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.

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.

Gibson Style O part 3

During work on the body I was also working on the neck.  As you might expect it was in the same kind of shape. A bad binding repair on the peghead, coupled with a piece of missing head stock overlay. The back was also very banged up.  When the fretboard was removed, big chunks of very brittle mahogany were torn out.  There was a v shaped maple insert in the center of the neck.  Only a third of the fretboard was left after I got the guitar.  It didn’t appear or smell to be rosewood, looking a lot like Macassar ebony.  The Fret House had already ordered a new “24 ¾” slotted ebony fretboard from Luthier’s Mercantile to replace the old one.  It was interesting to compare what I had left of the existing one and the new one to see that they were completely different.  Something I wouldn’t even have checked if I hadn’t read Dan Erlewine, Frank Ford and Tim Shaw’s article in American Lutherie Magazine on the different scales Gibson has used in the past.

The first thing I did on the neck was level it with sand paper stuck to the bottom of my joiner plane.  Then using a simple jig I cut the truss rod slot using a ¼” round bottom up-cut spiral bit.  I used a plunge router to make the cut because I could lift it up after the cut in the peghead, leaving wood in place for the screw in the cover.  The next step was to drill a ¼” hole to join the two slots.  The rod was a double action from Stewart MacDonald and the square ends of the rod were fit into the channel.

The fretboard was next.  I cut the board to shape to the 1 ¾” wide minus the thickness of the ivoroid binding, using the original as a guide.  After heating the binding in hot water I fitted it to the tight curves of the end of the board.  ¼” Holes were then cut for the mother of pearl position markers and the side dots.  With the glue dry a 16” radius was put on the fretboard and it was compression fretted with medium fret wire.

Since the neck had to be cut down and a piece of the peghead binding had been poorly repaired, I decided to replace it all.  By doing this and veneering the back with mahogany, the peghead almost looked new. I filled the missing piece of ebony on the front with dust and glue, taking care to fill the missing filler in the inlay, which thank God, was still intact.  The channels for the peghead binding were done with a router, with the exception of the two nearest the nut as the router bearing would have cut too much out.  Those channels were done with a Sloane purfling cutter. The peghead holes were then drilled to accommodate the new turners.

Before I put the fretboard on the neck, the angle had to be checked.  As you might have guessed 85 years had taken its toll and was at a much too shallow angle to be playable.  One of the things I did when I put the body together was to try and keep the original registration of the scrolls on the top and back aligned with the sides, but I realized that I’d have to slip the block a little.  I heated the back and head block with a silicone heating blanket and moved it as much as I dared, and took up the chisel to finish the job.  I took a full  3/16” off the heal of the neck to get the proper angle.  Luckily there was a lot of wood on the neck and I thought it actually made a better match to what would be a new svelte neck shaft.

Once I was satisfied with the neck I put the truss rod in, filled the gaps in the mahogany with dust and epoxy and glued the fretboard to the neck.  The neck was thicknessed with a Wagner safety plane and contoured with rasps and files.  The ebonized stripe in the center of the neck was lost and I thought it would very difficult to redo without a lot of head scratching so rather than spraying the stripe on with color, Jim and I decided to leave it out altogether.

After finishing the contouring, I sanded down to 320 grit and joined the neck to the body.  The neck angle had positioned the fretboard so that it didn’t contact the body by the sound hole, so a piece of spruce was fashioned to make up for the gap. After rounding the part of spruce that was under the exposed edge of the fretboard, it was barely visible.  When the glue was dry I re-contoured the body to blend in to the narrower board.  Jim had supplied mammoth ivory bridge pins, end pin, and Waverly’s with real ivory buttons, so that was a given.  I have one, yes just one, ivory nut that I’ve saved for about 30 years. And while I don’t put elephant ivory on my new guitars, nor would I put it on any modern guitar I repaired, I thought this is the instrument for it.

Next week:  Finish, set up and trouble shooting.

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.

Building a Les Paul style guitar

This will be the first of several posts on building a Les Paul style guitar.  While I’ll be keeping pretty faithful to a Gibson ’59 Standard, this will not be a “fake”.  I don’t condone “replicas”, plus if I put all that hard work into it I want my name on it.

First of all if you go on any of the Les Paul forums you can find all sorts of minutia about the guitar.  People have come to turn the details into a fetish!  The mother of toilet seat has to be the kind produced in that time period with almost silvery color and minute black spider webbing etc. The shape must be period correct.  The mounting rings for the pickups have to glow under black light. The Stew-Mac blue print isn’t the correct shape, blah, blah, blah.  Yasuhiko Iwanade’s book “The Beauty of the Burst” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. What I ultimately take away from this is that they were all hand made and probably were all different from each other.

In this build I’ll be using both the Stew-Mac print and templates by  A friend had the templates so I gladly used them but in all honesty you don’t need them.  A good print will work just as well.

The first thing you must do is source the wood.  I used genuine Honduran mahogany for the neck and body. You’ll need 8/4 (two inch rough) for the body and 6/4 for the neck.  One piece bodies were used in the original but two and more piece bodies are fine, if not more economical.  The neck was made in three pieces, the main shaft was at two inches with the “ears” for the head stock glued on.

The top on the originals was eastern hard rock maple and very rarely bookmatched.  Sometimes this was very figured and sometimes not at all.  Most of the modern repros (including Gibson) use western big leaf maple which is softer and doesn’t sound quite the same.

I cut the mahogany body first and make the routes for the control cavity and wiring channel.

Now I join the maple cap which is used non-bookmatched eastern hard rock maple (this is purely an aesthetic) and cut this out to the same pattern.  Don’t worry if they don’t match perfectly. You will have to cut the top for binding later. The holes in the mahogany are for weight reduction because this was a particularly dense piece of mahogany.

Once the cap is glued I drill the holes for the hardware and use a panel bit to bring the top to 1/4″ thick where it joins the body.  This also gives the start of the arch.  Also in the picture is the jig I use to get the proper neck angle .  The angle should be as close to 4.4 degrees as possible.  Any more or less and the bridge will be too high or low.  I use a protractor to determine the angle and make a simple jig to hold the guitar at that angle. Then I use a Wagner Safety Plane (yes the same plane I’ve mentioned countless times before) to give me the proper angle.

Here’s what it will look like with the angle planed and the panel bit cutting the start of the arch.

The next step is to cut the long tenon so revered by Les Paul junkies.  I use a pattern makers router bit and the template for the neck pocket.

After this I cut the pickup routes while the top is flat.  This makes the templates easier to adhere. I also drill for the stop tailpiece and the bridge at this point.

Now comes the elbow grease!!!  Using an Ibex arch top plane with a toothed iron I plane the arch.  When I’m close I use a pneumatic sander with a 40 grit patch to finish the curve.

Almost done

Next week the neck and fitting.