Inlaying a maze rosette

I have officially started my 20th guitar build! This is a cedar and quilted maple classical guitar to be finished by the end of February this year. The client has asked for a clean, modern, geometric aesthetic, so I will be using black and white lines for the inlays and purfling, and I will be returning to my asymmetrical headstock design.

To start the geometric theme off, I came up with a maze rosette design using just white and black veneer strips. I wanted the maze to be functional as well as “cool looking,” and I think that it has turned out pretty well!

I started off by drawing out the maze to make sure that it would work. (Of course, me being me, I actually ended up inlaying it in mirror image because of a silly mistake when I started the inlay.)

I made sure that the maze would be unobstructed by the fingerboard, and I had the pathway travel from the outside bass edge (or in the finished rosette, the outside treble edge) to the inside treble edge (in the end, the inside bass edge).

I then sliced my white and black veneer sheets into thin strips and began to assemble the rosette. I started by making a rosette mould out of a piece of leftover plywood and a plastic lid that happened to be the same size as the desired inner diameter of the rosette. I screwed the lid to the board and used tape to prevent the rosette from adhering to the plywood.

I then started gluing up strips of veneer and used small finishing nails to hold them in place agains the mould. I glued up 5 rings, each made up of 6 white strips and one black. Although I glued up all of these rings in fairly close succession, I made sure to avoid gluing the rings together. Although the picture below might look like a solid striped rosette, the black veneer lines are actually only glued to the white on one side, so the 5 rings came apart without any trouble after they were dry. They needed to be glued up side by side in order to make sure that they would fit perfectly into the final rosette inlay.

Here you can see the 5 separate rings after a bit of clean up:

After excavating the rosette channel in the soundboard, I started to inlay the rings. I worked closely with my original maze diagram to figure out where I needed to remove black veneer to make a “doorway” in the maze, and where I needed to insert a “wall.”

To create a “wall” I used my Japanese saw and some small pieces of black veneer. The kerf of the Japanese saw blade that I have is about the same thickness as the veneer that I use, so it was the perfect tool to make the incision. For most of the walls, I did not need to cut all the way through the ring. I cut very carefully from the white side of the ring just until I met the black. Then I simply inserted a piece of black veneer and trimmed to fit.

To make the “doorways,” I just used my Japanese saw and chisel to remove a bit of the black veneer line and then cut a piece of white veneer to fit.

Once the ring was prepared, I glued it into the channel.

I completed each of the rings separately, allowing the glue to dry for at least an hour in between rings. I used tape to clamp the pieces down firmly while the glue was drying.

And that’s it! After a bit of clean up, here is the finished rosette:

All that is left is a bit of tidy up and a couple of small fills to do when I finish the guitar. What do you think? I kind of love where this guitar is going.

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday season full of family, friends, food, and relaxation. Last year I wrote a “year in review,” and, as this is a blog that is intended to document my journey through my career as a guitarist, I thought that I would do something similar this year as a way to summarize my experiences.

2017 was quite simply an amazing year for me. A few highlights are completing 5 guitars, performing concerts in Ontario and Nova Scotia, starting a new voice-guitar duo with Terri-Lynn Mitchell, and travelling to England with my family and Craig.


Building

The first build of 2017 went to one of my guitar students. This was a rosewood and German spruce classical guitar inspired by the Spanish luthiers Simplicio and Garcia. Generally this was a very successful guitar. I did my first handmade mosaic rosette on this guitar. I was not entirely happy with the finish on this guitar as it lacked depth and warmth, but generally the construction turned out well and the guitar sounded quite nice.

Indian Rosewood guitar

After completing this guitar, I embarked on an impossible plan to build 4 guitars at the same time in a limited time period and a small workshop. I learned a lot from trying to do this – mostly that I should not do this again, but I did enjoy parts of this process. Completing a few soundboards or backs or necks at the same time, for instance, is definitely more time efficient than working on them individually. In the end, I dropped one of the guitars from the plan, but I did manage to complete three. Two were copies of a small-bodied Torres guitar, and the third was a really interesting acoustic steel-string guitar.

I used a new (to me) finish on these three guitars, and while I am still getting the hang of it, I do generally prefer the results from this water-based varnish than from any of the previous finishes that I have used.

After taking a few months to work on a couple of repairs and focus on other parts of my life, I returned to building in October with another full sized classical guitar. I took quite a different design approach with this guitar, aiming for simple inlay choices and clean lines. I think that this choice paid off, and this is definitely one of my better guitars both in look and in sound. I still have a couple of things to work on, but I got much closer to being satisfied with my workmanship with this guitar.

In 2018, I am going to make an effort to continue to improve with each guitar that I build. I am hoping to build 4-6 guitars this year, although a few of these may be guitars that I have already started. I am going to allow myself more time after the guitar construction to finish the guitar and to finesse the action and details of playability. This is something that I have rushed too many times and the regret that I feel every time is just not worth it. This is biggest mistake that I really need to finally learn from!

I have a classical guitar to build in the first couple months of 2018, so I will be starting that project imminently. After that, I will be completing the spalted maple classical guitar (No. 017) and the barely started ovangkol classical guitar (No. 019). I also hope to return to the zebra wood steel string guitar that I was building a few years ago (No. 005) and the experimental Spanish circa 1790 6 course guitar (No. 006). I feel like these incomplete projects in my catalogue really need to be finished to give me some peace of mind!


Performing

2017 had Craig and I playing a few concerts in Ottawa at various churches and events as well as travelling to Nova Scotia for a run of concerts in the spring and to Southern Ontario in the early fall. Terri-Lynn and I also performed our first concert this year as a start to our voice-guitar duo. From a full-time concert artist’s perspective, this is hardly a busy touring schedule, but for me, this was the fullest year of concerts that I have experienced.

To be completely honest, I was mostly disappointed with my performances. I did not practise enough, and therefore I was often barely holding on in performances and was always hoping that I would make it through concerts with my dignity intact. This is no way to proceed as a professional musician. Hopefully this brutal honesty with myself will help me in my quest to practise better and more regularly in 2018.

This is not to say that I felt like a failure after every performance, and this is certainly not an underhanded way of seeking praise. I definitely did feel that I grew as a performer this year. I am much more comfortable on stage (just imagine how much more comfortable I would be if I were properly prepared!), and I think that this has allowed me to express the music more clearly, despite some technical rough patches.

I also did my first two professional recordings this year! (If you have not heard them, I have uploaded both to my website on this page.) I learned a lot from this experience, and I will definitely be doing a few more in 2018.


So many other wonderful things happened in 2017. I slowly got back into reading, I planted too many plants in my garden, I worked with many incredible students in my teaching studio, I built a few cutting boards and shelves, I repaired a mandolin and a couple of guitars…

I did, however, take on too many things. In 2018, I am going to work towards being more calculated in my decision making so that I do not end up feeling quite so stressed and overwhelmed with projects of my own creation. I need to learn to relax my expectations of quantity while focusing on increasing my expectations of quality. Finding balance between the three aspects of my career (building, playing, and teaching), and the many aspects of my personal life is a constant battle.

Towards the end of 2017, I started to implement some basic routines into my life, and I found that this brought me a great amount of happiness and a much needed sense of grounding. These routines included a simple set of daily tasks to keep my home clean and tidy, as well as designating certain days or times to recurring tasks. For instance, Friday is my day off from work (I am a firm believer in having a regular day off as a self-employed person), and every Friday I run errands. This means that I don’t have to worry about errands any other day of the week. Another recurring task is dealing with email, social media, and miscellaneous business things. I have tried a few times to designate a particular hour (or less) each day to deal with all of these office management tasks, and although I am not very good at sticking with this routine for very long, I know that when I do maintain this routine, I feel less worried about keeping up with everything that is going on.

2018 will be a year of establishing these routines and knowing my limits for projects that I want to take on.

Thank you so much for sticking with my blog! I wish you all of the best in this new year and hope that you are staying warm in this incredibly cold weather (unless you are somewhere warm, in which case I am extremely jealous!).

Completed guitar no. 018

I was working right down to the wire, but this morning, December 26th, I could finally say that I had finished the guitar, ready for delivery tomorrow morning.

I had hoped that I would have time between finishing the guitar and delivery to record something for my YouTube channel, but that will not be happening, unfortunately! I need to leave more time between the woodworking portion of the guitar and the delivery date so that I have more time to polish the varnish properly and to finesse the guitar’s set up. Something along these lines will be showing up in my New Year’s goals for 2018! Ideally, I would build a guitar in 4-6 weeks, and then spend 4 weeks finishing and setting the guitar up. I’ll be trying this schedule out on my next guitar build, which I will be starting in January.

Nonetheless, this is probably my best guitar build so far. I am definitely happy with the woodwork and joinery in this guitar. I kept the wood details simple and aimed for clean lines and tight joints.

I am less happy with the polish on this guitar, however, it is heading in the right direction. I took the proper amount of time to prepare the wood surface before applying the varnish this time, so there are no dents or lumps underneath the varnish. There is no dark sawdust ground into the spruce top, so everything looks fairly clean. I actually varnished this guitar 3 times. The first varnish went fairly well, but I ended up with a small spot where I had sanded through the finish, so I applied another few thin coats of varnish and re-polished the guitar.

At this point (almost a week ago), I thought that the guitar was finished, so I glued on the bridge, set up the fingerboard, and made the nut and saddle. I quickly realized that I had slightly messed up on the fingerboard thickness, and, as a result, the action was too high and unreconcilable. After a night of thinking instead of sleeping, I made the radical decision to plane off the fingerboard, and make an entirely new fingerboard! I have definitely learned from this experience, and know exactly what to not do now! Here is a picture of my set up to get rid of the old fingerboard without damaging the soundboard:

Although I avoided damaging the soundboard by covering it in bristle board, I still needed to re-varnish the guitar because of the fingerboard edges as well as a couple of other blemishes on the guitar. So I had another full day of varnishing on Christmas eve.

I finished the guitar with General Finishes Enduro-Var Gloss finish. This is an environmentally friendly water based finish which is mostly great to work with. It does not smell bad, and is one of the only healthy water-based finishes to add the depth and warmth of an oil varnish. The finish dries quickly, which is both good (quick re-coat time) and bad (brush marks everywhere). It is a pain to build and rub out because of the very thin layers of varnish which do not melt into each other as they are applied.  I will keep working with this until I master it or give up! Here is the guitar hanging to dry in my spare bedroom (away from the dusty workshop):

After applying a few more coats, I rubbed out the finish on Christmas morning. I would not recommend this at all. Not just because working at 5:30am on Christmas right before you have to drive to visit family is no fun at all, but mostly because you should really let a few days go by between applying varnish and rubbing it out. Lesson learned. Here is partway through my polishing process (fine grits of sandpaper followed by pumice, rottenstone, and finally car polish).

After this, I set the guitar up again with a new nut and saddle, and a bit more fret work, and then called it a day. This morning I did the final set up on the guitar, and I am now calling it done!

I used Indian Rosewood for the back and sides, and Engelmann spruce for the soundboard. The bindings are maple, and I think that they look particularly beautiful against the rosewood with the warm amber Enduro-Var finish.

This was my first attempt at a soundport on the upper bout of the guitar. This acts as a monitor so that the guitar player can hear what the guitar sounds like. I think that it turned out rather well:

The rosette was my second attempt at a handmade mosaic rosette, and for the most part, it turned out well. I can still improve on the clarity and tidiness of the tiles, but I think that overall, it is not a failure:

The headstock turned out quite well, I think. I used a bookmatched set of leftover rosewood from the back and put a stripe down the centre that matched the back as well. I used my more traditional headstock shape, and was quite happy with how clean it ended up looking!

So, overall, this guitar was quite the success. Lots of learning curves as always, but I am heading in the right direction! The sound of this guitar is quite balanced with a nice treble and a decent bass. I am sure that the sound will open up and develop over the next year, and I hope to hear it again later in its life!

I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday and an even better 2017. Best wishes for the new year, and thank you so much for reading all the way through this post! There will be lots more to come in the next month.

Repairing a mandolin

I don’t do a lot of repair work by choice (I simply don’t have time!), but I do tend to enjoy the odd repair that I am asked to do. Repairing instruments teaches me a lot about building as I am able to scrutinize what another builder (or factory) has done. This project was particularly fun – a friend of mine asked me to repair her grandmother’s Ukrainian flat-top mandolin so that she would be able to learn to play just like her grandmother.

I neglected to take a ‘before’ picture, but the fingerboard of the mandolin had fallen off, and the back was coming off in places and missing a brace.

I started by removing the strings and then prying off the back. Because the glue was so old, the back came off quite easily with  little bit of heat and a narrow metal spatula. In the photo below, I am just repairing one ‘tooth’ of the kerfing that was slightly damaged.

I then cleaned up the back and removed the one brace that was still partially attached. 

And then re-braced the back with two new spruce braces shaped to match the original braces.

With that all cleaned up and the glue removed from the kerfing pieces, I reattached the back. I used tape alongside my newly homemade spool clamps to clamp the back in place.


With the back fixed, I proceeded to make a new fingerboard out of ebony. I had the original fingerboard, but it was very worn and split down the centre, so I decided that it would be better to make a new fingerboard. The scale length of this instrument was just slightly under 13 inches, and I put 17 frets into the fingerboard. I used narrow Nickel/Silver fretwire from Luthier’s Mercantile (FW68 which is intended for mandolins and other small instruments).

The last thing to do was to clean up the instrument with a new coat of stain and finish on the back, sides, neck, and headpiece. I did not touch the soundboard as it was ornamented, and although damaged, was probably the most sentimental part of the instrument. In removing and reattaching the back, I had slightly damaged the already peeling finish on the back and sides, so I decided that it would be good to give the mandolin a new protective layer. I also realized in the process of removing the original finish, that the old finish had faded in the sunlight considerably from a reddish hue to a rather unappealing dusty brown. Because of this, I decided to stain the back and sides a deep “Bombay Mahogany” colour, which I think looks quite good. I went for a satin finish, as this is an old instrument, and a shiny new finish would look quite out of place against the worn soundboard and old hardware.

The last thing to do was to make a new nut (the old one was quite broken), and do the final set up with light gauge strings. The instrument is quite playable now, and is a lot of fun! I kind of want to build myself a flat-top mandolin now so that I can do a bit of Chris Thile inspired bluegrass strumming. I taught myself 3 chords today before the mandolin was picked up in the afternoon, and had a lot of fun messing around with the one folk tune that I could think of and had time to figure out.

I have a few more repairs to do in the near future (I think that there are 3 guitars sitting waiting for a bit of TLC. Somehow, their owners are apparently quite OK with my sluggish pace of work!), so I will try to do a few more posts like this one in the new year. And, as I said, there might be another mandolin in the future of this blog…

In the meantime, I am finishing up the classical guitar that I am working on, and am making good progress on the finishing. The guitar is quite shiny at this point, and I have to say that I think that this might be some of my best work yet. I will have that guitar finished by the week’s end, and should have a blog post on the final stages of building before Christmas. If things go well, I might even have time for a festive video with the guitar before I have to deliver it!

Back, sides, soundport, and closing the box

The last time that I updated this blog about my current guitar build, I showed pictures of the soundboard bracing and the rosette. My building deadline is approaching faster than I originally realised, so I have had to up my efficiency and hours over the past couple of weeks. I can say that I am on track to complete this guitar on schedule, so long as the next couple of days go exactly as planned!

First, I had to get the neck ready so that I could attach this to the soundboard. I used a scarf joint for the headpiece, and plated the headpiece with a bookmatched set of leftover rosewood from the back of the guitar before carving the crest and drilling and slotting for tuning machines. I used my more traditional headpiece design on this guitar so that it would match the design aesthetic that the client and I had agreed upon. The stripe down the centre of the headpiece matches the stripe down the centre of the back (white – dark brown – white).

The sides bent very smoothly (straight-grain Indian Rosewood), so I did not have any hold-ups there. I should have taken more pictures during the construction of the soundport, as that is something new for me for this build. Unfortunately, I was not thinking about this blog at the time! Basically, after bending the sides, I reinforced the area where the soundport would be located by adding two extra thicknesses of rosewood side cutoffs to that part of the upper bout. I alternated the grain directions to create a really strong laminated reinforcement. After letting that dry, I drilled through the side before shaping the port with my dremel tool. Next time I do a sound port, I will be sure to write a detailed blog post about the process. I think that it turned out pretty well:

After that, the sides were attached to the top, and the back was thicknessed, braced, and attached (sorry – again, no photos, and I do not have the back thickness on hand. I was careful not to go too thin on this back, as I think that I have made this mistake too many times in the past). That was followed by a decent amount of clean-up work before I cut the binding ledges, bent the maple strips, and glued on the binding. This went very smoothly – I think I have only one small spot to disguise, which means that this is my best binding job thus far! I like how the simple binding looks on this guitar – clean, very traditional lines.

The next project was to get the Rosewood fingerboard thicknessed, sized, and slotted. (note: this will be a 640 mm scale length guitar). I tried to match the colour and grain of rosewood for the fingerboard to the rest of the rosewood on the guitar.

All that is left is the heel cap (a simple rosewood veneer which I have gluing as I type this), a whole lot of sanding, fret markers, applying the varnish, and making the bridge. I will have a blog post about the final stages of this guitar in a couple of weeks.

I am also in the middle of a mandolin repair, so I will have a post about that in the next couple weeks as well! In amongst these projects, I am building another cutting board, finishing up teaching for 2017 with student recitals, and preparing for my own concert this coming Friday (if you’re in Ottawa, I’d love to see you there! I’ve put the poster at the bottom of this blog post). If all of this goes smoothly, I might do a post on project management and organization as a self-employed musician. (If things go less than smoothly, I’ll write a post on what not to do).

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and have a wonderful December, and enjoy the beginnings of winter and the festive season! Cheers 🙂