Guitar building update (June 2017)

As I have been neglecting this blog over the last month, I have been at a loss of where to start back with posts. I don’t have any exciting discoveries to share in my building process at the moment, and I have already written about all of the mundane processes of side bending, fretboard slotting, and endless sanding, so I thought that I would just get back into it with an update style post. The other reason for this is that I have not been keeping up with my camera, so I really don’t have any process pictures to show! I think that I need to start keeping the camera in the shop!

I have decided to focus on three of the guitars that I am working on. I ordered a soundboard for the 4th guitar, and I am not entirely happy with the wood grade, plus the humidity has sky-rocketed, so I will not be doing much brace gluing for the next little while.

The three guitars that I am focusing on are the steel-string and the two Torres copies, and they are all nearing completion! I just have a lot of sanding to do, finishing, bridge building, and set up left. I am pretty happy with how everything has turned out so far.

The steel-string guitar is still in two pieces, but it will be like this until the guitar is finished. This guitar has a bolt-on neck, so I will wait to attach the two pieces together until after the varnish is dry. This will make my life much easier when it comes to applying the finish – fewer nooks and crannies means less trouble while polishing and fewer weird brush marks.

I am particularly happy with how the binding on this guitar is turning out. I just used cutoffs from the guitar sides and added white purfling lines to separate the bindings from the sides and top/back. A little more clean up left, but overall, it is looking pretty sharp (if I do say so myself).

I am also quite happy with how the butt-joint inlay worked out:

The commissioned Torres guitar is looking quite well also. This guitar just needs a bit of sanding and clean up, and then I will be ready to apply some varnish later this week.

With the back and sides being of maple, the finishing process should be fairly easy as I will only have to pore-fill the headstock and neck.

The third guitar is the almost identical twin of the guitar above, just with quilted maple back and sides, and with walnut headstock and bindings. This guitar will be for sale at some point, depending how attached I become.

I will be sanding all of these guitars this week and then moving them up to my spare bedroom to be finished. I am trying a new varnish this time, so I will definitely be reporting on how that goes! Lots of good reviews from friends, so I think it should be a positive experience!

If all goes well, I’ll be delivering these guitars at the beginning of July, and I will be showing the second Torres guitar at the Hamilton festival on Saturday, July 8th. Come out to the festival if you would like to try it out!

Reflections on our tour of Nova Scotia 2017

I can’t believe that it has already been a week since our last concert in Nova Scotia. I also can’t believe that it has been a month and a half since I last wrote something on this blog! I have been busy with practising, concerts, and lots of building, so I have plenty to share in the next couple of weeks.

Last week, Craig and I were in Nova Scotia playing concerts and visiting friends. We had an amazing time travelling around the central part of Nova Scotia and managed to see everyone we knew in the province. We played 6 concerts in 8 days to audiences of varying sizes and interests. We started our tour with a relaxing house concert in Tatamagouche, followed by 3 concerts in church venues (Wolfville, Halifax, and Mahone Bay), followed by a concert in the 2nd level of an art gallery (Annapolis Royal), and finished with a concert at Brookfield United Church where we shared the stage with jazz guitarist Amy Brandon.

Along the way I managed to convince Craig that it was a good idea to fit in as much sight-seeing as possible, so we walked around Halifax, exhausted ourselves with a trip to Blue Rocks and Lunenburg, visited various farmers markets, and stayed up late into the night chatting with friends at an Alpaca farm.

Being tourists in Blue Rocks Nova Scotia – the picture does not do the beauty of this place justice

Today, as I find my way back to blogging, I thought that I would share a few of my reflections on this mini-tour experience.

Performance Enjoyment

Despite (or perhaps because of) the sight-seeing and travel-induced lack of sleep, I had my most consistently enjoyable performing experiences on this trip. Half-way through the tour, I suddenly realized that I was barely experiencing any nervousness. For the first time I was consistently able to relax and enjoy performing. I was not playing flawlessly (far from it!), so this was not from a particular confidence in my abilities. I was also not as prepared as I would have liked. But somehow, I managed to convince myself that it was all okay and that I should just enjoy sharing my music with the audiences. I am only about halfway through Barry Green’s The Inner Game of Music, a book on playing better by eliminating nervousness, self-doubt, and fear of failure, but I wonder if some of the concepts from this book and other readings are starting to sink in. It could also be that I am finally starting to feel free from my conservatory and university exam performances and competitions, and am starting to enjoy sharing music without worrying about my grades.

This enjoyment of performance makes me want to practise more again, however, I am now stuck in the basement for a month to get these guitar projects finished. July will be a month of schedule revisiting and trying, once again, to find some balance.

Warming up for our concert in Wolfville at the Manning Memorial Chapel

Age and expectations

The second thing that hit me partway through the tour (driving away from concert #5), was the unrealistic idea of performance quality that I have expected of myself to this point. Up until just before this tour, I have been comparing myself to much more experienced guitarists. Of course, it is always important to strive for excellence in performance, however, I think that we musicians often set our expectations rather high. We compare ourselves to everyone around us regardless of age, experience, and circumstance. Somehow we expect ourselves to be as good as the prodigy that we saw last week or the world-renowned performer that we hear on our favourite CD. Music, like just about everything else in life, is a very personal journey, and it does not do us much good to make these debilitating comparisons.

This hit me after our concert in Annapolis Royal while talking to one of the audience members after the concert. She was remarking on our youth and how much she enjoyed the concert and imagining how incredible we will be in the coming years. “Coming years!”, I thought to myself…. But then it dawned on me. I am only 24 years old. In any other profession, I would likely be in an entry level, internship, or training position. In little more than an instant I finally understood that in choosing this career, I have to accept the slow and rewarding journey that is music. I have to set constructive goals rather than make destructive comparisons.

Preparation, Planning, and Scheduling

This time around, I think that Craig and I did a rather fine job of planning the logistics of the tour. We had a noon-hour concert in Ottawa about a week before we left for Nova Scotia which gave us a chance to try out some of our newer repertoire and iron out a few kinks. We also had a two day break right after our first concert of the tour which gave us another chance to smooth out the program.

Next time, we are going to have to try a few new things for advertising the concerts so that we can drag out a few more bodies. For the most part, we had nice sized audiences, however, we had rather small audiences (of 2 and 6) at our Wolfville and Halifax concerts. This was a shame because the acoustics in these two venues were incredible (especially Wolfville – Halifax may have actually been slightly too live).

Overall, Craig and I really enjoyed the experience, but we will not be rushing out to organize another tour on our own quite yet. Sorting out everything for a run of self-booked concerts is an incredible amount of work and requires one to be comfortable with a bit of gambling and guess-work. Regardless, we are hoping to be back in the Maritimes within the next 2 years for a few more concerts 🙂

At our final concert in Brookfield, Amy set up a camera, so we have a bit of footage from the tour! Here are the two movements that we played from Robert Kubica’s Midsummer Suite:

 

Two new rosette methods

And here we are at the end of April! How did this happen?!? I have been working away at the guitars in the shop, but I have neglected this blog for a couple weeks, so I have some catch up to do!

I am almost ready to put the steel string box together, however, I am stalling a bit as I think about the best way to attack it. I switched gears a couple days ago to brace the three classical backs (2 Torres backs each with centre grafts and two lateral struts, and the classical with a centre graft and three lateral struts). I will post a picture of those when they are all cleaned up. I need to get a go-bar system going for brace gluing because my 2 cam clamps and two long C-clamps just aren’t up to clamping this many braces efficiently!

I also received the spruce in the mail in the week before the Easter weekend. I have recently glued up two of my sets to be used on the two Torres copies. I will be buying a piece of cedar for the spalted maple classical guitar because I am quite tied to my idea of building a cedar guitar.

Today I wanted to talk about the rosettes that I have inlayed in the steel-string guitar and in the two Torres copies. Both styles are using methods that I have not really used before.

Steel-string sound hole binding

Because the sound hole on the steel-string is not round and the aesthetic is more modern, it was pretty obvious from the get-go that I would not be inlaying any kind of rosette, however, I also knew that I would not be leaving the edge of the hole raw. Not only would this look unfinished, but it would also be structurally and acoustically problematic. It is widely accepted amongst luthiers that the edge of the sound hole needs to be rather stiff for higher efficiency and projection. This is why the sound holes are often surrounded by a “doughnut” brace pad. The traditional rosette also increases the stiffness of the wood around the sound hole, so isn’t just a pretty design!

I wanted to bind the edge of the sound hole in a way that would be similar to the binding that will go around the body of the guitar, so I chose to use walnut with a thin stripe of white veneer.

I took inspiration for the inlay process from an interview that I watched with the builders at McPherson guitars.

I started by cutting out the sound hole by hand with a coping saw. I then sanded the edges of the hole to the final shape with some sandpaper wrapped around a thick dowel. I forgot to take a picture of this first step, so please use your imagination!

Then I cut a piece of walnut to fit the hole out of a leftover scrap from the back wood. I sanded it so that it would fit snuggly in the hole with a piece white veneer between the walnut and the redwood. Then I glued it together. (I actually did this process twice, because the first time I didn’t get the white veneer placed well enough, so it looked messy from the front.) Apologies for the poor photo – not sure what I was thinking!

Then I drilled a few holes in the walnut and cut out the sound hole once more with a coping saw.

I then sanded the edges smooth once again and called it done!

Torres copy striped rosette

The Torres copies called for a much more traditional rosette, although I did not want to over complicate things with a mosaic rosette, so I went for a more appropriate Torres style striped rosette. The colours are actually in the same order as the original SE-117.

Because I was dealing with 25 strips of veneer, I did not want to try to inlay them all directly into the soundboard. I have done this in the past with up to 6 stripes, and that was always terribly messy and hard to control, so there was no way that I was going to do this with an entirely striped design!

I looked around for something appropriately sized to build the rosette around, and came across a terrible roll of masking tape that I had purchased in desperation from Shoppers Drug Mart. The tape barely sticks to paper, so I didn’t feel like I was wasting valuable material by cutting off several layers of tape in order to get a perfectly sized rosette guide. Because the centre of a masking tape roll is not terribly stiff, I braced the circular shape with small nails around the inside of the roll. I put clear tape down around the outside of the pine block that I used as my base so that the finished rosette would be easy to remove.

I cut all of the required veneer strips from sheets of coloured veneer that I had purchased from Luthier’s Mercantile and Bow River Woods. Here are a couple hard-learned tips for slicing off strips of veneers: 1) use a very sharp knife. 2) clamp down your ruler/cutting guide very securely.

coloured wood veneers strips

Once everything was set to go, I started to glue the strips of veneer around the rosette form. I did the rosette in three chunks, which is exactly how the rosette was divided on the guitar plans that I am following. I let each section sit for at least 30 minutes before adding the next section of veneer. I used tacks and small nails to hold the stripes against the tape roll.

Here is the second layer:

And a close-up of the final layer:

After letting it dry for a bit, I took it off the form and cleaned up one side before inlaying it into the soundboard in the normal method.

A couple of tips for carving the channel for the rosette: 1) use sharp tools. 2) use sharp tools. (1 was for the circle cutter, and 2 was for the excavation chisels).

After gluing, clamping, and a bit of cleanup, I am pretty happy with the results!

And a close up for a better idea of the colours (and check out the beautiful grain and “silk” on this spruce):

I have a second almost identical rosette drying in the soundboard at the moment, but it is much to ugly to photograph until tomorrow when I clean it up!

I will be inlaying one more rosette in the next couple months. This will be another handmade traditional mosaic rosette for the spalted maple guitar.

Four guitar backs and a soundboard

I decided to do something a bit differently this spring in my workshop and get a few guitars started all at the same time. I will not be finishing all of these guitars at the same time, but this should make the process a bit more efficient. Also, it will allow the more recently purchased wood to sit an acclimatize to my shop after being cut out and thinned. Although I buy my wood pre-dried, it is always a good idea to let it sit for a couple of months before turning the wood into a guitar. I have had most of the backs since early last summer, so most of the wood is good to go, but I did have to buy some flamed maple for one of the Torres copies, and that only arrived this week.

Steel-string 014 Walnut Back

I am prioritizing the steel-string guitar at the moment, so that one is the furthest along. I have also had the wood for this guitar for the longest, so it should be as stable as it ever will be and is in prime condition to be turned into a guitar.

The back is a book-matched set of black walnut from Bow River Woods in British Columbia. I decided not to put a stripe down the centre of the back, which is rather unusual for me (I am rather partial to stripes – you will know that too well if you have been following this blog for a while!).

I braced this back with laminated asymmetrical ladder bracing. The asymmetry is mostly because of the cutaway. I was going to have to angle the upper-bout brace anyway so that it would not get in the way of the cutaway, so I decided to angle all of the braces into a symmetrical sideways fan. Because of the laminations, the braces are very strong and should hold this back in shape for many years. I used redwood for the back centre graft to match the top and give some support to the back centre seam.

While working on this back, I realized (once again) the incredible difference that sharp tools make. I am trying to keep my tools in better condition, but most days I am just too lazy. While working on the centre graft, I was using my 3/4 inch chisel and was realizing that it was not really slicing the wood but was rather causing it to crumple. Time for a sharpen, I thought, and sharpen I did. After a half hour on the water stone, the chisel was ready to go again and, not surprisingly, my work was suddenly a lot neater and a lot easier. Lesson learned (I hope).

Along the same lines, I have been trying to use my scraper more for tidying up wood surfaces and for some light thinning work. I have a Veritas scraper honing guide (an older version of item C on this Lee Valley listing), which holds a flat mill file at a right angle for re-edging the blade. I have been using this for the last couple of years and while it seemed to improved the edge on the blade, it was never perfect and did not last very long.

Last week I finally got around to looking up a bit about sharpening scrapers, and I came across this video about how to do it properly. I am now using the edge of my water stone to hone the final edge and have learned how to use my burnisher to get a really good burr on the blade. I don’t have to bend my scraper blade as much any more to cut into the wood, so my thumbs are thanking me!!

Steel-string 014 Redwood Soundboard

The soundboard for this steel-string guitar is a piece of redwood from Luthier’s Mercantile. This is the first time that I have used redwood, and so far, it seems pretty great! I’ll have to see how the final guitar sounds in order to give a proper opinion, but the colour is beautiful.

The sound hole was cut out with a coping saw and then sanded carefully into the final shape. I then fit a solid piece of walnut to the hole, glued that in place with a strip of white veneer around the edge, and then cut out the sound hole again. I think that it turned out pretty well!

I have just started on the bracing of this soundboard, so I will leave that for another post.

Torres copy backs 015 and 016

The flamed maple from Bow River woods arrived earlier this week, just in time to be jointed and thinned along with the rest of these backs. This is the piece that needs to sit before I am comfortable turning it into a guitar. I read something a while ago that said that it was a good idea to join the wood, cut it out, and thin it and then let it sit for a good while before doing anything else. This sounded like good advice to me, so I am going with that.

I joined this wood with a black stripe down the centre, similar to what you might find on an original Torres guitar. This is a small guitar and I do not want to overwhelm it with details, so I will be keeping the decorations simple. I am sorry that this picture is kind of dark – hopefully it gives you the idea anyway! All of the markings around the perimeter of the piece are outside of the final guitar shape, so the back should look beautiful and clean.

I also jointed and cut out a piece of quilted maple that has been sitting in my shop since last summer. I picked this up from Bow River Woods as well because it was a one-off beautiful piece in a parlour guitar size. Perfect for this Torres copy. I used a black-white-black-white-black stripe down the centre, which is slightly more ornate than the flamed maple back, but still maintains a simplicity.

Classical 017 Maple back

Finally, I pulled out one of the most beautiful pieces of wood that I have seen (in my opinion), and got it ready to become a classical guitar back. This piece is rather unusual, and I have no idea how it will sound. This is also from Bow River Woods, and has a bit of a flame to it and a good amount of spalting. Spalting is a type of rot, so the wood is slightly softer than the other maples that I have worked with (which is why I am slightly concerned for the sound), but because of the nature of this rot, it is stable enough to work with. Even though the wood may be soft and perhaps not ideal as tone wood, I am going to try to make this guitar sound as good as I possibly can, and it will be a good learning guitar for me. Also, it will look gorgeous, and as Torres showed with his Paper Maché guitar, the back is not quite as important as the soundboard.

Because the figure on the wood is so dramatic, I decided once again to omit the stripe down the back of the guitar. I considered putting a purpleheart stripe down the centre, but then decided that I should just let the maple speak for itself.

I think that I will pair this back with a cedar top, although I keep going back and forth on that one, so stay tuned.

And that is it for today! While I wait for my Spruce tops to arrive from Germany, I’ll be working on the sides for these guitars and will keep working on the steel-string bracing.

On a side note, if anyone is looking for a good arm workout (or just a good workout), you should take up guitar building. Or just come thin guitar backs for me. Also, I should probably see if Johnson&Johnson Band-Aids wants me to promote their product… I went through a good few this week because of my self-destructive scraping technique!

Onto the next

Today was my first truly productive day in a while. For the past couple weeks I have felt like I was floating in-between projects, and I had fallen into some time-wasting habits like thinking too much without actually doing anything and the internet.

Of course, part of this time was spent doing the necessary planning and preparing for upcoming projects, and I spent a good deal of time reading and pursuing worthwhile thoughts about practise habits, goals, and repertoire. I also ordered a lot of wood and emailed back and forth with the next two guitar build customers about the details of the projects. Hopefully my wood will arrive in the next week or two, but in the meantime, I have started working with what I have already in the shop.

Just before we get into the main part of this post, I would just like to note that I have included a lot of links to external resources. Just click on the underlined words to check those out.

Project #1: Steel-String build 014

This guitar was actually one of my first commissions, however, because my cousin is extraordinarily patient, it ended up getting pushed back by a couple of more urgent guitars. This steel-string is going to be a walnut and redwood cutaway design with an off-centre sound hole and mosaic wood inlays. The guitar design is inspired by the beautiful McPherson guitars, and, while the aesthetics and building principles are informed by some of Matt McPherson’s work, I must be clear that this is not a copy of a McPherson, as I 1) do not have enough information to design a copy, 2) do not have a thorough enough knowledge of acoustics, and 3) do not have permission to use any of their patented designs for this guitar.

For a bit more information on McPherson guitars, I would highly recommend checking out their YouTube channel where you can find lots of guitar videos including a video on the bracing pattern. I would particularly recommend watching Premier Guitar’s McPherson factory tour (part 1, part 2).

This guitar has a smaller body than the two steel strings I have built in the past, and should be a fairly comfortable guitar to hold. I will be using a floating raised fretboard on this guitar, however, that part is not designed yet!

The Soundhole Design

The sound hole for this guitar will be located on the bass side of the soundboard towards the upper bout, and will be shaped rather like a mango (something I just realized today while standing in my kitchen). This off centre sound hole is something that builders have been experimenting with for quite some time. The famous Kasha guitar design (a collaboration between scientist Dr. Michael Kasha and luthier Richard Schneider) is one of the most recognizable sound hole designs, with an oval shaped sound hole in the treble-side upper bout. Canadian luthier David Freeman of Timeless Instruments has also designed a guitar with an off centre sound hole. His design maintains the traditional circular sound hole, but places it closer to the bass side of the guitar.

Besides the unique visual appeal of an off-centre sound hole, there are strong acoustic arguments for trying an off-centre sound hole. In a traditional (centre-soundhole) design, tests have shown that only the lower bout really vibrates – the sound hole seems to interrupt the movement of the top at the waist of the guitar. This is why Kasha moved the sound hole to the upper bout beside the fingerboard; his tests showed that this area wasn’t doing much for the amplification of sound. By moving the sound hole towards the perimeter of the guitar, the design allows for more of the soundboard to vibrate. More motion from the soundboard makes for more amplification of the string’s frequency, and thus should lead to a more acoustically efficient instrument.

Bracing

I do not feel that I am adequately versed in bracing patterns to really talk about what I have drawn up for this guitar. I have based it on the classic steel-string X bracing pattern and have incorporated a couple transverse braces for added support. The braces will be laminated (cedar with a rosewood core because that is what I had in the shop), and I am planning to hollow out parts of the braces to reduce weight on the soundboard without sacrificing strength. This is something that can be seen on McPherson’s bracing pattern, however, it is also something that many other luthiers have experimented with over the past several decades. Some luthiers use carbon for brace reinforcement, however, I like the idea and the sound of wood, and I am much more comfortable working with wood than just about anything else!

Neck

The final experiment on this guitar will be to increase the rigidity of the neck by laminating the Walnut with maple and including a truss rod. The neck is one of the places on the guitar where a lot of sound energy can be lost. Modern luthiers tend towards building heavier more rigid necks so as to minimize the energy that is lost. As far as I can understand it (so far), energy prefers to move the lightest/most flexible thing first, so if the soundboard is fairly easy to move and the neck is heavy and stiff, more of the energy will move towards the bridge/soundboard than trying to vibrate the neck. In the Roger H. Siminoff book that I am reading, he talks about using heavy tuning machines in order to add as much weight as possible to the headstock and neck so that the guitar is more acoustically efficient.

As you can see, I need to do much more reading and learning about acoustics before I try to explain anything else! As well as reading the Siminoff book (The Luthier’s Handbook: A Guide to Building Great Tone in Acoustic Stringed Instruments), I have ordered the well-respected Left-Brain Lutherie book in order to help me along towards understanding exactly what it is that I am doing.

So far, I have jointed, cut out, and thinned the top and back, and I started working on the sound hole (separate post on that coming at some point):

Project #2: short-scale Torres build No. 015

While I was working on getting the design sorted for the steel-string guitar, I received an email asking whether I would be interested in building a short-scaled Torres copy. Of course, I said yes – this is exactly the kind of thing that I like to work on. The guitar will be an almost copy of the SE117 (I say almost because I will be using a slotted headpiece with Gotoh tuners, and I will not be copying the original wood choices). You can see a picture of the original guitar here. The scale length is rather short at 604mm (23.78in), so it should be very comfortable to play! I will be building this guitar with flamed maple back and sides, “German” spruce top, and Spanish cedar neck.

Side-note: I say “German” spruce, because I recently found out that there really is no such thing as German spruce when it comes to instrument building. Most of Germany’s spruce forests are in very poor condition because of air quality, so there is little wood harvested in Germany itself. Besides this, the species of spruce that is used for instrument building is more commonly referred to as Norway Spruce, or more accurately as Picea Abies. You can read more about this trouble with labelling spruce here. I have ordered my spruce from a lovely gentleman in Germany who harvested his wood in Italy. When it arrives, I will post a whole lot of photos and information – I am very excited about this order!

Projects #3 and #4: other guitars

Because two guitars is not quite enough for me, I have decided to get started slowly on two other guitars. These guitars are not commissions, so I will be able to experiment a bit more (yay!!!). The plan is to build these guitars for displaying at guitar shows and possibly for a CD recording project that I am still in the early stages of thinking through. One of the guitars will be a second Torres SE117 copy, but this time with quilted maple for the back and sides, and the other guitar will be another classical guitar with the same asymmetrical bracing pattern as the recent classical build No. 013, however, I will be getting a bit more funky in my wood choices this time because I can.

Other things

Just to round out this “what I am working on” post, I thought that I would mention a couple other projects that are ongoing/coming up.

I have been working with Rotary to put together the music for the Music For Humanity concert in support of the eradication of Polio again this year. The concert is on April 8th at 7:30pm at the First Unitarian Congregation (30 Cleary Ave, Ottawa). Hope to see some people there!

I am reading The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green, and am trying to improve my focus in performance. So far lots of thinking but not much accomplished quite yet. I should be able to implement some of the concepts from the book by the time Craig and I are out in Nova Scotia (check out my website for tour dates!), and am hoping to work through some of my biggest performance issues over the next year. I have another book that was recommended to me by a friend that is sitting waiting to be read (In Pursuit of Excellence by Terry Orlick), but I have too many books on the go! Once I have figured out a few things regarding focus in performance, I will try to write a blog post about my findings.

All of this work on my performing will hopefully lead towards a recording project that incorporates some of my guitar builds. Lots more planning to do there, but hopefully in the next couple of years. I am trying to figure out the repertoire at the moment.

That’s all for today! Thanks for making it through this rather text-heavy post! Cheers 🙂