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!

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Completed guitar No. 020

The guitar is finally finished! I say finally, because in my initial plan, this guitar should have been completed a few weeks ago, but life got in the way and I stalled repeatedly in the final stages of building.

Overall, this guitar has turned out quite well. The guitar is quite loud and seems to be well balanced through the basses and trebles, although it is early days yet. Most of the woodworking is tidy, although the perfectionist within me is not entirely happy with all of the purfling lines. There will always be something to improve in this work, and, as frustrating as it can be, this is one of the main reasons that I keep building.

As a quick review, this is a Cedar topped classical guitar with quilted maple back and sides. There is also a decent amount of ebony in the guitar between the inlays, fingerboard, and bridge. The scale length is 640mm (25.1969 inches) and the guitar is based on plans drawn up by my father when he started building in the early 1990s. The guitar is housed in a Visesnut case, which I have to say is quite nice. Great service and amazingly quick free world-wide delivery as well. I’ll be ordering more in the future.

This guitar, on request of the customer, is finished with an oil finish, which is rather unusual. Most classical guitarists look for a super shiny French Polish finish, so it was refreshing to build this for someone who wanted something a little less flashy. I used the Tried and True Varnish Oil (available from Lee Valley), which was actually the finish that I used on my first guitar. It is easy to apply and rubs out to a nice matte-satin sheen that emphasizes the grain of the wood. I think that it looks especially nice on the quilted maple of this guitar.

As noted in my last building update, I attached the bridge before applying the finish. I would never do this with a gloss finish – the bridge is too much of a pain to work around – but with a rubbed oil finish, this is definitely the way to go. I actually applied a bit of the oil to the bridge and the fingerboard as it adds a nice layer of protection and a bit of a sheen to the ebony.

The Varnish Oil seems to leave softwoods significantly less shiny than it does hardwoods, but the top still has a subtle sheen and definitely doesn’t look like bare wood.

The soundport on this guitar makes a huge difference for the player’s experience. Soundports on guitars (the little hole in the side of the guitar, in the picture above) act like monitors and allow the guitarist to hear herself more clearly. When playing this guitar over the past week, I have really been quite taken by how much more sound this guitar seems to make because of the soundport. Without a soundport, the guitar seems to send all of the music out to the audience (which of course, is most often the goal when playing a concert), so the player’s experience of the music is somewhat compromised. I think that, for guitarists who are primarily playing for their own pleasure, the soundport is a truly wonderful feature. I’ll definitely be building more guitars with soundports in the future.

The tuning machines are matte gold Gotoh premium tuners with ebony buttons. These tuning machines match the rest of the ebony on the guitar as well as the matte-satin finish quite well, if I do say so myself.

Finally, a look at the rosette. Generally, it turned out well. There are a couple of dark greyish line blemishes in the finished rosette, probably from dust creeping in as a result of not filling the tiny gaps right away. This results in the rosette not looking quite as shiny and clean as it could.

Even with the blemishes, I think this is a pretty unique and striking rosette. I might reuse this in the future – it could make for a neat series of maze/labyrinth guitars.

And that’s it. Next week, or quite soon, this guitar will be heading off on an adventure across the world to find her new owner. I have to say, I am quite nervous at the prospect of shipping a guitar so far. Of course, I will also miss the guitar itself – she has been quite a pleasure to get to know so far.

More projects coming very soon – I have a Zither to repair along with two more guitar builds to start. Someday I’ll get to those other partially completed guitars… I really don’t like leaving partially completed gaps in my catalogue, but it can’t be helped at the moment.

One more picture to end… and does anyone else want a dress made out of quilted maple? I can’t help thinking that it looks like fine silk.

Bridge basics

It has been a while since I have actually shown step by step details on what I have been doing, so I thought that it was time for me to write a procedural building post. I almost remembered to take photos of all of the steps, and I will fill in the details with words.

Function of the Bridge

Most obviously, the bridge functions as a place to tie the guitar’s strings, however, the bridge should also be thought of as a kind of soundboard brace. In fact, this is likely the largest and heaviest brace on the soundboard, especially in a traditional classical construction.

When the guitar produces sound, the bridge rocks back and forth as the vibration of the strings pulls and pushes on the bridge. This rocking causes the soundboard to move and amplify the vibration of the string to something that the audience can hear.

Because of this, the bridge needs to be strong but light – you don’t want the bridge to weigh down the soundboard and impede vibration! For this reason, I probably should not have used ebony, however, this wood fits with the guitar’s aesthetic, so I used it anyway. Other wood choices for the bridge would be rosewood (and woods similar to rosewood), walnut, or (historically), fruitwood.

Construction

To start out with, you need a bridge blank, which, for a classical guitar, should be a minimum of 7 1/2 inches long, 1 1/8 inches wide, and 3/8 of an inch tall. As I said before, I used a piece of ebony.

The bridge blank should be cut to size (7 1/2 in x 1 1/8 in x 3/8 in), and carefully squared on a sanding board and/or with a plane.

The next step is to mark up the blank.

Start by marking a centre line across the centre of the bridge blank (hamburger style). Then mark the cut lines for the wings, marking 41mm on either side of the bridge blank (half of the 82mm centre block in the diagram above). Then mark the tie block, which should be 12mm wide, and the saddle slot, which is angled to allow for more compensation on the bass strings and less on the trebles.

Then make the first cuts to remove excess wood from the wings.

The wings are then thinned to about 3/16ths of an inch thick, either by cutting the excess off using a bandsaw or handsaw, or by carefully removing the excess wood with a chisel. Because this is ebony, I went for the bandsaw option.

Then we deal with the centre block, cutting the tie block and saddle slot lines.

I cut the tie block with my Japanese saw, and the saddle slot with my basic small cross cutting hand saw. I widen the saddle slot by inserting an old scraper into the first saw cut and then cutting right beside the scraper. This gives me about the right width for my saddle slot (just shy of an 1/8th of an inch). I clean up the saddle slot with a bit of sandpaper and my narrow chisel.

With all of the cuts made, I use a chisel to remove the excess wood between the saddle slot and the tie block (photo forgotten, so take a look at the finished photograph at the end of the post). This creates the valley behind the saddle that allows the strings to be tied to the bridge.

Then I just have to drill the string holes in the tie block. I am using a simple 6 hole tie block for this guitar, but many luthiers have now moved to a 12-hole or even 18-hole bridge to allow for prettier string attachment. I’ll be looking into that for my next guitars.

The holes need to be on a slight angle, so I use double sided tape and a couple of C-clamps to attach the bridge to a piece of angled wood to hold the bridge firmly during drilling. I use another C-clamp to hold the set up to the drill press. This stabilization is very important. Trust me – I have broken several drill bits while drilling string holes, and every time it has been because I was not keeping the bridge in a stable position.

I used a 1/16th inch titanium drill bit for the string holes. Don’t attempt to drill these with poor quality drill bits – again, I have broken several poor quality bits (and the broken bits get lodged inside the bridge and then you have to start all over again from the beginning).

After this, it is just the cosmetic work left. Shape the wings as you desire – I round them over and taper the ends in a very traditional way, but there are so many other options to look at in modern guitar construction. Before attaching the bridge to the guitar I polish the bridge up with fine grits of sandpaper.

Before attaching the bridge, the bridge needs to be fitted to the arch of the soundboard. This can be done by laying a sheet of sandpaper directly on the soundboard of the guitar and then sanding the bridge until it fits that curve.

Then it is time to locate the position of the bridge (string length plus a bit of “compensation” to have the guitar play in tune), and glue the bridge to the soundboard. Because of the finish that I will be using on this guitar, I decided to attach the bridge before applying finish. Most of the time, I would leave the bridge until after finishing, so I would have to mark the bridge location and carefully scrape off the finish so that the glue could stick.

Of course, I forgot to take photos of the actual gluing set up. I made a caul to fit over the fan braces on the inside of the soundboard, and then used two Cam clamps and a long throated C-clamp to hold the bridge in place while the glue set. Here is a picture of the caul:

I use a bit of double sided tape to hold the caul in place. Do not use as much as I did – this caul was really difficult to remove!

And that’s it! Next step: finishing!

Closing the box, binding, and a fingerboard

It has been three weeks since my last update on this guitar, and, although I am not quite as far along as I had hoped, the guitar now looks like a guitar and is just in need of a good sand, a bridge, finish, and set up before I can ship it off to Singapore.

Sides

I left off the last post with the neck attached to the soundboard, so the next thing on the list was preparing the quilted maple sides. These needed to be thinned to about 80 thou (2 mm), and then were bent over a hot pipe. After this, I cut, thinned, and bent basswood linings and a walnut soundport reinforcement. I then drilled out and shaped the soundport from the bass side upper bout. With all of this done, I fit and glued the sides to the soundboard.

Here is a close-up of the soundport reinforcement and my signature on the inside of the guitar:

If you look at the pictures above, you can also see the brace end feet and side braces. Brace end feet give extra support to the braces and prevent braces from coming loose over time. They also give some additional support to the sides of the guitar.

Because quilted maple is flat-sawn, it is much less stable than most of the quarter-sawn wood that is typically used for guitar building, and has a tendency to warp and distort with the heat and moisture during the bending process. Because of this, I made sure to brace the sides with narrow maple braces where the sides seemed in need of additional support. Here is a picture of my simple clamping set-up:

I think that this might be my tidiest guitar interior yet. I am always aiming to build a guitar that I would not be embarrassed by if another luthier were to open it up for repairs! This one is getting closer…

Back

With the interior of the guitar finished, I fit and glued the back, closing the sound box. I used tape and my retired bike inner tubes to clamp the back to the sides.

This was followed by the first stage of major cleanup to prepare for cutting the binding ledges.

Inlays and Binding

Before installing the binding, I inlayed the butt-joint decoration, which was designed to match the headstock veneer. I used the same ebony that I had used on the headstock and inlayed that with simple white veneer lines. I also used this decoration for the heel cap.

The heel cap needs a bit of cleanup, but here is the rough state it is currently in:

The binding is made of walnut with black and white veneer strips to match the back centre stripe. I really like the way walnut works with the quilted maple, and the clean black and white lines work very well with the ebony inlays and the maze rosette. I think this is one of my most cohesive designs yet – can’t wait to see what it looks like when it is all tidied up and finished!

After a good amount of sanding, I moved on to the ebony fingerboard, which needed to be flattened, thinned, cut to size, and slotted before being glued to the guitar. The scale length on this guitar is slightly smaller than standard – standard being 650mm from nut to saddle, and this guitar being 1 cm shorter. I actually have not built a full scale length classical guitar in quite a while! Everyone seems to be after the slightly smaller, easier to play guitars, and I definitely understand why! When I finally have time to build myself a guitar, I will likely be building myself a 640mm scale length as well.

And that is it! Tomorrow I’ll start the final push to the end of this guitar build by carving the neck, sanding everything, and building the bridge before finishing, fretting, and setting up the guitar for playing. I have to get this guitar finished soon – I have two more guitars to build before July… so much for my one guitar every 3 months scheme :/

Bracing, back, and headpiece

It has been a couple of weeks since my last building update when I described my rosette inlay process for the maze on this classical guitar. Along side all of my other projects (lute repair, a guitar repair, and all of the non-building things), I have kept progressing on this guitar build, although not quite as quickly as I had hoped. The soundboard is now thinned and braced, the back is put together and braced, the neck is constructed and attached to the soundboard, and the sides are thinned and ready to be bent.

Soundboard Bracing

After thinning the soundboard and cutting out the sound hole, I got started on the bracing. I am using my father’s fan bracing pattern for this guitar, which features a symmetrical Torres inspired fan pattern with V braces in the lower bout and a sturdy X-brace in the upper bout. I like to start with any flat braces before moving onto braces with a radius or curve, so on classical soundboards, I always apply the sound hole reinforcement first, and then move on to the upper bout bracing, which is generally the flat section of the top, before finishing with the lower bout, which is generally slightly domed.

The sound hole reinforcement on this guitar is a donut shaped piece of cedar. I have oriented the grain of the donut perpendicular to the grain of the soundboard. The donut is about 1/2 an inch wide.

The upper bout is reinforced with a spruce X-brace. In recent guitars, I have used two cross struts for the upper bout, but the X-brace is definitely a stronger way to go. The cross lap joint used where the braces intersect must fit tightly together so as not to buzz when the guitar is played. 

I am pretty happy with how the joint came together:

Once I was sure of the joint’s snug dry fitting, I checked the braces to make sure that they sat level on the soundboard, and then glued them in place. Once dry, I tapered the brace ends and shaped the tops of the braces to a dome, leaving the centre around the joint flat

The lower bout is a straightforward arched 7 fan layout with an arched cross strut below the sound hole and two arched V braces below the fans.

Back

The back and sides for this guitar are going to be made of a beautiful piece of quilted maple. The client also wanted a stripe of walnut down the centre of the back, so I used a piece of quarter-sawn walnut that I had in my stockpile and decorated the joints with black and white purfling lines.

To brace the back, I used a rather wide centre stripe reinforcement so as to cover the entirety of the walnut centre stripe. I used Engelmann spruce for the centre reinforcement and had the grain running perpendicular to the grain of the back.

The braces are also of Engelmann spruce, and are slightly arched with domed tops and scalloped ends.

The sides will match the back, and I am not yet decided as to how or whether I will bring in a little more walnut – the guitar might end up with walnut bindings, but that decision is still up in the air!

Neck and headstock construction

This guitar has a very standard stacked Spanish heel construction with a scarf jointed headpiece, so I won’t bore you with too many of the details of the basic construction. I talked about heel construction options here.

I did, however, decide to install a carbon rod down the centre of this neck to add strength, and to allow me to make the neck slightly thinner than normal as requested by the client.

The head plate is made from a single piece of ebony that I sliced into angular sections so as to create a simple geometric design to complement the black and white lines of the rosette. The rosette is primarily white, with black lines for the walls of the maze, so I thought that a predominantly black headstock with simple white veneer lines would provide a good balance while still keeping the modern geometric aesthetic. The crest shape is my more modern asymmetrical shape that I have used on other guitars in the past couple of years.

Before attaching the neck to the soundboard, I cut the slots in the heel for the sides and carved the heel. There is some fine sanding left to do before the guitar is finished. 

The guitar should look like a guitar in the next couple days, and then it will be on to finishing touches, a fingerboard, and a lot of sanding before applying the finish. The next time I write about this guitar (in a few weeks), it will probably be complete!