Building a Bespoke Guitar

This will be the first in a four part series on what goes into a custom made instrument.  In this case, it’s one of my Fingerstyle models with a slot head and cutaway.

Most of my clients have had (and do have) several other high end guitars, usually by boutique builders such as Santa Cruz, Goodall, etc.  They have usually played several of my instruments and have a good idea of what they want.  Even though this is the case, I still ask a lot of questions and make sure I have an understanding of what it is they hope to achieve with a bespoke instrument that they can’t get with what they have now.  Sometimes it’s that they like the sound of my guitars and have specific ideas about neck width, wood choice etc, and sometimes it’s about the aesthetics.  Another consideration in what they’re playing now is what woods they have.  If every guitar is rosewood I will try to steer them in that direction.  That doesn’t mean they are limited in choices as there are many rosewoods to pick from and most share similar sonic properties.  A few of them include:  Camatillo, cocobolo, African blackwood, Madagascar rosewood, Brazilian rosewood, Indian rosewood, Amazon rosewood… and the list goes on.

After the woods are selected, I fill out a form that puts everything in writing and let them know what I think the lead time is as well as the nuts and bolts of the nasty issue of money.  I ask for a nonrefundable deposit of 25% of the cost.  This allows me to cover the cost of materials and guarantees their place in the queue.  I also tell them about the return policy should it be needed (haven’t had that problem yet).  I give them 72 hours to return the guitar.  It must be in perfect cosmetic condition and I will give them a full refund when I sell the instrument.  This is a very important point.  This is not something that can simply be put back into stock as I am not a big box store and cannot absorb those kinds of costs.  I think it’s important to make sure they know exactly what to expect, as this, to some extent, is a big leap of faith on their part.  They are entrusting me to make their dream guitar, and I feel it’s an obligation for me to not let them down.  Finally, I have them sign a contract and away we go.

Enough hot air, on to the build.

I’ll be documenting a custom guitar for Tim Pacheco, a professional musician from the central coast of California. He chose camatillo (dalbergia congestiflora) for the back and sides and bear claw Sitka (Picea sitchensis) for the top with a matching rosette and slotted peghead overlay and a cutaway.  All of my guitars have wood binding and purflings, in this case, rosewood binding with a black/white/black/white purfling for the top and white/black for the back.

After they’re jointed, they’re both cut out and thicknessed, and the rosette cut into the top.

Now the top and back are braced.

I use a vacuum pump and rubber bladder to glue the braces.

The vacuum is an excellent clamping system, in my opinion, much better than clamps or a go bar deck.  It puts an even pressure of 21 hg (inches of mercury) or about 10 1/3 pounds per square inch on the surface.

The sides are bent next, using a silicone heating blanket and a form.  I still bend the cutaway by hand with a hot pipe and set it in the form.

Next week the body takes shape.