Mysterious buzz repair

I don’t take on many repair jobs, but this one came in from one of Craig’s students, and I couldn’t say no. It is a beautiful, simple guitar made by a Swedish guitar builder, Bo Wretling in 1968. The guitar is really easy to play due to a 630mm scale length, low action, and a narrow and thin neck. The trouble was that it had an annoying buzz on the low open strings, and sometimes in the 1st and 2nd fret positions.

Of course, my immediate thought was that it would be a simple action or fret issue – the action at the first fret was quite a bit lower than I would normally have a guitar set up. Normally I set the first fret action on the 6th string to about 1mm so that I can really dig in when I am playing and not worry about buzzing. This guitar was just about 0.5mm at the 1st fret, 6th string, which is very low for a classical guitar.

With this in mind, I started by trying to raise the action at the nut, adding shims and hoping to get rid of the buzz. Nothing worked – even when the action was well over 1.5mm, the buzz rang out, maybe even worse than before.

So I removed the strings and reached inside the guitar, thinking that I might find a loose brace. And I did – there was a pad just under the bridge that was not glued down very well, so I thought “awesome, I’ve solved it. Simple fix.” I boiled up some glue and worked it into the crack, which took some doing – it is not easy to get glue into a place that you can’t see. It took two sessions of gluing to get the pad secured. I let it sit for a day and then restrung the guitar only to find that my repair had done absolutely nothing for the buzz.

Next I checked the tuning machines – they seemed to rattle a bit when tapped, and the buzz did sound faintly metallic, so perhaps it was just a sympathetic buzz from old tuning machines. But even when I removed the offending tuner, the guitar continued to buzz.

Fed up, perplexed, and frustrated, I decided to get some felt and mute all of the possible rattles from strings and tuning machines just to make sure that it wasn’t just a loose string end buzzing against a piece of wood or a back buzz from one of the strings where it touched the headstock. It wasn’t any of these things – the buzz continued.

Then I decided to take a closer look at the bridge, and noticed that the string holes in the tie block were extremely worn. I also noticed that when I touched the 6th string behind the saddle, the buzz stopped. At this point I was pretty sure that the buzz was coming from the saddle, so I just had to figure out how to stop it. I decided to try an absurdly high saddle to see if that would stop the buzz, and it did. Finally there was no buzz. Of course, it also made the guitar completely unplayable, but at least I knew what the problem was.

Because of how worn the tie-block holes were, there was almost no break angle over the saddle, so the bass strings were flapping against the saddle. This explained why the buzzes only happened with open strings or in the lower positions – playing a note a the 12th fret or in a higher position would put enough force down on the saddle to prevent the buzz, but there was not enough downward pressure with open strings or in the first and second frets.

All I had to do was figure out how to repair the holes and/or change the string-break angle. Luckily I was spending 24 hours by myself in a car last weekend (13 hours to and 11 hours back from Virginia for my concert in Charlottesville), so I had plenty of time to come up with ideas.

Solution number 1 would be to use a higher saddle. The trouble with that is that the action at the 12th fret was already about 4.5mm, which is about the highest that I would like it to be for playability. A higher saddle could also compromise the intonation of the instrument, so I decided against this.

Solution number 2 would be to somehow make tiny wedges to attach inside the worn tie block holes. I ruled this one out because it seemed way too finicky and liable to fail in the next couple of months or when the strings get changed.

Solution number 3 would be to remove the bridge and either make a new bridge or repair the existing one. I decided that this would potentially cause a lot of damage to the instrument, and would be very labour intensive, so I decided not to remove the bridge.

The final solution that I came up with was to just replace the tie block itself. This was by far the simplest, least invasive and most likely to last solution that I could come up with, so I got to work by cutting off the tie-block with my Japanese saw. I then cleaned up the cut with a small plane, chisel, and some sandpaper so that the tie block area was left perfectly flat and ready for a new block.

I used the saw to cut off the tie block because I wanted to save the mosaic inlay that was atop the block so that I could attach it to the new block to make the repair less noticeable.

I made a new block out of ebony – the original bridge is rosewood, but I decided to use ebony so that the holes don’t wear as badly. Once I had the block sized and drilled, I glued the original mosaic veneer to the top

and then glued the tie block to the bridge.

I fashioned a makeshift caul for the inside of the guitar out of cork and a scrap piece of wood, and clamped the tie block much like I would a bridge.

After a little bit of clean up and a quick coat of shellac, I think it looks pretty great:

The repair is not invisible – if you look closely, you can see that the tie block is now a sandwich of rosewood and ebony, but it is not noticeable at first glance.

Of course, the best part is that this repair worked. By increasing the string-break angle by a little bit (I should have measured the before and after), I managed to eliminate the buzz, and improve the tone of this guitar. This was a good exercise for me actually as it proved the importance of a good string-break angle in guitar construction. (This was not the fault of the original builder, just the wearing of time). I will be more aware of this in my own construction from this point on.

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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.

Updates, concerts, and next projects

Although fall doesn’t officially start until the end of September, to me September 1st feels like the start of the new season, so I decided that it was time for one of my semi-annual newsletter blog posts this week. Also, a lot of things have come up over the last couple of weeks, so I have a few things to share!

Upcoming concerts

As you know, over the next year I will be finishing up the recording of my first CD, so, in theory, I should have a good list of repertoire to draw on for concerts. I have set up a few in Ottawa – Dominion Chalmers in November, Glebe St. James in March, St Luke’s with Craig in April, and Trinity Anglican in July, and of course, I have my first concert in the States at the end of this month in Charlottesville. All of the details for these concerts can be found on my website here. It has been a few months since the last time that I performed, so I am looking forward to getting back on the stage. Of course this means that I need to get back into a better practising routine, so that will be my focus for the remainder of this month!

Once my CD is released (late spring/early summer 2019), I will put together some sort of a tour outside of Ottawa to visit some of my favourite recital spaces across Ontario and wherever I can find a willing audience! If you are interested in having me come visit your neck-of-the-woods, please let me know in the comments below, and I will do my best! I can’t promise anything outside of Canada at the moment due to Visa requirements, but I will do whatever I can to make it work 🙂

Next builds

As my current build is coming to an end (the final blog post should come out next week), I was starting to wonder what I would be building next, and all of a sudden I ended up with 2 more commissions! I am very excited to get started on these guitars – one a Padauk and Engelmann spruce guitar, the other made of Ziricote and European spruce, however, I will likely not get anything going until after my workshop is at least partially remodelled in October.

I have already ordered most of the wood for these guitars, and it is quite the colourful selection!

In the meantime, I have a couple of (hopefully easy) repairs waiting in the shop – classical guitars with buzzes, cracks, and holes, and a very interesting mandolin to spruce up and get back into a playable condition.

As I mentioned above, the main project for this fall will be the re-doing of my workshop with the help of my family. I am excited to learn how to frame a wall, hang drywall, and do all of that DIY home reno stuff. With this project, I’ll first be separating my work space from the furnace, utilities, and laundry machines so that I can control the dust in the house a little bit more. To that end I’ll also be purchasing and installing a proper dust collection system. If I have the time, I am also hoping to install a ceiling so that I don’t have quite as much of a problem with dust settling on the pipes and wires in the ceiling. Once that is sorted, I’ll be focussing on building a proper bench (or 2) with a solid, smooth work-surface that caters to my needs. I’ll also be installing shelves and every possible storage solution that I can think of to keep my workshop more tidy and functional.

New directions

Another new development in the past few weeks is that I have taken on a part-time elementary music teacher position at a private school here in Ottawa. I will be teaching ukulele and guitar to grades 4 through 8 two afternoons a week. This is something fairly new for me – I do have some group guitar instruction experience from work that I did in the summer between university years, but I have not really been traditionally employed since high school. I am looking forward to the new challenges that this will bring!

Of course, this means that I am having to work even more on my time management skills as I somehow have to fit in 8 hours of school work, 30 private students, practising, building, administration, lesson preparation, and whatever else that crops up into a reasonable work-week that allows for a little bit of “me time” as well… but that is seems to be the constant challenge of being self-employed. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do all of these things – it keeps life interesting!


On the blog here, I am planning to continue to write something for most Thursdays. I’ll be continuing the luthier interview series with another builder as soon as things calm down, and I hope to include a few more posts on books and music alongside my usual shop update posts.

As always, thanks for being a part of this tiny community. I’ll repeat myself from earlier in this post – I really do feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do everything that I have been able to do these past few years. I never intended this blog to be much more than personal blog to marry my love of guitars and woodworking with my love of spilling out words. It is hard to believe that this is blog post #161 and that I started this 5 years ago in August of 2013 when my sister said that I should write about the Baroque guitar that I was building at the time. Since then I have been in 4 different workshops, 6 different homes, and have turned my hobbies and university degrees into a career. I have built about 15 instruments since the start of this blog and have learned so much. I can’t wait to see what the next 5 years will bring. (Hopefully less moving, more instruments, many blog posts, and a few big goal achievements and life changes)

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.