Shop talk: a conversation with Ted Woodford

Today’s post is the third instalment of “shop talk,” the luthier interview series that I started in April. I have had several wonderful comments from you saying that you are enjoying this series, so I am keeping it going! I have to say that I am also getting a lot out of these interviews and am incredibly grateful to those who have agreed to participate.

Today’s builder, Ted Woodford, comes from Hamilton, Ontario, and is yet another person that I met at the Hamilton Guitar Festival. Ted has been building instruments for about 20 years and has built a huge variety of instruments over that time. I started the interview by asking Ted to talk a bit about his background and how he got into luthiery:

I grew up thinking I was going to be an artist. As a child I was constantly drawing during class and I had a million hobbies, most of which involved making stuff. I’d carve little totems from firewood, or assemble model airplanes, that kind of thing.  I graduated from a unique collaborative program between the University of Toronto and Sheridan College which offered both a degree in art history and a certificate in studio art practice. It was really geared toward turning out educators, with a heavy emphasis on conceptual art. I still think of it as a good experience, but sometimes I’d be looking across the hall at what the glassblowers or furniture makers were doing and wonder if I wasn’t better suited to that sort of life.  

I got my first guitar at 10 and took about a year’s worth of lessons, just enough to figure out some songs. In retrospect I wish I’d been exposed to a more rigorous classical style of education but it just wasn’t in the cards – I strum and fingerpick in an informal kind of folk-bluesy sort of way.  I enjoy singing and I’ve found myself in several choirs and vocal ensembles over the years. My listening tastes are extremely broad.

After school I was working a series of really dreary factory jobs and trying to come up with a plan. I recall reading an old Fine Woodworking annual that showcased all sorts of woodcraft, including a section of musical instruments. The preface was a little essay by Grit Laskin in which he described his work day, and something clicked.  I’d played guitar (mostly steel string) since I was about 10 and I’d always been fascinated by the guitar as an object, its development and history and it dawned on me that people actually made these things.  Looking in the biography section to the article, I noticed he’d authored a book some ten years before, The World of Musical Instrument Makers, A Guided Tour. I looked up the publisher and to my surprise they were within walking distance of my parent’s house in Oakville!  They had one old dog-eared copy left on the shelf, and I took that as a sign.  The book was filled with wonderful pictures of luthiers plying their trade in Toronto during the golden age when industrial lofts were still affordable.  It was seductive. I wanted in.

I’m a self-learner and I’d done a little bit of woodworking, but I knew I needed hands-on instruction. The sheer complexity of the process was daunting, and even the best books on the subject seemed to leave out important information.  I found an ad for David Freeman’s guitar building class at Timeless Instruments in Tugaske Saskatchewan and signed up. It’s a remote place and there are very few distractions. David provides an intensive learning experience and he’s great at figuring out the psychology of his students – how to impart the same information to different people depending on their particular proclivities. I came away with the basics and a healthy respect for the dedication required to be a guitar maker.

Luthiery was a part-time thing for the next fifteen years.  I did repairs for a music store, worked for a cabinet maker, and then for a woodworking retailer as I slowly built up my chops. Twenty years later I’m still fascinated. There’s still so much to learn.

As with all of these conversations so far, I did not conduct this interview in person, but over email. All of the answers are Ted’s own work, as are the pictures that are  included in this post. All I can claim ownership for are the questions and the random bits in between his answers!

What do you have for a workshop? 

I sometimes compare my shop to life in a submarine.  It’s a tiny basement space of 104 square feet.  I’m 6’3″ and the ceiling is low enough that I have to be careful!  On the plus side, everything is always within reach. I built a little shed for my machine tools to keep the worst of dust away which is about 8′ by 12′ and it houses my table saw, band saw and sanders.  I think every luthier goes through the mental exercise of planning their dream shop and in my case I’d love some more natural light and storage. Every available surface is occupied.  I try to be very disciplined about keeping my bench top clean and free from clutter, but doing repair work requires having boxes of parts and components just hanging around waiting for use.  Sometimes I see photos of luthiers in beautifully monastic shops and I always stop and wonder what their storage room looks like.

Ted Woodford’s 104 square foot workshop

How many instruments have you built? And, as you are not exclusively a classical guitar builder, could you describe some of your other projects?

I’ve built all kinds of things, from lutes to electric guitars.  The total at the moment is 39, with a good many projects on the go in various stages of completion.  The most off-beat thing I’ve ever been asked to build is a traditional Mongolian instrument called a morin khuur, which is kind of like a rectangular two-stringed cello with a carved horse’s head for the peg box.  I documented the process on my blog and almost immediately started receiving questions from people all around the world. As it turned out there was very little written in English about the instrument and I inadvertently set myself up to become an expert, though I’d had only photos to work from and very few verifiable measurements! Some years later a musician brought an authentic instrument for me to repair and I was very pleased with how close my guesswork had been.

For more information on Ted’s Morin Khuur build, check out his blog here. He also has posts on guitar repairs, other builds and a really cool guitar inspection bench made from Ikea furniture.

Do you have any favourite tools?

I have a couple of inexpensive German chip carving knives that I use for general shop activities and I can’t work without them. There are some old measuring tools I inherited from my grandfather which I’m sentimental about but I’m definitely not an obsessive collector. My table saw is a relic from the 50’s, just a Delta hobbyist machine that is cantankerous and strange, and it has no business still being in action but I keep it running out of spite. 

Fan-fret mandolin

What is your favourite wood or wood combination to work with?

Pear is a gorgeous wood. Something about the way it accepts the edge of a tool is unlike anything else – it’s almost like cutting cheddar cheese, but the surface quality left behind is lustrous and beautiful and very hard.  I’ve used all the typical species for tops, and a few oddball ones too. European spruce is nice and has a certain cache, but from my perspective the two best guitars I’ve built had slightly funky Engelmann tops. I’m excited to try various “alternative” backs and sides.  Rosewood is great but I’m almost glad the international restrictions in its trade are forcing us to broaden our perspective.

What is your favourite step in the building process?

Those early steps where you’re just getting started and working in broad strokes – planing the top, scraping the sides, marking out the neck, they hold such promise!  It’s exciting to pick up the tools and get busy and watch the shavings pile up.  It’s the beginning an adventure.

5-course mandolin in progress

Do you have any luthier heroes?

I try not to put builders on a pedestal, but I do take inspiration and I pay attention.  Some people seem to connect with craft as a way of living which I find very appealing.  Eugene Clark was a San Francisco builder who specialized in making flamenco guitars and doing impeccable repair work. There were several articles in the Guild of American Luthiers journal some years back that described a few of his methods for making traditional Spanish style rosettes. They were very conversational in nature – he’d be cutting veneers, or describing the qualities he looked for in a palette knife, and here and there he’d come out with these perfect little statements that said to me he’d been alone in his shop thinking about this stuff for decades, enough to form the core of a philosophy. He was full of wisdom with regards to efficiency using hand tools and it hit me at the right time – I was getting lost in the complexity of jigging up for every task and he brought it back to fundamentals by trying to emphasize skill rather than technique.  He passed away last year and at the Guild convention his daughter in law had a little booth where the family was selling some remnants of his estate. I bought a little miter box he’d made for cutting rosette tiles, nothing fancy, just an honest little tool. Looking at the edges and corners you can tell he put all of himself into every cut.  

Tulip rosette and rosette tiles

Ted is also known for his historically influenced guitar builds. When I first met him, he had just finished building a few guitars with very traditional methods: he even avoided using sandpaper! Ted has an interesting YouTube channel with some really great guitar building and repair resources including this gem on rosette inlay. Here is a picture of a beautiful historical copy of a Stradivarius guitar built by Woodford several years ago:

Stradivarius guitar copy

Where did your fascination with period instruments come from? How does your interest in period building techniques and instruments affect your building of modern guitars, classical or otherwise?

I spent a lot of time in the library as a kid. History has always been important to me, and getting to the bottom of things – tracing the path by which something came to be. I discovered a a wonderful book, Guitars From the Renaissance to Rock by Tom and Mary Anne Evans.  It opened up the whole timeline to me – I could start with the familiar and work backwards into these other realms.  Another major inspiration was a tape cassette of some Bach lute works by Walter Gerwig I found in the library discard bin. The sound of the baroque lute – that dark, introspective, minor-inflected voice. It sounded like overcast days and gentle rain and it was mysterious and familiar at the same time. 

What do you hope to achieve with your guitar builds? Is there a specific tone that you are after? What is your evaluation process? 

I’m looking to bring out the optimum performance for any given piece of wood. In the same way a vocal instructor might work with a singer to improve timbre, diction and range, I try to evaluate the inherent qualities of the soundboard and do what I can to bring those out. I think of guitar tone in terms of vowel sounds and regardless if it’s singing an “Oh” “Ahh” or “Eee” I’d like the tone to be clear and sonorous. I tend to listen to a lot of baroque music in my shop, and I want to hear a nice firm bass and crisp, articulate trebles capable of producing satisfying arpeggios. Translating that to actual construction, there are points in the building process where I will tap, thump, drum or bonk on the soundboard or the semi-completed box and listen to what I’m hearing. It’s an intuitive exercise.

In his reply to my email, Ted also included an image of several soundboards with slightly different bracing patterns that he was experimenting with, which I found fascinating:

Could you go into a bit of detail about this picture? What were you looking for, and what did you find? 

I think small incremental changes are probably the best way to develop a feel for soundboard bracing but I’m not rigorously scientific about it – I leave room for intuition or inspiration to take hold.  Most of my classical guitars have used variations on a bracing scheme from Miguel Rodriguez Jr. – five fan struts with a diagonal treble bar and steeply angled cutoff bars. Within that framework I’ve moved things around trying to stiffen different areas of the top, played with the size and length of the the bridge patch, increased or decreased the level of symmetry.  As for the results?  The best I can say is the changes do make a difference but it’s all very subtle.  The experiments have been more in the spirit of, “What happens if…”, rather than “I think this will…”

I would imagine that all of the repair work that you do also impacts your building on some level – do you think this aspect of your work makes you a better builder in some ways?

At this point in my career I do far more repair than building. I try to balance the two but it’s difficult because scheduling is so unpredictable – I’ll set to work on something and six people will immediately call with instruments that need fixing! Repairs pay the bills and they are a genuine challenge – there’s a great deal of problem solving involved and that stirs creativity which carries across into the building.  Fixing instruments can inform you of all the crazy things that can go wrong, and where the weak points are. You learn what humidity and dryness can do.  I’ve become extremely conscious of the humidity levels when I’m putting things together, trying to keep all the parts in equilibrium.  The flip side of seeing so many damaged guitars is that it *can* make you timid. You have to fight against the temptation to overbuild to prevent each and every structural failure you’ve encountered along the way, because they’re not ALL going to happen to your instrument.

flamed ukulele neck

What advice would you give to beginner luthiers? 

This is the hardest question to answer. I try not to sound cynical, but the person who can succeed at building or repairing guitars doesn’t need to be encouraged. It’s something innate, and maybe there’s more than a little chutzpah involved. It becomes ridiculous if you make a cost/benefit analysis – the occupation requires a huge compliment of skills that would be far more lucrative in another setting. The successful luthier excels in self promotion, customer service, materials acquisition, scheduling, accounting and record keeping. They’re constantly studying. They are both ruthlessly self-critical AND self motivating, capable of dealing with disappointment and uncertain income. They don’t mind repetitive dirty tasks like sanding for hours on end.  You can do all of this brilliantly and still find yourself scrambling for a part time job to pay the electric bill!   So, the person who should take up luthiery will hear all that and say, “I don’t care, this is what I’m doing. You can’t stop me.”   There is no prescribed path. I think each prospective guitar maker must find their own way through the maze.

What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the non building aspects of the business?

I’m not sure I hate any part of the business.  Paperwork and record keeping aren’t all that fun but they’re necessary and I just get on with it.  I really do enjoy meeting players and hearing about their connection to music.  It’s extremely gratifying to be able to help a person by repairing something or improving the playability of their instrument. It’s like restoring their enthusiasm along with the guitar!

Ukulele in progress

What’s the next instrument on your building list? 

At the moment I’m building a suite of five guitars which illustrate the history of the classical guitar from the Renaissance to the present day.  The project will culminate in a concert where characteristic works from each period will be performed, along with a brief talk to place them in their historical context.  I hit upon the idea to use woods cut from the same billets of spruce and maple for all of the soundboards and the bodies to create some kind of continuity.  A “modern” guitar in this series is my first foray into the world of double tops and carbon fibre, and that’s been exciting to learn about. Following this I’m scheduled to make a headless solid-body electric guitar for a progressive jazz/rock player, which should prove an interesting change of pace.

A huge thank you to Ted Woodford for participating in this series. Again, if you would like to know more about Ted, check out his website and blog: www.woodfordinstruments.com.

Let me know in the comments if you have any requests for builders that you would like to hear from or questions that I should ask! I’ve been having a lot of fun with this series, and I hope to continue it for a good while. Next week I’ll have an update on my most recently completed guitar – possibly with a clip of me playing it as I will be doing the first recordings for my CD early next week!

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The “Joyfully Jobless” Musician

In March, I wrote a post about a book, The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green. It wasn’t really a critical book review, as that is not something I am really comfortable including here, as it does not really coincide with the point of the rest of this blog, but more of a “thoughts surrounding my reading of the book” and an encouragement to you to read it. As I said in that post, I am trying to read more this year, and I have been succeeding so far. I’m mixing up my reading material, trying to include some fiction alongside books on finances, guitars, business, and random subjects like bird watching and couture sewing. Not all of these are pertinent to this blog, so I haven’t been talking about them all here, of course, but this morning I finally finished reading another book that I think might be useful to some of you.

I requested this book from the library earlier this year when I was struggling with my decision to be self employed and having yet another dramatic inner battle about what I am doing with my life. In the end, I came to the conclusion that I am doing the right thing at the moment, so nothing has really changed here, and I now realize that it is probably healthy to have these moments of  questioning every now and again. I had basically sorted through all of this by the time I got my hands on the book in question, but I read it nonetheless, and it really helped to reinforce my decision.

Today’s book is Making a Living Without a Job by Barbara J. Winter. Although I occasionally thought that the writing jumped around between topics, it really was a joy to read. The writing style is very conversational, filled with relevant anecdotes, and includes all sorts of exercises and thinking points for the reader. Of course, as this was a library copy, I was not able to write in the spaces provided, but I did do some brainstorming in my bullet journal as I was going through. I will be putting this book on my wish-list to pick up at some point for my own library as I am sure that I will be returning to it from time to time for inspiration and encouragement.

And now onto my thoughts surrounding my reading, focussing on some of the key points of the book.

Doing what you love

As soon as someone finds out that I am a musician, he/she immediately assumes that I am doing what I love (which is true), that I must have so much talent (which is followed by a comment on how they are lacking such a talent), and that I must be gigging all the time – what an exciting life I must lead! While it is important to do what one loves, to use one’s talents (which can be cultivated), and to feel inspired and excited by one’s work, these are a) not exclusive to musicians/artists, and b) not a given if one is a musician/artist. I am a firm believer that it can be just as fulfilling to be a scientist, or to be a mechanic or to be <enter any job title here> as it is to be a musician. And, although someone might love music, the way in which that person goes about being a musician could lead to happiness or to utter despair.

Barbara Winter suggests that, in order to find a fulfilling career, you should focus on finding your passion and on uncovering the essence of the type of work that will make you happy. This method of searching for passion and essence will open up the possibilities for fulfilling work tremendously. This mindset is similar to realizing that there is no such thing as “the one” when it comes to romantic relationships – there are many “ones” in the world just as there are many career options.

For me, I know that the essence of the work that I am doing needs to be self-directed and creative, involve some aspect of helping others, include physical labour, and allow me to work mostly from home on my own terms. Although I am currently fulfilling these desires with teaching, building, and playing guitars, I could just as well work as a chocolatier, a gardener, or a carpenter. This book opened my mind to these possibilities, and who knows – someday I might change tracks to include one of these other things in my business.

Winter also acknowledges that careers can and should be fluid, so it is OK to try something out, realize it is not working for whatever reason, and move on to something else. The variety aspect of a self-employed career is one of the most exciting parts of choosing this life. This also takes the pressure off of finding that “one” career that will carry you through until retirement. As I said, there are many “ones.”

Job Security

One of my main fears of self-employment has always been a worry about job security. After reading this book and another financial book earlier this year (The Millionaire Next Door – also a good read), I have realized that I really should not need to worry about this at all.

Barbara Winter’s way of building security into a self-employed career is to work at multiple “profit centres.” Having multiple streams of income is just like that basic saying that we hear in childhood “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket!” It is the same advise that we are given by financial gurus – “diversify your portfolio!” The more “profit centres” or streams of income, the more secure one’s life is. It is highly unlikely that all of the profit centres will fail at the same time.

My main profit centre is teaching at the moment, and even this is quite diverse in itself. Rather than having one stream of income from one employer, it is almost like I have 30 employers. So if one or two quit or go on holiday, I still have the majority of my income and my work left. I supplement the teaching with building commissions, concerts, playing gigs, and repair work. I even occasionally build random non-guitar things out of wood, like chopping boards and rehearsal boxes. I love the variety that makes up my career, and the longer my business is in operation, the more secure I feel. In a sense, you can see how this multiple income stream self-employment life can be more secure than a one-income employed career can be.

Along with the idea of “profit centres,” Winter suggests that readers take an hour a day to generate ideas to create new profit centres or to build on existing ideas. This is called the “$100 hour” and is a great way to invigorate the self-employed life and to even out seasonal or monthly fluctuations in income, which is a harsh reality for most of the “joyfully jobless.”

This brings me to my third point of discussion:

Debt

Borrowing money is a touchy subject for most, and definitely a point of contention amongst financial advisors. Some say to embrace debt or even to borrow to invest, while others say to stay far away and avoid it at all costs. From what I have read, this mostly depends on one’s risk tolerance – those who enjoy living on the edge with the potential for high rewards (or total loss), would be more comfortable playing with debt than financially conservative folk who would stay far away from any borrowed cash. I have to say that I am firmly entrenched in the latter and am uncomfortable with borrowing money for almost any reason. This brings me to a minor qualm that I had with Making a Living without a Job.

Towards the end of the book, Barbara Winter says: “regard debt as an investment in your future, not a sign or irresponsibility…. Debt is neither good nor bad but, rather, sometimes necessary. Keep yours manageable, but don’t avoid it if it advances your dreams.”

Generally, this seems to be a fairly healthy approach to debt – this lies somewhere in the middle on the risk spectrum, so it is not so much that I have a qualm with her proclaiming the virtues of taking on debt – she does not go so far, but it is more a worry about what I see in the musician community where I see many people equating “doing what you love” with “doing what you love no matter the financial consequences.” Often this seems to lead to bitterness towards the very thing that was loved in the first place. Although I am in no way qualified to speak to this, I would encourage the self-employed individual to think about his/her risk tolerance before taking on debt, and to think realistically about how that debt will be paid off.

Final thoughts

Before I dive deeper into a depressing debt diatribe, I’ll retreat back to the more encouraging content of Winter’s book. This is a book filled with the encouragement to take the leap into self-employment. Of course, I read this after already being self-employed – I haven’t really been conventionally employed since high school. This book would be a great resource for both those considering self-employment and those already in pursuit. I suspect that those who do not want to be self-employed could also find some value in parts of this book.

My favourite part though, was right at the end when Winter made a connection between self-employment and growing a garden:

“For a long time, I’ve suspected that there’s some sort of mystical link between growing a garden and growing a business. Like many self-bossers, I am also a passionate gardener. In the summer, my bleak apartment balcony is transformed into a container garden that is the envy of my neighbors. Cosmos, snapdragon, daisies, salvia, clematis, herbs, miniature roses, and magnificent hibiscus overflow their pots, bringing hours of joy to me and other admirers. After four years of gardening in less than perfect conditions, I’ve grown wiser about what to plant and how to nurture the things I grow. Gardening teaches patience and reminds me that seeds I’ve planted in other ways need time to sprout and flourish. Gardening is a fine teacher, and I apply many lessons to my business that I’ve learned in my garden.”

As anyone who knows me is aware, I too am a passionate gardener, so if nothing else was reassuring about this book, at least I know that I share a hobby with another successful female entrepreneur! And so, I will leave you today with a couple pictures of my garden from earlier this spring:


Hope you get a chance to read this book – let me know what you think if you do! I will have more guitar content coming soon.

Shop talk: a conversation with Tom Snowdon

Today I bring to you the second instalment of my “shop talk” blog series. About a month ago, I published the first of these  – a conversation with the Kingston-based luthier, Ross Chiasson. Today, I am happy to share a conversation with another luthier-friend, Thomas Snowdon. Tom is a luthier based in New Brunswick, and I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Hamilton International Guitar Festival in 2016 where we were both showing our guitars.

Tom is largely a self-taught luthier with an incredible amount of patience as can be seen in his careful craftsmanship. He has built 12 guitars  (2 are currently available for sale – check out his Facebook page here for details and pictures).

As in the first edition of “shop talk,” I did not conduct this as a traditional interview, but chose instead to do everything over email (what a wonderful system for a couple of introverts!). All of Tom’s responses are his work, as are the photos that are included in this post. For something a bit different, I decided to structure this post in the manner of the magazine interviews that I used to read as a child. The flow of the questions is not exactly smooth, but I have tried to keep the questions that went together in the order that makes the most sense that it can!

ES: To start out with, could you give us a little background on how you got into guitar building – why guitars, what was your previous woodworking experience, etc?

TS: I have been working with wood since I was a young boy.  I grew up in the countryside here in New Brunswick and spent lots of long summer days playing outdoors but also working away in my dad’s garage building bird-houses, little bookcases, model lighthouses, making whatever I could with whatever was around.  In grades seven through nine in school we had shop classes for everyone and I really loved woodworking class, especially working with hand-tools. As an adult homeowner, I have always kept busy building bookcases, refinishing furniture and repairing things.  Over time, my skills improved. They took a significant leap when I tackled building a cedar-strip canoe in the 1990’s.

Some twenty years ago I took some beginning guitar lessons and got up the courage to ask my teacher how much he had paid for the new guitar that he had just received from Spain.  He said $12,000.00 and I naively thought, “It can’t be that difficult!” Over the next few years, I read some materials, notably Irving Sloane’s Classical Guitar Construction and eventually bought a complete classical guitar kit from Luthiers Mercantile and started building.  Of course, there were a lot of jigs and forms that had to be built along the way.  Eventually, I finished it and took it to Daryl Perry, an well-known luthier in Winnipeg and asked for his input.  He gave me some general pointers and made some suggestions for that particular guitar but was also very positive and encouraging.  I made his suggested changes to that first guitar, sold it to a university student and I think he was pleased with it.

ES: What kind of space do you have for a workshop?

TS: I have always worked part-time, still do, and have not invested in a dedicated workshop building.  We have a large house in the countryside outside of Bouctouche, New Brunswick. I have most of the basement as my workshop and keep it dehumidified in the summer.  It probably isn’t ideal but it’s not bad, really, and it keeps me close to the teapot in the kitchen and to my wife’s music studio on the second floor. I take advantage of her musical ear to help with tuning sound-boards to the appropriate thickness and resulting pitch.  

We lived in Egypt for over three years from 2010 until 2013 and I was amazed by the wood-working of local street-side carpenters.  There, with the simplest of tools on the sidewalks of towns and cities and in the monasteries, they create beautifully carved, decorated furniture.  We are quite spoiled here with our carefully controlled workshop environments and power tools!

ES: In regards to the tuning of your soundboards: how much do you find tap tuning the soundboards of your instrument to influence the final tone of your guitars?
TS: I am not where I would like to be on the matter of tap tuning.  I plane the top down to a thickness where the predominate tap-response note is a B or Bb or perhaps even thin enough for an A.  After that, I haven’t learned yet what to do further.  The results have been reasonable good from just this but I would like to learn more about what can be done once the top is braced.
ES: I have not really ventured into this aspect of guitar building myself – I always just tap the soundboards and backs for fun and to see if that have a nice ring! Something I’ll be looking into in the future for sure!
Besides tuning your soundboards, do you use any other methods to improve or predict the quality of the finished guitar? 
TS: I have the book Left-Brain Lutherie by David C. Hurd, in which the author suggests in-depth analysis of the weight and stiffness of the various parts of the guitar, of course focussing on the sound-board.  I can’t really get my brain (apparently not very left-brain oriented) into this very much.  That’s probably a failure on my part.  However, I do note as much as I can about the guitar as it goes together and I have noticed, for example, that an ebony bridge is considerably heavier than a rosewood one and keeping the mass of the sound-board as low as possible should allow for greater freedom of vibration.

ES: How many guitars have you built?

TS: I have completed twelve guitars and sold the first ten of them, two in stock right now.  In saying this, I am reminded of how the plans for the next ones are shaping up with all the improvements that I hope to incorporate.

ES: What are your next steps? What are you trying to accomplish in the next guitars that you build? 
The next guitar is always like a new day dawning after a really good sleep.  Oh, the possibilities!  I hope to build the next guitar with double sides and with continuous, bent bindings, from either birch or mahogany.  I do think that little things can make improvements and I think that keeping the inside of the box as clean and uncluttered as possible is important.  Also, I have a weakness for tuners and would love to be able to charge enough to justify using Rogers or Graf tuners.  They are just so beautiful!  I know that I will settle for Gotoh for now, very good quality for the money – but one can dream.
ES: What is your favourite or most used tool?

TS: I was introduced to using a hand plane in that woodworking class in grade seven. I thought then and pretty much still do consider a hand plane to be a nearly miraculous thing.  At about age 14, I saved up a my dollars and bought a Millers Falls bench plane from the local hardware store.  Years later, I retrieved it out of that same garage of my childhood, cleaned it up and started using it again.  Later again, as my woodworking skills improved, I fine-tuned it, added a Lee Valley blade and cap iron and I use it regularly still today, at least fifty years after I purchased it.  I have other planes, all of them more expensive, but this is still my favourite and it does work very well.

I need to add that I appreciate my 15” Busy Bee band-saw and use it a lot.

ES: What is your favourite step in the building process?

I do like designing and carving out the slotted guitar head and doing a V-neck joint that attaches it to the neck.  It is much easier (and completely acceptable) to do the long scarf joint so common today but the V-joint is the traditional one and is a thing of beauty and also functionality, since the tension of the strings actually pulls the joint more tightly together .

ES: Who is your guitar building hero?

TS: I must say that I owe a lot to many luthiers, although I only know a small number.  As mentioned above, Daryl Perry has been encouraging and helpful and visiting his website alone is an inspiring experience. 

I have also been inspired by reading about the lives of luthiers and it impresses me to hear of their lives, lived out in their particular time, full of all the struggles of life in their time and place, yet creating such wonderful instruments.  Antonio de Torres (1817-92), the creator of the modern guitar, is probably my most admired luthier. Basically, we are still building his guitar design. His biography is certainly worth the read. (Antonio de Torres, Guitar Maker – His Life and Work, by Jose L. Romanillos, copyright, 1987, 1997, Jose L. Romanillos)

I have spoken to and contacted via email quite a number of luthiers over the years and the experience has always been beyond my expectations.  Other builders have been so very encouraging, offering insights and advice, often far beyond any questions I have asked. One person who has been most helpful is Dr. Michel Cardin, a world-renowned lute player and professor of guitar at the Universite de Moncton here in New Brunswick.  He has been very generous in his advocacy of my guitars, sent a number of customers my way and introduced me to many world-class guitarists.

Whenever I hear one of my guitars played well, it is a real joy and encouragement to continue.  I am often filled with the irrational fear that the guitar may explode in the middle of a recital – but it hasn’t happened yet.

ES: Is there anything else in particular in regards to guitar building or the culture surrounding it that you would like to add?

TS: I need to add that from the beginning I have come to know wood as an amazing thing.  With wood one can build a home to live in and heat that home, fashion a table to eat from, a chair to sit on, a boat that could travel the oceans of the world and on and on, items from a toothpick to a tower.  Every variety of wood (and how could one begin to number them?) has it own characteristics of appearance, durability, hardness, weight, smell and, of course, sound. Fifteen years ago I built an outdoor slide for the grandchildren from Eastern White Cedar.  The children grew up and the slide was a little worn and weathered. I took it apart, carefully saving the lumber. I put it through the planer and, aside from the nail and screw holes, it’s perfectly sound, as beautiful and aromatic as ever; amazing! Then, of course, each particular piece of wood has its own unique characteristics relating directly to the genetic makeup of that particular tree and the environment in which it grew, just like all living things!  How could one ever become disinterested in the wonder of that reality, present all around us, in every person and everything else that lives? While I sometimes lust after a thickness sander, it really is just so much more rewarding and helpful to plane and scrape with hand tools. When one thickness a guitar sound-board, for example, one comes to know that piece of wood intimately; every hint of run-out, all the little colour variations, grain differentiations, the smell of it and the sound of it as the pitch lowers with each little reduction in thickness.  The natural world all around us is a such deep, rich place! Modern technology, for all its advantages, separates us from it and we are much poorer for that.

ES: Do you have plans for the wood that you rescued from the slide? 
TS: Not for guitar work, although I do have a plan to redesign our veranda and I will use some of it there for the railing and some cedar chairs.  I need more time!

ES: I really appreciate what you have said about how amazing wood is and the danger of how all of our modern technologies and conveniences can separate us from our basic need to connect with the natural world around us. I think that most independent luthiers really share this appreciation for the incredible possibilities of wood and, while we all would agree that power tools can make things easier, there is really nothing like a simple hand tool and a piece of wood. I too have thought about how lovely it would be to have a thickness sander while sweating over a piece of figured hardwood, but in the end, I think I’ll stick with my planes, scrapers and sanding blocks so that I have more control and more of a sense of the wood that I am working with. My own favourite part of building is bending wood by hand over a hot pipe – I don’t think I’ll ever go to a larger bending machine for this reason!


A huge thank you to Tom Snowdon for participating in this shop talk series! If you would like to see more of his work (and take a look at the two guitars that he currently has available), take a look at his Facebook page: Snowdon4ClassicalGuitars.

I am trying to put out one of these interviews every month (or thereabouts), so if you have suggestions on luthiers that you would like to hear from, or if you have questions that you would like answered, please feel free to leave me a comment below!

Tale of two rosettes: 7 moons and a city

I don’t think I can be accused of boring rosette designs… The two guitars that I am currently building are going to feature two of my most unique soundhole decorations yet: the phases of the moon (except the new moon – I might inlay that somewhere else on the guitar) and the skyline of Hamilton, Ontario.

Lunar phase rosette

This rosette is for a guitar (number 021) commissioned by a student at the university of Ottawa. This will be a traditional cedar topped rosewood classical guitar with some modern design features. The guitar will have a maple fingerboard (I’m leaning towards birdseye to complement the other birdseye inlays on the guitar). He requested a rosette that featured the phases of the moon, and this is what I came up with!

I started by drafting the design on paper so that I would know the placement of all 7 of the moons that I would be inlaying. Then I got to work on the inlay.

First I inlayed a ring of rosewood with fine white veneer lines on either side. I first made the rosewood ring from a cutoff from the back of the guitar, and then excavated the channel with my circle cutter and a couple of chisels. Someday I will get my dremel or a router set up to do this work.

Here is a closeup of the inlay – one of my cleanest yet!

As you can see, I marked the locations of the moons with pencil line spokes radiating from the centre of the soundhole. These are not spaced evenly as the moons will not all be of the same size.

Next, I started inlaying the moons. The first was the full moon, which is at the bottom of the rosette (towards the bridge). This was cut out of a piece of birdseye maple with a 23mm diamond hole saw and was inlayed into a hole cut out with a forstner bit. (I talked about buying these drill bits in my last post). I used a thin piece of black veneer to edge the moon so that it would have a bit more of a finished look.

Here is the second moon ready for inlay with the eclipsed portion of the moon cut out of ebony and the moon cut again from some birdseye maple.

I used a hole saw bit to cut out the circles and then used a Grobet Jewelers Saw to turn the circles into part moons. I have had the jewelers saw for years and have never found a use for it until this project. It worked really well, so I’ll be using it more for future inlays. To clean up the cuts and make sure that the pieces fitted together perfectly, I used a piece of dowel wrapped in sandpaper.

I clamped each of the moons individually by using a piece of green tape as an initial clamp to keep the pieces in place, and then applying pressure with deep-throated C-clamps and wooden cam-clamps.

After that, I just continued to inlay the remaining moons and then spent a good amount of time cleaning up and levelling the inlays.

I should note that I did not thin the soundboard before inlaying the rosette. I have been doing this on all of my recent builds, and I am probably going to continue to do that for the foreseeable future. Firstly, this allows me a re-do on the rosette if I make a mistake the first time – this happened a few guitars ago. This also allows me to inlay the rosette, clean it up, and then level the good side of the soundboard a second time, as I always end up making a bit of a mess when I am inlaying a rosette. When I am confident that the rosette looks good and the soundboard is flat, I flip the wood over and do the final thicknessing from the “wrong side” of the soundboard. I thinned this soundboard to about 80 thousandths of an inch (2mm).

Here is the finished rosette after all of the clean up, soundboard thinning, and cutting out the soundhole:

Hamilton skyline rosette

This rosette is for guitar number 017 (yes, my numbering system is all messed up because of a few partially complete guitars and my sporadic work schedule), and will be donated to the Hamilton International Guitar Festival as a prize for the winner of the competition this July. This guitar will have an Engelmann spruce soundboard and spalted maple back and sides with rosewood detailing in various places. I think it will be a very pretty guitar if all goes well.

This rosette was done in a similar fashion to the lunar phase design by starting with a simple ring inlay and then inlaying the fancy bits afterwards. I also inlayed this rosette before thinning the soundboard in case something went wrong (happily, it did not!).

The inlayed basic ring on this rosette was much more narrow than on the lunar phase design, so I used two strips of dark brown veneer in a narrow channel rather than attempting to cut out a 1.5mm thick rosewood ring.

I designed the main part of the rosette to be asymmetrical, with most of the rosette being a simple rosewood ring and the skyline sitting on the bass side of the soundhole. I glued two pieces of rosewood together (leftover wood from a back), thinned the piece to just under 2mm thick and then glued my paper design to one face of the rosewood. I cut the circular outer part of the rosewood piece with my circle cutter. I left cutting out the inner circle until the end so that I would have maximum stability while cutting out the intricate skyline.

Here is the inlayed narrow ring with the rosewood blank ready for cutting:

Next, I used my jewelers saw to cut out the skyline while clamping the wood firmly in my vise. After cutting very close to the line with the saw, I just had a bit of tidying up to do with my craft knife and a bit of 320 grit sandpaper. Here is the inlay piece ready to go with the paper partially removed:

And a picture of the tools used to cut out the design:

All that was left was to cut out the inside circle with my circle cutter, leaving me a ring with a skyline growth on one side.

I then had to cut the channel for the inlay, which I did with a combination of my circle cutter (for the circular bits), my craft knife (to trace the skyline onto the soundboard), and various freshly sharpened chisels. When I was happy with the fit of the inlay, I glued it in – it fit fairly tightly, with just a couple of tiny spots to fill later on. Here is the inlay after it was dry and before I did (almost) any clean up:

And here is the final product, all level and mostly tidy. (I added the narrow poles/steeples after the clean up with small pieces of dark brown veneer.)

Finally, for a bit of a reference, I thought I would share a picture of the skyline image that I stole from the internet and traced (with some adjustment for practicality and the curve of the rosette) – I have to say, I am pretty pleased with how close it looks to the original!

Now that the rosettes are complete, I’ll be flipping the soundboards over to brace the guitars before turning my attention to the neck. As I am writing this in advance of posting it to my blog, the progress might seem rather quick between this post and the next building update, where I will show you the progress on both guitars. Hopefully by that point they will actually look like guitars – it is going to be a busy few weeks!

Workshop upgrades and new tools

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will know that I am constantly trying to improve my process to build better and better guitars. I am still very much a beginner in many ways, although I am confident in saying that I am not making nearly as many mistakes as I was a year or two ago!

Part of this journey is to gradually acquire or make tools and jigs to increase my efficiency and the quality of the finished product. Today I thought that I would share with you a few of my recent shop upgrades.

Templates

Until now, just about every guitar that I have built has had a different shape. I decided recently that this is not a sustainable or efficient method of working. For one, all of my templates and forms have ended up being temporary thrown together things that are of lower than ideal quality, and for two, I have ended up with a lot of excess clutter! I also realized that all of the classical guitar shapes that I have been building are incredibly similar, so why I thought it was important to “re-invent the wheel” every time, I cannot say.

I have decided that from now on, unless there is a specific historical guitar copy to be made, all of my full sized classical guitars will be of the same body shape. This consistency will also allow me to better judge the other changes that I make from one guitar to the next. I plan on making a similar commitment to body shape the next time that I build a steel-string.

I also finally decided to make a proper brace-arch template that is as close as I could make it to a 15′ radius. This is the radius that I will be using on my back braces – when I get to bracing the top of this guitar, I will make a 25′ radius template.

I made both the guitar half-template and the brace-arch template out of a sheet of clear acrylic that I have had hanging around my shop for at least 2 years. These templates should last me a good long time – or at least until I change my mind about the guitar’s shape or arch! The guitar shape that I settled on is somewhere in between my father’s guitar shape and the shape of Segovia’s Hauser guitar with a body length of about 19 1/8 inches.

I have more of this acrylic, so I will likely be making permanent templates for my headpiece and heel shapes when I get to those stages of the building.

Vise

Last week, I decided that it was time to invest in a proper guitar building vise. My dad had first sent me the link to this Lee Valley Universal Vise back in February, and I thought, “man, that would be so useful, but can I justify it?” Then, when Ross mentioned buying the vise in the interview that I did with him a few weeks ago, I got to thinking that I should probably just buy it. I have been struggling with the vises that I had for a few years; it was time to get something that would hold all of the odd shapes that guitar building requires.

So far I have used it to hold tiny pieces of wood for the rosette that I am inlaying in my current guitar build (post on that coming soon), and it has been marvellous. The vise rotates 360 degrees and both of the hardwood jaws rotate as well to make clamping angled bits of wood simple. No longer will my guitar necks slip while I’m sanding!

I bought the Lee Valley version, but if you’re not too keen on the green, there is the original (I think) red version from Stewart MacDonald. I have no idea how they compare, but I imagine that the Stew-Mac version is at least as good as what I have bought from Lee Valley.

Miscellaneous drill bits

These tools are very project specific, and I definitely did not purchase the highest quality bits for this project, however, what I did buy seems to be working reasonably well and the price was right. Although they are not of incredible quality, I am including them in this post because they are allowing me to do the job much more cleanly than if I were to try to do this by hand (which was my original terrible plan).

I won’t give too much away on the project, as I will be writing a blog on that soon, but I can say that these were for the rosette of the current guitar build.

I needed a selection of forstner bits and plug cutters, and I was not having much luck in finding bits that were the right size, in stock, and for a reasonable price. Lee Valley has some lovely forstner bits, and I do have one of them for drilling slots in the headpiece, but I could not justify buying all of the sizes that I needed for this project, and more importantly, most of the sizes that I needed were out of stock until June. So I did some searching around online and found this set of 16 bits on Amazon. For the price, they are pretty decent. They are not beautiful, and I cannot speak to their longevity, but they cut a fairly clean hole in softwood, which is what I needed, and there are a good variety of sizes included in the set.

I had a harder time finding bits that would cut out wooden discs. I found various plug cutters and saw-tooth bits, but finding a set that included the mid-sized cutters that I needed was nigh impossible! I ended up ordering this set of Diamond hole saw bits from Amazon, and again, while they are not incredibly well made, they do cut circles out of wood.

Here is some of my test work of plugs and holes (ignore the messy circle at the top right – that is when I was trying to excavate a perfect circle myself… needless to say, it was less than a success. As you can see, the 19mm maple disc was inlayed into the cedar quite neatly.

I’ll leave this post here, although you can be sure that there will be more of this kind coming in the next few months. I have grand plans to renovate my workshop this summer – hopefully I have time to build a new workbench and install some much needed storage space!