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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Emily

I play guitar. I build guitars when I can. I enjoy all sorts of music, but Baroque, 'classical' guitar music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and jazz music hold special places in my heart. I am using this blog to document some of my adventures in guitar building, performing, and teaching, and hope to give my readers a bit of a look at the world inside a guitar.

7 thoughts on “Shop talk: a conversation with Ted Woodford”

  1. Couldn’t agree more with the answer given for advice to beginners. If you think too hard about it, building guitars never looks like a sensible business proposition., you just have to want to do it anyway.

    1. So true – thinking about the hours spent to financial compensation ratio can get a little discouraging! But building is definitely worth it regardless of how silly it seems as a business.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I will add Fred Carlson to my list of people to contact – sounds like he would be an interesting person to talk to!

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