Building a Harp Guitar Part III

There are several ways to make rosette channels from a simple hand held trammel and chisel to a purpose built cutter.  I do several a year, both for my own instruments and the classes I teach, so I use the latter from LMI. There are others available such as one from Luthier Tool. The LMI setup is kind of a pain to set up initially but once set up works very well. I’ve used several products from Luthier Tool and while expensive, they are beautifully made and easier to initially set up.

The problem is the small rosette and sound hole for the harp.  It’s two inches plus and will not work with the conventional cutters.  For this one I took a simple General circle cutter, re-ground the cutter to my rosette dimensions and replaced the center drill with 1/4″ drill stock with a bearing fixed to the top.  When the depth of the cutter is fixed the bearing stops it at the proper depth, much the same as the commercial cutter.

circle cutter

Now the back and top have to be fitted.  I use binding that is a full 1/4″ so that I can cut out the sides and let the main braces of both the top and back run through.  I feel this makes it easier to keep everything aligned.  271Of course, if you are doing a style of guitar without the binding like a Dyer Style 4 you have to inset the braces to the sides because there is no binding.

I always put the back on first so that I can facilitate clean up of any glue left in the joint between the back and the sides.  I use a slow set Titebond and spool clamps to joint the surfaces.  To quote Wyatt Earp “Take your time… in a hurry.”

Before I glue the top to the sides, I make sure the sides have not deformed.  If they have I sand them again to the proper radius.  I then repeat the inletting for the top braces to the sides and glue the top on.

Next time:  Binding and finishing.


Building a Harp Guitar Part II

Now that we’ve got a bit of history, let’s move on to the actual build.

Even though it looks radically different from a conventional steel string flat top it wouldn’t be foreign to a builder of the latter.  It has an X brace and size that closely resembles a Martin 000. The difference lies in the extra X morticed into the lower half of the bass side to reinforce the top for the 6 harp strings. The bridge plate is also larger to accommodate the extras strings as well.

This is not to say that it is an easy build.  The hollow arm is essentially a hybrid of neck and body, having a head stock and a sound hole.               SH top

The back is pretty similar to a normal steel string as well.IMG-20121220-00204

The head block for the harp head is also a complicated affair that requires some well thought out jigs to reproduce with consistency.

SH harp head

Everything in the build is bigger, including the forms for the body mold.IMG-20121220-00203

A radius form is used for the bracing and grinding the sides to the correct curve.   Instead of a 2 ft. round form a 4 ft. is needed.IMG-20121220-00206All this can add greatly to the expense of gearing up.  I have to say I get a kick out of people asking why hand built guitars cost so much!

The sides are bent using heating blankets (bigger as well) on specially made molds to accommodate the multiple bends.

Next week, sound hole quirks and getting the back and top on.

Shows and Conventions

Today, I’ll be talking about trade shows, conventions and exhibits.

First, we should differentiate the difference.  Trade shows such as  NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) are held twice a year, Los Angeles in the winter and Nashville in the summer.  They are usually of not much value to a hand builder.  They are big business and designed for retail stores to see what’s out there and place their orders for the year.  That’s not to say they can’t be great fun but realistically not something to count on to increase your revenue.

The second are conventions such as the Guild of American Luthiers and the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans.  They are held about every other year and are great venues for sharing ideas and learning new techniques in guitar building.  While you can exhibit your guitars (they typically have one day open to the public for viewing), they are not really geared for selling.  Having said this, I picked up a major dealer by having my guitar in a listening session.  He heard one of my guitars and liked it enough to take me on.

I can’t say enough good about these events.  You get to see other luthiers work in a non-threatening manner and get to meet some of the pioneers of modern lutherie, Ervin Somogyi, Charles Fox, John Greven and Harry Fleishman to name a few.

The third category is the exhibition.  These are shows like the Healdsburg Guitar Festival and the Montreal Guitar Show.  These are shows that have to be applied for and accepted to or invited.  While they are not juried shows on the face, they do try to have a certain degree of diversity and skill level.

As with the conventions, these are great venues to expose your instruments to the public.  Even if you don’t sell them at the shows, you can meet future clients and dealers.  This is another great way to meet some of the finest makers in the world and every time I go I’m both humbled and excited to get back and make new inroads in my lutherie.

The bottom line is that all of these are worth the time on one level or another, and I look forward to all of them.

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 Part Two

Now the side braces are fitted and installed.  This makes for a much stronger side brace than the traditional tape Martin uses today.

I then mark and cut out for the braces on the back to be inlet into the sides.  This makes for a rigid structure that locks the back to the sides.  I put the back into the vacuum so that when it’s glued to the sides it matches the 15 foot radius I was so careful to create.

I repeat the same thing with the top, making sure everything is aligned.

I then trim the top and back in preparation for the binding channels to be cut.  Before I do that I mix a little water with yellow glue and coat the areas of the top.  When this is dry, it acts as a sizing hardening the soft wood in the summer grain so it has less chance of tearing out

Unless a customer requests it (not happened yet) I do all my purflings and bindings in wood.

Now we have a completed body. 

Next time… the neck.

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.