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.


  1. Fascinating. Looking forward to seeing and hearing it

  2. Why am I holding my breath as I am reading this blog??? Such a work of art!