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.


  1. i can hear it strummin on the sunporch at bethany already. I'll bring my taylor parlor along...looking forward to seeing this beauty...i'll sit and envy your neck width. (well ,the guitars..not yours)

  2. Wonder filled anticipation of a work or art! So happy that you have such a skillful friend. The promise of August!

  3. Mr. are a winner in my book! Thanks for sharing such a fun journey...harmony is in order...very, very soon!

  4. Oh , the music we will make!! So great. Anxious to see---and HEAR that lovely instrument.