Building a Harp Guitar

I’m back after a three month absence.  Whether that’s good or bad is up to you.  style8

I’ve been helping Scott Burwell Holloway get his harp guitar company going and this is an example of a Style 8 Dyer Symphony that we completed in January for the NAMM show in Anaheim.

First a little background on the instrument.   The first “modern” harp guitar was invented by Friedrich Schenck in Vienna in 1839.  It was a “hollow arm” harp integral with the guitar body.  Schenck was a student of Johann Stauffer, who also taught C.F. Martin.

The turn of the 20th century saw a resurgence of harp guitars in the US. Orville Gibson made four models and although they sold for from $194.03 for the style-R to $354.60 for a U-1, 400 were sold.

Most people consider Chris Knutsen to be the originator of the American harp guitar.  Although it’s similar to the Schenck in that it had an hollow arm it was more integrated into the body.

This brings us to the Dyer Brothers, who contracted Knutsen in 1899 to build harp guitars for them.  By 1906 the Dyers had switched from Knutsen to the Larson Brothers in Chicago (possibly because Knutsen kept changing his instruments).  The Larson’s made very high quality instruments (Prairie State, and Euphonon are two brands) and improved on the Knutsen design giving us the most famous harp guitars made.

When I say we made a Dyer #8, it really is a modern Dyer as Scott owns the Dyer name and has committed himself to building faithful copies of their designs as well as what he thinks the Dyers might have done had they taken the harp guitar into the 21st century.

Scott is a wealth of information on all things harp guitar and has many historic examples of Knutsen’s and Dyer’s in his collection.  He is also a phenomenal concert level player, having studied under the late Michael Hedges and Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records.  As far as I know this is the first time in recent history someone has considered a factory instrument as all the moderns ones are from hand builders.

Next week the beginning of the build.


Bespoke Guitar Part 4

body and neckNow it’s time for finish and assembly.

The first thing is to fit the neck to the body in this case with bolts (I’ve mentioned this method in several different posts).  When I’m satisfied, I make sure all of the pin holes and gaps are filled so I don’t have any sinking finish and seal and fill the grain with marine epoxy.

I’ve described the finish process before so I won’t go into much more detail than to say I spray about 6 coats on the top and about 8 or 9 on the back and sides.  I wet or dry sand every 2 coats and try to get the entire job done in 2 days.

I let the whole thing dry for about 2 weeks and do the final compounding.  I finish the neck and body separately to make the job easier.

When I’m satisfied with the gloss, I put the neck on for the last time, gluing the fret board end to the body.

Next, I locate the bridge and carefully glue that to the body.  I then drill the bridge pin holes, taper them for bridge pins and relieve the hole with a slot for the strings.  I make a saddle and nut out of bone and fit those to the bridge and neck.

I then fret the instrument using compression fretting.564After this the frets are dressed, the tuning machines installed and the guitar is strung up for the first time.

I have to say I still get a big kick out of hearing the guitar’s voice for the first time.  Of course all the bugs need to be worked out and the guitar set up.

And finally… the new owner plays it for the first time.  IMG_7747Cheers, and thanks to Tim Pacheco!


Bespoke Guitar Part Three

Now that we’ve got the body done, it’s on to the neck.

I start with pattern grade quarter sawn genuine mahogany.  This is a very stable and relatively lightweight wood that has been used successfully in both instruments and furniture. The first thing I do is to square it off with a plane, then cut the truss rod channel and the two channels for the graphite reinforcement.  Once this is done I cut the profile for the neck and glue on the peghead overlay, in this case, book matched camatillo.  My client wanted a slotted peghead so I used a jig I made to cut the appropriate slots.  After the truss rod and the graphite bars are installed the head stock is inlayed with my logo and the fingerboard prepped. In this case the fretboard is bound in rosewood to match the binding on the body.

Now I glue the fingerboard on, being careful to keep it aligned with the neck.  After it’s dry I start to profile the neck.  As I have mentioned before, I find this easier to do by hand as I can finish the job in about the same time it would take me to set up a CNC.

The final post will be finishing and putting the whole thing together.

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.

Color Match Finish Coats

Now that we’ve got the color match we can complete the finish.

I then spray the top coats.  I start by lightly spraying in alternate patterns.  Horizontal then vertical, and then switching to diagonals to get the most even coverage.  I shoot 2 to 3 coats a day then sand with 320 grit wet or dry, being careful not to sand through the color coat.

Lacquer and other top coats follow, they don’t fill.  That means that the lacquer will flow into the depression not fill it up.  By sanding in between coats you are taking off lacquer on the surface while not touching the depression.  The next time you spray, the depression will be that much smaller.

I usually spray between 6 and 9 coats to get the desired result.  Prep work is critical because the less depressions and holes you have the less you have to finish.

When I’m satisfied with the raw finish I let it dry for a minimum of 2 weeks to allow the finish to cure and shrink.

When the finish is dry, it’s not a simple mater of putting the guitar together. The finish has to be compounded to smooth out the ripples.  Compounding is going through a series of abrasives until the surface is smooth and mirror like.

I start with no lower grit than 600 wet or dry and usually 800 grit.  I use the best quality paper. 3M Imperial wet or dry seems to work well.  The cheaper papers have larger stray grit in them and can cause scratches that are almost impossible to remove.  This is also the case if you start with anything coarser than 600 grit.

The first sanding is the most important. I lubricate with water to float the particles off and for less loading of the paper. It’s very important that you use a hard rubber, cork or felt pad to be sure of a flat surface.  Never sand with you fingers.   I make sure all the gloss is taken off so that the surface is dull but smooth and uniform.  Now I switch to Micro Mesh.  This is an abrasive in cushioned latex that doesn’t build up as easily and is very high quality.  The 1500 grit is equal to 600 grit sandpaper so I start with the next one up, 1800.  I continue with this to 4000 grit also using water as a lubricant.  Then I switch to another abrasive, Abralon.  This is a 6″ pad I use with a 5″ random orbital sander.  Using 2000 and proceeding to 4000, I use these pads dry.  I leave the 6″ pad full size to protect the guitar from the rubber pad on the sander.  In tight corners, I use the pad by hand. One thing to remember is to clean off all the previous slush so that the next grit starts fresh.

Now the fun part, using a buffer to bring the gloss up!  In reality all you are doing in each step is to make the scratches finer and finer until they appear to go away.  I use a Shop Fox buffer and 12″ domet wheels.  I make sure not to contaminate the compounds with the wrong wheel.  While they make several grades, I stick with the fine and extra fine.

Buffing wheels can be very dangerous if you’re not careful with the way they are used.  Remember when you’re buffing to only buff the bottom half of your piece.  Right


If you use the buffer like this you will run the risk of catching the upper surface and having your piece thrown to the ground.  I believe you will not like the result much so be aware of your orientation.

I do the same thing with buffing that I do with sanding, changing direction of the piece’s orientation with the wheel: horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. When finished with the fine wheel, clean the surface of the piece to clean the previous compound then proceed to the extra fine.  Wax is not recommended and will in fact make the piece duller.

When you’re done you should have a mirror finish to be proud of.

Color Matching an Existing Finish

Sometimes you encounter situations that require you to color match a finish.  In this case it is with a bass guitar that had its peg head shape altered and the client wanted me to match the finish as close as possible to the rest of the neck.As you can see, the fret board (as is the rest of the neck) is a dark amber color, much darker than the rock maple.

First, I sand to 220 grit to get rid of any scratches and prep the surface.  In fact I do this even if there aren’t any scratches to make sure there is nothing contaminating the wood.  Then I apply my sealer, in this case shellac.  You can also use vinyl sealer, epoxy and sanding sealer but in this case it was handy.  When it comes to shellac I try to always use flakes dissolved in alcohol with a date on it to make sure it’s fresh.  I usually use a 3 lb cut as a sealer.  This refers to 3 lbs of shellac dissolved in 1 gallon of alcohol.  It lasts for about 6 months so I don’t mix more than I can use in that time period.  It should be dry to the touch in minutes, and if it doesn’t it’s old and should be thrown out. The pre-made shellac in hardware stores contain too many additives such as plasticizers to maintain shelf life.  An interesting thing about shellac is that it’s considered a food product by the FDA and it’s what coats M&M’s.

I don’t like to stain bare wood for two reasons:  One it looks blotchy.  The soft parts of the maple will take more stain than the hard parts.  Two, if I screw up the color, I can take it off easier.  Here’s what it looks like with the shellac applied.

I mask off what I don’t want finished and mix my color.  I don’t normally shoot lacquer but in very small amounts I can get away with it (I’m allergic to the stuff).  In this case I’ll be using TransTint dyes sold by Stew-Mac, amber, red mahogany and medium brown.

Most of the color matching comes from practice.  I’ve done a lot of these so I use my experience to make a guess as to the colors and ratios.  In about 4 oz of lacquer I put 6 drops of amber, 1 drop of red mahogany and 1 drop of medium brown.  It’s very important to make a record of this and keep it in a journal.  This way you will be able to correct the formula if it isn’t right and repeat it if it is.  I test the color on a piece of paper and in this case it was pretty close so I went ahead and shot the peg head.  I do very light layers until I get the desired shade.
As you can see, it’s a pretty close match.

Next week, the finish coats.

Jigs, Templates and Fixtures

I’ve discussed this briefly in past posts but I think it’s a subject that could use some further investigation.

First we must define each of these terms:  A jig is a device that attaches to the work and guides a tool.  Some examples would include this jig for routing truss rod channels. 

Or this for making a saddle slot in the bridge.

For my purposes, these are mostly used for router applications.  In this case I use an 1/8″ down cut spiral bit with a fence attached to a plunge router.

Templates are usually attached to the object.  This humbucker template is a good example


This is used with a plunge router as well but with a pattern makers bit.  This has a bearing of the same size as the cutter and it’s on the top of the cutter or where the shaft meets the cutter.  I always use the largest cutter because the smaller bearings are very fragile.  In the case of the humbucker I use the bigger bit to “hog” out the majority and use the smaller bit just to clean up the corners.

This template is used to cut the heel on a neck.

I use a massive 3/4″ pattern bit for this.

As an aside, I always use the best bits I can.  My choice lately has been Amana.  The better the bit the less chance of blowing out chunks of precious wood.  This goes for the router as well.  The more horsepower, the less likely to bog down.

Lastly, the Fixture:  A fixture differs from a jig in that it is usually the work that is attached to the fixture.  An example would be this shooting board

In this case the “board” is attached to my bench and the back or top is clamped to the fixture to joint them for gluing.  Notice one of my favorite tools, my Lie-Nielson 24″ joiner plane!

A couple more, my homemade side bender and vacuum table

As you can see, most of these jigs, templates and fixtures are pretty simple to make and use.  Some of the other things I use these for are profiling necks, fingerboards, profiling solid bodies, forms for sides etc, cutting fret slots… the lists goes on.  While you can buy some of them, body and pickup templates, I encourage you to make your own especially if you’re on a budget.  A little 1/4″ MDF goes a long way and it’s cheap.