Shop talk: a conversation with Jo Dusepo

I have taken a few weeks off from this blog – too much has been getting in the way of my building over the past month, so I have not had much to share! In a couple of weeks I will be back to a more regular schedule, so I will have more regular blogging happening at that point if all goes to plan.

Today, I am pleased to share with you the fourth instalment of my “shop talk” series featuring the British luthier, Jo Dusepo. I first came across Jo via her Instagram and have admired her work over the past couple of years through this platform. Jo builds a wide variety of instruments, focussing mostly on lute and oud-like instruments as well as other world and historical plucked string instruments. She is also a musician herself – check out her albums on bandcamp here, and radio host on K2K radio.

As per usual with this series, I have conducted the interview over email, so the responses are completely the work of Jo Dusepo. The images in this post are taken from her website and instagram pages, so I cannot take any credit for her lovely work!

Lutes and Cobzas built by Jo Dusepo

To start out with, could you give us a bit of insight into your background as a luthier? for instance: How did you get into instrument building? Why did you choose to build lutes/ouds/etc? Do you come from a background as a musician, or was there something else that got you into building?

I’m self-taught. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by music and instruments, and especially world music and instruments. I am a musician too, but I fell in love with the sounds I heard but couldn’t get hold of the instruments that made them. After a few years of trial and error I was able to make my own instruments, and I caught the lutherie bug. 10 years of practice later, I went professional. I have also always had an interest in historical music, especially the medieval and renaissance periods, and fell in love especially with the melodies of the Cantigas and of John Dowland. So, the oud and lute are the perfect combination of these two, since the medieval period is when the oud came into Europe and over time became the lute. The medieval lute and oud have a lot in common, and it wasn’t until the renaissance that the European lute and the oud diverged further in building style and design. It also seems appropriate for me since I am a luthier, and that word comes from the french word luth, meaning lute.

What was the first instrument that you built? Do you still have it, and does it play? How did you find the self-teaching learning curve at the beginning?

I guess that depends on your definition. I built all sorts of instrument-like things as a kid. One I particularly remember was a biscuit tin (cookie tin for North American readers) banjo-like thing with fishing line strings. It played but was a struggle to keep in tune! I’m not sure what happened to it, but I don’t have it anymore. The first ‘proper’ instrument I built was a citole-style ukulele. I think I ended up taking that apart later to use for something else. The learning curve was at first frustrating but over time got easier as I improved over those 10 years.

How many instruments have you built?

I’ve long ago lost count, but I’d estimate over a hundred by now. Probably about 150 or so.

What kind of space do you have as a workshop?

My workshop is a separate building outside where I keep all the tools etc. I don’t know how best to describe it. I have a workbench on one side and shelves full of tools, templates and other stuff all around the other sides. On one wall I have a series of lute moulds hanging. I also have an old music player in there which plays a playlist full of music that inspires me whilst I work. I find having that space helps me focus and be inspired.

What is your favourite hand tool? power tool?

My favourite hand tool is a fine toothed back saw I bought a few months ago. It’s great for making pegbox joints and all sorts of other things. A good all-purpose saw. My favourite power tool would, I guess, be my bandsaw. I’ve had it a long time and it’s still going strong and is probably the power tool I use the most. My table saw, thickness sander and bending iron are also frequently used and among my favourites. It’s difficult to choose, because they all have their role!

Do you have any luthier “heroes”?

I like those who come up with amazing new ideas, or build less usual instruments like me. For me this includes people like William Cumpiano, Federico Tarazona, Meredith Coloma, Kave Ghorbanzade, Alfonso Sandoval, Travis Carey, Angel Benito Aduado and many others.

The ribs of an oud by Jo Dusepo

Now that you are well-established in your professional career as a luthier, what drives you to keep building? And, is there something that you are constantly trying to improve or develop with your instruments?

I find there are always new challenges, as well as being driven by my love of music and instruments. I was recently commissioned to build a renaissance cittern, for instance, which has some weird and wonderful design choices in it.

I would imagine that part of your interest in building the wide variety of instruments that you do stems from a desire to maintain tradition and the diversity of string instruments. Do you think that it is important to keep all of these instrument traditions alive, and, is there a place for historical instruments, such as the medieval lute, outside of immersive type historical performances and instrument collections?

Yes, I do love the musical traditions behind both the historical and world instruments I build, but I don’t necessarily see myself as continuing a tradition, especially in the case of the world instruments from cultures I am not part of. I do think it is important to respect and keep alive traditions though, yes. I always feel the world is a little poorer every time I hear of an instrument that has gone out of fashion somewhere in the world, usually in favour of imported Western-style guitars. Most of the customers who commission historical instruments from me do wish to play historical music on them, but there is also some wonderful fusion styles. I’ve particularly come across a lot of early medieval styles mixed with Arabic, North African and Persian music. There are also a few bands I’m aware of who do historical music from along the silk road.

How do you balance your own desires as a luthier with the demands of your customer base – or do you find that people are drawn to your instruments because of your interests?

That’s not really been an issue. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I’ve found my customers usually share the same interests as me.

Are the instruments that you build copies of other instruments or are they plans that you have drawn up yourself? I would imagine that you have done a bit of both over your career.

As you suggested, both! Most of my instruments which are not based on a specific historical example are my own design. I like to draw up my own plans, and I will often change aspects to fit the player. On the other hand, I have customers who want an instrument based on a specific historical example. This can be of a surviving instrument, or based on a painting or other historical source.

How do you deal with the idea of authenticity when it comes to staying true to the instrument you are copying/imitating vs designing? Do you find that there are still things to improve/develop or experiment with when it comes to historical instrument making, or is it more of working to get closer and closer to what the original instruments were like?

In the case mentioned above, where I base it off a historical painting or similar, it often requires some experience to be able to interpret the source, and look for clues. For instance, whereas many renaissance instruments survive, there are no surviving medieval lutes. So it requires that experience to reverse-engineer the plans. I have also in the past made re-productions from specific surviving historical instruments. Ultimately, how close a historical instrument is to the original, or whether some modern innovations are included is entirely up to the customer.

A huge thank you to Jo Dusepo for participating in this series. Again, for more information on Jo, please visit her website: www.dusepo.co.uk, check out her instagram, her radio show, or her albums.

Thank you also to you, the reader, for following along with this series. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please leave them down below.

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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!

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!

Shop talk: a conversation with Ross Chiasson

A couple of months ago, I had the idea to try something new on this blog and today I finally get to unleash it on the internet! This is the first edition of “shop talk” or “conversations with luthiers.” Hopefully I’ll be able to build on this first post and create a series of conversations over the next few years with a variety of other interesting and inspiring instrument builders.

Today’s post will feature the Canadian luthier Ross Chiasson. I first met Ross a few years ago at the Hamilton guitar festival, and his work has remained an inspiration ever since. Ross is a few years ahead of me in building experience, having completed 35 guitars and clocked 7 years of serious commitment to the craft, although he says that he has been “puttering since [he] was a teenager (give or take 15 years).” Ross completed the majority of his lutherie training with Sergei de Jonge in Chelsea, Quebec, after having completed a master’s degree in guitar performance at the University of Ottawa. He now works as a full time luthier in Kingston, Ontario where he has a small-but-mighty 300 square foot workshop.

Ross Chiasson’s 300 square foot workshop

Rather than conduct a traditional interview in person, I decided to (sticking with my introverted tendencies) send a list of questions for Ross to fill in so that he would have time to think everything over. What I came up with ended up looking rather more like an exam than an interview – I’ll have to work on my journalistic skills if I keep this series up! What follows is basically a copy-and-paste from the document we came up with. All of the pictures included in this post were provided by Ross – none of this is my work!

braced soundboard and soundbox by Ross Chiasson

Quick Facts

Favourite hand tool:

Record no.7 Jointer, which was one of my first purchases (used – from a collector in Ottawa) and the set of chisels my wife bought me early on.

ADDENDUM: right in the middle of writing this I bought one of those StewMac style luthier vises with the swivel heads because I was rebuilding a banjo headstock and couldn’t get a grip on it. I should have bought this thing years ago. Lee Valley has a knock off version now, which is bright green and adds a nice splash of colour to the shop. Game changer.

Favourite power tool:

My dust collector. It’s a 5 HP cyclone with two giant HEPA filters. It can suck up a full size tape measure. It’s also the only power tool I ever purchased new. Favourite power tool I don’t own? A jointer. I’ve been right on the edge of buying one for about 4 years. I’ve always gotten along with my handplanes, but it would be a time saver.

Most useful homemade jig: 

I just get a jig working well and then I change my mind about what I want to accomplish. I end up free handing a lot of stuff. It’s wildly inefficient. I do use a lot of jigs, but they are usually in a state of flux.

Preferred heel joint:

ALL THE HEEL JOINTS! Just kidding, but I’m not a purist here despite building mostly classical guitars. I’ve done a few different joints and had good results with them all. Mostly traditional dovetails, that’s how I learned, but lots of mortise and tenons, and I’m working on an adjustable neck system based on Sergei de Jonge’s design.  I’ve done enough neck resets in my repair work to appreciate a joint that comes apart reasonably easily – and if it didn’t have to come apart at all, that would be great too. 

Favourite wood combination:

I’m leaning into domestic hardwoods these days – maple and cedar is a really lovely combo. 

Favourite step in the building process:

I like planing tops. A sharp plane in quarter sawn softwood is a treat, especially compared to some of the gnarly hardwoods you have to deal with along the way. I’ve always enjoyed carving necks too, and taking the wrappings off the bindings to see what you’ve got.

Luthier Heros:

Sergei of course, Some of the local guys in Cape Breton were big influences – Otis Thomas in particular. These days I love the diversity of the scene and the history. There’s so many amazing resources and ideas to draw from. It’s a great time to be alive.

“Long answer” questions

How does your background as a player influence your building? Do you think that it brings a unique perspective to what you are looking for in the finished product?

I think it helps in the evaluation process and in knowing what sounds I’m after. It’s challenging to objectively evaluate your own instruments, and having the training as a player helps with the ear.  Sometimes I’m a bit jealous of folks with physics or engineering backgrounds, but everyone come to building with their own advantages and disadvantages, and there are a lot of very different folks in the world making great instruments.

Where do you see yourself in the spectrum of traditionalist – innovator? and/or artist-technician-scientist?

The guitar has to be a useful object, and that’s craftsmanship that does that – there’s definitely an element of artistry too, but I don’t know where the line is. I’m usually happier as an artisan than an artist.

I’m not any more comfortable trying to determine where I fall on the tradition/innovation spectrum. I keep my nomex on the shelf beside the hide glue.

Why do you build? How did you come to guitar building and what drives you to continue in this pursuit?

I like working, I don’t know why – I just like making things and solving problems- chipping away at things to make them better. It’s as much a compulsion or habit as anything. I get a bit antsy when I’m away from the shop for too long. That sort of brain mixed with my music studies seems to fit the job. I’m just about making a living at it now between building and repairs which eventually becomes pretty important in determining whether it’s a full time gig, a side job, or a hobby.  I think a lot of builders have quietly fluctuated between those states over their careers.

You just have to keep at it.

What do you want to be able to accomplish with your guitar building? Do you find yourself indulging in personal building goals/technical innovations, or do you lean towards aiming to please the wider guitar playing audience? Perhaps these are not mutually exclusive.

I just want to make really really great guitars. Right from the beginning I was evaluating myself globally against all the best guitars and makers in the world. This is not a good recipe for happiness, but it speeds up the learning curve. I try to progressively improve my instruments, sometimes working in a more radical idea here or there to try it out, sometimes working it back out again. I’m always learning. I hope my instruments will make people happy and I’m really honoured when someone chooses to play one.

Of what are you the most proud? 

Having one of my mentors, Dale Kavanagh play one of my guitars was a really moving experience for me. It was a rush of positive reinforcement in a very important moment for me. Both her and her husband/duo partner Thomas Kirchhoff (Amadeus Duo) have been really supportive.     

What would you like to be able to tell your beginner luthier self?

You don’t have a cold! You’re kind of allergic to rosewood dust – buy the good dust collector!

Do you have any shop rules? Tips for beginners? Sage advice?

Safety wise I just try to use common sense. Hopefully that continues to hold me in good stead. There’s a lot to think about, you just try to make good choices.

For beginners? I can’t offer much advice except what I keep telling myself. If you keep at it and you care deeply about it you’ll eventually get good at it and maybe if you really keep at it you’ll get really good at it. That’s what I’m trying for.

For more information on Ross, check out his website: www.rosschiasson.com/

To hear one of his incredible guitars, check out Mike Ibsen’s video here:

I hope you enjoyed reading through what Ross had to say as much as I did. I want to say a huge thank you to Ross for being my first “victim” for this fledgling series of interviews with luthiers. Let me know what you think about this format, and please let me know if you have luthiers that you would like me to talk to! I’ll leave this post here with one more picture of Ross’s shop featuring his 6+ month old daughter, one of the youngest guitar repair apprentices out there.

Starting them young – Ross and his daughter, Emma