Upcoming concerts, projects, and plans

And just like that, summer seems to have disappeared into fall. This morning as I type this, I am drinking tea and sitting bundled up on my sofa with a sweater against the chilly 5 degree weather (I still have a window open because it’s only September 1st!!)

This also made me realize that I have been rather absent from my blog for two whole months. I suppose that I was going through a phase of not really knowing what to write about as my summer projects were rather more scattered and messy (see bench below for proof…), so this will be a bit of a newsletter before I get back into proper blogs this fall.

real life bench photo at the end of a refinishing project (I’ll tidy it up – I promise, Dad!)

Summer Projects

In the shop I have had a couple of repair projects to do (reattaching a headpiece on a student classical guitar, refinishing one of my own builds, and lowering the action on a student’s steel string). The weather has been way too humid for me to do any serious building, so I decided to hold off on some of those projects until the fall when things dry up a bit. Also, my goal is to build 4-5 guitars a year, and I have already completed 4 this year, so I am well ahead of schedule.

Although it might seem a little strange, this summer I refinished the classical guitar, ‘Madimi,’ that I had built last fall. I had used Lee Valley’s French Polish on the guitar originally, and while the finish was OK, it really did not add anything to the grain of the wood. The guitar is built of flamed maple and bearclaw Engelmann with birdseye maple embellishments, so it is pretty much entirely covered in figure. The Lee Valley French Polish did nothing to enhance the grain, and it was actually hard to even tell that the soundboard was figured at all. The guitar was built for one of my students, so he comes to my house every week and sees most of the projects that I have going on. He saw the finished Torres guitars at the beginning of the summer and loved how the General Finishes EnduroVar looked on the figured maple, so we decided to give Madimi a new look. I think that the varnish has really enhanced the figure on this guitar, and I love the amber tone that the EnduroVar adds to maple.

While I love the look of this EnduroVar, it is quite a bit of a pain to use. I am still working at getting the perfect even glossy rubbed finish, but it is quite challenging with EnduroVar because the coats of varnish are incredibly thin, and the coats do not melt together in the way that shellac does.

Fall Concerts and Recordings

Craig and I have a few concerts lined up this fall starting tomorrow! We are playing in Woodstock as part of the Labour day weekend Canada 150 celebrations. The event organizers booked Pavlo to play a concert in the evening, and asked us to be one of the afternoon opening acts. As this is an outdoor concert, the experience should be interesting – hopefully the mics all work so that we can be heard! We’ll be playing at 3pm in the park, so if you are in or around Woodstock, we’d love to see you there!

We are also playing a concert in Hanover, Ontario next Friday at Grace United Church. This concert will be another fundraiser for the local women’s shelters, following up on our tour last fall. On Sunday, September 10th, we’ll be in Toronto, and the following Saturday, we’ll be playing back here in Ottawa. We also are excited to be part of the Wednesday noon concert series at Southminster United Church in Ottawa on November 1st. Check out all of our upcoming concert details on my website, here.

Along with preparing for these performances, I have been getting ready for my first professional recording sessions. As I have mentioned before, I am getting ready to put together my first CD, so I will be recording a few pieces this September for grant applications and possibly for inclusion on the final CD. The only recording that I have done in the past has been on my own with incredibly limited knowledge and relatively mediocre standards. Now that I am two weeks away from my first proper recording, I have to say that I am rather nervous. I will be practising a lot over the next two weeks, and hopefully this, along with the concerts leading up to the first recording will have me well prepared. If anyone has tips for first time recording sessions, please share them in the comments!

Building Projects

When I get back from all of my running around, I’ll be back in the shop and will be working on quite a few projects. I have three partially completed guitars that I would like to finish, as well as wood for two other classical guitars that I would like to start. One of those is a commission, and the other is because I purchased some very pretty wood.

Engelmann, Cedar, Spalted Maple, Rosewood, and Ovangkol

The commissioned classical guitar will be a very traditional Rosewood and Engelmann Spruce classical guitar with asymmetrical fan bracing and a sound port. The three partially completed guitars include the experimental late 18th century guitar, a zebra wood steel-string, and the spalted maple classical guitar. These guitars are at all sorts of stages of completion, and it should be a bit of a relief to get them done and hear them for the first time.

The second classical that I would like to build is because of the wood that is second from the left in this picture:

Spalted Maple, Ovangkol, Yellow Cedar, and Rosewood

I saw the Ovangkol on Bow River’s website when I was ordering wood for the Rosewood classical commission, and I couldn’t pass it up. Apparently it sounds rather like rosewood, so I am thinking that I will pair this with a red cedar top and a few modern embellishments. I am not sure whether I will have time to work on this during this fall, but this guitar will be built at some point in the next year.

As you can see, I also picked up a bit more spalted maple. I am not quite sure what I will use this for, so for the moment it will just sit in my wood pile.

More to come to the blog soon!


Closing another box

Well, it has, again, been a while since my last post here. I have not had many moments to devote to the building until a week ago when my classes ended. Over the past week, however, I did manage to make some significant progress on the experimental guitar.

I began by preparing to glue the sides to the top by attaching kerfing strips to the sides, shaping those with a chisel and sandpaper, levelling the glue surface and fitting the sides to the top. In the picture below, you can see the results of this work with the sides attached to the top. The kerfing strip is on the right of the photo and looks like a row of teeth. Also in this photo you can see that I have signed the soundboard in the traditional place above the sound hole, with the month and year that the soundbox was closed.


With this completed, I continued by attaching kerfing strips in order to attach the back. In this photo you can see that I am both gluing a side to the soundboard (on the right) and attaching the kerfing to the left side:


Before attaching the back, the sides needed to be levelled and the back fitted. I levelled the sides by drawing a large sanding board over them until all of the surfaces were sanding. This made quite a noise for about an hour one Saturday morning (not sure what my landlords thought I was doing…)

With the sides levelled, and the back fitted and trimmed (I used a coping saw to remove the overhang from the back), I proceeded to glue the back to the sides using strips of tape as clamps. I do not have a photo of this process, but I am sure that I have shown this in another post relating to the Baroque guitar.

And this is what the guitar looks like now:



It will likely be a couple weeks until I am able to post again – I am leaving my workshop for the holidays!

Thanks to everyone who takes a moment to peruse my ramblings; I have fun putting together these posts, and it is nice to hear feedback and to see that I have a few people reading what I write. Best wishes for the holiday season and for the new year.

Heel Choices, Design, and Construction

This weekend I took my previously constructed neck, attached to it a heel, and then connected the neck to the soundboard:


For this guitar, I have chosen to use a “Spanish” heel. This describes the way in which the neck is attached to the body, and is the traditional modern classical neck-to-body joint. In the Spanish building tradition, the sides are slotted into the heel, leaving a block of wood (end block) inside the guitar for support. In the picture above, you can see the slot between the heel and the end block. (The heel has been roughly carved to a basic triangular shape). I cut the slots (from either side of the heel, leaving a section about 2 centimetres wide in the middle) with my most basic Home Hardware variety cross-cutting toolbox saw, which happens to have the correct kerf for this job. The sides will fit snuggly into the slots making a tidy, strong joint. The only downside to this joint is that it is particularly important to be accurate and careful when setting it up. Once the sides are attached, there is no going back to adjust and set the neck angle. So the neck blank must be flat and true, and the slots must be perpendicular to the fingerboard face of the neck.

Another, perhaps more forgiving, neck to body joint is the ‘bolt-on’ neck. This is the most common joint used in steel-strung acoustic guitars today. The body is constructed and enclosed separately from the neck. The neck is completed with the heel construction in place before being (quite literally) bolted onto the guitar. This allows for more fine tuning and adjustment in both the construction process, and later in the guitar’s life. Sometimes this joint can be made in such a way that the neck is easily detachable – i.e., not using glue. This joint, or a variant on it, was used during the classical and earlier periods in guitars built outside of Spain.

I used a variant on the bolt on neck in the Stradivarius model Baroque guitar. This joint is also similar to violin construction techniques (which probably explains why Stradivarius used this joint), where the neck is set into the body of the guitar (like a tung-and-groove joint) and secured with a bolt. Of course, Stradivarius actually used an iron nail, but the modern builder would likely choose to substitute a bolt. This is more adjustable than the Spanish heel, but more finicky than the plain bolt-on. However, it makes a strong, tidy joint.

The fun part of building this experimental guitar is that I am not following any plan or drawing of a previous instrument. So I am free to alter my original drawing as I wish, and use my eye for a lot of the design in the moment of creation. Maybe it will be a disaster, but it is satisfying my creative wild side at the moment 🙂

Bending Sides (taking advantage of being home for Thanksgiving)

Of course, the main reason that I have traveled for Thanksgiving is to see my family, but I couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass me by. I do not currently have a bending iron of my own, so brought my thinned sides on the Greyhound with me to use my father’s. Here are the traveling sides in Toronto (outside the Royal Ontario Museum) where I had a 3.5 hour layover:


This morning I headed down to the workshop for an hour to prep and bend the sides. I’ve written about bending sides before, and the process is still the same. Straighten one edge, soak, and bend.

The cool thing I’ll write about here is the drying form, which I think I have almost perfected.

Growing up, we created bending/drying forms by drawing half-guitar shapes on pine boards and putting nails on either side of the drawn line. The bent side would fit in between the nail supports. This worked to an extent – the sides stayed in shape. But nails start to rust when exposed to water (ie wet sides fresh from bending), and the rusty nail heads marked the sides which meant more cleanup later. Also, the nails weren’t long enough to keep the sides square to the form base, sometimes resulting in distorted sides.

Deciding that nails were a bad idea, my father made forms out of pine boards with 3/8 inch dowel. These are fantastic, beautiful looking forms which do not mark the boards, and which keep the sides square and in good shape.

However, I was looking for something more flexible. I’m an experimenter by nature, and I have limited space to store multiple bending forms. So I took two MDF boards, designating these as my bending form boards, and a handful of 4 inch long 3/8 inch dowel. Now I just draw the required half guitar shape on the board, drill holes around the form, and insert temporary support pegs:


This board currently has 2 half shapes for this c. 1790 guitar, and a half of the steel-string guitar I built 2 years ago. If I build a guitar again, the holes are still there. If I build a new guitar shape, I can just add another set of holes. The boards store flat, taking up less space in my workshop.

Here are the bent sides clamped into the form to dry:


Once dry they will hold their shape fairly well.

This whole process – straightening edges on a shooting board, creating the temporary form, and bending the sides took me just under an hour. The sides were easy to bend – straight grain, no complications. Bending sides over a hot pipe is one of my favourite parts of the process. It is a moment when I really get to connect with the wood. Without ‘listening’ to the wood, one can easily snap a board by forcing the wood before it is ready to bend. Or the opposite can happen- one can be too cautious and wait, burning dried-out wood with hesitation. However, by feeling the wood and paying attention, the wood gives in easily to light pressure and this style of bending is fun and painless. Other luthiers use steam bending forms which are more accurate, perhaps, but allow less of a connection with the wood. For now I will stick to the bending-freely-over-a-hot-pipe method.

Tool Focus: Thinning Sides

In the past week I returned to one of my experimental guitar projects, the Spanish guitar circa 1790/1800. This is a fan braced 6-course instrument based on guitars from the era. This corresponds with some research that I am currently doing for my masters degree on late 18th/early 19th century guitar construction. In a previous post I shared photos of the completed top, back, and headpiece assembly. This week I was thinning the cherry sides.

The sides will be thinned to approximately 80 thousandths of an inch, or until flexible. The cherry that I am working with is fairly soft, so they might end up closer to the 90 thou mark. I am a little concerned as to how the soft wood will affect the sound of the guitar, however, that remains to be seen.

There is not much to be said about the actual process of thinning wood, and as I have discussed this in previous posts, I thought I would share with you three of my favourite tools for the job: a micrometer, a plane, and scrapers.


The Micrometer:


This is a very important tool for woodworking. One could argue that it is actually unnecessary because feeling the flexibility of the wood is more important than reading numbers off of a gauge. It is nice, however, to know the thickness of woods for records and for talking about instruments. There is nothing particularly special about this micrometer. It reads in thousandths of an inch. Similar micrometers are available with metric measurements. Some have digital screens instead of the dial gauge on this tool.

This is not the perfect micrometer, however. It can only read measurements from the edge of the piece of wood, and I have found that it is poorly balanced and a bit difficult to wield with one hand.

The plane:


Ok. First off, let’s just take a moment to admire the beauty of this tool. It is the Veritas Small Bevel-Up Smooth Plane from Lee Valley. It is currently my favourite plane and it is also one of my most recent acquisitions. (Thanks to my parents; it was a gift upon the completion of my BMus degree.) It has a 9-inch long sole, comfortable wooden hand grips, and beautiful blades. This week I was using the toothed blade which came sharp from Lee Valley. With the toothed blade I was able to plane in BOTH directions along the grain without tearing or gouging! It has a long enough sole to be suitable for thinning (the bigger the surface of the plane’s base, the easier it is to keep a surface flat. (Think about it: a smaller plane would just ride the bumps and valleys of a board while a large plane will straddle the lumps and not make the dips any worse.)

The Scrapers:


Here I am actually not marvelling at the scraper itself, but at a special tool (and work of art) that was made by my brother for my birthday this summer. The actual scrapers are nice as well (from Lee Valley as well), but it is the scraper-holder that I am excited about. It is kind of a more beautiful version of the scraper holder that Lee Valley sells here. (Notice a trend? I swear that I did not intend for all of the Lee Valley promotion… I just can’t help myself.)

The scraper slots into the holder on the side facing up in the photo above. A screw (attached to the metal bit in the middle) is tightened to exert pressure on the scraper. This means that I no longer have to bend the scraper with my thumbs! A handy tool to have for the long hours scraping stubborn wood.

And take a look at the first photo in this post. The maple and teak box there was made to go with the scraper-holder and contains a compartment in which to store my scrapers as well as a place for the tool. Yes, this tool is on display in my apartment.

And those are my three favourite tools for the job of thinning sides. The sides are both sitting around the 100 thou mark, so I should have those thinned this weekend. Then I will be moving onto the neck and heel construction, which requires more research on my part. Time to hit the library!