Friday, December 21, 2018

On the Workbench - Redwood/Curly Walnut Hernandez y Aguado Style Guitar, Part 1

...the graceful lines and the splendor of the guitar's body possessed my heart as swiftly as would the features of a heaven-sent woman suddenly appearing to become the loving companion of a lifetime.

Andres Segovia, Andres Segovia, An Autobiography of the years 1893-1920, 1976



I made this neck more than a few years back with the intent of building a nice guitar with a 640mm scale length. It languished in "the wood pile" until recently when I pulled it out and paired it with a back and side set of curly black walnut.





The walnut bent like a dream and unlike some walnut that I have worked with in the past, it didn't spring back, a definite bonus! I thinned the sides down to 3/32" and the waist area down to a tad less that 1/16" to help with the bending process. I find with walnut that the bending iron temperature needs to be between 350-375 degrees Fahrenheit, any hotter and the wood gets too bitter and will fail.




I have discovered that I have a knack for making wonderful sounding redwood top guitars. I grew up working redwood, the redwood lumber industry was a big part of our local economy, and can attest that a redwood splinter stuck in your finger or hand is as annoying and painful has handling old growth Douglas fir bark without gloves!




The bracing layout I use is a variation of one used by the guitar makers Hernandez y Aguado, which is a variation of the bracing developed by the great guitar maker Jose Ramirez III in the early 1960's. The top brace wood used for this guitar I salvaged from a log cabin that was built in 1930, the wood is Engelmann spruce.





The Spanish cedar lining for the back of the guitar is cut by hand, just like the walnut lining for the top.





The inside of the guitar is prepared and ready for the back!




The curly walnut back with its Spanish cedar braces. This walnut is incredibly light, even though the back thickness is about 3mm, with the braces the back weighs 220 grams! The braces are 1/4", 5/16" and 3/8" thick, from heel to end block, this and careful shaving off the brace tops and ends, helps me tune the back to a definite pitch, or tone. This back tuned out to somewhere between the A flat-A below middle C.

Stay tuned for more updates!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Be Your Own Apprentice

Daiju visited the master Baso in China.
Baso asked: "What do you seek?"
"Enlightenment," replied Daiju.
"You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?" Baso asked
Daiju inquired: "Where is my treasure house?"
Baso answered: "What you are asking is your treasure house."
Daiju was enlightened! 
Ever after he urged his friends: "Open your own treasure house and use those treasures."

 from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, complied by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, 1957

"What maker did you study with? What was his name?" This was a question I often get when I attend guitar festivals as a vendor.

"Myself," was my reply.

"Really? How?"

"I read a few books on guitar making, pulled out some old tools I inherited, bought some wood and went at it," I replied.

"Wow! Really? How did you know how work the wood into a guitar? I don't think I could make anything like this unless someone taught me how."

That statement always makes me a little sad, because I strongly believe that if there is something that you want to do or make, you need to go ahead and do it without worrying about the outcome.

You can be your own apprentice, you can be your own teacher.

Several young people have asked me if they could apprentice with me, or take a class from me. I don't have the time at this point in my career to teach, I need to make guitars and market them. I always give these young people several options for learning - read some books, buy some wood and tools, or find a guitar making course in Spain!

The replies I get after telling them those options range from "I can't afford to go to Spain!" "But, if I teach myself, it will take too long and waste my time!"

Then I tell them that you have to want to make a guitar more than anything else.

It is the same thing about general woodworking. If there is something that you want to make, you need to go out and make it.

Pick out something that really excites you, something you really want to make, find out what tools are needed, read a book or watch a video on how to sharpen them, buy the wood and go to work. It's that simple. If you really feel that you need to take a class on how to make that thing, then by all means do it, it is a step closer to understanding what treasures you possess.

What is really hard about woodworking is taking that first step to do it. Change and the unknown are scary, once you know what the change is about, the rest is easy.

I had to start somewhere, I had to take that first step.

One thing to remember is, that as a teacher, don't be too hard on yourself when you make a mistake or something goes wrong. It is a part of the journey.





Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Best Ingredients for a Fine Wood Finish

When I first started down the road of lutherie back in 1992, I had several spectacular finish failures. Some where I had read that you could use tung oil on a mountain dulcimer, and I found out that you can, but it killed the sound of that very first dulcimer. I hung it up on the wall.

All the wood working books and catalogs of the era seemed to state that wipe-on finishes were the best, or that it was better to buy some fancy brush-on finish that self-leveled was best to use on guitars and dulcimers. I bought brush-on varnish from a big name wood finish supplier and smeared it all over a "custom" dulcimer I made for a friend. I level sanded with wet/dry sandpaper and mineral spirits, but no matter what I did, the white dust from sanding adhered itself to every little nook and corner of the dulcimer. No matter how hard I tried I could not get rid of the white dust specks. My friend like the instrument anyway and was very happy with it.

After making several dulcimers I took the plunge into making my dream instrument - the classical guitar. The books I used to help me to make the first guitars were quite wonderful in showing how to put all those pieces of wood together, but every book steered me away attempting to learn how to French polish. I got the feeling that "French polish" and "shellac" were dirty, nasty words that weren't suppose to be uttered in the presence of a maker of fine classical guitars.

So, I started to cast about for a finish that would work well for classical guitars. I don't remember what I used on my very first guitar, it was probably some "wipe-on-with-a paper-towel" concoction made by mixing several different varnishes. I got that recipe from an article in a well known wood working magazine. It wasn't a glossy varnish, sort of semi-gloss and rather disappointing, though I must admit that that guitar is still being played today by a rather good guitarist and I haven't heard him say anything about the finish.

Then I read that the best guitar finish was a bar top varnish that was impervious to everything including battery acid. I bought a quart of the stuff, painted it on a guitar and let it dry. Three days later I noticed a slight bubble in the finish and when I picked at it two thirds of the finish on the guitar's top peeled off in one smooth motion! When I finally got the varnish to adhere to the wood's surface, I discovered that within one month's time the varnish turned yellow, yellow as a dandelion's flower. I ended up stripping three different guitars. Those I applied over-the-counter shellac, level sanded it all and called it good.

There were several interesting articles on French polish that I read early in 2000, but every time I tried to follow the instructions all I had was a surface that had some shellac on it. It wasn't until I picked up Ron Fernandez's video on French polishing that I got an inkling about this wonderful skill. By the way, the video is still available, please contact Mr. Fernandez  or go to Luthiers Mercantile.

Since then, I have whole heartedly given myself over to French polish. It is an adventure that never stops, because just when I think I have finally figured it out, something little technical aspect pops its head up and tells me I am doing it incorrectly. Then I have to figure out how to fix the issue and most of the time I can find a solution in one of the very old books written on French polish. French polish is an old skill and craft, somebody figured it out long before I got here.

The best ingredients for a fine wood working finish are found in your patience and willingness to take the time to make a great finish. Somewhere, on some forum I found, a woman who runs a finishing shop somewhere here in the United States, weighed in on a thread about shooting nitrocellulose lacquer.  I didn't write down her exact quote, but she did say "there is no such thing as a quick and easy high class wood finish. You have to take your time."

My goal is to make the best guitars I can and part of that means putting a world class finish on these beautiful instruments. That entails several days of raising the grain and sanding;  then pore filling with pumice and shellac and waiting for week for that to harden and do it all over again until I have a glassy smooth surface; then session after session of applying a two pound cut of button lac shellac until you can literally "see" into the wood. When that happens, every second and ounce elbow grease is worth it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Building an Eight String "Brahms" Classical Guitar, Part One

Among God's creatures two, the dog and the guitar, have taken all the sizes and all the shapes, in order not to be separated from the man.

Andres Segovia, classical guitarist




Early this year, a young composer/guitarist asked me if I would make him an eight string guitar, the so-called "Brahms", or cello, guitar. It has an extra treble string and bass string, this extends the musical range of the classical guitar in a tremendous way. This guitar was developed in 1994 by the luthier David Rubio for the guitarist Paul Galbraith, and if you wish to read more about how this guitar came into existence, please go to Wikipedia or Paul Galbraith's website to learn more.

There are no plans, that I know of, for this guitar, I knew that the first Brahms guitar had a bass string length of 660mm and the treble string length of 630mm, and today most makers use 650/615mm string lengths. I chose a 650/620mm string combination and pulled out a roll of brown paper to start my layout.




My biggest concern was to place the bridge in the most responsive place of the guitar's lower bout. Historically, a maker usually puts the bridge just ahead, more towards the sound hole, of the center of the guitar's lower bout. I drew plans using outlines guitars made by Jose Ramirez III, Hernandez y Aguado and Antonio de Torres, but it seemed to me that there wasn't enough room in the lower bouts to make a more responsive guitar. An outline used by Santo Hernandez spoke best to my visual senses at the time and I chose to use that one.

(This matter of the guitar's outline is pure speculation, I am sure that any outline would have worked. In retrospect, when I make the next Brahms guitar, I will probably use the Ramirez outline simply because the upper bout is wider than the others and will visually balance better with the wider neck and head stock.)

Layout of the fret placement was made very easy with the help of R.M. Mottola's wonderful website. He has a wonderful multi string fret calculator which was invaluable to me in making this guitar, I need to send him an email thanking him for this wonderful service.

After drawing the plans, the next order of work was to make a mock up of the neck. On a standard classical guitar, you cut the neck blank straight across with a 15 degree bevel, but on the Brahms guitar I discover that along with a 15 degree bevel cut, there is also a 10 degree crosscut! (That is for a 650/620mm string length, the angle would be different for a 650/615mm length!)



I took a piece of lodgepole pine to make the mock up neck.




Here is the neck after I have cut a 15 degree bevel on a 10 degree crosscut. At this point on a standard classical neck one can put the two pieces together in a scarf joint and see how good one's saw skill are, but...



with two different angles the pieces don't make a nice scarf joint.




The pieces are planed to make a nice joint...



and then the pieces come together well.

Once I made the mock up I made the neck for the guitar.



The guitar is nearing completion, I am in the middle of shaping the neck, there are three frets that need to be added and then I can start the finishing process.

Stay tuned for more on how I made this guitar!

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Beauty of a Simple Butt Joint

The strength of a butt joint is merely that of the glue employed...

Bernard Jones, The Complete Woodworker, 1980 edition



I made this guitar neck about five years ago, and for some reason, I never got around to building a guitar on it. It is made from a nice piece of Spanish cedar with a slice of East Indian rosewood on the headstock. Earlier this month, I decided to pair this neck with a redwood top and flamed black walnut back and sides, but there was one repair that needed to be done before putting the neck to use.





I accidentally left the rosewood veneer a little short, it was about an eighth of an inch shy of the where the headstock slope meets to horizontal surface of the neck. Usually, I run this veneer a little wild and trim it back after the fret board is glued on and I am ready to install the bone nut.




I was afraid that I wouldn't have any rosewood on hand to match the original, but I got lucky and found a scrap pieces that was a fairly close match.





The repair was pretty straight forward.

Some judicious sanding with a sanding block to make a straight joint and at a 90 degree angle to the face of the veneer...



shoot the edge of the scrap piece with a block plane...




apply some high tack fish glue and clamps.





Everything looks good! I carefully cut off the excess wood...




then gently planed and sanded!




I am very happy with the way this repair turned out, I am especially glad that I found a good matching piece of rosewood.



Sunday, August 19, 2018

An Unorthodox Nicholson-Style Workbench

For the convenience of planing, and other operations, a rectangular platform is raised upon four legs, called a bench.

Peter Nicholson, The Mechanic's Companion, 1831

If our shop is where we live, then our workbench is where we think and feel, where we do what is most satisfying to us as craftsman.

James Krenov, The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, 1977

I built my workbench in 1995.

The top was made from big incense cedar tree that I felled and then milled with a Granberg Alaskan mill attached to a 1960's era McCulloch chainsaw sporting a twenty eight inch long bar with 3/4" pitch chain. The legs are also incense cedar and the cross pieces were milled from a black (red) oak tree that grew about twenty from the incense cedar.

The idea for the bench came from Roy Underhill's The Woodwright's Apprentice, at the time I needed a workbench that I could transport.




I didn't mill enough wide boards from that cedar tree, in order to make the bench top wide enough for my use, I ended up attaching the apron to the side of the top, it added an additional two inches to the width.

The bench originally had a tool well, which I replaced after a couple of months of use, all the well did was collect wood shavings, with a single one inch thick cedar board. That board worked well enough, however, it wasn't thick enough to keep a hold fast fast in a hole. This past week I decided I needed to upgrade the bench again, last year I added the lower rails and shelf, it was time to replace the one inch thick board with something thicker!






The first thing I did was to remove the original apron, the apron has been attached to the top since 1995!





The angled braces were removed...






Then I removed the screws from the hinges that were holding the battens that held the top in place...







The original top I sent through a thickness planer to clean up twenty four years of patina and glue. It is one and seven-eights of an inch thick, down from two and one-eighth of an inch.  The off side board you see is two planks of western red cedar that I glued together about two years ago just for this purpose, it is the same thickness. "The top board next to the workman should be from one and a half to two inches thick..." Nicholson.



The original apron was evened up on the table saw and run through the thickness planer, however, I took a little too much off the width of the board, the hold fast holes were too close to the top. There was a board of Douglas fir in the little shed that had been air drying for two years, I ran it through the thickness planer and attached it to the top. I also attached the apron to the front legs with some heavy duty construction screws. The original apron is now on the off side of the bench. I also re-attached the cross bracing from leg to back apron to keep the bench from racking, this is opposite from Nicholson's advice, "In order to keep the bench and work from tottering, the legs...should be well braced, particularly the two legs on the working side."






Workbench re-made!

I kept the original hook/frog/crochet, it has worked well for the last twenty four years, I see no need to replace it. "The 'frog' on the front surface of the bench will hold your work for...edge...planing." Underhill.

I will drill new holdfast holes on the apron as I need them, I don't use the apron that much, I don't re-saw tone wood too often these days and I use the planing stop for most of my planing tasks.

So what makes this bench a little unorthodox?

...most of it is made out of cedar, not the usual bench wood.

...the apron is attached to the side of the top plank, not underneath it like a true Nicholson style bench.

...the planing stop is a board attached to the left hand front of the bench, held in place by hanger bolts and wing nuts.

...the under carriage is still the original, the legs are too spindly and there are hinges that are holding the battens that attach the top to the legs!

If I were chopping out dovetails, mortises, etc., on a daily basis, I suppose I would make a very close copy of the original Nicholson bench from maple or some other hardwood.

As it is, I make classical guitars, that means I don't have to pound on the bench too often.

One of these days, I will probably install a new undercarriage, the Douglas fir legs and cross pieces are cut and milled sitting in the new workshop waiting do something other than be shop flotsam.

To read more about this bench before I started tweaking it with "improvements" please click here!





Friday, June 1, 2018

Want to Hear What a Wilson Burnham Guitar Sounds Like?

Want to hear what one of my guitars sounds like?

Click here.

I have a 2017 Redwood/East Indian Rosewood classical guitar at Savage Classical Guitar and
Rich has posted this recording of him playing the guitar.

He comments on the sound and playability as he plays.

It is a wonderful recording. Thanks, Rich!





Thursday, May 3, 2018

SOLD! 2017 Redwood/East Indian Rosewood Classical Guitar

Hi, Wilson, guitar arrived in excellent shape. I'll be photographing and listing almost immediately today. She's a beauty, brother. Very nice.

Richard Sayage, owner, Savage Classical Guitar


I shipped a very nice redwood/East Indian rosewood classical guitar to Savage Classical Guitar on Monday, and it arrived in Bohemia, New York, this morning!

This is really a wonderful guitar, it is loud with a beautiful bel canto voice, all notes are very even up and down the fret board, and, as my wife pointed out, every note is clear, clean and crisp. It is one guitar that I wish I could keep for myself, but it needs to be in the hands of a player that wants a truly outstanding guitar.


The bracing is an adaptation of one used by Jesus Belezar, Manuel Hernandez's son-in-law. I purchased the redwood top from Luthiers Mercantile.



I bought this set of East Indian rosewood back and sides sometime around 2002, I wish I had bought more back then, it is really hard to find rosewood this nice these days.



A Manuel Ramirez style rosette in a redwood top that has some nice medullary rays. I should write a little more about how it is getting harder to find decent redwood for tops, I wonder how long it will be before we run out of redwood, including the sinker redwood. FYI, less than 3% remains of the original old growth redwood forests.




Here is "Pastora" with her final coat of French polish and a set of Pepe Romero nylon strings.



Her back.



The carved headstock.

I hope she finds a good home.

Please visit Savage Classical Guitar for more photos and a video!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

My Forty Year Old Shaving Horse

I've made all my tools, matter a'fact, everything I got. Well, this shaving horse I guess is about fifty years old.

Alex Stewart, bucket and butter churn maker, Foxfire 3, 1975


I made this shaving horse in 1978, when I was fifteen years old. I was tired of trying to hold stock in the leg vise on our grandfather's workbench, sticks of wood often would slip out when I took Grandpa's drawknife to it, and the jaws limited access to the wood I was trying to shape. I saw a photo of one in Foxfire 3 and decided I could make one.




My parents had all sorts of pieces of wood cached up in the attic of the old workshop, both were children of the Great Depression, they squirreled stuff away "because you never know when you are going to need it!" There was a five foot long piece of chainsaw milled incense cedar, pieces of old painted window, miscellaneous Douglas fir 2x2's and one piece of old growth Douglas fir that was just right for the bridge table.




I can't remember if my father helped me build this bench. There were no plans, I built the thing "by hand and by eye", something both my parents preached every time something was to be made.

I tried to smooth the bench board as best I could with a No.5 Stanley jack plane, there was an Atkins crosscut saw to use, plus a Stanley brace with Winchester auger bits and probably an old Plumb claw hand drove that nails.




The dumbhead was the bottom chunk of young ponderosa pine I cut down and hewed out with a double bit axe and at one point in its life, there was a treadle on the other end of the dumbhead.



The entire contraption is put together with nails...




and the bridge is pinned down to the riser with hand chopped Douglas fir dowels.  After I made this horse my mother saw that I had used that nice Douglas fir board for the bridge,  and boy, did I catch hell for that! She told me I should have used a "different" piece of wood.

I spent many an hour on this horse in the mid 1990's shaping out parts for stick Windsor chairs and other stock that got turned on a bungee cord lathe. The only "bad thing" about this horse is the bench is one foot too short, I have fallen off the end several times when I was draw-knifing some very long pieces.

Yes, I made two or three copies of Drew Langsner's shaving horse from dimensional Douglas fir lumber and I made sure the benches were long enough. However, those horses never worked as well as this one, maybe that style is not organic enough for me. I ended up giving all of them away.

I don't think I have used this horse in seven or eight years, I really don't need one for guitar making, but it does my heart good to know that it is in a nice shed protected from the elements and I can use it whenever I want.

It's hard to believe that in ten years this horse will be fifty years old!


Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Impractical Guitar Maker - Why I Make Guitars, Part One

The gifted hands of these makers turn these rare old woods, ideas and dreams into beautiful musical instruments.

James Sherry, classical guitar importer

I am often asked by the people who view and play my guitars how I got into this thing called "guitar making".

My pat answer is "I couldn't afford the guitar that I really wanted".

Good classical guitars are never cheap and here are some examples of prices past and present.

When I started studying classical guitar in 1974, at the age of 12, a Jose Ramirez III 1A classical guitar cost something like $3000 to $4000 - $15,175 to $20,234 in today's money. Back then, great players such as Andres Segovia, Christopher Parkening, Liona Boyd, Douglas Niedt played a Ramirez, because those guitars were the best.

In 1990, I stopped by a well known guitar maker in New Mexico to check out one his higher end guitars. It was $3000.  I think my take home pay at the time was only $800 a month, and I had to decline because I had student loan and car payments, plus rent, which ate most of my paycheck. In today's money that guitar would cost $5725, pretty much the average price for a mid-range classical guitar today.

My guitars are priced from $4500 to $5200.

Most classical guitars top name makers here in the United States and Europe start at $7500 and go up to $40,000!

However, truth be told, the first reason I make guitars is the romance of being a guitar maker.





Now, look at the cover of this 1974 edition of Art Overholtzer's book, Classic Guitar Making. It just oozes romance!

This cover pretty much convinced me I should become a guitar maker.

What is not to love about owning and working in an old shop with tall ceilings and tall windows that look out over a quiet street.  A shop where great guitarists would come to play your latest guitars and fill the space with music by Sor, Giuliani, Tansman, Ponce, etc, and then, when they would be done with their playing,  talk would turn philosophical about how beauty enhances our world and reaches out into the cosmos...

The second and main reason I make guitars is because of their beauty.



Classical guitars and the music that is played on them captured my heart and mind a very long time ago.

Just listen to some recording by the really great classical and flamenco guitarists and you will hear the beauty, the beauty that inspires me every day to walk up the stairs to my shop and work very hard to make something that can, perhaps, match that beauty.





Thursday, March 8, 2018

More French Polishing

Whenever you smooth down a freshly polished surface, always use your glass paper very lightly...

The French Polisher's Hand Book, 1910

I've been very busy lately pore filling two guitars, which gets to be a pain in the ass, pore filling is my least favorite part of finishing. It seems like no matter how hard I try to get the pores completely filled with wood dust and shellac, that when I get ready to start padding shellac I discover spots that aren't completely filled. I go ahead and pad down some shellac, wait for it to harden then go at those spots with a pad loaded with shellac and pumice then sand with Micro Mesh when the shellac is hard.


I pore fill with a combination of shellac and wood dust, East Indian rosewood dust for this guitar.



It makes a goopy mess that I sand back to (almost) bare wood with 400 grit sand paper. Lots of elbow grease and heart ache.

I know the old recipes for French polish use tallow or tinted whiting for pore filling, but for some reason in the traditional world of classical guitar building one is suppose to use pumice and shellac.



These last several years I thought I was getting good at the Art of French Polishing, that is, nice and shiny surfaces. My guitars look good, but this last month I used a suggestion from a guitar maker in Germany and added purified Manila copal, 10% by weight, to a two pound cut of shellac. Wow! Talk about shiny! The above photo shows the shellac after just two sessions! Granted, this work was done on top of previous shellac, but the build up and shine was just incredible!


This is different guitar, but this shows you how quickly the shellac/copal builds up, this is the first session!

The recipe is a two pound cut of Kusmi buttonlac with 10% Manila copal and 5% gum sandarac. The next recipe I want to try is the same but with 5% gum mastic, which is a recipe from The French Polisher's Hand Book.



Two ponderosa pines that I walk by twice a day...

All Wood Double Top Classical Guitar

  Double top , or composite top, classical guitars are all the rage these days, especially among young guitarists and I decided that I would...