Completed guitar no. 021

The guitar is finally finished! I say finally because I went over my initial timeline for this guitar by about 2 months, largely due to taking on the Hamilton guitar project and all of the travelling that I squeezed into the summer. I think it looks pretty fantastic and I am equally happy with how it sounds and plays.¬†For a traditionally built guitar, this one has a decent amount of volume with responsive basses and singing trebles. I find that the guitar responds without a lot of effort and my fretting hand feels pretty comfortable on the 640mm scale. Unfortunately I will be delivering the guitar very soon, so I don’t get much of a chance to play her!

Since the last building update, I have spent many hours applying (and removing) shellac. I started by brushing on a few coats and working some pore filler into the rosewood. That took me longer than it should have – I am not a big fan of the pore filler that I was using. Next time I’ll be using the traditional French polishing method of filling pores rather than mucking around with another product. Once the pores were mostly filled, I switched gears a bit and started padding on shellac (“French Polishing”). I am by no means an experienced polisher, so I ended up having to sand out many more imperfections than I care to admit, but in the end, it has turned out passably well. I will save a more in depth discussion of French Polishing until I am more confident in the process.

Once I was happy with the top, I made a bridge out of rosewood and fitted and glued it in position. Of course I then had to go back and fix a couple of scratches in the polish, so I got out my shellac again and polished a bit more.

Then I hammered in the frets in and set the guitar up to play so that a couple of friends and colleagues could try out the guitar, and of course, the finish was damaged slightly during the test runs with all of the rasgueados and tapping, so I had to pull out the shellac once more and polish away the scratches. Luckily shellac, although time consuming, is quite forgiving, so after all of this, it looks pretty decent.

I have to say, I am quite fond of the birdseye maple fingerboard. At first I was skeptical, but now that I see the finished guitar with the rosette and everything working together, I think that bright fingerboard is quite stunning. It was also easier to work with than ebony or rosewood because pencil lines showed up really easily on the light wood!

I think this light fingerboard works so well because I kept the overall palette of the guitar quite simple. Rather than cramming in every exciting bit of wood that I could find, I stuck to cedar, rosewood, birdseye maple, white purfling, and a little bit of ebony. The bright fingerboard is balanced between a rosewood headstock veneer and a rosewood bridge.

And can I gloat a little bit over the success of the rosette? This was requested by the client, so I cannot take ownership of the idea, but I am pretty happy with the execution:

I did consider (after comments from some readers, actually) adding a new moon on the fingerboard to complete the lunar cycle, but after looking at it, thought that it looked a bit odd, and the client and I decided that we preferred the simple, clean look of an uninterrupted fingerboard.

I did put a little bit of Lee Valley’s varnish oil on the fingerboard and the bridge to protect the wood from dirt and give it a bit of a glow.

Not much else to say on this guitar, but here are a few more pictures:

raised fingerboard detail
Headstock detail featuring a rosewood veneer and Gotoh tuning machines

And so that is it, another one done! I’ll be starting a new guitar soon, but first I have to get through a couple more projects, so you might not see the new build under way until late October.

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Bindings, fingerboard, and preparing for the finish

Over the past week I have taken the Lunar phase guitar from a rough closed box to something that is just about ready for a few coats of finish.

Bindings

The first task on the list was to attach the bindings and inlay the tail and heel decorations. Because the rosette on this guitar is so unique, I wanted to keep the bindings and other inlays understated, so I chose to bind the guitar with rosewood that matched the back and sides of the guitar. The side blanks that I order are always at least an inch wider than I require for the guitar, so I simply used that leftover wood to create the bindings. I used a thin white veneer line to separate the binding from the side wood.

The binding strips were first cut to width (about 7mm), with one smooth, flat gluing edge. I then glued the white veneer strip to the flat edge and thinned the strips to about 2mm thick. The strips were then bent over a hot pipe to match the guitar’s shape, and were left overnight on a couple of forms to dry and take shape. The forms are actually MDF cuts outs from the mould that I made a few weeks ago.

Here you can see the white veneer stripes:

I then cut the binding ledges on the guitar with a Sloane style purfling cutter from Lee Valley (forgot to take a picture of this stage, but I have shown this on several previous guitar builds). I’d love to set up a router or Dremel system for cutting these binding ledges at some point – the purfling cutter works well, but it is a lot of work, and I managed to get a nasty sliver up one side of my thumbnail this time around.

Before attaching the bindings, I glued in the tail inlay, which is again a piece of rosewood with simple white veneer lines (again, forgot to take a progress picture, but you’ll see it at the end of the blog post).

The bindings were then glued on and clamped in place with green 3M binding tape, also from Lee Valley.

The morning after attaching the bindings is, for me, the best day of every guitar build. Just about every time I have binding tape to remove, I jump out of bed early in the morning and run downstairs in my pyjamas to see how it looks before breakfast. I also normally do a bit of cleanup with a small block plane at this point to really get an idea for how it glued. (yes, I am truly more excited about bindings than a child at Christmas.) I was pretty happy with what I found this Wednesday morning (mid cleanup):

Fingerboard

This is a bit of a different looking guitar for me. The client asked for a maple fingerboard, so we chose a gorgeous piece of highly figured birdseye maple that I had sitting in my shop from a few years ago. I have to say, although I am not sure that I would want a maple fingerboard as a player, the fret marking and cutting process is a lot easier on my eyes with a light coloured wood as pencil shows up really well.

I currently cut all of my fret slots by hand with yet another Lee Valley product, the Pax Fret-Wire Saw. I mark the frets with a sharp pencil and then clamp a square piece of wood as a cutting guide to the fretboard. I have attached a wooden depth stop to the saw so that every fret is the same depth and so that I don’t accidentally cut through the fingerboard.

With the frets all cut, all that remained for the fingerboard was to line it up on the guitar, cut the soundhole end of the board to shape, and then glue and clamp it in place.

Cleanup, carving the neck, and all of the sanding

I spent the entirety of today tidying up the rough edges of this guitar to get it almost ready for finishing over the next week. The neck needed to be carved and there was a lot of clean up and sanding to do on the headstock and around the bindings. It has turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself:

And here’s the tail inlay picture that I promised earlier in this post:

All that is left is a bit more sanding, some pore filling, finish, a bridge, and a few little details before it is ready to be strung up. The next time you see this guitar on the blog, I should have strings on it!

Closing another box

As nice as July was – filled with travelling, the summer academy, and random bits and pieces of work, it has been nice to get back to a “normal” schedule for the past week. I started swimming and going to the gym again, so my energy levels are back up, I have been spending some time playing the guitar every day in the morning (I have several concerts coming up over the next year, as well as the CD I am supposed to be recording…), and I have made some good progress on the current guitar build in the afternoons. Having a bit of regularity in a self-employed work schedule is not always easy, but it really does make things so much more calm.

If you remember from my last blog (making a guitar mould), my goal for this week was to get the body assembled, and I have actually managed to carry through with that promise! Using the mould was a bit of a learning curve, but overall it has made everything much more stable and efficient. I don’t have to worry so much about keeping the sides square when putting the guitar together, and the neck angle and therefore string action will also be much more easy to control.

I started by joining the sides together with a mahogany end block at the tail end of the guitar, adding basswood linings, and shaping the soundboard edge of the sides to fit the profile of the mould – both the curve of the lower bout and the angle to accommodate the raised fretboard in the upper bout.

Once I had the sides prepared, I trimmed the soundboard to fit the mould and attached the neck to the soundboard. This is a crucial joint – if the neck isn’t lined up properly with the centre line on the soundboard, the guitar will look wonky, and setting up the bridge and strings could be tricky. I talked a bit about my raised fretboard Spanish heel joint, complete with a colourful diagram, in a previous post here.

With the neck-soundboard ready to go, I set that down into the mould and glued the sides down. The mould did a great job of stabilizing the sides during this process – something that I have had a difficult time with in the past.

The next thing to do was to add “brace feet” to the sides. These serve two purposes. First, they give some much needed support to the ends of the soundboard braces, preventing them from coming loose in the future. Secondly, they act as braces for the sides of the guitar. In this guitar, I used a few bits of Spanish cedar that I had leftover from other projects. In the picture below, you can see the progress on the guitar up to this point with the last “brace foot” clamped in place.

For this guitar I have used a very traditional fan brace pattern. This particular layout was drawn out by my father, and has produced several very nice guitars. I like the inclusion of the X-brace in the upper bout as it is incredibly strong, and it is always very satisfying to fit a nice tight lap joint between the two braces.

The next step was to prepare the back by cutting it almost to size and then fitting the braces into the sides. As I have for the past several guitars, I notched out a spot for each of the brace ends through the lining and the side of the guitar. The brace ends will be covered by the binding later on, and these tight-fitting notches prevent the brace ends from coming loose in the future.

The back is a very straight-grained piece of Indian rosewood braced with Engelmann Spruce in a simple ladder pattern.

With everything fitted and well vacuumed, I applied glue to the edge of the sides, and clamped the back in place with a couple of cam clamps, a few F-clamps, and a piece of sliced up inner tube.

As I was working on this, I started to think that I should add some hooks to the sides of the mould to allow me to clamp with the inner tube more easily. I just have to figure out a way to make the hooks really secure in the MDF. One of the problems I have encountered with the mould is the depth of clamp it requires due to the thickness of the removable sides. I only have a few that will reach in far enough. I had enough for what I was doing this week, but I really should pick up or make a few more cam clamps over the next while.

Of course, the whole clamping process would probably improve if I built myself a go-bar deck, so I might work that into my upcoming workshop renovation. Having mentioned that, I would welcome any workshop layout tips or workshop must haves in the comments below! I’ll be changing up my shop over the course of this fall and I am currently in the design phase of things.

Here is the guitar all closed up and ready for a lot of clean up, some decorative bits, and a fingerboard over the course of the next week.

Next Thursday, if all goes to plan, you’ll see the binding and inlays completed, the fingerboard on, and the guitar just about ready for some finish.

Guitar building mould

Over the past month I have not been doing a lot of guitar building. I have had a couple of holidays, I spent a week teaching at the University of Ottawa Summer Guitar Academy, and I spent some time working on this guitar building tool. Plus, the humidity has been really high, so not exactly great guitar building weather.

Up until this point, I have been building guitars in a way that is really best described as “free-style.” Almost every guitar I have made over the past 5 or more years has been a different shape, and I have come to the realization that this is probably not the most efficient way to work, so I have been looking into other methods that will give me more consistent results. I settled on building a guitar mould in the style of John S. Bogdanovic, as described in his book and on his website. This means that the majority of classical guitars that I build from this point on will have the same body shape. Aside from efficiency, this should also allow me to work towards building better sounding guitars as I will be eliminating one of the variables and allowing myself to focus more on things like wood selection and bracing patterns.

The mould is made up of 3 parts – a work-board and 2 removable sides. The work-board has a patch of softwood glued to the lower bout area that is tapered and carved to match the radius of the soundboard braces so that the soundboard will be well supported during assembly. The detailed instructions on how to make this Solera are available on Bogdanovic’s website¬†here.

The workboard portion is made out of two pieces of 3/4 inch thick MDF glued together to form a thick flat board. The removable sides are made out of 3 pieces of MDF stacked up and glued together. In order to protect the mould, I finished all of the MDF with a couple of coats of leftover water-based polyurethane that was sitting around from another project.

The sides are attached to the work-board with 4 stove bolts threading into Tee-nuts that are secured to the work-board.

I also made a removable 3-part patch for the upper bout that I will use when I am doing raised fretboards:

This patch was cut out of a piece of douglas fir and was shaped to fit around the raised fretboard part of the neck when I am working on guitars with a Spanish heel joint and a raised fretboard (like the guitar that I am currently working on).

With the mould finished, I thought that I would jump right back into the guitar’s construction, so I bent the rosewood sides for the guitar and have them secured inside the mould to dry and get used to their new shape:

It seems to work pretty well although I will have to play around with how I will be holding the sides in place as I am not a big fan of the clamping set up in the picture above.

Details on the guitar’s assembly will be coming next week if all goes to plan!

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!