, probably because it means using more power tools, something I want to stay away from.

The guitar is almost ready to receive the back.

All I need to adjust the angle of the "foot" of the heel and do a final clean up of the inside.

I hope I can start installing the bindings by Wednesday, hopefully I won't spin any wheels.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


We're supposed to make mistakes...

Billy Joel, You're Only Human, 1985

I made a mistake.

If I had followed through and completed the work I would have looked like a rank amateur who didn't know how to read a measuring tape. I do know how to read a tape, I was lead carpenter/foreman on over ten residential homes and I always checked and rechecked every measurement. I use to find layout mistakes that the architect made on the blue prints.

Where I grew up, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

For some reason, when I was first laying out the project I am speaking of, the number "12" was instead of "12.5". I caught this error on a piece of wood that was going into the project and I fixed it and fixed its relationship to the whole.

Problem is I forgot to look for "12" else where in the project.

Lassen Peak from Kings Creek Meadows, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Talk about getting stuck in La-La land.

The project was taken apart this morning, material was saved and a new part was made so that all measurements were in relationship to each other.

So what, I lost 2 days of work due to this mistake, the end project is still going to be amazing.

Our meadow earlier this winter

This afternoon I made a cup of espresso, sat out on the porch and thought about how lucky I am to married to the most beautiful woman on Earth; that I get to live in Colorado and the West; and I remembered that everything is a journey and to enjoy what happens to me along the way. Life is the only destination.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Wood, Hand Tools and Accuracy

You can get so exact that you immobilize yourself with accuracy. I joke about it. You buy this square, and you pay $400 for it and it's accurate to a 10,000th of an inch. Then all you've got to do is get yourself a job with Boeing building 747's and it's great. It's want you want, but it's not a woodworker's measurement and it never will be.

James Krenov, Making Music with Planes, 1997

I had an argument with a friend who is a highly talented furniture maker about accuracy in woodworking. I quoted the above statement and guess what he pulled out of his apron pocket? Yep, a square that was accurate to a 10,000th of an inch. He got a little sore at me when I laughed at his square and then I asked him, "Really? Why be that accurate? Your breath on that piece of wood will cause it to swell that much in the blink of an eye!"

It took a month before he would talk to me again.

I get very impatient with people who ask me how I can be accurate with hand tools. A year ago I had to block a person's email to me because they pestered me so much asking "how can you make guitars without power tools? It is impossible to do so!"

What I really wanted to ask that person was this, "How did Antonio Stradivari create such wonderful musical instruments without a workshop stuffed full of the latest, greatest power tools?"

I didn't ask that question because that argument wasn't worth my time.

This photograph is from Violin Making by Walter H. Mayson, which can be found here. These are some of the tools that he mentions in his book, I notice that there are no planes in this collection. Even today, the great violin makers use hand tools such as these.

These are Stradivari's original planes. More of his tools can be found here. Pretty simple and I am sure that he made them himself instead of ordering them over the Internet from Garret Wade.

I love making classical guitars and when I do make a guitar I want to listen to the wood. I want it to tell me something about myself so I can find the voice it wants.

To help with that, I limit my use of power tools.

I use a Dremel for cutting out rosette channels, a table saw for ripping out saddle slots on the bridge, a drill press to drill four holes in the head stock so I can cut out the slots for the tuners, a Porter Cable drill gun to drill tuner holes and a heat gun to warm up braces before I apply hot hide glue to glue the braces to the guitar top.

I cut this slot, for guitar sides, in the heel block with a Pax brand back saw and chiseled out the waste by hand.

A simple shooting board and a well tuned No. 7 Stanley jointer plane with a sharp iron is all I need to joint two boards that will make a seam so tight that I am often fooled as to where the joint is among the growth rings.

The binding channels I cut by hand.

Yes, I have a brand new router and a very expensive jig attachment, but you can quickly ruin a $2000+ guitar in less then a heartbeat if you lose focus and concentration. I am not sure that I am going to use it on the seven string classical guitar that I am currently building.

I thinned down this side of Indian rosewood to a sixteenth of an inch with a No.3 smoothing plane and a card scraper. I made it that thin so I could laminate the side to some Alaska cedar veneer.

Click here to see photos of veneering these woods together.

My point is, yes, you can be accurate with hand tools!

But, as I have said before, the best way to be good with power tools is to be good with hand tools first.

Duncan Phyfe didn't have an amped up shop, did he? I could be wrong, maybe he had a table saw and a router.

I think that we limit our imaginations and capabilities by being tied to a machine that does the work.

And I am not sure that William Morris and Gustave Stickley were correct when they said that much of the drudgery of wood working can be eliminated by using power tools. I know planing down stock by hand is a lot of work, but a thickness planer puts a distance between us and our medium.

If we distance ourselves even the slightest amount from our own work, will our customers see us as people or the machines that made the work? What really is their perception of that work?

Creating is a fundamental part of being a human, a person. It should be fun and enlightening.

The Hellier Stradivari violin, circa 1679.

One last rant--look hard at this violin. How does it affect you when you look at it? Now, after some thought and introspection over this great work, try to convince me that that we as wood workers really need to own and use power tools.

Here's a YouTube for your Sunday afternoon!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Making a Plane Iron into a Toothing Iron

Something draws us to imperfection-"that hint of ugliness without which nothing works," as Edgar Degas is supposed to have said.

Jonathan Hale, The Old Way of Seeing, 1994

The idea for making a regular plane iron into a toothing iron I first saw in Guitar Making, Tradition and Technology, by Cumpiano and Natelson. I had always dismissed it because I am good at thicknessing a piece of wood.

I ruined a good four inch saw file doing this!

I reconsidered using a toothing plane after reading this post on Finely Strung. Christopher Martyn makes some wonderful instruments, so I reasoned "why not try it?"

I bought another Hock Tool blade for my No.3 Stanley plane, marked it for teeth, filed away at it and got it razor sharp.

This is the reason why I thought I would try a toothing blade--fiddle back maple. The seven string classical guitar that I am making has curly maple back and sides, the last thing I want is tearout.

Yes, when I sharpen my plane iron for this task I put a 5-10 degree back bevel on it and I honed the front edge of the Lee Valley chip breaker to 50 degrees just like the guys at Lie Nielsen say you should do. All that work makes the iron work wonders, but I want to give myself a little extra security-this is expensive wood. If I ruin this piece...

I used the iron on the Sitka spruce top for the seven string guitar, it leaves tracks for me to follow with a regular iron.

After smoothing away the tracks with a regular iron I followed up with a well sharpened card scraper to reach the final thickness that I want for this top.

A shot of how fine the toothing lines are on the maple

I will reduce the maple back and sides down to that realm that is a 5/64th to 3/32nd of an inch, my goal is to make a light and responsive guitar.

Why not use a thickness sander, you ask?

I don't want-
the noise
to set up a dust collection system
to use more electricity than I need to
to wear a respirator
or build another tool

I have a head and a heart, and
hands that are attached to my arms,
that are connected to my shoulders, my back,
my hips, my legs, my feet and then
the world--I think they are good enough for doing the work.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Seven String Classical Guitar - Julia's New Guitar

Tomás was frustrated by the guitar's limited bass range, so he asked José Ramirez III to build a guitar with two additional bass strings, giving him the freedom to play most bass lines in their original configuration.

Howard Bass, José Tomás: Memory and Legacy, 2012

Last year, I made a guitar for Julia, lead singer of Ode to the Marionette. It was a redwood/Indian rosewood guitar, small bodied with a short string length of 635mm. She loved it so much that she asked me to make her a seven string flamenco guitar.

I am excited to make her a new guitar, especially a seven string because it is surprising how much more music can be played on a guitar with an extra bass string. Check out the video at the end of this post.

Julia has small hands and to make it comfortable for her to play this guitar I am making it with a 635mm string length, a standard classical guitar has a string length of 650mm, so this requires making the entire guitar smaller so it doesn't look out of proportion to itself and the performer. A standard classical guitar has a box length of 480-490mm, this guitar has a box length of 470mm.

A concern of mine was to make sure that the head stock wasn't going to be way too big to fit this guitar, I also don't want this guitar to be neck heavy. I tapered the headstock in the opposite direction of the usual classical headstock, that is wider at the nut and smaller at the crest. I was going to make the crest be a copy of Santos Hernandez's crest, but it made the head stock look gargantuan compared to the rest of the guitar.

I spent most of the morning checking and re-checking the layout of the headstock to make sure everything was perfect for I cut anything. The noon time 2 mile run I took helped me get through the afternoon with the rest of the work.

Here's the heel block. I like to wedge the sides in, instead of having just a narrow slot.

Glueing the headstock to the neck shaft.

Julia chose a nice Sitka spruce top for her guitar, this photo shows my jointing jig. It was a sunny day when I jointed this top, I went outside to "candle" the joint using the sun.

Glueing the two top pieces together.

The top with layout for braces and harmonic bars.

Tomorrow will be spent finish carving the heel. Again, it is a balancing act, how to make everything look in proportion for a wider neck on a smaller bodied guitar.

Stayed tuned, more seven string guitar fun is on its way!

Here is a video of Doug DeVries playing on a seven string classical guitar. Enjoy!

The Best Workshop in the World!

The best workshop in the world is the one that you are working in! I know that there are people who complain about their work space - it is ...