Completed guitar #017: Hamilton

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

Bracing

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

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

Stages of Completion

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

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

Design features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

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!

Four guitar backs and a soundboard

I decided to do something a bit differently this spring in my workshop and get a few guitars started all at the same time. I will not be finishing all of these guitars at the same time, but this should make the process a bit more efficient. Also, it will allow the more recently purchased wood to sit an acclimatize to my shop after being cut out and thinned. Although I buy my wood pre-dried, it is always a good idea to let it sit for a couple of months before turning the wood into a guitar. I have had most of the backs since early last summer, so most of the wood is good to go, but I did have to buy some flamed maple for one of the Torres copies, and that only arrived this week.

Steel-string 014 Walnut Back

I am prioritizing the steel-string guitar at the moment, so that one is the furthest along. I have also had the wood for this guitar for the longest, so it should be as stable as it ever will be and is in prime condition to be turned into a guitar.

The back is a book-matched set of black walnut from Bow River Woods in British Columbia. I decided not to put a stripe down the centre of the back, which is rather unusual for me (I am rather partial to stripes – you will know that too well if you have been following this blog for a while!).

I braced this back with laminated asymmetrical ladder bracing. The asymmetry is mostly because of the cutaway. I was going to have to angle the upper-bout brace anyway so that it would not get in the way of the cutaway, so I decided to angle all of the braces into a symmetrical sideways fan. Because of the laminations, the braces are very strong and should hold this back in shape for many years. I used redwood for the back centre graft to match the top and give some support to the back centre seam.

While working on this back, I realized (once again) the incredible difference that sharp tools make. I am trying to keep my tools in better condition, but most days I am just too lazy. While working on the centre graft, I was using my 3/4 inch chisel and was realizing that it was not really slicing the wood but was rather causing it to crumple. Time for a sharpen, I thought, and sharpen I did. After a half hour on the water stone, the chisel was ready to go again and, not surprisingly, my work was suddenly a lot neater and a lot easier. Lesson learned (I hope).

Along the same lines, I have been trying to use my scraper more for tidying up wood surfaces and for some light thinning work. I have a Veritas scraper honing guide (an older version of item C on this Lee Valley listing), which holds a flat mill file at a right angle for re-edging the blade. I have been using this for the last couple of years and while it seemed to improved the edge on the blade, it was never perfect and did not last very long.

Last week I finally got around to looking up a bit about sharpening scrapers, and I came across this video about how to do it properly. I am now using the edge of my water stone to hone the final edge and have learned how to use my burnisher to get a really good burr on the blade. I don’t have to bend my scraper blade as much any more to cut into the wood, so my thumbs are thanking me!!

Steel-string 014 Redwood Soundboard

The soundboard for this steel-string guitar is a piece of redwood from Luthier’s Mercantile. This is the first time that I have used redwood, and so far, it seems pretty great! I’ll have to see how the final guitar sounds in order to give a proper opinion, but the colour is beautiful.

The sound hole was cut out with a coping saw and then sanded carefully into the final shape. I then fit a solid piece of walnut to the hole, glued that in place with a strip of white veneer around the edge, and then cut out the sound hole again. I think that it turned out pretty well!

I have just started on the bracing of this soundboard, so I will leave that for another post.

Torres copy backs 015 and 016

The flamed maple from Bow River woods arrived earlier this week, just in time to be jointed and thinned along with the rest of these backs. This is the piece that needs to sit before I am comfortable turning it into a guitar. I read something a while ago that said that it was a good idea to join the wood, cut it out, and thin it and then let it sit for a good while before doing anything else. This sounded like good advice to me, so I am going with that.

I joined this wood with a black stripe down the centre, similar to what you might find on an original Torres guitar. This is a small guitar and I do not want to overwhelm it with details, so I will be keeping the decorations simple. I am sorry that this picture is kind of dark – hopefully it gives you the idea anyway! All of the markings around the perimeter of the piece are outside of the final guitar shape, so the back should look beautiful and clean.

I also jointed and cut out a piece of quilted maple that has been sitting in my shop since last summer. I picked this up from Bow River Woods as well because it was a one-off beautiful piece in a parlour guitar size. Perfect for this Torres copy. I used a black-white-black-white-black stripe down the centre, which is slightly more ornate than the flamed maple back, but still maintains a simplicity.

Classical 017 Maple back

Finally, I pulled out one of the most beautiful pieces of wood that I have seen (in my opinion), and got it ready to become a classical guitar back. This piece is rather unusual, and I have no idea how it will sound. This is also from Bow River Woods, and has a bit of a flame to it and a good amount of spalting. Spalting is a type of rot, so the wood is slightly softer than the other maples that I have worked with (which is why I am slightly concerned for the sound), but because of the nature of this rot, it is stable enough to work with. Even though the wood may be soft and perhaps not ideal as tone wood, I am going to try to make this guitar sound as good as I possibly can, and it will be a good learning guitar for me. Also, it will look gorgeous, and as Torres showed with his Paper Maché guitar, the back is not quite as important as the soundboard.

Because the figure on the wood is so dramatic, I decided once again to omit the stripe down the back of the guitar. I considered putting a purpleheart stripe down the centre, but then decided that I should just let the maple speak for itself.

I think that I will pair this back with a cedar top, although I keep going back and forth on that one, so stay tuned.

And that is it for today! While I wait for my Spruce tops to arrive from Germany, I’ll be working on the sides for these guitars and will keep working on the steel-string bracing.

On a side note, if anyone is looking for a good arm workout (or just a good workout), you should take up guitar building. Or just come thin guitar backs for me. Also, I should probably see if Johnson&Johnson Band-Aids wants me to promote their product… I went through a good few this week because of my self-destructive scraping technique!