Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Dynamic Change In Direction

Up to this point, it has been mostly about the beauty of wood and the craftsmanship of building a guitar for me. That changed Thursday night when, after some work by Bruce Roper, I got a look at this.

It comes together at Bruce's

I guess I have been waiting for this moment all along, a chance to see how my guitar would look when it is finished. I love it already. The chatoyance of the wood survived through the building process, so the figuring in the body of the instrument dances in the light. Even in its roughest state, I can see how the neck is going to finish and how it will all sit together. I have watched it at every step, so I know where the little bumps are and what Bruce did to address those issues. There are worm holes in the sides of the guitar, and they are going to stay because they make it all look so natural, like it was cut right out of a tree.

None of this would happen at most of the big name guitar places. Martin would not tolerate holes. The pieces would fit together as though they had been cut by a machine (which, in most cases even with 'hand made' guitars, they were). Bruce's guitars aren't like that. He has to bend and cut and measure and sand and shape them to get them to fit together. Why do I find this so compelling? I don't know. I have a great collection of really nice guitars, Martins and Collings among them, so I know what quality looks like. But this is different. I am watching its personality evolve. I know it, this instrument, in a way I don't know my others. For a guitar player, that kind of thing carries tremendous weight.

A guitar made in a factory might have 300 sets of hands working on it over a couple of weeks along a production line where almost everything is perfect. I have seen one set of hands make mine, starting in February. I know now exactly what goes into the process.
Cutting a truss rod channel

It was a great way to finish an evening that was built around something that might seem mundane, but will help this guitar last through generations. Take a look at the metal rod Bruce is installing down the center of what will become the neck on this guitar. It's the blue thing to the left side of the picture. This is a truss rod, and guitars with truss rods have something that guitars without do not. They can be adjusted.

That might not sound like a big deal unless you plan to keep your guitar for a long time. It's wood and because of that, it adjusts and adapts with temperatures and changes in humidity. Because the neck is stressed by the tension of the strings, it sometimes can rise or sink at the ends, which makes either a bump or a downward shift in the middle. When that happens, strings buzz, on the one hand, or become so far off the fingerboard that they go out of tune when they are pushed down (or are just too difficult to push down to be easily played.)

The truss rod can change all of that with a quarter of a turn (and I have been told it's not wise to go beyond a quarter of a turn on a truss rod.) Depending on which way you turn the rod (which has a fitting in the end for an allen key) the neck will either tighten or loosen, and that will dramatically change the "action" caused by the positioning of the strings. Bruce is careful about placing this rod because it will be sitting just under the rosewood fingerboard we have selected for this instrument. It will all be glued tight by the time it is finished.

We talked about how wide I wanted the finger board on this guitar. There are a couple of choices, but mine was to go for an inch and three quarters at the nut (the top of the neck) to give me a little more space between the strings. I love finger picking, and that extra room is important.

Measuring the fingerboard
He marks his distances with a white pencil, top and bottom, then draws lines and takes the fingerboard to the bandsaw for cutting.

Cutting fingerboard with band saw

What you get at the end of this process are a couple of lovely pieces of rosewood that will be turned into chop sticks for me (Thank you Bruce) and a fingerboard that grades perfectly from the nut all the way down to the 23rd fret, which is where the neck hooks to the body of the guitar.

Once that is cut, Bruce glues a set of "ears" to the headstock of the guitar to make certain it is wide enough to hold the rosewood coverplate and the design we will use on the top. That's going to be special, a mix of artistic carving and a nice piece of copper. But that comes later.

The next task for Bruce will be to put the frets into the fingerboard. To do this, he uses a drillpress with a special fitting that holds a little gizmo that fits right over the fret and has the same curvature as the fingerboard. This is a tedious job he wants to do alone, but he showed me how he would set one in place so we would all know about that.

The fret setting tool

Fret tool in drill press over fingerboard
Some builders hammer their frets into place, but Bruce uses this press and glues the frets into the neck because it speeds the process along, does each fret perfectly and is less likely to make you crazy. I'm not kidding. Hammering is the traditional way, and the chance is you would be bonkers by the time you finished.

When he gets all those frets glued into place, he will clamp the fingerboard onto a solid piece of maple and let it dry so that it stays flat. It has to be glued tight all the way down the neck and present a fingerboard that is absolutely where it needs to be beneath each string. If that's not right, the guitar won't play right.

We are getting close to finishing. A couple of more weeks should do it. My guess is mid July when I can strum the first chord. Bruce just bought a new spray gun and he is going to use that on the surface of the body and neck. The neck will need some shellac before that happens.

Please come back. We are heading toward the end of it and it would be nice to have you there.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


The Beauty of the Thing...

Became apparent the minute Bruce Roper began to spread a thin layer of shellac on the surface. I knew it was going to be good. I didn't know it was going to be this good.

First a layer of shellac

Bruce, the luthier at Old Town School of Folk Music, has been working on this guitar since we picked out the wood at Owl Lumber in Des Plaines in February. We met Tuesday morning to go through the sanding process, which covered every inch of the guitar body, then some little repairs of things you might never see unless you were Bruce.

Using an edge on a binding repair
The problems are simple to describe. No matter how diligent you are about putting on binding (see the last blog) there will be places where some filling in is necessary. The sanding process, too, is not kind to binding. Bruce uses an orbital sander, first with an 80 grit paper to cut down the surface and then a 120 grit to finish everything off. But you don't want to use that sander on the actual binding.

Binding is something you see from the front. If you are not careful in sanding, you will cut into it and wreck the sense that its all the same size and all marching along the joint between the sides and the top, where it belongs. Just here, Bruce is using a scraper to more clearly define one part of the binding. No glue can protrude from the binding channel or it will leave a blob in the finish. So Bruce covers every inch looking for those kinds of flaws.

When he finds one, he turns to one of his best tools, Superglue, to fix it. He sprays on some hardener first, then applies the glue. After it dries, he sands it all down.

Cautious side sanding with an orbital sander

He is using a small orbital sander for the work. The good thing with this kind of a tool is that it is easy to control, easy to change paper grits on (sandpaper goes from fairly rough grits, down around 80, to very find grits up around 220) and, if it is kept moving, won't leave scratches. That's important because any scratch on the surface of the guitar will be amplified by the shellac and later the finish Bruce puts on the instrument. He doesn't want any of that showing through. It's not a time consuming process but it is fairly rigorous, with lots of stopping to check the surface by feel.

I have to admit I was a little anxious about the next step, the application of the initial coat of shellac, a finish made from the outsides of special beetles. It's a little bit magical, at least to me. I already showed you what it looked like with just one side of the back. Here's a series of photos
to show you how it went.

That's the back. Now for the front.

Shellac on the front
You can see from these photos that the wood has come alive under shellac. That means Bruce made just the right choice when we purchased that big block of Sapele at Owl early in the year.

Hanging the body to dry

Bruce and I just stood there and watched the thing rotate for a bit, making it quite clear what chatoyance will do for a guitar. I am well aware that it's going to take a long time for this instrument to "open up" and play at its best, but I do believe it will be beautiful from the point at which Bruce pronounces it completed.

Next week, we're going to start working on the headstock and neck of the guitar. How it all fits together will be of great interest to those of you who are afficiandos of styles of building.

Come back.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Getting Totally Bent!

On the Edge!
Binding My Guitar
Bruce Roper bends binding

If you can't take the heat, then just bend with it! 

Bruce Roper and I have become dedicated advocates of an important part of the guitar building process: The Meal! Wishbone is just around the corner and ALWAYS lands right where you want it to when it is time to eat. On this particular day, a young woman named Maya waits table for us. It is a terrible day full of clouds and drizzle and the kind of pressure that makes your ears close up (at least mine.) It feels like the atmosphere has come to sit on my head. But this young woman changes my mood completely because she is so bright and cheery. Go see for yourself.  It's what guitar building is all about! Pancakes, bacon, orange juice and coffee and we headed off to Bruce's shop just around the corner.

Once again, Bruce has taken to the heating iron to begin bending the hardwood pieces that will become the binding around the top and bottom of my guitar. We're looking at thin strips of wood that might well snap if we aren't careful, and it doesn't take much heat to just safely bend them, which is what Bruce is up to at this point. Then he will diligently push them into place on a base of wood glue and tape them up so they can dry.

Binding versus purfling! Which is which? And why? Undoubtedly you have been asking yourself this question for a long, long time, as I have. Binding seals an edge. Purfling is actually an embedded strip of something, usually wood, around the top of a violin that keeps its maple from splitting. Guitars can have purfling, too. But not this one. Today is all about binding.

The binding ready for glue

This is what he binding looks like once it has been bent. As you can see, it matches the form of the guitar and will fit into the grooves cut around the top and bottom. In my case, the binding is dark hardwood on top on a base of light green wood. That coordinates it with everything else that is going on with the guitar. These are the kinds of things most people don't notice, but that I notice all the time. Sucky binding wrecks the guitar's look and seems out of place. So it's an aesthetic choice. We have chosen well here, I would suggest.

We made another discovery last week that I can now show you. This guitar will have an eye on the front. We didn't plan it that way. Nature did. Because the instrument is flitch matched, both the back and front are book matched pieces so the patterns repeat on either side of the center line. In this case, on the front, it forms what I think is a pretty perfect eye image that you don't typically see in a guitar. So basically, it's looking at you.

Matched set presents an eye!

I love the look of it, and I suspect i will love it all the more once Bruce puts a coat of shellac and some finish on the guitar. It has all kinds of little nooks and coils in the wood and each of them will add another distinctive layer to this instrument. I'm actually thinking of naming it, but I have to wait to the end to make that decision. Just now its Bruce Roper's Guitar for Madigan, which is good enough for me.

Binding is an annoying practice because Bruce has to have a couple of things going at once and there's not much I can do to help. He has to spread glue in the groove around the top, start the binding at a center point, then move around the top of the instrument pushing it in and down and taping each half inch with masking tape.

It comes out looking like this:

The tape can come off at the end of the day and Bruce can move to the next step, which is sanding with a small orbital sander and some very fine grit sandpaper. You want to get all the bumps and grain points level before you put on the first coat of finish. Then you do it again, and maybe again, until you are happy with it.

Bruce is not a believer in the "shine like a mirror" school of guitar building. A midwesterner to the souls of his feet, he wants practical protection on the instrument and maybe some beeswax on top of that. But no 30 coat efforts come out of Bruce's shop. The question will be "Is the surface protected," and the answer will be "yep." But it won't be shining like an expensive piece of furniture. It will have some depth and some shine, but not so you would be looking at that instead of the genuine beauty of the wood.

Some dental cement stuff will be used to fill in a couple of places where perfection fled the effort. I am looking at this the way Arabs look at rugs. Only Allah is perfect. What man touches, he messes up in some way. But by the time Bruce is done, you won't notice it unless you are looking for it.


The first layer of finish.

Please come back.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Big Problem...Solved!

How It Becomes Binding:

A Delicate Process Full of Peril

Before we got rolling on this next delicate part of buildmyguitar, Bruce Roper and I fortified ourselves with pancakes (Mine was buckwheat. Fantastic!) at Wishbone, just around the corner from his shop. That was fortunate because we would be needing the energy. Take a look at this:

That piece that goes around the outside edge of the guitar (in this case, a 1958 Martin D-28) is called the "binding," because it closes the seam between the bottom and top and hides some important brace ends that are exposed in the building process. You might think this would be easy to install, and at Martin these days, or other factories, it probably is because they have done it a million times and have worked out machines to complete the difficult parts.

 Not so at Bruce's. His guitars are hand-made. All of them. Each part.

Here is the body of my guitar on the table and ready to be routed for binding. A router is an interesting piece of equipment, basically a high speed electric motor with a razor sharp cutter on the end that spins thousands and thousands of times a minute. One might cut a guitar clean in half with a router, which, of course, is just not the objective at all. Bruce wants to cut a uniform groove around the top and bottom of the guitar so he can glue a very handsome dark wood and green binding around the top. It will kind of match the ring around the airhole on the top, but not exactly.

If everything about a guitar was square (and I'm talking about geometry here, not absence of coolness) this would be a simple process. You could put the router in a jig that put the cutter at a specific depth and height and just zip around the top.

But guitars are not square. If you have been following the blog, you might have seen an earlier entry in which the top of the guitar (and bottom) were set in special curved forms so they would each have an arch. That works very well, but not for the router. It means you can't get a guaranteed square cut along the top of the guitar, and that is irritating, not good and potentially damaging if anything goes wrong. A cutter spinning that fast will cut through sapele, which is hard wood, like it is cutting through butter, making a long trench in the wrong place. Bruce has constructed a bunch of solutions to help prevent this. Here is the one he set up first. Basically, it's like one of Thomas Jefferson's signing machines, lots of parallel things that float along and keep the router level and at the right depth. But once he had set it up, he didn't like the look of it. It would be a pity to wreck a guitar like this one, made from select woods and designed to be only mine and like no other one in the universe. A big hole in the top or side, of course, would make it distinctive, but, as you might have guessed, that's not the intent.

So he shifted to another option, a rig he designed and built himself that is free form, hand driven and good enough so that if everything goes exactly as planned, that groove will be just right. But nothing ever goes as planned.

This gives you a solid idea of what Bruce's rig looks like. But it doesn't tell the whole story. The bottom part of the rig is designed to ride along the side of the guitar to keep the router bit at the proper angle to the top, and the plate on the router is designed to keep the bit at the proper angle to the side. You really want that groove to be uniform, because the piece of binding that fits in it can take a little sanding from the top, which no one would notice except Bruce, but none from the side. It has to fit perfectly so that it is uniform as it marches around the top. (Bottom, too).

But...oh, shit! It's not working right. Some of the cut is perfect, but in some cases, the router jig pushes the cutter completely out of the groove because the top is just not level (and it's not supposed to be!) So these parts Bruce has to go over again, adjusting the angle of the router to make the cut just right. It's hard to imagine how invested I have become in this guitar, because I worried (needlessly as it turned out) at every point. The fact that the router burns the wood a bit and fills the shop with the smell of simmering sapele doesn't help (although it's a delightful smell.)

Also, that "just whip around the top and cut the groove" part isn't exactly right. Here is Bruce's schematic on how to cut a binding groove. He starts and stops for adjustments. Starts and stops because the heel on the vise holding the guitar gets in the way. Starts and stops so he doesn't go chipping any wood. Then goes all the way around the top in a different direction. This is a time tested formula. I suspect he wrecked a few guitars early in his life when he was working this out. I do not ask because he has won my respect. We all make mistakes in our careers. Bruce knows how to fix most of his.

After a nerve wracking 90 minutes, he finishes the job and starts filing the groove flat and fixing any little bumps he caused along the way. Here is how the guitar will look with its binding in place. But that can't happen for about another work because the groove needs to be prepared before anything gets glued in place.

The binding has to be soaked in water before it is installed so it bends without breaking.

We also discovered something I am not going to show you until the work is done. This guitar has an "eye" on the front, down below the air hole. Because it is a matched set that made the top, a couple of little growth rings come together just perfectly. It is as though a cyclops is watching you from down there. I love that, so natural and unexpected.

What was most interesting about this part of buildmyguitar was watching Bruce use the various rigs he has constructed to get specific jobs done. Dremel tools are a guitar maker's good friend, something Christian Martin did not have back in the 1830s when he started building fine guitars in New York. That gives you a good sense of what a craftsman he was as he built his way into American guitar history.

We finish this binding challenge next week, I suspect, then move on to the neck.

Please keep reading!