Shop talk: a conversation with Ross Chiasson

A couple of months ago, I had the idea to try something new on this blog and today I finally get to unleash it on the internet! This is the first edition of “shop talk” or “conversations with luthiers.” Hopefully I’ll be able to build on this first post and create a series of conversations over the next few years with a variety of other interesting and inspiring instrument builders.

Today’s post will feature the Canadian luthier Ross Chiasson. I first met Ross a few years ago at the Hamilton guitar festival, and his work has remained an inspiration ever since. Ross is a few years ahead of me in building experience, having completed 35 guitars and clocked 7 years of serious commitment to the craft, although he says that he has been “puttering since [he] was a teenager (give or take 15 years).” Ross completed the majority of his lutherie training with Sergei de Jonge in Chelsea, Quebec, after having completed a master’s degree in guitar performance at the University of Ottawa. He now works as a full time luthier in Kingston, Ontario where he has a small-but-mighty 300 square foot workshop.

Ross Chiasson’s 300 square foot workshop

Rather than conduct a traditional interview in person, I decided to (sticking with my introverted tendencies) send a list of questions for Ross to fill in so that he would have time to think everything over. What I came up with ended up looking rather more like an exam than an interview – I’ll have to work on my journalistic skills if I keep this series up! What follows is basically a copy-and-paste from the document we came up with. All of the pictures included in this post were provided by Ross – none of this is my work!

braced soundboard and soundbox by Ross Chiasson

Quick Facts

Favourite hand tool:

Record no.7 Jointer, which was one of my first purchases (used – from a collector in Ottawa) and the set of chisels my wife bought me early on.

ADDENDUM: right in the middle of writing this I bought one of those StewMac style luthier vises with the swivel heads because I was rebuilding a banjo headstock and couldn’t get a grip on it. I should have bought this thing years ago. Lee Valley has a knock off version now, which is bright green and adds a nice splash of colour to the shop. Game changer.

Favourite power tool:

My dust collector. It’s a 5 HP cyclone with two giant HEPA filters. It can suck up a full size tape measure. It’s also the only power tool I ever purchased new. Favourite power tool I don’t own? A jointer. I’ve been right on the edge of buying one for about 4 years. I’ve always gotten along with my handplanes, but it would be a time saver.

Most useful homemade jig: 

I just get a jig working well and then I change my mind about what I want to accomplish. I end up free handing a lot of stuff. It’s wildly inefficient. I do use a lot of jigs, but they are usually in a state of flux.

Preferred heel joint:

ALL THE HEEL JOINTS! Just kidding, but I’m not a purist here despite building mostly classical guitars. I’ve done a few different joints and had good results with them all. Mostly traditional dovetails, that’s how I learned, but lots of mortise and tenons, and I’m working on an adjustable neck system based on Sergei de Jonge’s design.  I’ve done enough neck resets in my repair work to appreciate a joint that comes apart reasonably easily – and if it didn’t have to come apart at all, that would be great too. 

Favourite wood combination:

I’m leaning into domestic hardwoods these days – maple and cedar is a really lovely combo. 

Favourite step in the building process:

I like planing tops. A sharp plane in quarter sawn softwood is a treat, especially compared to some of the gnarly hardwoods you have to deal with along the way. I’ve always enjoyed carving necks too, and taking the wrappings off the bindings to see what you’ve got.

Luthier Heros:

Sergei of course, Some of the local guys in Cape Breton were big influences – Otis Thomas in particular. These days I love the diversity of the scene and the history. There’s so many amazing resources and ideas to draw from. It’s a great time to be alive.

“Long answer” questions

How does your background as a player influence your building? Do you think that it brings a unique perspective to what you are looking for in the finished product?

I think it helps in the evaluation process and in knowing what sounds I’m after. It’s challenging to objectively evaluate your own instruments, and having the training as a player helps with the ear.  Sometimes I’m a bit jealous of folks with physics or engineering backgrounds, but everyone come to building with their own advantages and disadvantages, and there are a lot of very different folks in the world making great instruments.

Where do you see yourself in the spectrum of traditionalist – innovator? and/or artist-technician-scientist?

The guitar has to be a useful object, and that’s craftsmanship that does that – there’s definitely an element of artistry too, but I don’t know where the line is. I’m usually happier as an artisan than an artist.

I’m not any more comfortable trying to determine where I fall on the tradition/innovation spectrum. I keep my nomex on the shelf beside the hide glue.

Why do you build? How did you come to guitar building and what drives you to continue in this pursuit?

I like working, I don’t know why – I just like making things and solving problems- chipping away at things to make them better. It’s as much a compulsion or habit as anything. I get a bit antsy when I’m away from the shop for too long. That sort of brain mixed with my music studies seems to fit the job. I’m just about making a living at it now between building and repairs which eventually becomes pretty important in determining whether it’s a full time gig, a side job, or a hobby.  I think a lot of builders have quietly fluctuated between those states over their careers.

You just have to keep at it.

What do you want to be able to accomplish with your guitar building? Do you find yourself indulging in personal building goals/technical innovations, or do you lean towards aiming to please the wider guitar playing audience? Perhaps these are not mutually exclusive.

I just want to make really really great guitars. Right from the beginning I was evaluating myself globally against all the best guitars and makers in the world. This is not a good recipe for happiness, but it speeds up the learning curve. I try to progressively improve my instruments, sometimes working in a more radical idea here or there to try it out, sometimes working it back out again. I’m always learning. I hope my instruments will make people happy and I’m really honoured when someone chooses to play one.

Of what are you the most proud? 

Having one of my mentors, Dale Kavanagh play one of my guitars was a really moving experience for me. It was a rush of positive reinforcement in a very important moment for me. Both her and her husband/duo partner Thomas Kirchhoff (Amadeus Duo) have been really supportive.     

What would you like to be able to tell your beginner luthier self?

You don’t have a cold! You’re kind of allergic to rosewood dust – buy the good dust collector!

Do you have any shop rules? Tips for beginners? Sage advice?

Safety wise I just try to use common sense. Hopefully that continues to hold me in good stead. There’s a lot to think about, you just try to make good choices.

For beginners? I can’t offer much advice except what I keep telling myself. If you keep at it and you care deeply about it you’ll eventually get good at it and maybe if you really keep at it you’ll get really good at it. That’s what I’m trying for.

For more information on Ross, check out his website: www.rosschiasson.com/

To hear one of his incredible guitars, check out Mike Ibsen’s video here:

I hope you enjoyed reading through what Ross had to say as much as I did. I want to say a huge thank you to Ross for being my first “victim” for this fledgling series of interviews with luthiers. Let me know what you think about this format, and please let me know if you have luthiers that you would like me to talk to! I’ll leave this post here with one more picture of Ross’s shop featuring his 6+ month old daughter, one of the youngest guitar repair apprentices out there.

Starting them young – Ross and his daughter, Emma
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Completed guitar No. 020

The guitar is finally finished! I say finally, because in my initial plan, this guitar should have been completed a few weeks ago, but life got in the way and I stalled repeatedly in the final stages of building.

Overall, this guitar has turned out quite well. The guitar is quite loud and seems to be well balanced through the basses and trebles, although it is early days yet. Most of the woodworking is tidy, although the perfectionist within me is not entirely happy with all of the purfling lines. There will always be something to improve in this work, and, as frustrating as it can be, this is one of the main reasons that I keep building.

As a quick review, this is a Cedar topped classical guitar with quilted maple back and sides. There is also a decent amount of ebony in the guitar between the inlays, fingerboard, and bridge. The scale length is 640mm (25.1969 inches) and the guitar is based on plans drawn up by my father when he started building in the early 1990s. The guitar is housed in a Visesnut case, which I have to say is quite nice. Great service and amazingly quick free world-wide delivery as well. I’ll be ordering more in the future.

This guitar, on request of the customer, is finished with an oil finish, which is rather unusual. Most classical guitarists look for a super shiny French Polish finish, so it was refreshing to build this for someone who wanted something a little less flashy. I used the Tried and True Varnish Oil (available from Lee Valley), which was actually the finish that I used on my first guitar. It is easy to apply and rubs out to a nice matte-satin sheen that emphasizes the grain of the wood. I think that it looks especially nice on the quilted maple of this guitar.

As noted in my last building update, I attached the bridge before applying the finish. I would never do this with a gloss finish – the bridge is too much of a pain to work around – but with a rubbed oil finish, this is definitely the way to go. I actually applied a bit of the oil to the bridge and the fingerboard as it adds a nice layer of protection and a bit of a sheen to the ebony.

The Varnish Oil seems to leave softwoods significantly less shiny than it does hardwoods, but the top still has a subtle sheen and definitely doesn’t look like bare wood.

The soundport on this guitar makes a huge difference for the player’s experience. Soundports on guitars (the little hole in the side of the guitar, in the picture above) act like monitors and allow the guitarist to hear herself more clearly. When playing this guitar over the past week, I have really been quite taken by how much more sound this guitar seems to make because of the soundport. Without a soundport, the guitar seems to send all of the music out to the audience (which of course, is most often the goal when playing a concert), so the player’s experience of the music is somewhat compromised. I think that, for guitarists who are primarily playing for their own pleasure, the soundport is a truly wonderful feature. I’ll definitely be building more guitars with soundports in the future.

The tuning machines are matte gold Gotoh premium tuners with ebony buttons. These tuning machines match the rest of the ebony on the guitar as well as the matte-satin finish quite well, if I do say so myself.

Finally, a look at the rosette. Generally, it turned out well. There are a couple of dark greyish line blemishes in the finished rosette, probably from dust creeping in as a result of not filling the tiny gaps right away. This results in the rosette not looking quite as shiny and clean as it could.

Even with the blemishes, I think this is a pretty unique and striking rosette. I might reuse this in the future – it could make for a neat series of maze/labyrinth guitars.

And that’s it. Next week, or quite soon, this guitar will be heading off on an adventure across the world to find her new owner. I have to say, I am quite nervous at the prospect of shipping a guitar so far. Of course, I will also miss the guitar itself – she has been quite a pleasure to get to know so far.

More projects coming very soon – I have a Zither to repair along with two more guitar builds to start. Someday I’ll get to those other partially completed guitars… I really don’t like leaving partially completed gaps in my catalogue, but it can’t be helped at the moment.

One more picture to end… and does anyone else want a dress made out of quilted maple? I can’t help thinking that it looks like fine silk.

Bridge basics

It has been a while since I have actually shown step by step details on what I have been doing, so I thought that it was time for me to write a procedural building post. I almost remembered to take photos of all of the steps, and I will fill in the details with words.

Function of the Bridge

Most obviously, the bridge functions as a place to tie the guitar’s strings, however, the bridge should also be thought of as a kind of soundboard brace. In fact, this is likely the largest and heaviest brace on the soundboard, especially in a traditional classical construction.

When the guitar produces sound, the bridge rocks back and forth as the vibration of the strings pulls and pushes on the bridge. This rocking causes the soundboard to move and amplify the vibration of the string to something that the audience can hear.

Because of this, the bridge needs to be strong but light – you don’t want the bridge to weigh down the soundboard and impede vibration! For this reason, I probably should not have used ebony, however, this wood fits with the guitar’s aesthetic, so I used it anyway. Other wood choices for the bridge would be rosewood (and woods similar to rosewood), walnut, or (historically), fruitwood.

Construction

To start out with, you need a bridge blank, which, for a classical guitar, should be a minimum of 7 1/2 inches long, 1 1/8 inches wide, and 3/8 of an inch tall. As I said before, I used a piece of ebony.

The bridge blank should be cut to size (7 1/2 in x 1 1/8 in x 3/8 in), and carefully squared on a sanding board and/or with a plane.

The next step is to mark up the blank.

Start by marking a centre line across the centre of the bridge blank (hamburger style). Then mark the cut lines for the wings, marking 41mm on either side of the bridge blank (half of the 82mm centre block in the diagram above). Then mark the tie block, which should be 12mm wide, and the saddle slot, which is angled to allow for more compensation on the bass strings and less on the trebles.

Then make the first cuts to remove excess wood from the wings.

The wings are then thinned to about 3/16ths of an inch thick, either by cutting the excess off using a bandsaw or handsaw, or by carefully removing the excess wood with a chisel. Because this is ebony, I went for the bandsaw option.

Then we deal with the centre block, cutting the tie block and saddle slot lines.

I cut the tie block with my Japanese saw, and the saddle slot with my basic small cross cutting hand saw. I widen the saddle slot by inserting an old scraper into the first saw cut and then cutting right beside the scraper. This gives me about the right width for my saddle slot (just shy of an 1/8th of an inch). I clean up the saddle slot with a bit of sandpaper and my narrow chisel.

With all of the cuts made, I use a chisel to remove the excess wood between the saddle slot and the tie block (photo forgotten, so take a look at the finished photograph at the end of the post). This creates the valley behind the saddle that allows the strings to be tied to the bridge.

Then I just have to drill the string holes in the tie block. I am using a simple 6 hole tie block for this guitar, but many luthiers have now moved to a 12-hole or even 18-hole bridge to allow for prettier string attachment. I’ll be looking into that for my next guitars.

The holes need to be on a slight angle, so I use double sided tape and a couple of C-clamps to attach the bridge to a piece of angled wood to hold the bridge firmly during drilling. I use another C-clamp to hold the set up to the drill press. This stabilization is very important. Trust me – I have broken several drill bits while drilling string holes, and every time it has been because I was not keeping the bridge in a stable position.

I used a 1/16th inch titanium drill bit for the string holes. Don’t attempt to drill these with poor quality drill bits – again, I have broken several poor quality bits (and the broken bits get lodged inside the bridge and then you have to start all over again from the beginning).

After this, it is just the cosmetic work left. Shape the wings as you desire – I round them over and taper the ends in a very traditional way, but there are so many other options to look at in modern guitar construction. Before attaching the bridge to the guitar I polish the bridge up with fine grits of sandpaper.

Before attaching the bridge, the bridge needs to be fitted to the arch of the soundboard. This can be done by laying a sheet of sandpaper directly on the soundboard of the guitar and then sanding the bridge until it fits that curve.

Then it is time to locate the position of the bridge (string length plus a bit of “compensation” to have the guitar play in tune), and glue the bridge to the soundboard. Because of the finish that I will be using on this guitar, I decided to attach the bridge before applying finish. Most of the time, I would leave the bridge until after finishing, so I would have to mark the bridge location and carefully scrape off the finish so that the glue could stick.

Of course, I forgot to take photos of the actual gluing set up. I made a caul to fit over the fan braces on the inside of the soundboard, and then used two Cam clamps and a long throated C-clamp to hold the bridge in place while the glue set. Here is a picture of the caul:

I use a bit of double sided tape to hold the caul in place. Do not use as much as I did – this caul was really difficult to remove!

And that’s it! Next step: finishing!

Closing the box, binding, and a fingerboard

It has been three weeks since my last update on this guitar, and, although I am not quite as far along as I had hoped, the guitar now looks like a guitar and is just in need of a good sand, a bridge, finish, and set up before I can ship it off to Singapore.

Sides

I left off the last post with the neck attached to the soundboard, so the next thing on the list was preparing the quilted maple sides. These needed to be thinned to about 80 thou (2 mm), and then were bent over a hot pipe. After this, I cut, thinned, and bent basswood linings and a walnut soundport reinforcement. I then drilled out and shaped the soundport from the bass side upper bout. With all of this done, I fit and glued the sides to the soundboard.

Here is a close-up of the soundport reinforcement and my signature on the inside of the guitar:

If you look at the pictures above, you can also see the brace end feet and side braces. Brace end feet give extra support to the braces and prevent braces from coming loose over time. They also give some additional support to the sides of the guitar.

Because quilted maple is flat-sawn, it is much less stable than most of the quarter-sawn wood that is typically used for guitar building, and has a tendency to warp and distort with the heat and moisture during the bending process. Because of this, I made sure to brace the sides with narrow maple braces where the sides seemed in need of additional support. Here is a picture of my simple clamping set-up:

I think that this might be my tidiest guitar interior yet. I am always aiming to build a guitar that I would not be embarrassed by if another luthier were to open it up for repairs! This one is getting closer…

Back

With the interior of the guitar finished, I fit and glued the back, closing the sound box. I used tape and my retired bike inner tubes to clamp the back to the sides.

This was followed by the first stage of major cleanup to prepare for cutting the binding ledges.

Inlays and Binding

Before installing the binding, I inlayed the butt-joint decoration, which was designed to match the headstock veneer. I used the same ebony that I had used on the headstock and inlayed that with simple white veneer lines. I also used this decoration for the heel cap.

The heel cap needs a bit of cleanup, but here is the rough state it is currently in:

The binding is made of walnut with black and white veneer strips to match the back centre stripe. I really like the way walnut works with the quilted maple, and the clean black and white lines work very well with the ebony inlays and the maze rosette. I think this is one of my most cohesive designs yet – can’t wait to see what it looks like when it is all tidied up and finished!

After a good amount of sanding, I moved on to the ebony fingerboard, which needed to be flattened, thinned, cut to size, and slotted before being glued to the guitar. The scale length on this guitar is slightly smaller than standard – standard being 650mm from nut to saddle, and this guitar being 1 cm shorter. I actually have not built a full scale length classical guitar in quite a while! Everyone seems to be after the slightly smaller, easier to play guitars, and I definitely understand why! When I finally have time to build myself a guitar, I will likely be building myself a 640mm scale length as well.

And that is it! Tomorrow I’ll start the final push to the end of this guitar build by carving the neck, sanding everything, and building the bridge before finishing, fretting, and setting up the guitar for playing. I have to get this guitar finished soon – I have two more guitars to build before July… so much for my one guitar every 3 months scheme :/

Barry Green’s Inner Game of Music

Last week, I read a tiny book by Alan Bennett called The Uncommon Reader. This is a quick, humorous read (I read it in 3 short sessions) about the Queen of England discovering her love of literature. Although it is an unassuming, easy to read novella, it really struck a chord in me. For the last several months, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the amount the amount of time that I waste consuming low quality entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with a few YouTube videos, a simple pop song, or a formulaic romantic comedy. But there is something wrong with the overconsumption of such undemanding entertainment and there is something wrong with the constant drone of mind numbing background trash. I know that I feel physically ill after falling into the YouTube spiral for too long, and I definitely feel ashamed of the amount of time I have wasted over the past few years on the internet.

So, as I read The Uncommon Reader, I was thinking about how I currently spend my free time, and how I used to spend my free time when I was growing up largely without a computer. I used to love to read, and although I can’t say that I have forgotten that I loved reading, I have become lazy. It is so much “easier” to waste an hour (or more) in the YouTube/social media/Google vortex than it is to pick up a book, listen intentionally to music, or simply be alone with one’s thoughts. I am sure that nothing in these ramblings has come as a surprise to you; I have, of course, been aware of the time I have been wasting all along. The trouble is, while it is easy to recognize this as a problem in my life, I have a really hard time getting out of the bad habit and into the good one!

Alan Bennett’s novella has made me determined to read more and really do more than just think about how I am spending my free time.

And so, I come to the real purpose of today’s blog post. Since finishing The Uncommon Reader, I have started another novel (Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje), and I finally got around to reading the second half of Barry Green’s The Inner Game of Music.

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

I started reading this book last year (I mentioned it in a blog post almost a year ago), and over the course of a few months, I half-heartedly picked away at the first half of the book. Not that it is a poorly written or boring read – far from it! Barry Green’s writing is easy to digest, relatable, and well thought out. His confidence in Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game theory comes across, but Green does not assume to have all of the answers; Green invites the reader to explore the possibilities of the Inner Game theory while acknowledging that each performer and each performing situation will demand a different solution, some which are not necessarily outlined in the book.

After such a slow start on the book, it seemed as though I would never get through the whole thing. But, after reading the Alan Bennett book and deciding to get back to the business of reading, I decided to pick it up and get it finished. So I read the second half of the book in two days, proving that it really is not such an arduous read.

This will not be a proper book review. I do plan on eventually working towards some proper book review blogs in the future, but for now, this will just be a few thoughts that I had while reading the book, and an encouragement for you to pick it up and read it yourself if it seems of interest.

The book would be incredibly beneficial to any musician, but I found that it would be of particular use to adult amateur musicians, music teachers, parents of young students, and professional musicians or those aspiring to become professional musicians.

The “Inner Game” can be boiled down to learning to silence the “self 1” (interferes with your potential), in order to make room for your “self 2” (the part of you that is able to express your full creative potential). It should be noted that this is not the same as left and right brain (analytical and global) thinking – these are addressed in a separate chapter, and Green shows how to use the Inner Game theory to balance these ways of thinking. The first half of the book describes the basic skills that are required to accomplish this (awareness, will, and trust) and how a student can use these skills to let go and surrender to the musical experience. The second half of the book shows how to use the Inner Game in different situations (dealing with interference during performances, teaching, listening to music, being a parent, practising, playing in ensembles, and improvising). Green includes exercises throughout the book to practise the skills. I have to say, I did not have time to try all of the exercises out as I was reading through the book, so I will go back and use this book as a practise aid over the next year.

This is not a book about becoming a virtuoso from scratch. Although practise is addressed, this is not a book about practising exactly. This is a book about an approach to performing, that, when taken in combination with technical development and good practise habits, will lead to a more enjoyable and fulfilling musical experience.

Much of this book was reassuring – without knowing about this book, I had already put many of the concepts into practise while working to overcome my own nervousness in performance. I am no longer a nervous performer (I don’t believe that I have been particularly nervous for the past couple of years), but there are many other things that I need to work on, and this book hit many of them on the head. My biggest struggle is with focus, and most of the Inner Game skills will help me with that.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on teaching with the Inner Game principles, and I will definitely be revisiting these parts of the book to more fully understand the concepts. Teaching is something that I thoroughly enjoy, and I know that it is, and will continue to be, an integral part of my career. I think that music teachers can play a really important role in a child’s development, so our approach in teaching young children must be carefully considered. I have a lot to learn in this area, and the thoughts presented in this book made a lot of sense to me. Adult students face a whole other set of challenges, and this book does a good job of addressing these struggles. I would highly recommend that adult music students read this book.

Parts of the book are slightly dated – the tape decks and other technologies that are recommended have been replaced a few times since the book came out in 1986, and there has been a lot more research in the fields of music education, performance anxiety, and effective practice strategies in the last several years, but the core concepts of the book have not been affected as far as I can tell.

I will leave this blog with a short quote from the book that seems to tie today’s thoughts together:

“So much depends on the degree to which you value the moments, the minutes, and hours, of your life. If your life is precious to you, you will want your practice time to be both enjoyable and musically rewarding.” (page 129)

(for a non-musical, but equally inspiring remark, remove the works “practice” and “musically”)