Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"The beauty that flows from this instrument..."

Inscription in the new guitar

Signing and sealing: 

A Milestone 

What would you write inside the top of a guitar being made just for you, something no one but the owner and the builder will ever see? Bruce Roper, the luthier at Old Town School and now a good friend, told me I could say whatever I wanted. Never at a loss for words, I was at a loss for words until I thought about it. What was I getting out of this experience? I didn't need another good guitar, having many. I didn't need much of anything in the way of musical instruments, but if you have been following this blog, I think you will understand that the wood and the glue and the cutting and pasting and clamping were just the mechanical part of the process. What I value the most is the friendship I have built with Bruce Roper over the past few months. He produced a CD for me so I knew him, but I didn't really know him. Now I have listened to his gentle explanations of what is going on, his feelings about wood and how to pick it, his thoughts about writing and performing music. I have watched him use his hands in a hundred ways on this project. I was watching someone who knew, from long practice, what to do about anything that came up. So I thought I had to say something that stretched beyond the guitar.

I have also heard him talk with great affection about his bandmates in Sons of the Never Wrong, Sue Demel and Deb Maris Lader. I have been in bands and I know the kinds of pressures that build until the whole thing fractures and you run away screaming about one another. After nearly 25 years, he still laughs when he talks about the times they have had (and continue to have). When you see them on stage, what is there is genuine. They aren't acting. I so admire that. 


"The beauty that flows from this instrument is friendship," I wrote, in my own ridiculously sloppy handwriting. Then I signed it, and so did Bruce, and then the whole process moved on to the finishing of the box. This is a very important step because it is the first time anyone can get a full view of how the guitar will look when it is finished. The chatoyance I talked about much earlier is stunning, front and back and sides. It is going to be such a lovely work that I hesitate to put a pick guard on it. I plan to use the guitar for finger picking (without picks!) so I don't think I'm going to be banging it up.

The back, braces trimmed and ready for glue

Bruce trimmed the braces and got them ready for glueing to the sides of the guitar. He put the top on last week in a similar process. This side involves a little guess work and some measurement by eye. He has done it so many times it goes smoothly.

Marking the brace spots

Because the bottom has to fit tight against the sides, Bruce must trim little slots into the sides where the braces will fit, just so it all looks tight and sealed when he moves to the next step (placing the bindings, which comes next week.) He does his trims with a Dremel tool then uses his band saw to cut little notches in parts of the top that don't fit handily in the jig when the bolts are installed.

Cutting the brace notches
It might seem like a tedious process, but it isn't. It's just a series of steps that Bruce follows closely whenever he makes this kind of guitar. He's helping a client build a classical guitar on another bench nearby, and that one involves a whole different world of steps. Those will be meticulously followed, too.

Watching him work, I got to thinking about which part of this process actually leads to a good instrument and I concluded, "All of it." I know, that sounds like a cop out. But it's not. Guitars are a process of the whole, but the individual parts have to be right or it's not going to play well or sound good. So I think what I am seeing is a craftsman at work who knows all the steps and performs them at a very high level of skill. It takes the romance out of the instrument, I suspect, but there you have it. It's a bunch of pieces of wood glued together so they vibrate well and create a noise.

Here is how it looks when the back is glued up and screwed down to dry, a process Bruce completes just after he glues a series of rosewood straps along the inside of the sides of the guitar. This is protection. Sometimes guitars are bashed around a lot and the sides can be broken fairly easily unless they are reenforced. Nothing much better for that than rosewood strips.
Top glued down. Looking at the neck
Rosewood reenforcement strips on sides

Closing this all up was a little sad, like being four days through a seven day vacation and knowing that it's all going to end. But guitar building is just like life, I suppose, which is a really stupid thing to say because, after all, everything is just like life. It begins. It develops. It ends.
Except with this, you get a friendship and music! Next: Binding and then on to building the neck.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Weight Loss: Take a Chisel to The Fat Parts

Bruce Roper sculpts the braces on my guitar

 I don't want to say "This is what I have been waiting for" because that's not the case. I'm waiting for my guitar.  But this part of buildmyguitar is very important because it involves weight loss. Those are Bruce Roper's hands behind the chisel and that's an important thing to note. They are "behind the chisel." Any body part that might be cut or lopped off in this process has to be kept behind the chisel because it is that sharp. One slip could easily slice off half of a finger or carry the blade right to almost any bone in your body. Chisels are so dangerous that my old shop teacher in Altoona, Pa., Mr. Wray, insisted we walk with our thumbs over the end of the blade so we didn't accidentally slash anyone. If he saw you walking with an open chisel blade in the air, he had a paddle he had constructed of walnut and he would pound the back of your legs until you wept. It was a different time. But that was very effective, I must say.

Or maybe he just liked beating eighth grade boys with paddles! That's a possibility, too.

Bruce, the luthier for Old Town School of Folk Music's Different Strummer music shop, is building a guitar for me. These blogs started with the selection of a great piece of Sapele at Owl Lumber in Des Plaines and continued through cutting it up, selecting the flitch-matched top and bottom and moving step by step through the challenges of guitar building. Today, the top is going to be glued on after the bracing is sculpted.

 Bruce has tapped hard with his fingers on the top of the guitar with its braces glued on and concluded its pitch is too high, that its sound is too hard. We needed to work this out because once the top is glued on,  it's too late to begin the sculpting process. Before you know it, the whole body will be completed and glued together, and you are NOT going in there unless something awful has happened.

Blade sculpting with a chisel
During this two-hour visit, Bruce pruned those braces with his chisel and then sanded them until they were sculpted into the shape of blades. Every few cuts, he tapped and listened. That brightness gradually became a little muted, which is what he wanted. And as he cut, the braces began to look like helicopter blades. That's one of Bruce's signature contributions, the helicopter blade sculpting of braces. No one will ever see it, but chances are it will make the top of the guitar much more lively over on the treble side where the high strings, the G, B and E, live, and much deeper over on the bass side where the wound strings, the E-A-D strings live.

Here is how the sculpted brace looks before Bruce has taken sandpaper to it to smooth it out. You can see one just north of his hand that has been about completed. The braces are spruce, so Bruce has to be careful. He knows his craft. Just when you think the brace is going to split, he flips the top and goes at it from the other end. 

There are lots of debates in the world of guitars about the value of sculpting braces. The C.F. Martin Co. in Nazareth, Pa. used to sculpt all guitar braces, then it stopped and let them leave the shop un-sculpted and now it sculpts the special ones and custom guitars. Some makers insist on sculpting all of their guitars. Cheaper guitars avoid sculpting. They just glue the up and ship them out. They are generally somewhat sloppy inside, with glue coming out of the braces and kerfing.

You will never see that on Bruce's guitars. He is not a perfectionist about it, but he is the complete professional and experienced over many years of building. His guitars look confident, comfortable with themselves and well finished.

We had a big philosophical discussion over lunch about guitars in general and song-writing, too. He has seen all the flaws after two decades fixing broken instruments at Old Town and he has designed his guitars to avoid some of the more common problems. On song writing, we were just about in unison, although he has been comfortable at it for many years. We are not much for collaboration. I worked in a band with two other guitarists and a woman singer. He is a member of Sons of the Never Wrong, probably the strongest group to emerge from the folk era in Chicago. They remain delightful and Bruce thinks it can't be better than to be the guy in a trio with two women.

This is unlikely to ever happen for me. Too cranky, I suspect, and too insular about the process.

Back to guitars.

The sculpted braces

 I think you can get a sense from this picture of how it all comes out when the sculpting is completed. Perhaps half of the weight of the braces has been trimmed away, The underside of the top has an elegant look to it, which is too bad because no one will get to see it, other than right here. There is one more piece Bruce will put in after the top is glued down.

The headblock addition
If you look to the right side of the picture above, you see the head block, where the neck fits into the guitar. This is generally viewed (by Bruce at least) as a dead area of guitar top where nothing much happens musically when you hit the strings. Still, it is one of the places he finds himself fixing a lot as a repair man. Splits and cracks show up on the guitar top near where the neck hooks on because of the varied stresses on the top.

To fix that, he cuts a thin piece of pine and glues it to the guitar top just where it fits over that end block. That means the top of the guitar is reenforced by wood that has grain running perpendicular to the grain of the top. In other words, it's not going to crack or split.

Just about time to make some final adjustments and glue the top on. You can see how it sits on the sides by looking closely at the picture above. The reason the fit is tight is that Bruce has prepared the sides to receive the top and trimmed the braces so it all fits snugly. Which is exactly what happens when he puts these things on.

What things?
Glue on the kerf to hold down the top.

Well, the things that look more or less like marshmallows with bolts stuck through them. Of course they aren't. They are actually wooden rounds with cork glued to the bottom. It takes about 24 of them to hold the newly glued top down. When you put it all together, it looks like this:

So that's how that happens. You tighten up the bolts with wingnuts (not too tight) and give it a day sitting and you have a well glued top. There are special deep throated clamps that hold down the very center of the front and back. The bases are all covered, as the sports writers might put it.

The same thing is going to happen to the back of the guitar, but it will be a little easier because the braces there are parallel. Then on to bindings, which are going to be stunning.

I hope you read all of this. If you do, you will have a chance to say Happy Birthday to Sue Demel, one of Bruce's partners (along with Deb Maris Lader) in Sons of the Never Wrong. I took two songwriting classes with her at Old Town School and she's brilliant. Tough but brilliant. And not to be missed if you have a chance to see her perform.

Onward with this tiny snap of Bruce's note on the form, Gibson N.L. 1937
That stands for Gibson Nick Lucas, 1937. Among about a million other things, Nick Lucas wrote "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" in 1929.
We'll be back next week with more as buildmyguitar pushes on. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Stage Too Good To Overlook...

We are moving rapidly toward...

An Actual Guitar

Bruce removes clamps from kerfing

Bruce and I had lunch downtown with some folks considering another project we will be working on and I dropped by his house on the way home to Evanston to listen to some fine music and check on the progress on the effort. As you can see, it's really starting to look like the insides of a fine guitar. And the kerfing effort is the last stage before the top and bottom are glued into place.

Here's what the guitar looks like out of the frame:

The finely cut kerfing around the inside edge creates a little flat platform Bruce will use to put the top and bottom in place. It was nice of Bruce to take the guitar out of the frame for me (usually, once it goes into the frame in this part of the process, it stays.

We checked it all out and then shifted it back into its temporary home to get ready for the next step.
But before we did that, we played with it a little bit, balancing it on his workbench to give you an idea of how the back fits and how the top will look.

Bruce still has some planing to do before we can get this elegant little sapele box in shape. We're getting closer and closer to the end product (except we have to do the neck, which is a challenge.)

Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The HEAT is on!

My guitar sides in water

Hot! Hot! Hot!

Bruce Produces Lots of Heat for the sides of my new guitar. 

There are a lot of ways to bend wood, many of them so risky that a project might indeed break up right in front of you if you are not careful. Bruce Roper from the Old Town School of Folk Music's Different Stummer (he does their repairs) is building a guitar for me out of a highly figured set of sapele wood. Today is side bending day, which is more fun than it sounds and a little risky, too when you have such a beautiful set of sides to prepare.

First, wood bends, of course, but not this much. What you see up there are the sides of my guitar resting in about an inch of water. This has two consequences. 1. You can really see how lovely the grain is going to be on the sides of this guitar, and 2. They become  a lot more malleable after they have absorbed some water. I don't know why but it is a magical transformation. These sides are going to have to take on a shape they never imagined when they were part of a tree growing in west Africa. Bruce is going to help them do that.

Guitar building form
That guitar shaped thing resting on the work bench is actually a two-part, fiberboard form Bruce made in the shape of a 1938 Nick Lucas Gibson Guitar. What he has to do is take the sides he has resting in the water and make them conform to the inside of this shape. It's all done by meticulous measurement and gentle bending, with not much guess work involved at all. The two pieces of wood sticking up on the top and bottom of the form are the end plate, a simple piece of pine, and the neck block, which has a trench cut into it that perfectly fits an extrusion on the bottom of the guitar neck. Bruce's guitar necks are bolted on in a couple of different directions. That means you can get the neck off in a few minutes, but it remains stable and solid. He devised his system (others use similar systems) after decades of repairing guitars, particularly old valuable ones with necks that were glued into a dovetail. It can be hard to fix the neck on a guitar like that.

 The end piece and the neck block must be glued to the sides once they are bent and put into the form. They are important for a lot of reasons. One is strength. The glues Bruce uses are steam and water soluble, but very strong once they dry. So those blocks will play a central role (literally) in holding the guitar body in its shape and creating the opening for the neck. This is the point at which the project really starts to look like a guitar. So here is Bruce starting the bend. He is using an iron form heated by a propane torch. The wet wood will bend, with a little pressure from Bruce, around the contours of that hot form.

Bending a side
It's all a little more particular than it seems when you just see it in a picture. The sides are flat on the bottom and sloped on the top and ultimately will be planed to the proper dimensions. But first you have to get them in the forms. Bruce bends them in a couple of stages, starting at the top and bending down to what is called the bout (the waist) on the guitar. This is a process that involves feeling when the wood is ready to bend, Bruce says. You can't go faster or you might break it. He is practiced at this and for both sides, it goes smoothly. Bruce says sometimes, although not very often, a side will break during this process. Because my guitar is flitch matched (everything is book matched all around) breaking a side now would mean having to find a whole new matched set. As the tops and the sides of this one come from the same piece of wood and are quite distinctive, that would not be easy. Ultimately, these sides are going to carry a line of kerfing. Kerfing is a piece of triangular wood cut into a long strip with slits in it so that it can bend. One side gets glued to the inside top and inside bottom of the guitar, providing a little platform for gluing on the top and bottom.

But that's getting a bit ahead of the game. Bruce patiently bends sides and tries them into the form. Then he gets to a point at which he decides he has done enough bending, that clamps will do the rest of the work. He turns off the propane torch and puts it outside to cool. He dismantles the bending iron and takes it outside to cool, too. It's not a tiny shop, but it is a small enough shop that you don't want any blistering hot objects sitting around where you might put your hand on them.

He puts the sides in the form and marks and trims them so the forms will fit together.

Bruce uses a Japanese pull saw for trim
This is not as crucial a stage as it might seem. The end block and the neck block do a lot of the work where the guitar sides come together at top and bottom. Each will get a good layer of glue and will be clamped to hold the sides in the right places. The plate of the guitar neck will cover the one opening so no one will ever see it (unless it is a person removing the neck.) The heel plate will help create a gap that will be cleverly filled by Bruce with another piece of something. Could be wood. The important thing is that this little guitar bottom insert will finish off the bottom of the instrument and provide a handsome spot for drilling the hole that will hold the base peg (where the strap hooks in, if you are a strap wearer. I am not.)

It takes perhaps a dozen clamps to hold this all together while the glue dries. Bruce uses three clamps each on top and bottom blocks to hold them in place while the glue dries. While he is careful about this, he works confidently.

This wood has bent without crack or strain and dried nicely as soon as it was in the form. It will stay there for perhaps another 24 hours, when Bruce will remove the clamps and put in a set of spaces that will stay in place while he moves on to the next phase in the process, installing the kerfing and planing the sides to exact height to receive the top. The bottom is already flat and ready for kerfing and gluing.

Just a little more work is required on the braces on the top of the guitar before it will be ready for glue. You can see how the completed bracing looks. Where there is pressure on top of the guitar, there is bracing beneath to hold it all together.

But Bruce doesn't want to leave the bracing this thick as he is putting the top on the guitar. He will use his chisels to sculp the bracing make it as thin as he can. It must retain its strength without adding weight to the guitar. It might not sound like much of a trim, but bracing is one of the key components in how the guitar vibrates and makes its sound. That plate in the middle is a piece of maple. The bridge will be glued right above it on the face of the top, then the holes for the strings will be drilled through the bridge and through this plate. String it up and you have something that functions as one piece, strings and all, with the bridge plate transferring vibrations of the strings to the top of the guitar.

I'm pretty pumped about all of this. It's actually starting to look the way it will look when it is completed. The figuring in the wood is pronounced, and that will make it lovely. Of course, the big test comes when it's time to play, and we have a way go to before we reach that point. Stay in touch with us and watch us get there.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Guitar Mystery...or is there a mystery?

         The Big Guitar Secret (Don't Tell Anyone About This!)


On this particular morning in the history of the Buildmyguitar blog, I went to see Bruce Roper for what I thought was going to be a glue session but instead, turned into a conversation about the philosophy of guitar building. This is an area full of conflict that Bruce seems to avoid by just focusing on craft. He is a woodworker who happens to build guitars. He could just as easily turn those skills toward building nice mahogany boxes, or furniture, or quality mirror frames or who knows what? Fortunately, he stayed in the world of guitars.

Things are moving along quite well on my own guitar. Here are the back and the front, both upside down so you can see where we are on the bracing front. Bruce is very traditional about this. There is nothing you see here that you would not see at the C. F. Martin factory in Nazareth, Pa. or at Gibson or at Collings or Taylor. Bracing patterns have been worked out over many years. Still, in the world of luthiers, there is always debate about this fine point or that.

We started out by thumping on some wood.

That is my guitar top Bruce is thumping on with his fingernails. "Hear it?" he says. There is a little echo to it, maybe a little music if you apply some imagination. Basically, it sounds like a hard piece of wood that is being thumped. That makes it a little different since most guitar tops are made from spruce or cedar. This one is Sapele, which is like mahogany, but not mahogany. Some luthiers put a lot of weight on how these pieces of wood sound. Bruce doesn't. He believes you can get different sounds from different woods, but the real deciding factor is how the guitar is put together, not whether the wood rings when you thump it.

So why the emphasis on thumping? Bruce thinks it comes from history.

There has always been a fascination about what makes a great guitar sound so...great! It could be that the answer resides more in the ear of the owner than in the selection made by the luthier. We picked the wood for my guitar because it is going to be drop dead beautiful when it gets a finish on it. It has chatoyance and figuring that will make it dance in the light. But we aren't sure at all about how it will sound.

I have two Martin guitars (see the earlier blogs) that have spectacular voices but I don't know that they had them on the day they left the factory. I once talked to Chris Martin IV about that, and he said the worst a Martin guitar will ever sound will be on the first day you play it. After that, it gets better and better and better. My guitars, from 1958 and 1963, are proof of that. There's a process involved called "opening up" and a guitar won't have its best voice until that happens. It can take a while.

I have played lots of Bruce's guitars. They have their own voice. Their own feel. Their own unique finishes and decorations. I'm looking forward to that, and also to the point I can settle in with the instrument and give it a chance to open up. But I'm not kidding myself about what is involved here. It is serious craft, not art, and there is not much luck to it.

So, in the end, there is no mystery at all. But there is something else: mastery. And that only comes after building and building and building. We'll get back to that process in the coming Buildmyguitar blogs. Bending wood is on the horizon, and that's something Bruce loves.
And me too.