It has been a while since I had a moment to write a new post – quite simply, I took on too much stuff this year! A few of my projects are wrapping up this week, so my schedule should return to something more normal soon (she writes with hopeful desperation), and I am hoping to get back to writing again – I have another interview in the works and a few planned posts on recent tool acquisitions.
Today’s post is about my most recently completed guitar, number 022, “Alissa”. I have been working on this guitar since mid-fall last year. This guitar has been delayed a few times due to all of the other projects that have been going on – recording days for my CD, renovating the workshop, a few concerts here and there, various repair jobs… but it is finally done! And I am mostly very happy with it. The guitar sounds incredible, and generally looks pretty darn good (if I do say so myself). There are a few imperfections in the French polishing, but I am still working on acquiring that skill. I feel like the next guitar will come out with a really nice polish, having learned a lot with this one.
Because I did not record many parts of this guitar build, here is a quick summary of the guitar. The back and sides are made out of Ziricote, a very hard and beautiful wood from Central America/Mexico (more information here).
The soundboard is a beautiful piece of Italian Alps spruce sourced from a german spruce supplier here.
I used a traditional fan bracing pattern borrowed/adapted from Robert Bouchet. I also used this pattern (or a similar one, I should say) on the Hamilton guitar that I built last year. The scale length on this guitar is slightly shorter than standard at 640mm, and the body size and depth are similar to the guitars of Robert Bouchet. I also took inspiration from Bouchet for the shape of the headstock.
I laminated the sides of this guitar, and I could not be happier with the results. The guitar is definitely heavier than my previous builds, but so far anyone who has picked it up has still commented that it is very light, so I guess that is all relative! The sides are much more stable because of the lamination, and I think that this contributed to the pleasing projection of this relatively small guitar’s sound.
Another new addition to this build was a 12-hole bridge, and I can tell you right now that I will not be going back to a 6-hole any time soon. The 12-hole is easier to tie and looks so much cleaner. Next time I’ll make the tie block a little bit more decorative as well.
The client for whom this guitar was built requested that a lotus yoga pose with fire element symbol be included somewhere on the guitar. We went back and forth as to where to put the carving, and eventually settled on the back of the headstock, which I think is a rather nice touch. It is very subtle but quite beautiful – I might do something similar for my future builds.
Sound-wise, this guitar is definitely my best so far. I am really happy with the projection, as mentioned before, but it also has a really sweet, round voice with plenty of sustain, beautiful trebles, and decent basses. I was having a lot of fun playing it over the past month or so as I had strings on and off for various stages of finishing. I actually spent a day recording this guitar for my upcoming CD as well, and that was a lot of fun. Of course, that CD is not finished yet (expect it in mid-late June), so here is a quick home recording as a bit of an appetizer.
Overall, I am really pleased with “Alissa.” Now I had better get started on the next one!!
It’s finally here! The guitar looks like a guitar. Closing up the box is one of the most exciting parts of the building process – this is when the instrument really starts to look like what it is supposed to.
In the last building update, I showed pictures of the rosette inlay and soundboard bracing. Since then, I thinned and braced the back (just a simple 4 brace ladder with a centre graft to reinforce the centre-back seam), thinned and bent the sides, built the neck, and put everything together.
On this guitar, as always, I am trying out a few new things. Most notably, I decided to laminate the sides for added strength. I bent the outside ziricote sides as usual, and then thinned and bent a set of Alaskan yellow cedar sides before sandwiching them together with a lot of glue and a monster clamping set up (see below). I used just about all of the bar clamps I have to apply even pressure over the sides, supporting the outside with the removable side from my mold, and the inside with a purpose-built caul. The caul is a strip of sturdy but flexible cardboard with strips of wood glued across to serve as clamping points.
The neck for this guitar is nothing special – just a standard Spanish cedar neck with a slotted Spanish heel joint and a scarf joint at the headpiece. I am using a different headpiece design, taking inspiration from the Bouchet headpiece shape as a nod to the Bouchet bracing inside the guitar.
With all of the pieces ready to go, I started assembly, first by attaching the neck to the soundboard, and then the sides to the soundboard. I used basswood for the linings of the guitar to give some added strength to the joint despite the double-thick sides. After the sides were glued down to the top, I fashioned small side braces or “brace feet” to prevent some of the braces on the top from lifting. Then the sides were shaped to fit the back using my favourite small hand plane.
As you can see above, I did something a bit different to clamp the back onto the sides this time. I used my homemade spool clamps and was really happy with how they worked. I just have to make another 20 so that I don’t have to use the bar clamps which are really not great for this job.
Finally, just a closeup of one of the brace ends that I fit into the sides for added strength. I’ve done this on most of my builds over the past couple years, and I have to say, I am pretty proud of my work this time. All of the brace ends are fitted perfectly into their slots. I owe the tidy work to the time that I have started to spend on sharpening my tools – a sharp chisel does work wonders.
And that’s it! Next I’ll be working on the details to make this guitar really pretty. Oh yeah, and strings/frets, all of that stuff that make it actually work.
As promised in my last post, here is the 5th instalment of my “Interviews with luthiers” series that I started last April. Today’s subject is the Irish luthier, Darren White, who reached out to me about a year ago for something completely unrelated, which led me to ask if he might be interested in participating in the ramblings on my blog. Darren is a fascinating person to talk to (or, should I say, email with) and has built some very interesting and beautiful instruments. You can find out more about him on his website, clareguitar.org.
As always with the rest of this series, very little of the work is mine. The bulk of the text is taken directly from Darren, as are the pictures included in this post.
E.S. How did you get into guitar/instrument building?
When I was a full time stone sculptor/mason, I found that I was increasingly having to make bespoke crates for shipping my sculptures abroad. These became more and more complex as the sculptures became bigger and more complex. This got me into learning joinery. I then began to incorporate wood into my sculptures so I kinda learnt about the differences between woods, how they are finished, what kinda finishes different woods take well, how different woods work well…or not, as I went along.
Coupled with that, I am a life long musician (Bouzouki, guitar, piano, low whistle, a bit of fiddle….anything with strings on really…). All my life I have carried out repairs and just got more and more adventurous as the years went on. I began repairing friends instruments about six years ago. At some point in the last few years I began to build electric guitars, after following Crimson Guitars on YouTube. After building five solid body electrics I made the leap to building acoustic instruments.
I am a composer so I am more interested in building ‘one off” “weird” or challenging instruments, that might attempt to solve problems that composition ideas have thrown up, or simply to try and challenge me to find strange composition ideas.
E.S. Could you expand on the building of instruments as a composer? I’d be interested in hearing about the composition conundrums that you have turned into instruments.
I studied electronics in music and for a few years became fascinated with building electronic instruments, as well as studying composers like Stockhausen, Xanakis, Pierre Schaeffer etc. The trouble I encountered with electronica and computer music is that it is timbre and rhythm based. I feel as a guitarist, first and foremost, that I think always in terms of harmonic structure and melody. These both being defined/derived by the nature of the instrument’s dynamic range and construction. What made me abandon electronic music was that the instrument design is essentially based around ‘switching’ mechanisms, (signal on/off), and software based methods of creating ‘virtual’ ways to mimic nuance in timbre and expression……which can already be REALLY DONE on REAL instruments.
How does this relate to composition..? Well, if you like the ole traditional melody supported by an interesting harmonic structure, like I do, building instruments that challenge my playing technique and expand the harmonic range available to me are far more inspiring to think about and build than putting together groups of sine wave oscillators.
I first built an 8 string electric because I was inspired by people like Tosin Abasi and his explorations in expanding the lower end of the instrument and the upper end for developing wild and longer and longer arpeggios. The development of thumb tapping a bass line and simultaneous chord and melody playing is great. It’s the principle of, “here are two more strings in the low end, what can we do with them in terms of developing new playing techniques and composing out of that.” I built the harp guitar with a set of twelve extra strings and spent weeks working out all the different tunings that were possible to provide me with the widest range of chords I could pluck. The physical nature of that guitar led me to develop a left hand technique where I strum with my little finger of the hand that is holding the chord down. So my composing comes from experimenting with what can be done with the nature of an instrument… hence the drive to build strange/challenging stringed… things.
E.S. Do you have formal training, or are you self-taught?
I have two really good cabinet makers nearby who are happy to answer my constant questions, plus a good network of online makers, but no formal woodwork training. My third level study was in Music composition and performance, and then in electronics and media technology. I’m also a Theatre nurse, (I think that’s operating room nurse in North American), as my daughters joke, “your patients are asleep most of the time, just like your music audiences, Dad!”
E.S. Do you have any luthier heroes?
There are so many people online that I follow, I especially like PabloRequena on You Tube because he is such a methodical video blogger, really great resource. Pablo Soriano is another good maker. Being an ill-disciplined maverick in most things I do, I don’t hero worship anyone in particular, but just try and find good techniques for use in what are becoming more and more ‘hair brain’ projects, like the lire. If I had a wood working hero it would be Tom Fidgen, who is not a luthier but did inspire me to let go of the idea that you need loads of expensive machinery and enjoy the act of working with wood. I think he is a Canadian, actually. I think he has a great approach and philosophy and I have all his books. Anyone who is willing to chat and share their skills and knowledge is a hero of mine. I am also amazed at how ‘cagey’ some luthiers are about their work. Knowledge and experience not shared is just wasted. Oh, another lovely luthier on youtube is Jon Mangum, he makes fiddles.
E.S. How many instruments have you built?
Five electric guitars (two 8-strings and three 6-strings), three steel strung acoustics, three bouzoukis, a couple of mandolins, currently working on a lire de Braccia and have the sound boards for two nylon strung models. Numerous rebuilds, from new sound boards to new necks. Oh and I forgot the Two Harp guitars I made.
E.S. Do you have a favourite type of instrument to build? As a builder of electric and acoustic instruments, do you find yourself approaching these instruments in particularly different ways?
I like the challenge of acoustic instruments. The acoustic guitar is especially interesting because there are so many approaches….should I use a form, or do an open build?, would this work better built ‘top down’? Bracing patterns?, what materials?…. can I be accurate enough to do this? All the different approaches to the neck…. one piece, or join?…glue/bolt on? These challenges I like. With solid body electric guitars, once you have a good level of carpentry skills, and can route and measure accurately, you will be fine, it’s just a matter of what weird body shapes you can come up with. Acoustic instruments are at another level, I feel. It’s cabinet making accuracy and delicacy, not just carpentry. So I prefer acoustic instruments to build.
E.S. What space do you have for a workshop?
My workshop is two separate rooms in the house: one where I do my main work and one were I do finishing. Then I have a twelve foot by eight foot shed where I do all my rough cutting, jigging and electric planing of the large slabs. No power tools in the main workshop, (Ok, I lied, I do have a pillar drill) but everything else in the instrument builds is done by hand.
I am in the process of buying a house much bigger than the one I am in now, that will solve my workshop space problems. I had to invest in a vacuum and air filtration system recently, to keep the fine dust down in the rest of the house.
E.S.What were you looking for in a house as far as workshop requirements?
I have looked at many properties with big separate garages, barns or stables that I thought I could convert for a workshop space. However, the house I am buying has no out buildings. The reason for this is that it dawned on me that a separate building needs separate heating/insulation and also renovation. I am buying a house far too big for me and utilizing half of it as a workshop space, (one reception room as a machine room and a separate but adjoining sunroom for my ‘fine working’ space). No renovation required just the installation of my dust extraction and air filtration system. I plan on going solar and running the whole workshop off that.There is also an enormous closet (about six by ten feet) I will use as a wood store/project store. All with temp control underfloor heating. The house will also accommodate people for planned weekend workshops in woodworking/instrument making that myself and another local craftsman are planning for next year.
So if you are looking at property in the future I would say consider finding a house that accommodates your craft and music inside it… if that’s your life, why not put them in your living space! I’m looking forward to just stepping out of my kitchen, across a hall and straight into my workshop… that’s actually big enough.
E.S. Is there anything in particular that you are interested in at the moment or that inspires you to continue exploring and experimenting?
My major interest at the moment is the whole concept of ‘tap tuning’ and the acoustic properties of different woods. I like to use diverse and unconventional woods, but have very lively debates with other builders regarding differences in tone for differing grain densities, and wood types. I am not a complete cynic but as a relatively new builder I find myself very dubious about some of the ‘folk lore’ around sound board, or ‘plate’ construction. I feel one definitely needs a good resonance in the wood and each builder finds their own way to achieve this ‘optimum’ resonance. But I feel people don’t consider the whole construction when tap tuning a plate. We glue a sound board and bridge to the plate after already gluing a back and side to the thing, which are usually made from different woods. We then brace strings across it……..my question is, “beyond the fact it was hopefully a resonant piece of wood when you held it between your thumb and fore finger and tapped, what relationship does the plate, in that free state, have to the plate that is glued and held fast as one part in a very complex construction?”
I don’t think tap tuning tells us anything beyond the fact that it should resonate well, once its made part of a guitar. I am building two nylon strung guitars at the moment, and doing them in a very traditional manner, but I have used woods that according to some text books, shouldn’t work as sound boards and they have sounded really nice. Of the few instruments I have sold so far, no one has bought one back.
E.S. In what way are/were the soundboards for your nylon string guitars not in line with textbook “good wood,” and how do you go about choosing the wood for your instruments?
I have read in many text books and online that the closer and more numerous the grain the higher quality of a sound board you will get. Roger Siminoff in his book “The Luthier’s Handbook” states, “No less than 10 rings per inch is preferable for spruce and cedar sound boards”. He claims this leads to a ‘brighter’ tone. “Timber of less than 15 rings per inch should not be used for fine instruments” is stated by Mcleod and Welford in their book, “The Classical guitar.” But is this actually true? I treated myself to a Hanika concert quality classical guitar a couple of years ago because I could and I was doing a little more regular performance than I am now. While that guitar is of very good quality, has a loud and even tone and has a good broad neck and lovely profile… it isn’t my favourite sounding guitar. It’s almost too even and perfect. I like a bit of variance and colour in the tone of an instrument. I’m not sure perfect pure even tone is that great a thing. Having built a few instruments with soundboards made from wood well under ten rings per inch and found them to be very pleasing in tone, I’m not convinced this ‘rings per inch rule” I keep hearing and reading about is not just really a specific tradition, rather than a recipe for quality that it seems to claim. The first acoustic arch top I built I used spalted maple for the sound board because I thought it looked good. There is no easy to see grain pattern in it, but it sounds fine. It features in my mildly narcissistic promo vid.
What am I looking for in wood? Like you, if it looks good and seems to be resonant and strong, I’ll use it. My wood supplier, Tim, fells all sorts of trees, from yew to apple, to lime, to ash. They all have such beautiful grain and colour. I recently bought some apple wood from him, which is too small for guitars but might just stretch to a mandolin. It has a nice close grain and I have heard it used in fiddles to good effect. I bought it because it looked so pure and white with a lovely hint of red through it. Of course that will all be lost once we stain it with a finish!
The Lire De Braccia is being constructed from lime and cedar. A lime soundboard and ribs, with a cedar back.
I use a good bit of cedar in my backs, but not really close grained, and I find it just as strong and seemingly resonant. Ultimately I am just more interested in experimentation/exploration than I am with complying with tradition and convention. But that’s not to say I don’t value or respect those things, I just like pushing boundaries and bucking trends.
E.S I find it interesting that you are building this lire with a hardwood top and softwood back – kind of the opposite to traditional classical guitars. Forgive my ignorance, but is this standard for this instrument? Also how is lime wood to work with?
On the hardwood top thing you have to consider the density/flexibility of the wood in relation to what it might work as. As I am sure you know, the hardwood/softwood categorization of timber is a bit misleading. Not all hardwoods are hard and not all softwoods are soft, the categorization hard or soft is based on weather a trees leaves are a certain shape and if they fall off in winter. Lime is a ‘hardwood’ but its not that dense or hard. I find it acts feels and cuts similar to spruce, though I must admit I am finding this batch a bit ‘brittle’ and ‘gritty’. I don’t know if you have ever noticed that with kiln dried woods sometimes? But its working well so far and looks lovely.
Cedar takes a good finish and I liked the variance of grain and colour in this slab when i spotted it at the yard. I wouldn’t use it for a guitar back but the lire is only violin sized so I figured the small surface area wouldn’t cause to many structural problems. ……of course it might just fall apart! But its an adventure of experimentation.
E.S. Regarding your interest in tap tuning, are you looking for anything in particular when you tap a piece of wood, or just something that seems to resonate well?
Tap tuning…. I just listen for a clear even vibration that lasts over two seconds after I have fixed the braces on. I don’t consider what pitch it is vibrating at, just that it resonates well all over the ‘working’ surface. I read somewhere recently that recent acoustic analysis of guitars has shown that the sound is coming from the whole instrument not just the movement of the sound board. This points towards the quality of construction being just as, if not more important than the individual woods used.
A huge thank you to Darren for participating in this series. Do check out his work via his website, clareguitar.org if you have a moment – he has a couple of videos up to demonstrate his instruments as well as the usual photographic fare.
Who should I interview next? I’ll take requests (although no promises on timelines…), so leave me a comment below.
It is still January, so I feel that I am still allowed to say “Happy New Year!” For the past few years, I have written a wrap up post at the end of the year, and/or a beginning of the year update. I missed the December wrap up post, so here is a bit of a newsletter style shop update with plans for the year as it seems to hurtle forward uncontrollably underneath my feet.
Building progress has been rather slow as of late because of all of the teaching I have taken on and the recording of my CD. Fingers are still crossed for a spring CD release – I am aiming for June, so keep an eye out for updates as spring approaches. I have 2.5 more pieces to record, which I will do over the course of the next two months, and then there is editing and all of the details of the booklet and publication. I have seen a few sketches for the cover art from my incredibly talented cousin, and am very excited to see what she comes up with for the finished product. Once the CD is completed, I’ll be organizing at least one “release concert,” and then I hope to do a few more concerts in the fall once the craziness of the summer is over (uOttawa summer guitar academy take 2, Hamilton guitar festival, an exciting new guitar conference in late August here in Ottawa, and getting married).
Despite slow progress, I have been getting down to the shop a couple of times each week, and am really enjoying the new layout, benches, and dust collection. I do still have a few things to work on over the next year – I need to do something about my fluorescent lighting as it hums incessantly every time I turn it on, which does nothing to improve my mood, and I still have a few things to finish as far as door handles and storage. I am also planning to build myself a go-bar deck, probably designed to fit over/on one of my existing benches as I am really tight on space. Other tools and upgrades that I plan to make and/or purchase this year to improve my workshop include:
purchase a medium/small router plane for inlay work
finally set up and learn to use my Dremel properly
fine tune the dust collection system – I need a longer hose and some way to connect the collector to my bench for sanding work
add bench dogs to my new main work bench
purchase/make more deep throated C clamps/bridge clamps/cam clamps – I rely on 4 clamps at the moment and there are so many instances that I really need a few more and have to make do with bar clamps that aren’t really meant for the job.
If you have any thoughts on these upgrades or other tools that I should add to the list, please leave me a comment at the end of this post!
Building wise, I’ve been spending my time mostly on one of the two guitars that I have on the go, and here are a few pictures of the progress. This is a ziricote backed spruce guitar with Bouchet bracing. for the soundboard, I used the last piece of master grade Italian alps spruce that I ordered over a year ago from a supplier in Germany. The rosette is a pre-made one from Luthier’s mercantile, so quite a bit different than the last few guitars, but lovely nonetheless.
The bracing pattern is asymmetrical, and taken from the Courtnall drawing of a Bouchet guitar. This plan is available from Luthier’s Mercantile here. The tap-tone of the guitar after bracing is very clear, and different than past guitars (in a good way, I think), so I am excited to hear this guitar strung up.
The finished (well, I might still tweak a few things), soundboard bracing:
I have started work on the back bracing as of today, and I should get started on the neck this week, so with any luck, I’ll have a post on putting the box together in a couple of weeks.
Performing-wise, as I mentioned before, the main project is my first CD, which should be finished in June. I have a couple concerts planned around Ottawa this year already, and should be setting up some more as the year progresses. I have recently tentatively started a bit of duo work with a violinist as well, and am hoping to pick things up again with my soprano friend Terri-Lynn at some point this year, and of course Craig and I continue to do a bit of playing when we can.
With all of this on the go, I am setting myself the goal of writing one or two blog posts a month this year, so a bit less than last year, but still plugging away. The next post should be an interview with a builder from Ireland – I haven’t done a shop talk post since last summer, so this is long overdue!
It has been a while since I posted on here – don’t worry, I have not quit building – my time has just been eaten up by teaching for the past several weeks with Christmas concert preparations, report card writing, and at-home student recitals. I have had a few gigs as well – a concert in a noon hour recital series, the annual guitar society gala concert, and a few background music gigs for exercise classes. I should have been recording as well, but ended up having to cancel a few sessions due to nail breakage (somehow I have managed to break all 5 nails over the past 3 weeks). I’ll be finishing up the recording early in 2019 so long as my nails grow back!
Although I have started on the guitar builds, I do not have much to show for it yet. I’ll be putting in as many hours as I can over the next two weeks (when I’m not visiting family), so I am sure that I will have another blog post at the beginning of January with a progress update on the builds. In the meantime, I thought I’d do a quick post on a recent repair project that has occupied my bench for the past couple of weeks.
I neglected to take before pictures, but here is one early in the repair process:
I don’t know if it is going to become an annual thing, but yes, this is another mandolin repair in December – if you remember last year, I was working on another, albeit quite different mandolin. Last year it was a flat-backed Ukrainian mandolin for a friend. This time around, it is an old lute-backed Regent mandolin for one of my students. Most of the work that needed to be done was cosmetic – dents, flaking finish and the like. There was also a crack in the soundboard that needed some attention and a bit of structural repair work around the tailpiece.
The first repair was to replace a broken piece of binding wood. I happened to have a piece of cherry that matched the original almost exactly and that was already pretty much of the exact dimensions that I needed for this job. In the picture below, you can see the finished repair – can you tell which piece is original and which is new?
The replaced piece is the darker strip of wood at the top of the lute on the right side of the picture. The left side is original.
On the front of the instrument, I had to repair a crack in the soundboard. This repair is not invisible unfortunately – over time, the soundboard has darkened from UV exposure, so the area that I had to sand out for the repair is noticeably lighter in colour than the rest of the soundboard. Because it is under the strings it is somewhat disguised, so I am OK with the less than perfect appearance.
I also had to repair, refinish, and reattach the decorative tail piece. This was cracked in several places, and had been poorly repaired at another time (just imagine glue everywhere and wood out of alignment), so I had to undo the previous repair, realign the pieces, and then apply new glue. For all of this work I used hide glue to suit the age of the instrument, and also to make it easier for any future repairs. I have to say, I am becoming quite a fan of hide glue despite the smell. Once all of the pieces were glued back together, I had a bit of sanding and staining to do before I could apply a French polished shellac finish.
The finish on the fingerboard was flaking off, so I completely stripped it of whatever varnish had been used. This revealed that the fingerboard was not ebony and just some kind of stained light coloured wood (I am guessing maple). After doing a bit of reading, I decided to use Higgins black India ink as a stain for the fingerboard. I already had a bottle from when I used to do a bit of visual art, and it seemed to work quite well. I applied a couple of coats to the fingerboard and then rubbed a thin coat of wax over the top for protection and a bit of shine.
On the back of the instrument, I did not really have too much to do. Amazingly, the bowl of the instrument was in near perfect condition with just a few small scrapes and scratches. I did a little bit of clean up on this and rubbed on a bit of shellac to restore some of the shine, but otherwise I left it as is. The neck was a bit more badly damaged, so I sanded it clean, re-stained the wood with a mixture of cherry and mahogany colour, and then rubbed on a thin coat of French polish shellac for shine.
My student polished the metal bits – tail piece and tuning machines, so all I had to to was to reattach the original hardware and then string her up. She is quite a beautiful instrument with a nice sound. I can’t say that I am too much a fan of the bowl-back shape as it does make it quite difficult to hold, but it great for sound projection!
Hopefully this repair means that this mandolin will get another good few years of use. As frustrating as some repair jobs can be, restoring/repairing old instruments is extremely satisfying – there is nothing quite as rewarding as bringing back the voice of an instrument that hasn’t been played for years.