Workshop renovations part 1

I have been talking about this for several months and now the time is finally here! Over the next couple of weeks, my workshop will be undergoing all sorts of transformations to hopefully result in something more efficient and less dusty. The plan is to a) build a couple of partition walls to separate the workshop from the furnace/utility room, b) enclose the laundry machines in a closet, and c) create new benches and shelves to maximize storage efficiency. Hopefully this will keep some of the dust that I create out of my “clean” clothes and out of the rest of the house. Once I have these walls in place I will also have more spots to hang shelves and tools, so everything should, in theory, become more organized.

My father and brother have generously donated a week of their time to the cause, so this week I’ll be learning how to properly build a wall, hang drywall, install doors, and possibly do a bit of wiring, rather than fumbling around myself as I so often do. Most of the time fumbling around seems to work pretty well for me, but other times, like today, I slip with a hammer and punch myself in the face.

Before they arrive I wanted to get the demolition part done and start on a few of the smaller things so that we don’t waste too much time on things that I can do myself. I’ll also be moving a lot of the stuff temporarily out of the workshop, but I haven’t yet decided where to put everything, and I don’t want to make Craig climb through my workshop mess for too long!

On the topic of workshop mess, I started this reno project about 2 weeks ago with a bit of a clear out. Over the 2.5 years that I have been here, I have managed to amass an awful lot of junk, scrap parts, and cardboard boxes, so I made a few trips out to the dumpster with armloads of unnecessary clutter. I am sure that there is more to go, so I’ll spend a bit of time this week getting rid of things that I don’t need or use.

Here’s what my shop looked like in the middle of that first clear out day:

Yes, I had my computer down in the shop and was listening to a video while tidying up – not a great habit, but it did make cleaning more fun. At some point I’ll install some kind of CD player or speaker in my workshop so that I can listen to music, but that isn’t top of my priorities at the moment.

What I’m working with

My workshop is in a 14′ x 17′ rectangular basement room with no windows and a few significant obstacles. First off, there are a couple of low ceiling/unusable areas due to stairways. Secondly, I have my furnace and water heater in the same room as well as the washing machine, dryer, and laundry tub. It is great to have the water source right there for clean up, but I do worry about dust getting into everything. For the past couple of years I have been using old sheets to cover up the machines, but that is not always practical, and I can’t do a whole lot about the furnace due to things like fire.

Because of these obstacles, as I said before, the plan is to build a couple of partition walls. Once this is done, I’ll end up with a lopsided T-shaped workspace with about 140 square feet of space. I’ll sacrifice some floor area, but I will gain an awful lot of wall space, which is almost as valuable in a workshop.

I am going to keep my main bench in the same location that it has been, but I will shorten it from an 8 foot bench to a 6 foot. I wasn’t using the full 8 feet anyway due to the washing machine location, and this will give me a little bit more floor space (likely for bike storage in the winter). I am also going to add a second, slightly smaller bench on the other side of my shop, which I think will be incredibly handy. Both of these benches will have smooth plywood tops, which will be a significant upgrade from the uneven slatted bench I have been using.

The drill press and bandsaw aren’t going anywhere, but I am going to add another piece of equipment in the next couple of weeks – a proper dust collector. This will go in the low ceiling corner where I used to have piles of wood.

Demolition

The first thing to go was the rough shelving unit on which I had been storing my wood. I moved the wood out of the workshop and gave the structure a couple of taps with a hammer, and the whole thing just about fell off of the wall! I think it was a good thing that I took it down – not sure how much longer it would have lasted!

I then used a bunch of scrap wood to create a scrap lumber bin to replace the old cardboard box. I created something out of all sorts of random offcuts, so it looks rather rough, but is quite serviceable. At some point I’ll add wheels – it is just about impossible to move around at the moment!

In the picture below you can see the corner where the shelf used to be and can catch a glimpse of my lumber cart beside the drill press:

After this was gone, the next thing to go was the bench, which was a physically demanding task due to the size and weight of the structure and how tightly it was tucked in between a post and the wall. I managed to get it apart for the most part, and also took down the shelf that was above the bench so that I would have a clean slate to work with. I don’t have a very good hammer or a pry-bar, so the bench top had to stay in almost one piece. I used a hand saw to cut it into 2 pieces so that I could lean it up against a wall to get it out of the way.

Getting rid of the bench meant that I had a lot of tools and junk to find temporary homes for…

It still looks almost like that – tomorrow’s task perhaps?

Construction part 1

I have not done much as I am waiting on a delivery from Home Depot, but I did manage to get a start on some basic tool storage. I decided to hang some plywood behind where my bench will be so that I have something solid to hang tools from. I started by strapping some scrap 2 foot long, 1 inch thick lumber to the studs in the wall, and then attached a piece of 2′ x 4′ plywood to the straps. This piece will be off-centre of my 6 foot long bench as I have a little shelving unit to fit on the left end. I used dowels and nails to create hooks for my favourite and most used tools on this board. I also hung another plywood board to the right side of the bench location where I can hang larger tools and things that I don’t need as frequently.

Finally I put a 4 inch piece of wood on top of the ledge above the plywood boards to create a narrow shelf for glue and finishes to have them easily accessible. I set up a temporary bench on a couple of saw horses so that I can do a bit of work this week.

And that is the current state of my shop. In about a week it will look completely different – I can’t wait!

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Mysterious buzz repair

I don’t take on many repair jobs, but this one came in from one of Craig’s students, and I couldn’t say no. It is a beautiful, simple guitar made by a Swedish guitar builder, Bo Wretling in 1968. The guitar is really easy to play due to a 630mm scale length, low action, and a narrow and thin neck. The trouble was that it had an annoying buzz on the low open strings, and sometimes in the 1st and 2nd fret positions.

Of course, my immediate thought was that it would be a simple action or fret issue – the action at the first fret was quite a bit lower than I would normally have a guitar set up. Normally I set the first fret action on the 6th string to about 1mm so that I can really dig in when I am playing and not worry about buzzing. This guitar was just about 0.5mm at the 1st fret, 6th string, which is very low for a classical guitar.

With this in mind, I started by trying to raise the action at the nut, adding shims and hoping to get rid of the buzz. Nothing worked – even when the action was well over 1.5mm, the buzz rang out, maybe even worse than before.

So I removed the strings and reached inside the guitar, thinking that I might find a loose brace. And I did – there was a pad just under the bridge that was not glued down very well, so I thought “awesome, I’ve solved it. Simple fix.” I boiled up some glue and worked it into the crack, which took some doing – it is not easy to get glue into a place that you can’t see. It took two sessions of gluing to get the pad secured. I let it sit for a day and then restrung the guitar only to find that my repair had done absolutely nothing for the buzz.

Next I checked the tuning machines – they seemed to rattle a bit when tapped, and the buzz did sound faintly metallic, so perhaps it was just a sympathetic buzz from old tuning machines. But even when I removed the offending tuner, the guitar continued to buzz.

Fed up, perplexed, and frustrated, I decided to get some felt and mute all of the possible rattles from strings and tuning machines just to make sure that it wasn’t just a loose string end buzzing against a piece of wood or a back buzz from one of the strings where it touched the headstock. It wasn’t any of these things – the buzz continued.

Then I decided to take a closer look at the bridge, and noticed that the string holes in the tie block were extremely worn. I also noticed that when I touched the 6th string behind the saddle, the buzz stopped. At this point I was pretty sure that the buzz was coming from the saddle, so I just had to figure out how to stop it. I decided to try an absurdly high saddle to see if that would stop the buzz, and it did. Finally there was no buzz. Of course, it also made the guitar completely unplayable, but at least I knew what the problem was.

Because of how worn the tie-block holes were, there was almost no break angle over the saddle, so the bass strings were flapping against the saddle. This explained why the buzzes only happened with open strings or in the lower positions – playing a note a the 12th fret or in a higher position would put enough force down on the saddle to prevent the buzz, but there was not enough downward pressure with open strings or in the first and second frets.

All I had to do was figure out how to repair the holes and/or change the string-break angle. Luckily I was spending 24 hours by myself in a car last weekend (13 hours to and 11 hours back from Virginia for my concert in Charlottesville), so I had plenty of time to come up with ideas.

Solution number 1 would be to use a higher saddle. The trouble with that is that the action at the 12th fret was already about 4.5mm, which is about the highest that I would like it to be for playability. A higher saddle could also compromise the intonation of the instrument, so I decided against this.

Solution number 2 would be to somehow make tiny wedges to attach inside the worn tie block holes. I ruled this one out because it seemed way too finicky and liable to fail in the next couple of months or when the strings get changed.

Solution number 3 would be to remove the bridge and either make a new bridge or repair the existing one. I decided that this would potentially cause a lot of damage to the instrument, and would be very labour intensive, so I decided not to remove the bridge.

The final solution that I came up with was to just replace the tie block itself. This was by far the simplest, least invasive and most likely to last solution that I could come up with, so I got to work by cutting off the tie-block with my Japanese saw. I then cleaned up the cut with a small plane, chisel, and some sandpaper so that the tie block area was left perfectly flat and ready for a new block.

I used the saw to cut off the tie block because I wanted to save the mosaic inlay that was atop the block so that I could attach it to the new block to make the repair less noticeable.

I made a new block out of ebony – the original bridge is rosewood, but I decided to use ebony so that the holes don’t wear as badly. Once I had the block sized and drilled, I glued the original mosaic veneer to the top

and then glued the tie block to the bridge.

I fashioned a makeshift caul for the inside of the guitar out of cork and a scrap piece of wood, and clamped the tie block much like I would a bridge.

After a little bit of clean up and a quick coat of shellac, I think it looks pretty great:

The repair is not invisible – if you look closely, you can see that the tie block is now a sandwich of rosewood and ebony, but it is not noticeable at first glance.

Of course, the best part is that this repair worked. By increasing the string-break angle by a little bit (I should have measured the before and after), I managed to eliminate the buzz, and improve the tone of this guitar. This was a good exercise for me actually as it proved the importance of a good string-break angle in guitar construction. (This was not the fault of the original builder, just the wearing of time). I will be more aware of this in my own construction from this point on.

Completed guitar no. 021

The guitar is finally finished! I say finally because I went over my initial timeline for this guitar by about 2 months, largely due to taking on the Hamilton guitar project and all of the travelling that I squeezed into the summer. I think it looks pretty fantastic and I am equally happy with how it sounds and plays. For a traditionally built guitar, this one has a decent amount of volume with responsive basses and singing trebles. I find that the guitar responds without a lot of effort and my fretting hand feels pretty comfortable on the 640mm scale. Unfortunately I will be delivering the guitar very soon, so I don’t get much of a chance to play her!

Since the last building update, I have spent many hours applying (and removing) shellac. I started by brushing on a few coats and working some pore filler into the rosewood. That took me longer than it should have – I am not a big fan of the pore filler that I was using. Next time I’ll be using the traditional French polishing method of filling pores rather than mucking around with another product. Once the pores were mostly filled, I switched gears a bit and started padding on shellac (“French Polishing”). I am by no means an experienced polisher, so I ended up having to sand out many more imperfections than I care to admit, but in the end, it has turned out passably well. I will save a more in depth discussion of French Polishing until I am more confident in the process.

Once I was happy with the top, I made a bridge out of rosewood and fitted and glued it in position. Of course I then had to go back and fix a couple of scratches in the polish, so I got out my shellac again and polished a bit more.

Then I hammered in the frets in and set the guitar up to play so that a couple of friends and colleagues could try out the guitar, and of course, the finish was damaged slightly during the test runs with all of the rasgueados and tapping, so I had to pull out the shellac once more and polish away the scratches. Luckily shellac, although time consuming, is quite forgiving, so after all of this, it looks pretty decent.

I have to say, I am quite fond of the birdseye maple fingerboard. At first I was skeptical, but now that I see the finished guitar with the rosette and everything working together, I think that bright fingerboard is quite stunning. It was also easier to work with than ebony or rosewood because pencil lines showed up really easily on the light wood!

I think this light fingerboard works so well because I kept the overall palette of the guitar quite simple. Rather than cramming in every exciting bit of wood that I could find, I stuck to cedar, rosewood, birdseye maple, white purfling, and a little bit of ebony. The bright fingerboard is balanced between a rosewood headstock veneer and a rosewood bridge.

And can I gloat a little bit over the success of the rosette? This was requested by the client, so I cannot take ownership of the idea, but I am pretty happy with the execution:

I did consider (after comments from some readers, actually) adding a new moon on the fingerboard to complete the lunar cycle, but after looking at it, thought that it looked a bit odd, and the client and I decided that we preferred the simple, clean look of an uninterrupted fingerboard.

I did put a little bit of Lee Valley’s varnish oil on the fingerboard and the bridge to protect the wood from dirt and give it a bit of a glow.

Not much else to say on this guitar, but here are a few more pictures:

raised fingerboard detail
Headstock detail featuring a rosewood veneer and Gotoh tuning machines

And so that is it, another one done! I’ll be starting a new guitar soon, but first I have to get through a couple more projects, so you might not see the new build under way until late October.

Updates, concerts, and next projects

Although fall doesn’t officially start until the end of September, to me September 1st feels like the start of the new season, so I decided that it was time for one of my semi-annual newsletter blog posts this week. Also, a lot of things have come up over the last couple of weeks, so I have a few things to share!

Upcoming concerts

As you know, over the next year I will be finishing up the recording of my first CD, so, in theory, I should have a good list of repertoire to draw on for concerts. I have set up a few in Ottawa – Dominion Chalmers in November, Glebe St. James in March, St Luke’s with Craig in April, and Trinity Anglican in July, and of course, I have my first concert in the States at the end of this month in Charlottesville. All of the details for these concerts can be found on my website here. It has been a few months since the last time that I performed, so I am looking forward to getting back on the stage. Of course this means that I need to get back into a better practising routine, so that will be my focus for the remainder of this month!

Once my CD is released (late spring/early summer 2019), I will put together some sort of a tour outside of Ottawa to visit some of my favourite recital spaces across Ontario and wherever I can find a willing audience! If you are interested in having me come visit your neck-of-the-woods, please let me know in the comments below, and I will do my best! I can’t promise anything outside of Canada at the moment due to Visa requirements, but I will do whatever I can to make it work 🙂

Next builds

As my current build is coming to an end (the final blog post should come out next week), I was starting to wonder what I would be building next, and all of a sudden I ended up with 2 more commissions! I am very excited to get started on these guitars – one a Padauk and Engelmann spruce guitar, the other made of Ziricote and European spruce, however, I will likely not get anything going until after my workshop is at least partially remodelled in October.

I have already ordered most of the wood for these guitars, and it is quite the colourful selection!

In the meantime, I have a couple of (hopefully easy) repairs waiting in the shop – classical guitars with buzzes, cracks, and holes, and a very interesting mandolin to spruce up and get back into a playable condition.

As I mentioned above, the main project for this fall will be the re-doing of my workshop with the help of my family. I am excited to learn how to frame a wall, hang drywall, and do all of that DIY home reno stuff. With this project, I’ll first be separating my work space from the furnace, utilities, and laundry machines so that I can control the dust in the house a little bit more. To that end I’ll also be purchasing and installing a proper dust collection system. If I have the time, I am also hoping to install a ceiling so that I don’t have quite as much of a problem with dust settling on the pipes and wires in the ceiling. Once that is sorted, I’ll be focussing on building a proper bench (or 2) with a solid, smooth work-surface that caters to my needs. I’ll also be installing shelves and every possible storage solution that I can think of to keep my workshop more tidy and functional.

New directions

Another new development in the past few weeks is that I have taken on a part-time elementary music teacher position at a private school here in Ottawa. I will be teaching ukulele and guitar to grades 4 through 8 two afternoons a week. This is something fairly new for me – I do have some group guitar instruction experience from work that I did in the summer between university years, but I have not really been traditionally employed since high school. I am looking forward to the new challenges that this will bring!

Of course, this means that I am having to work even more on my time management skills as I somehow have to fit in 8 hours of school work, 30 private students, practising, building, administration, lesson preparation, and whatever else that crops up into a reasonable work-week that allows for a little bit of “me time” as well… but that is seems to be the constant challenge of being self-employed. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do all of these things – it keeps life interesting!


On the blog here, I am planning to continue to write something for most Thursdays. I’ll be continuing the luthier interview series with another builder as soon as things calm down, and I hope to include a few more posts on books and music alongside my usual shop update posts.

As always, thanks for being a part of this tiny community. I’ll repeat myself from earlier in this post – I really do feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do everything that I have been able to do these past few years. I never intended this blog to be much more than personal blog to marry my love of guitars and woodworking with my love of spilling out words. It is hard to believe that this is blog post #161 and that I started this 5 years ago in August of 2013 when my sister said that I should write about the Baroque guitar that I was building at the time. Since then I have been in 4 different workshops, 6 different homes, and have turned my hobbies and university degrees into a career. I have built about 15 instruments since the start of this blog and have learned so much. I can’t wait to see what the next 5 years will bring. (Hopefully less moving, more instruments, many blog posts, and a few big goal achievements and life changes)

Bindings, fingerboard, and preparing for the finish

Over the past week I have taken the Lunar phase guitar from a rough closed box to something that is just about ready for a few coats of finish.

Bindings

The first task on the list was to attach the bindings and inlay the tail and heel decorations. Because the rosette on this guitar is so unique, I wanted to keep the bindings and other inlays understated, so I chose to bind the guitar with rosewood that matched the back and sides of the guitar. The side blanks that I order are always at least an inch wider than I require for the guitar, so I simply used that leftover wood to create the bindings. I used a thin white veneer line to separate the binding from the side wood.

The binding strips were first cut to width (about 7mm), with one smooth, flat gluing edge. I then glued the white veneer strip to the flat edge and thinned the strips to about 2mm thick. The strips were then bent over a hot pipe to match the guitar’s shape, and were left overnight on a couple of forms to dry and take shape. The forms are actually MDF cuts outs from the mould that I made a few weeks ago.

Here you can see the white veneer stripes:

I then cut the binding ledges on the guitar with a Sloane style purfling cutter from Lee Valley (forgot to take a picture of this stage, but I have shown this on several previous guitar builds). I’d love to set up a router or Dremel system for cutting these binding ledges at some point – the purfling cutter works well, but it is a lot of work, and I managed to get a nasty sliver up one side of my thumbnail this time around.

Before attaching the bindings, I glued in the tail inlay, which is again a piece of rosewood with simple white veneer lines (again, forgot to take a progress picture, but you’ll see it at the end of the blog post).

The bindings were then glued on and clamped in place with green 3M binding tape, also from Lee Valley.

The morning after attaching the bindings is, for me, the best day of every guitar build. Just about every time I have binding tape to remove, I jump out of bed early in the morning and run downstairs in my pyjamas to see how it looks before breakfast. I also normally do a bit of cleanup with a small block plane at this point to really get an idea for how it glued. (yes, I am truly more excited about bindings than a child at Christmas.) I was pretty happy with what I found this Wednesday morning (mid cleanup):

Fingerboard

This is a bit of a different looking guitar for me. The client asked for a maple fingerboard, so we chose a gorgeous piece of highly figured birdseye maple that I had sitting in my shop from a few years ago. I have to say, although I am not sure that I would want a maple fingerboard as a player, the fret marking and cutting process is a lot easier on my eyes with a light coloured wood as pencil shows up really well.

I currently cut all of my fret slots by hand with yet another Lee Valley product, the Pax Fret-Wire Saw. I mark the frets with a sharp pencil and then clamp a square piece of wood as a cutting guide to the fretboard. I have attached a wooden depth stop to the saw so that every fret is the same depth and so that I don’t accidentally cut through the fingerboard.

With the frets all cut, all that remained for the fingerboard was to line it up on the guitar, cut the soundhole end of the board to shape, and then glue and clamp it in place.

Cleanup, carving the neck, and all of the sanding

I spent the entirety of today tidying up the rough edges of this guitar to get it almost ready for finishing over the next week. The neck needed to be carved and there was a lot of clean up and sanding to do on the headstock and around the bindings. It has turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself:

And here’s the tail inlay picture that I promised earlier in this post:

All that is left is a bit more sanding, some pore filling, finish, a bridge, and a few little details before it is ready to be strung up. The next time you see this guitar on the blog, I should have strings on it!