Building a Harp Guitar Part IV

Now we come to the point where it is looking like an instrument!

IMG-20130108-00229The top and back have been trimmed and the binding channels have been cut.  This is pretty much the same as on any guitar… just more of it!  Any of the systems by Stew-Mac, LMI, Luthier Tool and custom setups etc. will work.  For this set up Scott used the Luthier Tool binding cutter with a bearing bit setup from LMI.  Most of these cutter jigs use some sort of trim router and this is no exception.  luthier tool binding cutterThis picture is from their website

As with any system, it takes some practice to become proficient.  The jig has two bearings one on the top and the other on the bottom of the leg.  These have to be in contact with the sides in order to maintain proper depth and width.

The neck on this guitar is a conventional bolt on slot head so I won’t go into much detail on that as I’ve covered this on other posts.

IMG-20130115-00234The finish, while pretty straight forward is complicated by the size of the instrument.  Some creative ways of positioning it for spraying are necessary.

I use a length of 3/4″ pipe and attach it to a saw horse and to the body where the neck attaches.

The other issue is supporting the body for fretting when the finish is done and the neck attached.  A Taylor fret buck is worthless because the harp arm won’t support the edge of the buck so it will give too much when it’s in use.  I use an arbor press when fretting and in this case the body has to be supported when fretting over it.  To solve this, I made a jack to support the top.  I used two pieces of wood about 1/4″ thick, one for the top and one for the back to distribute the pressure and put a small scissor jack
to support the pressure.

In the future, I would probable use a neck joint that would allow fretting before the installation of the neck to the body.

Other than the things mentioned, building a harp guitar in theory is not much different than a standard 6 string.  In practice the larger scale and added strings do add to the complexity above and beyond a 6 or 12 string.  IMG-20130124-01093Photo of Don Alder by Scott Burwell Holloway.


Re-fretting a Bozo

While I’ve done a post on re-fretting a guitar I thought it would be interesting to see some of the tools I use.  A small three corner file to bevel the edge of the fret slot so that the frets go in easier and when they have to be pulled less chipping.This is the tool I made for putting the 30 degree bevel on the fret edges.  It uses a mill smooth file with a high density, low friction plastic base.Flush ground end nippers for cutting frets close to the board.This tool cuts the tang off the fret ends to go over the binding.This is a small needle file with the edges ground and polished so I can remove the sharp edges from the fret end.This contraption I call Frankenfretter.  It’s a sliding base I bolt to the drill press to support the guitar while I compression fret it.  Notice the Taylor fret buck, a massive support for the guitar body while I fret.And finally, the finished job.

Basic Inlay Part Two

Now that we have the positive in mother of pearl, it’s time to cut the negative on the fret board.

While it can be done with hand tools, dental chisels, knives, etc., it’s much easier to do it with a Dremel or Foredom rotary tool equipped with the proper router style base.  Bases are available from several companies or you can make your own.  For much of my time inlaying I used a Dremel but have, in the last two years, switched to a Foredom.  While either will work the Foredom is much more powerful and most important to me the motor is well away from my ears.  I still wear hearing and eye protection but it’s much more quiet having the motor several feet away instead of having the Dremel right in your face.  The downside is that it is considerably more expensive.

I start by setting the inlay on the board and using a lead holderI can keep the lead much sharper than I can a standard pencil giving me better results.  Some people use a white tempera paint and a scribe and while this works fine with ebony, using open grain woods such as rosewood, the paint will be very hard to get out of the pores.

I use down cut spiral carbide bits to cut the channel for the MOP.  I have three sizes 1/8″, 1/16″ and 1/32″.  I use the biggest bit I can to get the job done, saving the 1/32″ for only the finest lines and details (they break if you look too hard).  I also use very good light so that the pencil line is clear.  I start at the center removing the bulk of the wood before I attempt the edges.  Of course, ebony is much more forgiving than lighter woods because the fill is easier to match.  One thing I’ve found comes in handy is a fish tank pump attached to the base so that it blows the dust away as you go.

I now carefully test fit the pieces.  It is very easy to break them at this point.  I often find the first time the piece will not always drop in.  I mark the spot that needs enlarging and route out again.

I use two methods of gluing.  On big pieces, I use epoxy and black coloring, fill the void and wait for the glue to cure, then sand back down.  In this case because of the fragility and the closeness to the fret slot, I place the inlay in position and lightly glue them in place with a small amount of cyanoacrylate.  Then once dry I can use colored epoxy to fill any gaps, making sure to avoid the fret slots.  The final thing is to now cut for the open “a” and “o”.  I do this with the Foredom with the 1/32″ bit.After cutting I simply fill the holes with black enamel and I’m done.

The trick to this is, of course, practice. Most of all have fun.

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.

Gibson Style O part 2

Here are pictures of the reproduction label I made and the label inside the top

The next job was to repair the missing piece on the back.  I found a suitable piece of birch and after gluing it to the back reshaped and blended in with round bottom plane.  Then it was time to clean the back up around where the kerfing had been.  The inside of the back had quite a few plane marks which I assume were original so I left them alone.

I then made a caul of particle board and used my go-bar deck to glue the back to the sides.  I kept the sides in the mold to prevent distortion of the shape.  After the glue had dried I used spool clamps to glue the top on.  After being off the body for so long it had deformed a considerable amount.  And I was afraid to use the go bar deck for fear of cracking the top again.  I started at the head block and using a palette knife I worked my way around the top with glue and clamps until I was satisfied with the alignment   The top had divots in line with the braces also, I believe, due to the top being off the body for so long and from the previous luthier sanding and thinning the top before it was put together. 

An interesting fact is that the neck was put on the body before the top was installed.  The top had never been cut for the dovetail.  It seems that the designers at Gibson weren’t yet thinking of some guy 85 years in the future still wanting to play the guitar. Since I was trying to make it a player, I cut the dovetail through, so that the neck could be reset in the future. 

I modified my binding cutter jig to accept the arch (I normally do flat tops) and cut the channels.  Luckily the scroll channels were intact and I didn’t have the misery of cutting those.  I used the same pieces of particle board that I cut for the cauls for the back to keep the body stable while I routed the channels  Before I cut them I sized the wood around the channels with watered down white glue to help keep the brittle wood from tearing out.  A series of wedges served as clamps for the scroll and tape for the rest of gluing in the binding.  After scraping the bindings I filled as many gaps as I could using sawdust, glue and a latex filler. I leveled everything off and sanded the body through 320 grit to prepare it for sealer.

Next week… The neck.

1921 Gibson Style O Artist Ressurection

I don’t normally do guitar repairs, preferring to build my own instruments. This is not a statement that I think building is more difficult or challenging, quite the contrary.  I merely feel it fits my temperament better.  However when The Fret House in Covina was in between repairmen, I told Tom Seymour, its owner, I would help out until he found someone permanent.  He’s owned the store for over thirty years and still has the same passion for the instrument as he did when he opened the store. Tom is a great guy and his store was the first to carry my guitars.

One of the instruments the previous repairman had left was a Gibson Style O Artist.  It was literally a basket case and nothing more than pieces.  Half a fretboard, part of the back missing and a top that had been thinned with new braces put in.  I thought wow, that’s interesting, but what a job that’s going to be.

One of the repairs I had done was a Gibson HG, circa mid thirties.  It had a shattered top and numerous other problems.  Its owner, Jim Richardson, also owned the Style O which, as I was to find out, had been there for four and a half years.  When I took on the HG, we kind of used that as a trial run for both of us on the possibility that I would resurrect the Style O.  The HG went well and I found Jim to be reasonable about what could be accomplished and open to my suggestions of what should be done along the way.

Over lunch we talked about his acquisition and I asked him to contribute on how he came by the guitar.

“It was late Spring of 1976 when I first saw a Gibson Style O Artist.  As a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the only entertainment I could afford involved visiting music stores and playing their vintage guitars.  Dropping into a tiny music store on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, all thoughts of Firebirds and Jaguars were driven from my mind when I was confronted by the largest and strangest acoustic guitar I had ever seen. Eighteen inches across and topped by a curlicue, the guitar stunned me with its outlandish appearance. 

Playing the O Artist was a revelation. Although I had to wrestle a neck that more than filled my hand, the thick, woody tone matched every ragtime lick I threw at it. As much as I loved my D-18 (purchased on a rent-to-own program), I could see that its sound was too modern for the music I wanted to play.

Although I considered the $750 price tag fair, it was far beyond my means. Barely able to make rent each month, the most I could do was visit the guitar every weekend until the day came when it was purchased and left my life forever.

Twenty-five years later my circumstances had improved and I was married to a woman sympathetic to my need to purchase derelict stringed instruments and have them repaired to playing condition. Our collection was small, but meaningful. The highlights have included: a 1948 Martin 0-18 found in Guatemala during our honeymoon (formerly owned by the leader of a Mayan marimba band), headstock chiseled to accommodate classical tuners; a 1930s-era Gibson HG-0 with a shattered top and a spray-painted finish; a 1936 Gibson L-10 archtop with a sunken top possibly caused by spending almost 70 years in a modified banjo tuning; a 1952 Kay K-161 (Jimmy Reed model) dropped during a gig; a 1923 Gibson H-1 mandola missing the headstock.

A number of these “treasures” had been found on eBay, so that’s where I turned after the cover of a Big Bill Broonzy CD reminded me of the lost Style O Artist. My search was immediately fruitful.  A 1920 O Artist had fallen victim to an amateur luthier: Almost all the finish had been removed, most of the binding had been replaced with vinyl weather stripping and the top had been routed to accommodate the extra width of the new “binding.” Missing were one set of tuners and the pickguard. The original tailpiece was present, but broken.  The top was cracked, a piece of the back had been replaced with plywood and a section of the side was severely cracked.  It was the perfect guitar for our collection.

Soon after the guitar arrived my wife and I took it the Fret House in Covina, California, for repair and restoration.  Our Martin O-18 had been repaired there and we loved the shop for its atmosphere, fine guitars and the expert advice available from the staff”. 

Okay, after hearing that I was hooked. In addition to the fact I liked the guy and felt sorry for him because this thing had been in pieces for over four years, I agreed to take it on because of the challenge it presented.  I might never get a chance to work on such an instrument again.  I agreed to honor the price the previous repairman had worked up, $1,100.00.  I thought it was a low but it was still a substantial amount of money.

My first step was to research the instrument to try and find out as much as I could.  Jim had talked to George Gruhn of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville who had once owned a Style O as a personal instrument  He would use the information in an attempt to push the old repairman in the right direction when he hit roadblocks.  As such, he knew quite a bit about the guitar.  The label was gone but the serial number was written in blue ink or pencil where it had been.  66950 could clearly be seen and from a web search of it was determined that the guitar was made in the middle of 1921.  The order number on the inside of the head block was illegible.  I also got some valuable pictures from Frank Ford’s  and from the web site run by the National Music Museum located on the campus of The University of South Dakota, Included in this site were some great pictures of an O Artist from 1915, one of which was a close up of the label from that period. It was decided that I would make a reproduction of the label and document the fact in a smaller label underneath the soundboard, along with my name.

Jim wanted an instrument he could play and not just hang on the wall. At his request the top had been thinned with new braces so even if I had wanted to return the guitar to original 1921 specs it would have been impossible. It was more what could be described as a resurrection not a restoration.  Jim said he “wanted to be the coolest guy in the nursing home”, and that sounded like the right attitude to me.  I would not be using hide glue or varnish for a finish. The neck was over an inch and seven eighths wide and seven eighths thick with out the fretboard. It was to be taken down so it could be playable, so we used the measurements from a guitar in his possession.  He also wanted a truss rod installed and modern Waverlys, instead of the three in-line tuners that came on the guitar.  I had no problems with this because the guitar was in such bad shape, and it was to be a player.

The previous repairman had done a good job of splicing the side that was too damaged to repair.  Unfortunately he didn’t leave enough to use the pieces of the original wedge.  He had taken the guitar completely apart to affect the repair, but curiously he had re-glued the head block to the top and started to re-bind the body before the body was put together.  My guess is that he did this to try and compensate for the wide binding channel created by the vinyl “binding”.  I thought that this was a mistake and my first step would be to take the new ivoroid binding off and take the top back off what was left of the sides.  This was done using a silicone heating blanket to liberate the sides and acetone to remove the binding.

When this was done I created a mold of the guitar of the top using two thickness’ of particle board to rebuild the sides. 

I decided to make a new larger wedge so that I would not have to re-do his side graft.  I thought I would have enough to do as it was. One of the sides was badly crinkled at the waist.  So my first step would be to put the side back into shape with a bending iron.  Once that was done I cleaned up the end block and glued it to the grafted side.  There was only a small 14”section of the kerfing left and it appeared to be spruce.  I couldn’t find a supplier for it so I decided to make it myself.  I used my fret slotting jig to create the kerfing by putting a small piece of X-acto knife blade on the fence to use it as an indexer.  After the first slot is cut I move the freshly cut slot to the pin to cut the next slot.  This is repeated until I have enough to get the job done.  After installing the kerfing, I leveled the sides with a chisel and sanding block so that I would have a fresh surface to glue the top and back.

There were ghost images about 5/8” wide of what were side reinforcements.  Having not seen another Gibson from that period, I’m not positive but I assume they were hide glue soaked linen.  I thought because of the damage to the sides it needed something more, so I used 1/8” quartered spruce of the same footprint to bind them together.

Making a mahogany plug, I filled the end pin hole so that if there was any misalignment it wouldn’t be a problem.  The last thing was to make the wedge.  As I said the sides were a little short so I matched the color of the original wood used and made it a little bigger.

Now on to the top…  It was in as bad shape as the sides.  All the pieces were there, but there were several cracks and fissures.  They had already been glued together, but somewhat sloppily.  I did the best I could to clean them up, putting cleats on the inside to shore them up.  I cleaned the edges where the kerfing was and put on a label stating that I had restored the guitar, the date and that the manufacturer’s label was a reproduction.

Part 2 next week…

Les Paul part deux

Now we can concentrate on the neck and what a set neck entails.

Much of what I’ve said about a bolt on neck applies here as well.  The obvious difference being that once the neck is attached to the body the angle is set for the life of the guitar.  Other than that its truss rod, fret board, etc. are the same.  The fretting is slightly different because of the binding.  The way Gibson did it on their guitars was to fret the board before the binding and add a piece of binding taller than the board and routing the binding to follow the board and the frets.  Stew-Mac has a great description of this on their site.

I’m not a fan of this type of fretting because you lose about an 1/8″ of fretting surface.  I notch the fret wire to go over the fret board.  This is also a bit quicker. 

Here you can see the finished board.  I did two guitars at once. This one is Madagascar rosewood, the other Brazilian.  They are almost impossible to tell apart by looks alone.  Gibson and Martin both fret their boards at this stage but I like to get it on the neck first.  I have less issues with leveling later on.

The next issue is cutting the tenon on the neck.

Here’s a picture of the finished tenon with the truss rod installed.  This is a crucial part so getting it right is imperative!  The angle has to perfectly match the angle on the body.

I made both sides of the template at the same time so as to give them perfect symmetry.  I then made sure they were lined up during construction.  I used a pattern makers bit in a router making sure I double checked the depth.  The finished tenon should be a tight fit.  If you’ve gone a little to far in your depth don’t throw it out you can shim it with veneer.

When I’m satisfied with the fit I start carving the neck and cutting the binding channel.

A lot of people I know spend a lot of time making all sorts of torture devices to carve necks by machine.  I don’t have any problem with this except to say I get a lot of enjoyment carving the neck by hand and after doing it for so long can get the job done in about the time it takes to set a machine up.

After that it’s binding and gluing the neck in place.  Since this is a ’59 the binding is the same width all the way around.  You can see the maple cap in the cutaway.   Also notice the tight fit on the neck joint.  This has more to do with my skill at making templates and jigs than chisels and saws.  This is also when I do the fret work.

Another picture showing both guitars at different stages.

Now we’re ready to finish.  The trapezoid markers are real pearl and not MOTS and the headstock veneer is real ebony, not dyed holly.

See you next time in part three… finish.