Chapter Five – Alive!

You guys, I’m on a huge roll with these puns. Five Alive? I mean, the drink, the Halloweeniness(?) of the season, and the fact that I need to reaffirm that I am, indeed, alive and well…it’s just gold. That leads me to my next point – sorry! I’ve been in the shop less and less these days due to a few events, both scheduled and unforeseen. That all means that I’ve had less time to write and less to write about. But fret not! (I’m not as proud of that pun as the others). I’m back with lots to talk about. Let’s dive in!

With the mold for my guitar’s sides created, and my top and back in good shape, it was time to get bending. Bending the sides is a simple enough procedure, it just involves a bit of delicacy in the amount of force you put behind it. Since my guitar is designed custom, there’s no side bending jig that I can use that would just sort of fold the sides to shape. That means I did it the old-fashioned way…

beh

This is the old-fashioned way, in case you were wondering.

So, that’s the bending iron, along with my sides, and a spray bottle of water. It’s exactly what you think – drench the wood and, by hand, bend it around the bending iron so that it will sit happily and comfortably in the curves of my mold. Well, maybe you weren’t thinking exactly that. But you had the general idea, I’m sure. The steam is what allows the wood to bend and retain its shape afterward. This stage took a bit of getting used to, with respect to how much pressure I could apply. It’s not a terribly thick piece of wood, so I was nervous at first to press too hard. With time (and instruction), I learned that I was applying nowhere near enough downward force, and adjusted easily enough – bending the second side took much less time than the first. Very luckily, I did not learn the hard way what too much pressure would do. Let’s hope I keep that lucky streak up.

Spraying the wood with water also gives an approximate preview of how the wood will look when it’s finished, and you can really see the curls in the walnut – super excited to have that come to life!

Give'im the clamps!

Give’im the clamps!

Here’s one side, bent and clamped. It ended up staying in this position for a long time (due to me being out of the shop for so long), but the guitar will stay in this shape for the rest of its/my life and maybe longer, so I guess that’s not a bad thing.

With the bending out of the way, it was time to glue in those neck and end blocks that I spent so much time crafting last week. These blocks (especially the end block) are pretty much the sole determinants of the centre line of my guitar. This is the basis for most of the measurements from here on out, so to say gluing it in straight is important is like saying molten lava is warm. Gluing the pieces up was very satisfying, though, because this was the first real glimpse of the profile of my guitar!

body

Just ignore the clamps and it looks pretty.

Thar she blows! It really is a massive body I’ve designed. This thing will be loud. All kinds of loud. I’m happy with that though, since I tend to play softly more often than not, so it should all work out well. I also wanted a big body to make sure I’ve got enough air inside the body for that low B string to really punch.

While I was waiting for that to dry, I had some time to consider some aesthetic elements. Where the strap button at the butt end of the guitar will live, there’s room for a piece of decorative wood. I don’t actually remember what this area is called. It’s kind of weird. Anyway, this is what I’m talking about, and here’s what I decided to do with mine:

Blackfrican wood?

African Blackwood again!

I decided to revisit that piece of blackwood from the rosette for this one because -…well, because. Look at how cool it is! You can’t say no to that. In reality, the light part of the wood is a little more yellow, and of course, when finished, it will pop even more. I won’t yet fit that in the guitar though, this was something else to work on while waiting.

That’s another important thing to note – there’s never any real “waiting” time. You might be waiting for something, but there’s definitely something else you could be working on while glue is drying, finish is curing, epoxy is setting, etc.

The next phase of construction was still work on the sides of my guitar. I would create lateral braces, and cut the kerfed lining to size. The braces are for structural integrity, in the (terrifying and hopefully never real) event that the guitar should split up the sides, it would be stopped between the braces. The kerfing is basically a gluing surface for the back and the top, but I would bet that it functions as a kind of mini bass trap for the corners of the guitar, like you would have in a recording studio.

Here are a couple progress pictures:

Kerfing

One side glued, the other side gluing

Still kerfing

Both glued

Timely

Spooky guitar ghost!

Perfect for the Halloween season – sanding the kerfing to get my guitar into shape left this really cool outline on the workbench – so spectral!

In case you didn’t know, I’m definitely human. Something went wrong with my guitar, and even though it wasn’t my fault (nor anybody’s), it’s good to know how to deal with this kind of thing when it happens. As it dried out some more, the back of my guitar developed a crack. It was a bit terrifying at first, I thought I was screwed, but it was really not a big deal, and I patched it up quickly.

Patch

Here it is, glued up.

So, it doesn’t look too pretty right now, but once it’s sanded and all, I doubt anybody would be able to find it.

That’s this week, all wrapped up! Stay tuned, I’ll be back soon to close up the body and turn this thing into a guitar-shaped thing!

Chapter Four – Square

You guys, I did it again. With the title. Chapter Four, square? Like the game, foursquare? But also because I spent a lot of this week making sure things were square. It’s a great pun, trust me.

But seriously, squaring things up was the name of the game this week. The end block and neck block are pretty key components in determining how straight my guitar will be put together, and so they need to be dead square. Like, ultra precise square, pray the gay away kind of straight. You know, if that kind of thing actually turned people straight (it doesn’t). But seriously, no margin for error in these parts.

Before that though, there was a more important shape to create – my guitar body! Up to now, I had no template for the sides of my guitar and how it would curve. I had drawn the shape on my plans, and cut the top and back roughly to the right dimensions, but the mold around which I would bend my sides didn’t exist yet, because up until now, the shape of my guitar didn’t exist. I had drawn it up myself, and to my knowledge, no other guitar in the world will have these exact dimensions (just another benefit of this course, and handmade guitars in general). So now, I needed a frame where my sides would live while they took shape.

After gluing together a whole bunch of heavy plywood, I roughly cut out the body of my guitar on the band saw, then got the inside corners nice and smooth. If these sides weren’t smooth, the sides of my guitar wouldn’t be smooth either, and that would be disastrous. In the end, here’s how it looked:

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What's that song about fat bottom girls?

It’s going to be big. Originally, it was a jumbo body shape that I then modified with sloped shoulders, and I moved the waist down a little bit. I’m hoping for a big, clear low end so that my low B string is nice and articulate.

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Family photo!

Here are the three pieces I’ve worked on so far. I’m quite happy with my progress!

Back to the blocks. In the process of getting these corners perfectly 90°, I got a little careless with the sander. Not ‘bye bye epidermis’ careless. With the grain running perpendicular to the sander, I pushed a bit too hard and I lost control of the block I had spent a good chunk of time getting square. A big corner got rounded off, too far down to be able to salvage it. Back to square one.

Silver lining sidebar – the next piece of wood I used for the neck block was made of Spanish cedar and my god, it smells so good. Why are we still using sandalwood scents but not cedar?!

Getting those perfect took time and patience and a nice slab of marble to ensure perfect flatness, but in the end I got them in great shape. There was a very satisfying *clack* made by sliding the square down onto the sides of my blocks. No gaps, no air, no nonsense. And after both of them were the right dimensions, totally square on every side, they were done, right?

Wrong.

Now they have to be radiused! Since they’ll sit inside the guitar body, they have to match the inside curve of the guitar body itself. After all that work, it was a bit terrifying going to the sander again to get this side done. If I screwed up, that’s a lot of time down the drain! Lucky for me…

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I nailed it!

I mean, I haven’t actually put nails in it, so I didn’t literally nail it, I just… Oh whatever, you get it.

So that’s what I’ve got! Chapter Five next week is going to be a good one. See you then!

Chapter Three – Dimensions

There was a lot of visible progress this week – my pieces of wood are starting to look the way a guitar does! Or at least, a guitar in a million pieces. And only the body, not the neck. But hey – if it takes a few weeks to build something I’ll have for (hopefully) my entire life, I’m okay with that. Mostly, I focused on finishing the bracing. Whereas I have been working mostly on flat surfaces, I’ve now begun to build the guitar up. That’s why I called the post dimensions. Do you see what I did there? Because it’s chapter three, and I called it dimensions? Like, three dimensions? It was subtle. Just like this is.

Shaping the bracing, as I mentioned, got easier with each one I made. At first it was a bit slow and got me a bit anxious, worrying that if I screw up I have to go back to the raw lumber and cut a whole new one. That fear subsides once you get into the rhythm of making them, because it actually doesn’t take that long to make each one when you know the steps. Not that I want to be wasting wood or time willy-nilly, but, it’s not the end of the world if I botch one. Here are a few of them all lined up:

Way cooler than other adult braces.

Back braces are way cooler than adult braces.

You can also see the strip running up the back of the guitar that was glued on earlier. That simply supports the joint of the two pieces of wood on the back. I carefully sawed away slots for these braces to sit in, and then began gluing:

Go bars are neat!

Go bars are neat!

This workbench is set up specifically for this purpose – setting lengths of wood between the part of the guitar I’m working on and the ceiling over the bench applies pressure on the braces, ensuring a perfect fit between the two parts. The ‘go bar deck’ is used very often, not just on braces, and without it, building guitars would be really, really, really difficult. I don’t know about hard numbers, but each of those pieces of wood take a fair amount of strength to flex. Multiply that by the number of them on there at the moment (26 or so? I didn’t bother to count. I told you, no hard numbers)…anyway, there’s a hell of a lot of pressure.

Bracing the top was just the same, with the exception of the layout of the braces. I took the same steps in gluing them onto my top:

This brace is probably the most important of all the braces.

10 points if you can guess what this brace is called.

Any takers? No? It’s the X-brace. Yep, they really stretched on that one. I guess they didn’t have any importance left for naming it, since structurally and sonically, it’s probably the most important brace in the entire guitar. They were quite a pain to shape, since the intersection of the two braces, as you can see, is not arched like the rest. That makes it much tougher to get a symmetrical shape on both sides, but I think I managed pretty well.

While that glue was setting, I went about shaping the other braces for the top. Some of them are done the same way, but smaller braces called ‘fingers’ are something I shaped by hand, and that led to a shot that I’ve noticed is obligatory for any woodworking project:

Look at all them curly ribbons!

Look at all them curly ribbons!

I used a tiny little finger plane to cut down the corners, then sanded them smooth. When everything was shaped and glued up, the top looked like this:

Here's what it looks like with all of the top braces glued on.

Don’t worry – the way they’re arranged doesn’t make much sense to me either.

You can also see a different wood in the middle of everything – that’s the bridge plate. Mine is made of maple, so it’s a lot stronger than spruce, but it’s quite thin so as to be flexible enough not to inhibit the movement of the top.

As I mentioned before, though, a big chunk of time is dedicated to things you can’t see rather than things you can – that means I took a tiny little chisel (that brown thing in the bottom right of the photo above) and scraped away all the excess glue that had been squeezed out by the go bars. Following that, I sanded those areas down to cover up all the nasty gouges I made in the wood trying to scrape off the glue. As Jeremy told me, my goal is to “make it look like it grew that way.” So until wood grows with braces already attached, I’ll keep honing my skills here and try to end up with something that looks as good as it sounds.

I’m in Montreal this coming week, so it’ll be an extra week before the next post. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post a few interesting things and photos in the meantime. Cheers!

Chapter Two – Gaining Momentum

After a week of my ‘day job,’ getting back to the shop was such a joy. Sure the work is tiring and takes focus, but so far, this build has been incredibly rewarding.

Right away, I was eager to see what my rosette would look like, so I went right to the thickness sander to take down the excess material on the top. A bit of the symmetry got lost, but it still turned out looking very cool.

Rosette done!

That is, it looks great there. On closer inspection…

Pobody's Nerfect

…well, almost.

The imperfections in my cut are pretty noticeable at this point, but later on, I’m told they’ll be basically invisible. Being told that was pretty relieving. I’m expecting one or two ugly bits on my first build, but I’d like as few as possible.

Another development took place – the arrival of my back and sides! I’m not sure if I mentioned it last time, but I selected walnut as it is a tonal midpoint between mahogany and rosewood. I have actually never played walnut back and sides before, but if you know me, you know I like to be unique and try things I’ve never tried.

Walnut

So strange…

There are weird stress marks in the sapwood, and I wonder if there was a band around the tree that caused them. If anybody knows more about them, feel free to enlighten me. I glued the back pieces together, using the same labour-intensive jointing method as I did on the top. As I sanded the back to thickness, it became stranger and stranger, and the dark stuff got more spread out, but I ended up liking the back side better (the grain didn’t align perfectly anyway). Here it is glued, sanded, and roughcut:

Spread

This definitely looks better.

This is when I started to cut the bracing. Making my first two braces was a slow and difficult process. With each one I made after that, though, it became easier and easier. The last couple took me no time at all! I was happy with that progress. There aren’t many skills one can manifest so quickly as that – woodworking is so gratifying in that sense, and I’m eager to continue growing as a craftsperson. And that brings us to…

This Week’s Epiphany:

(I don’t actually know if I’ll do one of these as a regular feature, but if I continue to learn things like this as I go, I’ll continue to note them)

It’s easy to get frustrated about a lot of the work that goes into a guitar. Why? Because so much of your time is spent on things you’ll never see – but the thing is, you spend that time and energy to make sure you don’t see them. It’d be easy to make a guitar that had glue leaking out of every joint and furry wood that isn’t sanded, etc. Form and function have to be equal in this kind of work. I’m hoping I can walk that tightrope right to the other side!

Until next week, and Chapter Three.

Chapter One – In The Beginning…

So, even before the beginning, I had some decisions to make about the guitar I wanted to build, and how.

First, the type of guitar. I could go for an electric, a steel-string acoustic, a classical, or an archtop. In many ways (but not all), that’s also the order of complexity involved in the construction, with a solid body electric being the simplest, and an archtop being the most involved. With some guidance, I chose to build an acoustic because it’s a good foundation for taking skills to other guitar types.

From day one, I was head first and hands on. Planning, as it should be, is step one. Body shape, size, and details like string spacing all come into play here. This is typically a pretty straight-forward process, but since I’m a masochist, I decided I was going to do it big: a seven-string fanned fret acoustic guitar. Sure, I could copy some classic design by Martin, Taylor, etc., but why build something I could buy at a store? Boring. That’s what boring people do. So, planning took a few extra minutes to make sure the bridge plate would fit between the braces (here’s a labelled diagram detailing what those things are), among other less-than-typical issues. Small potatoes, in the end – it was easy enough making sure that my guitar wouldn’t collapse on itself.

With the plans drawn and cut to shape, I wasted no time in getting to the next step – selecting a top wood. This process centres around three components: the wood type; aesthetics; and tap tones. For the type of wood, although no two pieces of anything are exactly alike, certain trees have certain typical characteristics. For example, since cedar is a little softer, it’s often used in classical building. Sitka spruce is a very popular steel string guitar top. For my guitar, I chose red/Adirondack spruce. After tapping flat pieces of wood beside my ear for a good 10-15 minutes, I decided that this piece had a nice combination of resonance and variety in the overtones. What’s even better is that I looked back at it after, and realized that the top has some really nice figuring on it! Once it’s sanded and finished, I think the top of this guitar is going to look extraordinary. Unfortunately, the pictures I’ve taken don’t show this, but I guess that’s how to build suspense, right? You’ll see it when it’s finished!

Here’s something that wasn’t on the brochure: you’re going to do a LOT of sanding. The amount of sanding in your head? Triple it, and that’s just the beginning. It’s for a purpose, of course, as things have to be airtight in their fittings, but man…I just wasn’t ready for it. That said, the more time you spend sanding, the more rewarding it is when you do get that airtight fit.

So my top pieces were joined together, and it was time to design my rosette. I mentioned before that I like making trouble for myself, so I decided a crescent shaped rosette was a good idea. I chose some interesting wood, and since I don’t yet know what type it is, I have been affectionately referring to it as bumblebee wood.

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If anybody can identify the wood, major props!

Once I had taken a few slices off, I got to arranging this wood into an aesthetically pleasing pattern:

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I could also call it “Rorschach wood” and be happy.

After that, I superglued it down and used a Dremel to cut out my crescent:

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It really is awesome wood.

You’ll notice the corner on top is not in the photo. That’s because after routing out the shape, it was no longer attached. Remember that time when I told you I have no woodworking experience? That showed here. But the good news is, there’s a solution to that problem, and that solution is glue. I prettied it up, glued some purfling around the in and outside, and traced it onto my guitar top. That was then Dremelled, chiselled, and knifed into the perfect fit. Once I got it where it needed to be, I mixed up the epoxy, gobbed it in the cavity, and set it to dry. I have to wait a whole week until I’m back in class, but I can’t wait to see how it looks!

Look out for Chapter Two next week!

Chapter Zero – Prologue

Lutherie: the craft of making stringed instruments.

BB King ran into a burning building to save his “Lucille.” Brian May built his Red Special with his father out of an old fireplace mantle. Guitars are more than just instruments to almost anybody who owns one. Whether it was that week in college you wanted to learn Wonderwall to get laid, or that year you spent holed up in your room learning albums note for note, or an entire lifetime with a guitar you got on your 11th birthday, guitars have stories. To be a part of those stories, though, seems even more special. To create something that somebody connects with on a deep level, hopefully for the rest of their life, is amazing to me. That’s a big part of why I’m taking this next step in my life.

I’ve decided to study under Jeremy Nicks at the Canadian School of Lutherie. You should definitely look at their website and see what they’re about.

The reason I’m writing this blog is to show you, day by day, exactly what it’s like learning the craft. There’s no shortage of people posting videos of their work on guitars. The thing is, though, those people all know what they’re doing. I’m flying in blind – I’ve got no woodworking experience, and I’ve only done small work on my own guitars with probably none of the right tools. I just know guitars and what I love about them.

For anybody who has a passion for the way instruments work, this will be a great vessel for knowing exactly what goes into a handmade guitar. For anybody considering an education in instrument construction and repair, I’ll do my best to give you a real look at what you need to put into it to get the most out of it. For everybody else, I’ll occasionally tell knock-knock jokes. …no. No, I won’t. That would be bad. But there will be some pretty pictures and I hope my colour commentary and colourful language on the path to success will be entertaining.

So, now you know the plan. I’m starting my education under very capable leadership, and I’m incredibly excited to come out with a new set of skills. Building an acoustic guitar will be my first project, and I’ll be posting on instagram under the handle @learninglutherie. I’ll document my learning and progress here, along with photos of my progress, and I hope you enjoy following my journey!

Chapter 1 – coming soon