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. 


  1. just a box made of wood with a hole in it thru which angels may pass.

  2. ...and happy birthday Sue Demel,from Charlie's brother.Me

  3. Happy birthday Sue. Maybe someday....... Can't wait to see more!