Friday, February 28, 2014

A Joke, sort of, and a Crucial Step in the Buildmyguitar Story

Bruce Roper: Giving You My Awl
You just never know what's going to happen when you drop into a luthier's shop, even if you are expected. Here is Bruce Roper, the guy building my guitar, and he is saying...wait for it, "I'm giving you my awl." It's the kind of joke you have to expect in the world of wood. It's a knotty place that fairly splinters with wit, which is not a problem because you can just rub some epoxy on it to fix it! 
Enough jokes.
          We're moving into another important phase in the building of my guitar. I went to visit Bruce Friday afternoon to watch him run the two book-matched sides of the top through the drum sander so he can get them to exactly the right thickness. It's a meticulous process that involves caliper measurements in hundredths of inches. The sander, a rotating drum across a flat surface, shaves off just a hair with each pass. Shave then measure. Shave then measure.

       Why is this happening? One reason is because it is nearly impossible to get a piece of wood to stretch all the way across the top of an acoustic guitar. These days, back and fronts of most guitars are constructed of two pieces of wood, sometimes cut in slabs from a thicker piece of wood, which makes them book matched.
Checking one side of the top

Bruce is inspecting one side to the book-matched top here. It's too thick and its edge has bloobies (I just made that up. It means unevenness) on the side that means it won't fit square against its other side. So job one is to move these sides through the drum sander to get to the right thickness. It's measured in hundredths and I'll be damned if I understand that scale. Job two will be to use another piece of equipment, a joiner, to plane hair thin slices of wood from the edges until the sides line up perfectly. This is where you begin to understand how fine the tolerances are in acoustic guitar building. It's a slow business because you are removing only tiny bits of surface each time the wood passes through the drum sander. The same is true for the joiner. Bruce listens when he is running the joiner until he hears no more burring on the edge. That means the sides of the top will line up perfectly when it's time to glue them together. Having repaired hundreds of guitars and built perhaps 50, he is comfortable not only with his tools, but with the challenge of getting everything to fit together properly.

A shelf full of measuring tools
I am surprised to see how many vintage tools Bruce has in his workshop. Here is his measuring shelf, the kind of thing you might have found in a German woodworker's shop a century ago. He has a healthy array of power tools, too, but nothing like what you would find C.F. Martin in Nazareth, Pa. or at Gibson or Guild plants. Modern factory guitar making is a marvel of technology, with computer aided design and manufacturing machines cutting necks and shaping the difficult parts. In a way, they have to do it that way because they make tens of thousands of guitars a year and the line has to keep moving.

Sound hole and binding woods

There are no pressures like that in Bruce's shop. He likes to keep things simple, store everything in its place and set aside anything interesting he might use on a guitar who knows when. He cuts plastic handles from discarded purses to make inlay for around sound holes. He has a robust collection of edgings in all styles.

Here he is holding a green piece of wood that will
be used as one layer around the soundhole. The bigger bundle will be used for edging around the top and bottom of the guitar body. We're still thinking about what we will put up on the end of the instrument to make it distinctive. I'm thinking a rose will do for me. But we will see.

It took about an hour to get everything ground down to the proper measurements and flat on the edges. Then Bruce reached for a tube of epoxy, a much stronger glue than the one he will use on most other places on the guitar. Epoxy is a chemical glue that sets up harder than whatever it is holding together in most cases. That means the wood will break before the glue fails. Horse hide glue and other glues that can be melted with steam and water will be used elsewhere. You need that because sometimes you have to take a guitar apart to repair it. You can't do that very easily with epoxy without risking damage to the wood.

We were ready to glue the top.
Here's how THAT process looks, starting with:

Mixing epoxy
Putting glue on both edges of top sides
Weighting top with anvil to keep
surfaces from buckling

Bruce uses a small set of wood wedges to force the sides of the top to push together. The anvil is a clever way to keep the top from moving as it dries. He uses a piece of granite on the other side. So, it's like a rig. He will give it a day or so to harden and dry, then begin working on the back, which will be a lot like the top (since it will match) but will have a little strip of hardwood down the middle.

This is moving along very quickly, which is what happens when you have a guy building maybe his 51st guitar. We're already talking about cutting the sound hole and building the rosette, which should be another good chapter in this story.

Next time, we're going to sit with Bruce's guitars in his living room and get him to tell us, literally, how they work.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Beautiful Chatoyance

I thought this would be a good time in the Buildmyguitar process to introduce you to the guitars I already use and look at some features in wood that are important to this new project. Bruce Roper, the Chicago luthier, is building a sapele guitar for me based on a 1930s Nick Lucas Gibson. I have convinced myself I need this because it will be unlike the ones I already own.

                                                             My Guitars

                                                   This is a 1968 Martin D-12-35. Brazilian rosewood with Sitka top.
                                        It was the best 12 string I ever played. More on it later!

Then this, a 1958 D-28 in Brazilian rosewood with a sitka top. When I was working on a book on President Obama's 2008 election, I found this guitar in Pennsylvania, maybe 60 miles from Nazareth, where it was built in 1958. A carpenter and wood worker owned it and put it under his bed years ago when he hurt his hands. I played it and told him he should call me if he ever wanted to sell it. About a year later, the call came. It was one of the strangest negotiations because he kept asking for less than I was offering. Finally, one of us gave in. I'm not going to tell you what I paid, but it was way less than the price you see on these guitars now. I felt it was some blessing for some good deed I had forgotten. It's a dreadnaught, of course, so it has that blue-grassy voice people seem to love. I don't play it much that way. It is a wonderful guitar for finger picking.

                  And finally, this Collings, an extra deep special 00 model in Indian Rosewood with sitka top. I felt I needed this one because I had never seen more cleanly finished guitars than the Collings models I played at Guitar Works. The first one I had was relatively old. I gave it to my son to trade on a vintage Martin he was rebuilding, then bought this one. There is no place on the neck of this guitar that doesn't present a strong, clean note. I flat pick on it.

Three guitars for three different jobs. 
What makes them special?

The Martins, the D-28, and the 12-string, were both built before the folk boom went crazy at the midpoint of the 1960s, when all guitar makers pushed production so hard that quality declined. These are Martin guitars as Martin guitars were intended to be, I think. The Brazilian rosewood makes them that much lovelier and some would argue, enhances their sound. But that is so subjective I'm not going to argue the point. I love these instruments as much as anyone ever could. They are that good. Sometimes I just sit an look at them. Here's how they look on the backs, with the D-28 first.

Notice that the grain on this guitar is very straight, almost conservatively so, and there are not many  fancy interruptions in the flow. I believe that's because that is how Martin defined quality in 1958, and there was certainly nothing in the marketplace to contradict that. Building a Martin guitar is a 300 step process in the modern factory and I suspect there were fewer steps in 1958, but it's clear the builders at Martin paid close attention to every aspect of the instrument, from picking the wood to putting it all together. This is one of those guitars you compare all other guitars against. 

When we shift to the 12 string, notice right away that the back is made of three panels. Why? Again, a guess but I would assume Martin wanted to get everything it could from its supply of Brazilian rosewood, so it used smaller pieces. It didn't hurt anything. People tell me this is the sweetest 12 string they have ever heard. It was rescued by Terry Straker at Guitar Works in Evanston (where my son works in the repair shop.). Terry rebuilt it, put tuners on that are precise and actually work (this guitar will hold its tune for days, remarkable for a 12-string).

Here is the back of that guitar. I am just showing you a bit so you can see the detail in the wood. This stuff is certainly wonderful, reeks of quality and has joined the other parts to create an instrument that is a delight to play. But I suspect if you looked at all Martin D-12-35 guitars from that era you would notice a stunning similarity across the board (forgive that pun!) Factory guitars, no matter how good they are, remain factory guitars. Brazilian rosewood just makes them much more costly. If you want something with special features from Martin these days, you have to go now to the Martin Custom Shop. 

I already have two Martins and a Collings. A third Martin from the Custom Shop would be a fine idea, but not a fine financial idea. That's why Bruce's plan is so compelling. I am getting a custom guitar from a fine builder, a music maker with my own marks on it. That is special. What might they be like?

Take a close look at this piece of wood. It was cut from the big piece of sapele Bruce and I picked up at Owl Lumber in Des Plaines. See that shimmering quality in the wood? That's chatoyance, usually a word to describe what happens in gemstones. Many furniture markers love chatoyance because of the look it creates. It was one of the important characteristics Bruce saw before he bought the slab.

           You don't see markings like these in most quality guitars. Bruce says there was a time when companies like Martin and Gibson would just toss away this kind of wood. Think of the challenge factory guitar makers face. They have to produce thousands of copies of D-28s and D-12-35s and a couple of dozen other models that look just like the ones in the catalogues, or just like the other ones in the store. To be sure, they are high quality instruments that meet tough standards and last for years and years.

          But I'm thinking I already have a couple of stunning examples of that kind of work. Don't get me wrong, I love those guitars. But I am no longer excited by just the thought of them. Bruce is upping the ante for me, offering me a distinctive guitar that won't match the richness of the Martin look, but might offer something unique, precious, lovely, in a different way.

     Can't wait.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

No. 3. All Cut Up!

In the Build My Guitar world, things are moving quite quickly, mainly because luthier Bruce Roper has a brand new band saw, a bad boy that has no trouble cutting through ten feet of sapele that is about three feet wide and about an inch thick.

Here's what he got!
Bruce Roper surveys the guitar sets he cut from his sapele board
He has 20 sets of guitar tops, backs and sides cut from the single board. There is not much waste in guitar building, at least not at Bruce's shop. Lots of the sets are going to be flitched, which, as it understand it, means matched top and bottom and side by side. It all amounts to a lot of lovely guitars way down the road, it not built by Bruce, then by the people who buy his sets. I am immensely impressed at Bruce's ability to cut up this wood so quickly. We only carried it into his shop on Friday, and here it is in pieces ready for use on Sunday night. He has already checked the moisture content and found it to be ideal.

This is only my third blog entry in this process of tracing the construction of a guitar from a big slab of wood to the playable product, and we are already at the point at which Bruce can start shaping my individual guitar. He has been building and repairing guitars for decades at The Old Town School of Folk Music, so I am not surprised at his skill and speed. I guess what I am surprised about is that it is aimed at me. What good fortune. Bruce would not have taken a "commission" from me to custom build a guitar. But he seems very happy just offering the instrument to me in exchange for telling its story.

Here is how my guitar looks at this stage. Okay, so that's not so impressive unless you understand the steps involved. Bruce was putting the form used to finish the sides of the guitar over the raw back of the instrument so I would see that imperfections will essentially be covered by bindings and a couple of other essential things. I told him I kind of like the imperfections, which include some tiny black wormholes, rough spots in the grain and the like.

Most of those things will disappear in the finishing process, but I hope some of them remain. I like the idea of imperfection. Being quite imperfect myself, I know that it is not so much an impediment as an identifying characteristic that separates THIS Charlie Madigan from THAT Charlie Madigan, or anyone else. This guitar will be mine when it is completed, and I want to know each of is little bumps and dimples.

But first things first. Bruce has the two sides of the back of the guitar cut out (that's what is under the form). Now he needs to run them through a drum sander to get exactly the right thickness, then through a joiner to make certain the edges are tight as can be. Then he will position them on each side of a thin strip of hardwood and use a back support to glue them all together. Something similar will happen to the top, which is made in this case from the same wood as the back.

Most modern guitars, I would guess, particularly good ones, use special spruces for the top, maybe Sitka or Engelmann, sometimes even Cedar.  Then they use mahogany or rosewood or some other hardwood for the sides and back. We talked about that. I didn't want that. Sapele is an African wood that looks a lot like mahogany (it is not) when it is sanded up, filled and finished. It will take on a nice red look when it is completed. I had a Guild Guitar that was mahogany all over, nice and red and with a spectacular bright sound and I would not mind having an instrument that could match that kind of presence. Whether this one will or won't remains to be seen. That one was a dreadnaught guitar, and this one will be built along the lines of a 1930s Nick Lucas Gibson. But I hope it has some of that voice.

One thing for sure, it will look very cool.

We're still talking about how to market this blog. Those of you who blog know how hard that is, and I would appreciate any advice on spreading the word about this. One plan is to build two of these guitars and use the second one for something quite special that I'm not talking about yet. We will see.

We're not doing this for money. Bruce just wants people to know how guitars a made, and I just want the guitar. Call me selfish. The idea is growing on me, fueling what is becoming a fond thought: "There is no such thing as too many guitars."

That would be a great epitaph!

(Coming soon...the back, the top and decorations.)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Sapele, Bruce Roper and Guitars

Bruce Roper inspects huge piece of Sapele
wood at  Owl Hardwood Lumber Co.
in Des Plaines

No. 2. Sapele, Bruce Roper and Guitars

Well, we could have picked a calmer day for this, but Chicago winters being what they are, we decided not to wait. This is Bruce Roper and he is at Owl Hardwood Lumber Co. in Des Plaines looking at the guitar he is going to build for me. (It's inside that piece of wood he has his hand on.) Bruce is enough of a regular at the place that they know him when they see him. It's a good thing to have people at such an amazing lumber yard know you. Discussions ensue about rosewood stumps, old wood from marimba factories, what's new on the market, what's running out. On a visit here last week, Bruce spotted this big piece of sapele, an African hardwood that looks a lot like mahogany, but isn't actually mahogany despite the fact that people insist on calling it African mahogany, which it is not.

We went to Owl after a lunch of okay burgers in Des Plaines and a gab that carried us so far out of the way we might as well have gone to Galena. But we did not. We turned around and went back to find Owl. Guitars were what we talked about, that and being picky about things and the line between that and obsession, which some luthiers erase. Bruce is not like that. Not a man to let the perfect be the enemy of the great, he doesn't have much time for talk about exclusive, expensive tone woods and how one is superior to another. People are experimenting with wood all the time and they always have. You can make a guitar out of slats from a shipping flat if you want to, or from old pieces of wood you have laying around.

Bruce is the guitar repair guy for Old Town School of Folk Music and suspects he puts his hands on about 300 guitars a year, everything from setting up new guitars to adjusting old ones to fixing cracks to making sure it's all sticking together right. Over his 20 years or so of doing this kind of job, he guesses he has handled about 10,000 guitars. He knows. "It's about how it sounds," he says. Sometimes you just pick one up and give it a strum and you know, "This is amazing." A lot of attention is paid to brand names, histories, reputations. But what Bruce cares about is sound. He has played them all, and now when he plays with Sons of the Never Wrong, he plays his own guitar. The one he made.

Now he is making one for me, mainly so you will know what the process involves and how you pull an instrument from a big block of wood. And the sapele he bought on Friday is one big block of wood. Just over 10 feet long and maybe 30 inches wide at the fat part, with its bark in place. It is one lovely animal. There are all kinds of technical descriptions for what Bruce is looking for from this wood. "Markings" is how I think of them, little flaws that reveal the history of the wood, where the limbs were, what kind of weather it faced. Some are very subtle and some look like waves on the surface of a pond. You can't really see a lot of them until you wet the wood to bring out the grains.

How our sapele looked in the sunlight
So we strapped this big sheet of wood, just about an inch thick, to the top of Bruce's Jetta and headed back to his workshop to have a better look at it. Bruce wasn't buying on a whim. He knew what he had. All I knew is that there was a guitar waiting for me in there someplace and that he had the skill to bring it out. He paid over $500 for the wood. I was flattered until I realized his plan was to cut many guitar parts from this excellent wood and sell them to make his money back.

It was a slow ride in high winds with one stop just to put straps on to make sure our wood did not end up in someone's fireplace. Could happen on a day like that one. We finally crawled down Belmont and mad the turn into Bruce's place. His shop is in the garage. It's small but comfortable with everthing in its place. Immediately, the sapele seemed way big for the space.
Right away, Bruce grabbed a water bottle and sprayed the surface of the sapele. The wet part down there, that's where my guitar will come from. You can see it's quite lovely and unusual. The big guitar makers, Martin, Taylor, Gibson, work hard to make certain all their catalog guitars look just the same, which means wood that displays this kind of drama isn't going to work for them. But it sure works for me, and it certainly works for Bruce. He will cut the board, slice it in two and then slice it in two again so we will have two book-matched sides on my guitar. I want the whole body of the guitar made from sapele, and I can show you why.

On the right is one of Bruce's mahogany guitars, not completed but close enough to show you its beauty. I love it. Mine will be bigger and have a deeper body, but that look of red all around will work fine for me, I am sure.

We talked a lot Friday about details. Bruce wants to use the same shape Gibson used on its Nick Lucas Blues guitars
in the 1930s, which is distinctive, deep and easy to hold. He showed me one he has not yet finished and I was quite taken by it. So I said yes.

We're also doing some plotting. It might be nice, he noted, if he built two identical guitars (but one personalized for me with some juicy inlay stuff) and offered one for sale at Old Town School's music store.

But that's enough for now. Other than to note that this blog is for guitar lovers, but not necessarily for guitar lovers who love to pick the bejabbers out of everything everyone does (Don't be cruel, like Elvis said) off we go! Next time we visit, stuff will be cut to pieces!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

     Let me tell a guitar story.
     I am a professor at Roosevelt University. I spent 42 years in journalism at small papers, at UPI and at the Chicago Tribune. Now I teach, write, perform, whatever is necessary to make me happy. One of those happy things happened on the way to work on the el in Chicago a few days ago.
     My phone rang and at the other end was Bruce Roper, a luthier and musician with Sons of the Never Wrong, an esteemed group of long standing in Chicago.

Randy Lee and
 Charlie Madigan
of Bitter Melon

     Bruce was the engineer and producer on the first album from Bitter Melon Music, "Cracks in the Foundation." It was great to work with him, which may be why his offer was so overwhelming for me. "I found a piece of sapele and I want you to go look at it with me because I'm going to build a guitar for you," he said. In exchange, I agreed to write this blog, and whatever else we decide on, about the building of a guitar from a block of wood.
     That's what this blog will be about, the building of my guitar.
     Let me be frank. I have lots of great guitars. I have a 1958 Martin D-28 in Brazilian rosewood, a 1963 Martin DS-28-12 in Brazilian rosewood, a Collings OM in East Indian Rosewood, and those are just the ones I have sitting in the house. I didn't need another guitar, at least that's what I thought. Bitter Melon Music's "Cracks in the Foundation," was a blast, but something of a bust. People in small gatherings liked it a lot, but the gatherings stayed very small and we never made money on it. I know that's not the point, but sometimes....well, you know.
     We went on hiatus and I don't know if we will ever be back, but my interest in music remains. Having one of Bruce's guitars and telling this story might be a good pump primer for me.
     Bruce's guitars are distinctive. I have never seen anything like them for simplicity and finesse when it comes to subtle decoration. I loved them. But I thought I didn't need another guitar, until now. I can't resist it. So look for the next posting, where we will show you what wood looks like before a guitar is cut out of it!