Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Special Finishing Touches

Here's something you should see before it's finished:

It looks kind of like a bird, but it's not a bird at all. It's a spark, or maybe a special star. I don't know. It's a little design Bruce Roper decided I needed on the top of my guitar, and I completely agreed. He drew it on paper first then etched out with a wax pencil on the guitar head.
Almost all guitars have something to identify themselves up on top. But typically, it's just going to be a brand name. Gibson is distinctive. C.F. Martin is distinctive, too. The rest of them all have their look, but the common nature of them kind of diminishes them, to my mind. So I told Bruce to be as creative as he wanted to be without going outside the boundaries of taste. He already has a relief "M" in the top to identify it as Madigan's guitar. The little flash you can see here will make that even more clear.

How he does it makes it even more interesting. Were he using Mother of Pearl or any other kind of flashy insert, he would have to cut the space to the exact size then the perfect depth then inset the piece of whatever he is using. He might even have to cut the pearl in a design, which is a tedious, difficult process best done underwater because of the effect pearl dust can have on your lungs.

Bruce has found an easier way.

Dental acrylic. Yes. That stuff that gets put into teeth. It's hard as a rock once it sets, doesn't expand or shrink with humidity and looks grand when it's finished. He will mix a paste of epoxy and dental acrylic powder to create a pearl-like goo that he will dab into the impression he has made on the head of my guitar. Then it will set and he will run the top through a belt sander and what comes out looks just like a fancy inlay, but all the risk has been taken out of the process. The hardest part is drawing the symbol and cutting away some hardwood with an Exacto knife with a fresh blade.

It's not a difficult cut, but it takes a lot of pressure that has to be kept away from the outside of the blade. You don't want to disturb the fibers in the adjacent hardwood (rosewood) or the inlay will have what looks like a dent in it. Bruce works patiently with the Exacto Knife, chipping away at the wood. He lifts out tiny particles at one time. I could see myself wrecking this in a hundred ways, but as I watch, Bruce talks about inlays and masterfully slices away.

I can't show you what it looks like this time, but when we get back to it in a few weeks (vacatus interruptus!) it will be sanded down and ready to sparkle.

My lust for this instrument grows as though there were a teenage boy inside of me watching the neighbor lady wash her Thunderbird in a halter top and bikini shorts with lots of soap and water and lots of shifting around.

Wait a minute! Where did THAT come from? There is no place for the suggestively subjunctive mood in a story about building a guitar.

Or is there?

Let me just put it this way. I already love the look of this guitar. I can hardly wait to play it. I can hardly wait for you to hear it.

That's what I meant, without the halter top, bikini bottom and lots of soap.

The rest of the visit was taken up by what might seem a little tedious, but is very important. Bruce worked at sanding the neck and taking out any bumps or rough spots. Every few minutes, he handed it to me to ask me how it felt, then made adjustments.

All of that made me feel pretty special. No one has ever made a custom guitar for me and I like the process a lot. So much, in fact, that I might make one myself when this one is finished. We moved it outside before we started and took a picture with one of Bruce's other guitars for comparison.

Please come back in a few weeks when we finish this project. It needs more gun oil, more adjustment and a couple of final things.

Then, music!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Just About Ready for Picking...

It Looks Pretty Good At The End of the Tunnel!

Take a look at this!

Not quite done, but done enough to tell how it will be

This is Bruce Roper putting some not quite finishing touches, but fascinating touches nonetheless, on my guitar. The Build My Guitar Project is almost over, certainly by the end of the summer. You are probably wondering what is taking so long. The answer to that would be "Nothing, it's taking as long as it takes."

One of the important lessons for me, a man who spent a lifetime meeting and beating deadlines and grinding pretty good stuff out as quickly as I could, is learning the pace of something that simply takes more time. Bruce picked the wood for this guitar when it was still a big slab out in Des Plaines, cut that slab into guitar sets and began the meticulous process of building my guitar back in February. I have watched every step. One of the first things I have to say is if you want to learn how to build a guitar, Bruce is the man to see.


Take a look at this.

Taking a fine measure at the bottom of the neck

Bruce is measuring the little legs he built into the base of the neck of this guitar to make certain it sits flat on the top of the instrument. But he's not measuring them to make sure the slots he cuts for them are exact. He is measuring them because the slots have to be a little loose. This part of the effort is all about setting the guitar neck in the right place, a mixture of mathematics, geometry, craftsmanship and, perhaps most of all, patience. When he starts cutting, Bruce could easily lop a huge whack out of the guitar whenever he wants to. His tools are very sharp and he knows how to use them. No. From here on out, things happen a tiny slice at a time. It's the only way to make certain everything is going to fall into the right place. He's going to need some room to make the neck fit just the way it should. This is where you walk into a world where everything becomes a little unforgiving. So he doesn't want to make any mistakes.

He is using a utility knife here to score the top of the guitar so those little aluminum braces will have slots to slip into. If this guitar top were made of spruce, like most of them, he could cut this just using his utility knife. But it's sapele, a pretty hard wood, so he is going to have to shift soon to a Dremel tool to cut away the rest, then fine tune the slots with chisels. This part of the effort gets a lot of attention because it is a weak spot on most guitars. Bruce knows that after 30 years of repairing them. There's nothing much to vibrate and create sound up at this end of the box, so he is comfortable inserting a little more support so the neck sits flat and the top doesn't move. Thirty years from now (when I am 95....shit! Make that 15 years from now, when I am 80....SHIT! Make that a decade from now....Sh....never mind) Bruce wants these guitars to be as solid as they were on the day he finished them. That's great, because this one is going to get a lot of use over the next 30 ye.....shit! Never mind.

He makes a dozen passes with his Dremel router tool before he is satisfied with the grooves, then slices away paper thin pieces with a very sharp chisel. All the time, he is fitting the neck to see how it sits in the place he is creating for it. Every guitar he builds is different because he is not making a guitar on a factory model. Truth be known, despite the refinements, Bruce could walk into a time machine and step on the floor of any luthier's shop 50, 60, 70 years ago and build a brilliant guitar by himself. It's that individual.

And a little nerve racking for those of us who haven't done this 100 times before.

Another "look at this" moment!

The little top brace channels

The little fingers for stability

See how they will fit together? The little aluminum legs sit right in those grooves. Then they are pulled down by a little block of wood with some machine screws in it that fit into those holes on the legs. tighten it up, and that neck isn't going to move in that direction.

Now it's time to drill what seem to me to be pretty big holes in pretty delicate places. Those are for the neck bolts that hold the neck onto the guitar on the flat plane.

Neck bolts being put into place

Okay, I'm not comfortable with this. You really have to know what you are doing to put bolts like that into a piece of mahogany without splitting a big, ugly chunk off of it. And yet, Bruce gets it done quite neatly. Then he takes his drill to the guitar body and pokes two vast holes in that. I'm starting to sweat. All the time, he's talking about wood and how it works and how some people put dowels into make sure the neck doesn't split and so on.

Look at those babies! Isn't that troubling? Somehow, Bruce gets this all to work without wrecking a single thing. Then he tests the effort and the guitar neck slides into place like it was born there. He will still do some fussing and trimming over it so it fits just right and aligns itself properly with the bridge.

The bridge?

He made one of those, too. It took exactly 21 minutes to go from a rosewood blank to a completed bridge, holes and all.

Here's how it started.

Those are bridge blanks. If you blow this picture up and look closely, you will note that some of them have just hint of pink in them, and we want that. There is just the slightest hint of red/pink in the wood, and a bridge that bonds with that will be very sweet. So we agreed on one. Second from the left on the bottom row. Bruce took it to his sanding machine, cut it down, then found a blank bridge with the right spacing on the holes and used it as a template. Before I knew it, he had the guitar standing with the bridge taped in place.

It's not ready to string up yet. The bridge needs to be glued on, and then Bruce has to decide what angle to give that little saddle the strings ride over. That has to be right. He does it by eye and sound, using two strings to find just the right angle. Then he will cut it with a router and stick a saddle on it. The string holes will be drilled through and...

But that's for the next time.

Please come back.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The toughest guitar job of all, shaping a neck

From Rough Cut to A Great Neck: A Hard Job Done Well

So, here is the challenge. Bruce Roper has mounted the rosewood fingerboard, the rosewood face plate and finished what he can do on a neck that is square and unshaped. When it's all done, he will bolt the neck from a couple of directions on the guitar body, then we move on to the bridge and the final steps. Just now, the question is how do you go from a squared block of mahogany made from three pieces glued together to a smooth, well graded neck that will be a delight to use because of its shape.

There are lots of ways to do this. In many modern guitar factories, computer aided design and manufacturing mills cut everything to perfect dimensions and hand them over ready to finish and put on the guitar. Bruce. the luthier at the Old Town School of Folk Music, doesn't do that. He is a much more traditional builder (despite some modern updates) and that means he is going to take out his rasps, his tiny planes and a host of other tools and cut away everything but a comfortable neck. Then he is going to cut out the headstock he has designed for me.

He is drawing the headstock design on paper here and getting ready to trace it and transfer it to the headstock with a white wax pencil. He talked about this idea months ago, a cutout at the top of the guitar that would look like a stylized "M" for Madigan, with a copper cap on it that would look a little like the letter "C" for Charles. I had no idea how he would be doing it, but he has worked on it for weeks now and I do believe it works very well. It's a clean design with a twist that will make the top of the guitar look very snappy. He will also put a little sparkle in the face of the headstock, not actually a star, but star- like.

But first, the neck.

This gives you a good sense of what he is working with when he starts to shape the neck. As you can see, it's quite square and angular, even though you can tell it's a neck. He is setting up an oscillating drum sander with a jig he created to sand the head stock to the proper width for the tuners we have selected. We're using Grover Tuners because the ratio is right in the gearing and keeps the guitar well in tune (Not all of them do that.) The headstock needs to be cut down a bit because each of the tuners has a collar in which it sits that rises just above the surface of the headstock. You need enough altitude on the tuner to get a string around it a couple of times. So Bruce cuts it down to do that.

This was an important three hours of work because the neck is about the most personal part of the instrument, even though it might seem the body (with its lovely figuring in this case) is more important. A pretty guitar would be worthless with a neck that is too thick, bumpy, badly made, whatever short of perfect. A guitar made for you, now, that is what everyone wants and few guitar players ever get. We're going to cut this to fit a style of guitar we both loved, an old Guild 6 string. The necks on those guitars were thin, easy to hold, easy to play on. That's our goal.

I'm the first person to admit that as I have aged, my hands have suffered. I used to be able to play all night without a problem, but 40 years of typing and wood working and God only knows what else has left me a little stiff in the hands. A comfortable neck will help with that. It's such an important thing that I won't consider a guitar that doesn't have one. And I will pay a good deal of money for one that does. My Martin D-28 from the 1950s is a delight, as is my Martin D-35S 12 string, which is easy to play and very fast for such a big instrument. I have a Collings that is a great guitar, but is not as friendly on the hands as the Martins. I can already tell that Bruce's guitar is going to be in the high comfort range.

Bruce puts the roughed-out neck on the frame he has designed for neck finishing, holding it down with a couple of luthier's clamps. In his right hand he holds something like a cheese rasping tool, but it's a lot tougher. He uses it to mark the neck at he first and seventh frets at just the right depth. Then he tasks a different rasp and starts slicing away at the mahogany neck. It is very surprising to me how quickly the work goes. Part of that is because Bruce only uses good tools, but the other part is the expertise.

Guitar making is full of little and not so little challenges and problems, and each instrument a hand builder makes presents a new one to solve. Bruce has made his decision about how he cuts his necks, but that creates a challenge up where it hooks onto the guitar. It's awkward to cut, so it takes a little time and some thought.

These four photos give you an idea of the array of tools Bruce has to use to complete cutting the neck.

Rasp rough cuts and takes away big slices of wood

Grater is a little more specific

Simple hack saw to cut the heel

Maybe Bruce's favorite new tool, a rasp that has randomly placed teeth.
It leaves no marks in the wood.

Maybe two hours after he starts this process, nothing looks the same as it did at the beginning and I'm just standing there thinking, "How did he do that so perfectly?" The answer is simple. He is careful and he knows how. During this process, Bruce ran through a little speech on mistakes and how they change your approach toward what you do. My sense is that this is an ongoing process that won't ever stop with Bruce,  and maybe is not a bad way to look at doing anything worthwhile.

Just about completed

Bruce is rightly proud of this part of the neck. He cuts it to look something like the prow of a ship, then trims away the sides and the front to give him the great slope he needs to finish that neck. Everything will be smoothed out and sanded over the next few days.
Once the neck was cut the way Bruce wanted it, he immediately shifted to one of the nicest grace notes on the guitar, the head stock cut that will identify it as mine. Lots of guitars say Gibson on top, or C.F. Martin, or Guild, or Collings. This one is just going to say CM, in its own way, with a little star-like sparkle beneath the stylized letters.

This is where Bruce moves comfortably into uncharted waters. Bruce has drawn the pattern for the cutout on the headstock and is using his small bandsaw to nibble away at it, just a tiny slice at a time. You can see from the wax pencil drawing how the cut out is supposed to look when Bruce is done. He is very meticulous about this because it's one of those things you just can't fix if you screw it up. This is a good lesson in why people who build guitars (or anything, actually) need to take things slowly.

Add a little work with some files and some sanding and there you have it!

An "M" for Madigan at the top of it all. Lovely.

Come back soon to see what's going to be next. We're close to a finish.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Necking with Bruce! (Not THAT necking!)

I have been waiting for this point for months, this chance to neck with Bruce Roper. Guitar neck, that is. But first, a status picture. It gives you a sense of what a beautiful guitar Roper builds.

We're so close to finishing this I can almost hear it. The beauty of this guitar is simply overwhelming. It doesn't even have its final coats of finish on it yet and it already looks like a catalogue model! I took the body home Tuesday to help with some humidity problems.

I'm at the point now where I regret even mentioning those humidity bumps in the last blogs. I'm such a journalist (still) looking for drama, or sex, or whatever (Necking with Bruce...pretty clever, no?) that I made way too much of it. Sorry Bruce and sorry to the readers for getting obsessive about these kinds of things.

Someone should just slap me.

(No, I'm just kidding.)

All guitars have their flaws, and it's every builder's challenge to finish the instrument so you never know what or where they are. Even the old Martin guitars have that annoying crack between the end of the pick guard and the bridge. It's a function of when the finish is put on and when the pick guard is put on, I've been told. I have two Martin guitars and I would have even more if I could because, crack or not, they will sit you right back in your seat when you hear them because they are that good.

It's crucial to always remember that guitars are about sound and emotion.

How they look? Ask Willie Nelson about Trigger!

Trigger. Photo from John Bell Photography
Not the kind of thing you would expect to see in the museum of snappy pretty guitars, huh? But it sounds just about as good as any old nylon stringed Martin is ever going to sound. Nelson won't give it up.

For the record, no one is going to wear a hole in mine. It will not have a name. There will be no autographs on it except for Bruce's, which you can't see. So, onward...

Guitar necks are inherently mysterious because no one can actually see what is going on inside of there. Hundreds of pounds of string tension are all aimed at pulling them out of line, yet they don't shift (if they are well built) because luthiers account for those kinds of stresses.

Here's Bruce's solution to a couple of stress problems he has encountered, what, hundreds of times in his 30 years of repairing instruments at his own store and then for the Old Town School of Folk Music's Different Strummer shop.

Troughs for aluminum braces

A brace, one of two, in place

This is the heel of the neck, down at the end that hooks onto the body of the guitar. That blue thing running down the middle of the neck is the adjustable tension bar that helps keep the proper shape in the neck despite changes in temperature and humidity. The wood thing coming off the bottom of the neck is a tenon that will fit right into a slot of its size on the body of the guitar. That aluminum bar is one of Bruce's crucial refinements. When he is finished working it over, it will provide a remarkable stability on one of the crucial guitar weak points, the top where the neck fits in. Two of those aluminum struts will be screwed into the fingerboard to make the guitar end of it, the part that fits over the top of the guitar, rigid. It's not going anyplace, in other words.

Best of all, no glue to put it together. It is traumatic for all parties involved to have to remove the glued neck from a guitar. But you can't reset if (inevitable after many years of playing) without doing that and even with great caution, you can damage the guitar quite a bit prying the neck off.  That's because it's glued in a couple of different directions, not the least of which is to the top of the guitar.

Bruce's (and increasingly a lot of other makers) don't work that way.

The neck will be bolted on and as an extra little bit of stability, the fingerboard will be screwed to the ends of these aluminum braces.

I have always wondered how luthiers get their fingerboards to stay in place once they have spread glue all along the neck (and the fingerboard bottom). There is a tiny secret.

Centering the fingeboard

There is a tiny nail beneath the fingerboard to hold it exactly in place as the piece is being smooshed onto the neck. Bruce uses that nail to hold the top of the fingerboard in place as he aligns the bottom with the heel of the neck. Very dandy and leads to a perfectly placed fingerboard.

It takes lots of clamps to hold this down to dry, because this glue joint is one of the most important in the guitar. It must resist all those tensions, never shift, never break away from the neck and stay flatly in place, no matter what. 

Clamped and drying
Everything is going to sit for about a week now. Then we'll gather for some of the final touches. Bruce will put the neck on, the tuners and locate the perfect spot for the bridge (where the strings hook on). We'll also look at some final finish points that will make this my guitar, no questions asked.

Please come back.