Closing another box

As nice as July was – filled with travelling, the summer academy, and random bits and pieces of work, it has been nice to get back to a “normal” schedule for the past week. I started swimming and going to the gym again, so my energy levels are back up, I have been spending some time playing the guitar every day in the morning (I have several concerts coming up over the next year, as well as the CD I am supposed to be recording…), and I have made some good progress on the current guitar build in the afternoons. Having a bit of regularity in a self-employed work schedule is not always easy, but it really does make things so much more calm.

If you remember from my last blog (making a guitar mould), my goal for this week was to get the body assembled, and I have actually managed to carry through with that promise! Using the mould was a bit of a learning curve, but overall it has made everything much more stable and efficient. I don’t have to worry so much about keeping the sides square when putting the guitar together, and the neck angle and therefore string action will also be much more easy to control.

I started by joining the sides together with a mahogany end block at the tail end of the guitar, adding basswood linings, and shaping the soundboard edge of the sides to fit the profile of the mould – both the curve of the lower bout and the angle to accommodate the raised fretboard in the upper bout.

Once I had the sides prepared, I trimmed the soundboard to fit the mould and attached the neck to the soundboard. This is a crucial joint – if the neck isn’t lined up properly with the centre line on the soundboard, the guitar will look wonky, and setting up the bridge and strings could be tricky. I talked a bit about my raised fretboard Spanish heel joint, complete with a colourful diagram, in a previous post here.

With the neck-soundboard ready to go, I set that down into the mould and glued the sides down. The mould did a great job of stabilizing the sides during this process – something that I have had a difficult time with in the past.

The next thing to do was to add “brace feet” to the sides. These serve two purposes. First, they give some much needed support to the ends of the soundboard braces, preventing them from coming loose in the future. Secondly, they act as braces for the sides of the guitar. In this guitar, I used a few bits of Spanish cedar that I had leftover from other projects. In the picture below, you can see the progress on the guitar up to this point with the last “brace foot” clamped in place.

For this guitar I have used a very traditional fan brace pattern. This particular layout was drawn out by my father, and has produced several very nice guitars. I like the inclusion of the X-brace in the upper bout as it is incredibly strong, and it is always very satisfying to fit a nice tight lap joint between the two braces.

The next step was to prepare the back by cutting it almost to size and then fitting the braces into the sides. As I have for the past several guitars, I notched out a spot for each of the brace ends through the lining and the side of the guitar. The brace ends will be covered by the binding later on, and these tight-fitting notches prevent the brace ends from coming loose in the future.

The back is a very straight-grained piece of Indian rosewood braced with Engelmann Spruce in a simple ladder pattern.

With everything fitted and well vacuumed, I applied glue to the edge of the sides, and clamped the back in place with a couple of cam clamps, a few F-clamps, and a piece of sliced up inner tube.

As I was working on this, I started to think that I should add some hooks to the sides of the mould to allow me to clamp with the inner tube more easily. I just have to figure out a way to make the hooks really secure in the MDF. One of the problems I have encountered with the mould is the depth of clamp it requires due to the thickness of the removable sides. I only have a few that will reach in far enough. I had enough for what I was doing this week, but I really should pick up or make a few more cam clamps over the next while.

Of course, the whole clamping process would probably improve if I built myself a go-bar deck, so I might work that into my upcoming workshop renovation. Having mentioned that, I would welcome any workshop layout tips or workshop must haves in the comments below! I’ll be changing up my shop over the course of this fall and I am currently in the design phase of things.

Here is the guitar all closed up and ready for a lot of clean up, some decorative bits, and a fingerboard over the course of the next week.

Next Thursday, if all goes to plan, you’ll see the binding and inlays completed, the fingerboard on, and the guitar just about ready for some finish.

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Guitar building mould

Over the past month I have not been doing a lot of guitar building. I have had a couple of holidays, I spent a week teaching at the University of Ottawa Summer Guitar Academy, and I spent some time working on this guitar building tool. Plus, the humidity has been really high, so not exactly great guitar building weather.

Up until this point, I have been building guitars in a way that is really best described as “free-style.” Almost every guitar I have made over the past 5 or more years has been a different shape, and I have come to the realization that this is probably not the most efficient way to work, so I have been looking into other methods that will give me more consistent results. I settled on building a guitar mould in the style of John S. Bogdanovic, as described in his book and on his website. This means that the majority of classical guitars that I build from this point on will have the same body shape. Aside from efficiency, this should also allow me to work towards building better sounding guitars as I will be eliminating one of the variables and allowing myself to focus more on things like wood selection and bracing patterns.

The mould is made up of 3 parts – a work-board and 2 removable sides. The work-board has a patch of softwood glued to the lower bout area that is tapered and carved to match the radius of the soundboard braces so that the soundboard will be well supported during assembly. The detailed instructions on how to make this Solera are available on Bogdanovic’s website here.

The workboard portion is made out of two pieces of 3/4 inch thick MDF glued together to form a thick flat board. The removable sides are made out of 3 pieces of MDF stacked up and glued together. In order to protect the mould, I finished all of the MDF with a couple of coats of leftover water-based polyurethane that was sitting around from another project.

The sides are attached to the work-board with 4 stove bolts threading into Tee-nuts that are secured to the work-board.

I also made a removable 3-part patch for the upper bout that I will use when I am doing raised fretboards:

This patch was cut out of a piece of douglas fir and was shaped to fit around the raised fretboard part of the neck when I am working on guitars with a Spanish heel joint and a raised fretboard (like the guitar that I am currently working on).

With the mould finished, I thought that I would jump right back into the guitar’s construction, so I bent the rosewood sides for the guitar and have them secured inside the mould to dry and get used to their new shape:

It seems to work pretty well although I will have to play around with how I will be holding the sides in place as I am not a big fan of the clamping set up in the picture above.

Details on the guitar’s assembly will be coming next week if all goes to plan!

Shop talk: a conversation with Jo Dusepo

I have taken a few weeks off from this blog – too much has been getting in the way of my building over the past month, so I have not had much to share! In a couple of weeks I will be back to a more regular schedule, so I will have more regular blogging happening at that point if all goes to plan.

Today, I am pleased to share with you the fourth instalment of my “shop talk” series featuring the British luthier, Jo Dusepo. I first came across Jo via her Instagram and have admired her work over the past couple of years through this platform. Jo builds a wide variety of instruments, focussing mostly on lute and oud-like instruments as well as other world and historical plucked string instruments. She is also a musician herself – check out her albums on bandcamp here, and radio host on K2K radio.

As per usual with this series, I have conducted the interview over email, so the responses are completely the work of Jo Dusepo. The images in this post are taken from her website and instagram pages, so I cannot take any credit for her lovely work!

Lutes and Cobzas built by Jo Dusepo

To start out with, could you give us a bit of insight into your background as a luthier? for instance: How did you get into instrument building? Why did you choose to build lutes/ouds/etc? Do you come from a background as a musician, or was there something else that got you into building?

I’m self-taught. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by music and instruments, and especially world music and instruments. I am a musician too, but I fell in love with the sounds I heard but couldn’t get hold of the instruments that made them. After a few years of trial and error I was able to make my own instruments, and I caught the lutherie bug. 10 years of practice later, I went professional. I have also always had an interest in historical music, especially the medieval and renaissance periods, and fell in love especially with the melodies of the Cantigas and of John Dowland. So, the oud and lute are the perfect combination of these two, since the medieval period is when the oud came into Europe and over time became the lute. The medieval lute and oud have a lot in common, and it wasn’t until the renaissance that the European lute and the oud diverged further in building style and design. It also seems appropriate for me since I am a luthier, and that word comes from the french word luth, meaning lute.

What was the first instrument that you built? Do you still have it, and does it play? How did you find the self-teaching learning curve at the beginning?

I guess that depends on your definition. I built all sorts of instrument-like things as a kid. One I particularly remember was a biscuit tin (cookie tin for North American readers) banjo-like thing with fishing line strings. It played but was a struggle to keep in tune! I’m not sure what happened to it, but I don’t have it anymore. The first ‘proper’ instrument I built was a citole-style ukulele. I think I ended up taking that apart later to use for something else. The learning curve was at first frustrating but over time got easier as I improved over those 10 years.

How many instruments have you built?

I’ve long ago lost count, but I’d estimate over a hundred by now. Probably about 150 or so.

What kind of space do you have as a workshop?

My workshop is a separate building outside where I keep all the tools etc. I don’t know how best to describe it. I have a workbench on one side and shelves full of tools, templates and other stuff all around the other sides. On one wall I have a series of lute moulds hanging. I also have an old music player in there which plays a playlist full of music that inspires me whilst I work. I find having that space helps me focus and be inspired.

What is your favourite hand tool? power tool?

My favourite hand tool is a fine toothed back saw I bought a few months ago. It’s great for making pegbox joints and all sorts of other things. A good all-purpose saw. My favourite power tool would, I guess, be my bandsaw. I’ve had it a long time and it’s still going strong and is probably the power tool I use the most. My table saw, thickness sander and bending iron are also frequently used and among my favourites. It’s difficult to choose, because they all have their role!

Do you have any luthier “heroes”?

I like those who come up with amazing new ideas, or build less usual instruments like me. For me this includes people like William Cumpiano, Federico Tarazona, Meredith Coloma, Kave Ghorbanzade, Alfonso Sandoval, Travis Carey, Angel Benito Aduado and many others.

The ribs of an oud by Jo Dusepo

Now that you are well-established in your professional career as a luthier, what drives you to keep building? And, is there something that you are constantly trying to improve or develop with your instruments?

I find there are always new challenges, as well as being driven by my love of music and instruments. I was recently commissioned to build a renaissance cittern, for instance, which has some weird and wonderful design choices in it.

I would imagine that part of your interest in building the wide variety of instruments that you do stems from a desire to maintain tradition and the diversity of string instruments. Do you think that it is important to keep all of these instrument traditions alive, and, is there a place for historical instruments, such as the medieval lute, outside of immersive type historical performances and instrument collections?

Yes, I do love the musical traditions behind both the historical and world instruments I build, but I don’t necessarily see myself as continuing a tradition, especially in the case of the world instruments from cultures I am not part of. I do think it is important to respect and keep alive traditions though, yes. I always feel the world is a little poorer every time I hear of an instrument that has gone out of fashion somewhere in the world, usually in favour of imported Western-style guitars. Most of the customers who commission historical instruments from me do wish to play historical music on them, but there is also some wonderful fusion styles. I’ve particularly come across a lot of early medieval styles mixed with Arabic, North African and Persian music. There are also a few bands I’m aware of who do historical music from along the silk road.

How do you balance your own desires as a luthier with the demands of your customer base – or do you find that people are drawn to your instruments because of your interests?

That’s not really been an issue. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I’ve found my customers usually share the same interests as me.

Are the instruments that you build copies of other instruments or are they plans that you have drawn up yourself? I would imagine that you have done a bit of both over your career.

As you suggested, both! Most of my instruments which are not based on a specific historical example are my own design. I like to draw up my own plans, and I will often change aspects to fit the player. On the other hand, I have customers who want an instrument based on a specific historical example. This can be of a surviving instrument, or based on a painting or other historical source.

How do you deal with the idea of authenticity when it comes to staying true to the instrument you are copying/imitating vs designing? Do you find that there are still things to improve/develop or experiment with when it comes to historical instrument making, or is it more of working to get closer and closer to what the original instruments were like?

In the case mentioned above, where I base it off a historical painting or similar, it often requires some experience to be able to interpret the source, and look for clues. For instance, whereas many renaissance instruments survive, there are no surviving medieval lutes. So it requires that experience to reverse-engineer the plans. I have also in the past made re-productions from specific surviving historical instruments. Ultimately, how close a historical instrument is to the original, or whether some modern innovations are included is entirely up to the customer.

A huge thank you to Jo Dusepo for participating in this series. Again, for more information on Jo, please visit her website: www.dusepo.co.uk, check out her instagram, her radio show, or her albums.

Thank you also to you, the reader, for following along with this series. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please leave them down below.

A few more photos of the Hamilton guitar

Last week, I posted about my most recently completed guitar, number 017, and today I thought I would indulge myself a little bit more and just share a few more photos of the guitar as I did a little bit of a photo shoot outside in my garden, and I am pretty happy with how they turned out 🙂

Flamed maple headstock veneer
Engelmann Spruce soundboard
Flamed and Spalted maple back
headstock back quilted maple veneer

Hamilton skyline rosette inlay in honour of the Hamilton International Guitar Festival and Competition
Headstock with red veneer lines visible. Gotoh tuning machines

Completed guitar #017: Hamilton

It seems like a while since I actually wrote an update post on what I have been doing in my workshop. The last time I updated you on the current guitar’s progress was at the beginning of May when I talked about the rosette inlays for the two in-progress guitars. Since then, I have focussed on finishing the guitar for the Hamilton festival as I had a hard deadline for completing that guitar. I will be getting back to the lunar phase cedar and rosewood guitar very soon, so you will see more on that guitar in July. The Hamilton guitar is now complete, so it is time for a summary blog post!

Bracing

Although I did not take many pictures during the building of this guitar (I broke my camera lens halfway through and had to purchase a replacement), I did manage to get a couple shots of the bracing, which is a bit different than in my past guitars. I based this pattern on a Bouchet guitar plan that is available from Luthier’s Mercantile. This is a fan braced guitar with a harmonic bar directly under the saddle. Although I did not copy the plan exactly, I did take inspiration from the graded brace sizing on the plans, which had heavier bracing on the treble side and thinner, lighter braces on the bass. I also used Bouchet’s open harmonic bar right below the soundhole which allows two of the fan braces to pass under the brace and end close to the soundhole.

In the next photo, you can see the asymmetrically tapered brace located underneath the saddle of the guitar. The tapering is supposed to help to balance the tone of the basses and trebles, and while I can’t say whether this is the reason, it is a good sounding guitar with pretty nice basses and trebles with a decent sustain.

Stages of Completion

I have had the strings on and off of this guitar several times in the last few weeks. The first time this guitar was played was at the end of May when a few friends came over to try the guitar out. The guitar was playable but unfinished – I had rushed to get the frets in and the strings on for the occasion, and had only had enough time to wipe a bit of shellac on the soundboard. I was immediately impressed with the unique sound of this guitar – it seemed to have a certain clarity of tone and a beautiful sustain almost from the first sound it made.

After that first test, I took the guitar back to my workshop to fiddle with things and apply some finish before stringing again for a couple of recording sessions for my upcoming CD. As soon as I had completed those recordings, the strings came off again for a bit more varnish and a couple sessions of polishing.

Design features

Overall, I am quite happy with how this guitar turned out. The woods are beautiful and work quite well together – the warmth of the rosewood complements the pink tones in the spalted maple. I used a bit of red veneer here and there to accent the pink as well, but kept the overall design simple with clean lines and mostly uncomplicated inlays. The talking point is of course the rosewood rosette, which turned out even better than I had hoped when I first dreamt it up.

Of course, people don’t immediately recognize it as Hamilton’s skyline (I am not sure that anyone would really recognize Hamilton’s skyline at a glance), but it is clearly a city scape when viewed from up close. From afar people have wondered if it was eye-lashes or a paint splatter on different occasions, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of that, but regardless of what people think it looks like, the rosette’s reception has been largely very positive.

I continued the use of rosewood for the bridge and the fingerboard on this guitar, preferring the softer brown of rosewood to the striking black of ebony for this design. Rosewood is also lighter, and from what I have heard, lighter bridges are generally a good thing in guitar construction.

The bridge is a bit unique in that I used a piece of flamed maple to cap the central section, and edged the tie block with red veneer lines and ebony for a bit of protection against string wear.

Along with the rosewood, I used a decent amount of quilted maple in the design of this guitar. The back of the headstock features a stunning veneer of quilted maple, as does the heel cap.

I also used quilted maple for the binding of this guitar, separating it from the light coloured body body woods with dark brown veneer lines to match the rosette.

And that’s it really. It is a comfortable guitar to play, with a standard scale length of 650mm and a slightly small (to modern standards) body. Although I was originally planning to French polish this guitar, I ended up deciding to use EnduroVar water-based varnish just because I am more comfortable with this product and I was pressed for time. The results are pretty good (if I do say so myself).

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I did manage to get a couple of recordings done with this guitar. However, I won’t be releasing those until my CD is complete in about a year, so I thought that I would do a quick home recording of a different piece to hold your interest in the meantime. Here is a little tune by Madame Sidney Pratten (don’t mind my serious expression – I’m still working on my stage face)

As always, thanks for reading and following along with this blog – your comments and interest really mean a lot to me!