Friday, August 26, 2016

F is for Figured

For the longest time, I haven't had much to write about concerning building guitars.  Life got complicated and I got busy and in the process, became disconnected from my goals.  And from my happiness.  And that became a problem.  Luckily, my shrink quickly helped me realize that, as a creative person, I need to create.  And so...

 photo image1.jpgThis is a pile of lumber that I picked up from a local favorite, Youngblood Lumber in NE Minneapolis.  If you shop for "Guitar Wood" online, you will typically find individual pieces of lumber that are cut to size for the specific need, such as necks, electric bodies and so on.  Typically, electric guitar bodies are made up of at least two joined pieces of wood and they are sold ready to go, and prices start around $50.  But if you are willing to make a little sawdust and do some gluing, you can save a ton of cash!  This stack, plus the following hunk of flamed maple cost me $60.  That's enough wood for five guitars, one with a very nice looking curly top.

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 Gluing two pieces of wood together sounds like the easiest thing in the world. True joinery is an art unto itself though and it takes a deft hand to create a sound and perfect glue joint.  I mostly still do a pretty good job of it, but it is challenging!

This axe was my first commissioned piece.  I designed it for my buddy Dave from the ground up with lots of insider details.  We call it the DC Alpha.  I was very happy with the way it turned out, but the time is here for the prototype to go into production.

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 One cool thing about my job as a wood finisher in a Millwork shop is that I have access to a bunch of big tools, and sometimes to the people who run even bigger tools.  So, long story short, I re-drew the blueprint for this guitar with some nice changes included, and then passed it off to one of our CAD drafters.  He made a drawing that our CNC guy plugged in to our machine and then seconds later. I had my new body template in hand.

 It is not that easy of a thing to cut a shape on a band saw and then refine the edges until they are perfectly smooth without unsightly bumps or ridges.  This template gives me that perfect outline to trace onto a body blank.  I still cut the piece by hand, but then I have the template and a flush trim router bit to bring a slightly bumpy cut out into a duplicate of the original template.  And this makes each guitar more consistent in the final product.

Here's a body blank, ready for the band saw.

  And here's a herd of clones that are ready for the next step.

 There are three more of these in the back seat of my car.  Next, I need to make hardware and pickup choices for each instrument.  Then I will fabricate more templates that will allow me to route out the cavities for these additional parts.  It's exciting to see these taking shape!

Along with different hardware options, I am going to produce a few different finishes that will add to the modern appeal of this design.  The original idea for my DC Alpha design was inspired by the idea of a Telecaster meets The Jetsons.  I definitely wanted to veer towards the future of guitars, not the past.  Here is a sample of a finish I am working up.  It involves laying up epoxy over some vintage polyester that came into my possession.

I love the classic shapes of the Stratocaster and Telecaster, but there are so many boutique builders out there remaking these tried and true guitars!  It seems that every week, there is another new builder making copies of worn out guitars from the 50's and 60's.  I respect the dedication and outright SKILL that it takes to mimic an old, distressed guitar, but Leo Fender made these guitars by innovating, not by copying.  I say, find some inspiration, and then do something new with it.

One of the builders out there right now who is innovating and producing World Class guitars is Tom Anderson Guitarworks.  I am fortunate enough to own one of his masterpieces and I am absolutely gobsmacked by the instrument!  The fit and finish is the best I have ever seen from any maker, and I have played a lot of guitars in my day.  One brilliant step forward is the Anderson neck joint.  His Isosceles Trapezoid-shaped neck joint is so stable, that it only requires two screws, rather than the usual four found on most bolt-neck guitars.  All this while remaining incredibly comfortable and offering unimpeded access to the upper frets.  I am inspired!  And I hope some of the craftsmanship invested in this instrument rubs off on me while I continue on this journey.  Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 21, 2014

That's a wrap...

As I peer through panes of plate glass, my gaze is fixed on the heaps of snow in Loring Park.  The rapidly shrinking heaps of snow.  And the expanding patches of yellow-green grass that will soon dominate the landscape.  Good golly, Miss Molly... I am so ready for this.  It was a bit demoralizing to road trip to the Rocky Mountains and find less snow on the ground at 8,500 feet above sea level than we have littering the average boulevard in Minneapolis.  That said, the trip did remind me of some fantastic things that I dig in my city.  Wedge Co-op, I love you.  Hardwood trees visible from horizon to horizon, you are beautiful.  My sweet, tone-full guitar collection, I will never leave you again.  Thanks for waiting for me.  Though the Rockies are incredible, Colorado just isn't home anymore.
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The eastern slope of the Rockies aka The Front Range.

Ok! It's about time to set the neck on this puppy.  I am trying something different this time and that is, finishing the neck and body separately, like a lot of boutique builders do.  Once both pieces are finished  on their own, I will glue them together.  I've chosen to use a tung oil finish on the neck and shellac via French polish on the body.  The tung oil finish feels great in the hand.  It penetrates and seals the wood without building much film so you can feel wood.  It has an attractive low sheen and it feels smooth and inviting in the hand.  Shellac yields a peerless, glowing beauty that is perfect to enhance the figure and depth, aka chatoyance, that is inherent to Koa.  Plus, you can get this level of beauty with a very thin coating, which is a great boon to getting maximum tone out of the instrument.  A thick finish on an acoustic instrument is like putting a blanket over the sound.  Why would you?
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Before finishing, the wood surface itself has to be perfected.  If you put finish over flawed work, the defects are magnified in a big way.  Instead of sandpaper, I used my thinnest cabinet scrapper to prepare the wood surface for finishing.  Sanding actually pushes dust into the pores of the wood.  Shaving with the cabinet scrapper leaves a smooth surface that shows maximum clarity of grain after finishing.  I followed the scrapping with two grain-raising processes and a nice rubdown with pieces of "horsetail".  This is a plant found near water.  In other words, all over Minnesota.  It has some very fine but stiff ridges that de-whisker the raised grain and leave the wood ready for coating.

This finishing/assembly approach necessitates locating the bridge and fingerboard on the body prior to gluing, which takes some extra care and time.  Regular old low-tack painters tape is used to cover the areas that need to stay bare.  These bare spots are necessary for quality glue joints.  After the finish is applied, the tape is pulled off to reveal clean wood ready to be glued.
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This shot shows the body after finishing.  Note that the fingerboard overhang area in the upper bout has had the tape pulled off.  The bridge location is still covered. The neck joint area is also absent of any finish, which would interfere with adhesion.

The design of this kit is somewhat flawed in that the neck/body joint uses a dowel to add sturdiness.  Unfortunately, the pre-drilled location is not quite in the proper place.  I miraculously re-located and drilled a larger hole for a bigger dowel.  After double and triple-checking the fit, I tested my gluing approach with dry clamping and then went for the money. 
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The fingerboard adds a lot to the overall look and it becomes obvious that I've got a one-piecer on my hands.  Now to get that bridge glued on...  My local Ace hardware had some great C-clamps that were the perfect size for this tiny piece, and they were nice and cheap.  That's what I'm talkin' about!
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Before gluing the bridge, I removed the tape that kept the wood bare, and then corraled that bare area with more tape.  This creates a bit of a safety that prevents creeping of the piece while the glue sets up.

I let the piece sit overnight and went shopping for strings.  My friend Chad at Encore Music set me up with a cool set of red ukulele strings.  These are the ones you want!  The next day I strung her up and spent a great while just grinning.  She looks and sounds great.
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Almost finished!  Turns out that I bought the wrong size case and needed to improvise.  My idea was to make the case convertible, from soprano to concert-size (two different scales of uke...) and back again.  I created some foam blocks that fit the smaller size instrument and covered them with some nice crushed velvet.  This modification yielded a nice snug fit in the case.  The blocks can be pulled out to fit a larger concert uke whenever you like. 
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This was a lot of fun to build.  It's fun to play and a gorgeous piece of work to boot.  Next time, I'll get a song video posted and maybe a few highlight photos too.  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 13, 2014


This is an appropriate title, as the instrument being built and documented in this blog is made of Koa, a tree endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.  And the ukulele is a distinctly Hawaiian tradition.   And, the act of closing my eyes and imagining a sun-soaked beach lined with palm trees is actually helping my poor cold toes feel a little warmer.  Aloha.

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Ok.  Let’s get to it.  The binding has just been glued into the prepared channels on the ukulele.  Filament tape makes a reliable clamp while the glue dries.  Once that’s done, it’s a good idea to take care whilst removing the tape.  Some species of wood are very likely to have some amount of grain pullout.  The tape can actually pull away wood from the project.  Mind the grain run out! I pull low and away, successfully.

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As with any gluing operation where the clamps obscure the joint, there is some cleanup to do after the clamps come off.  In the case of binding, there’s usually a little glue squeeze out to remove, and typically, a bit of wood too.  The way to achieve a nice installation is to cut the binding channel the tiniest bit too big.  After gluing, scraping away that little bit of “proud” body wood from the top, back or sides brings everything flush and the actual binding material retains its’ original height and width.  

For this process, out comes my handy cabinet scraper.  This tool cuts fast and leaves behind a wonderfully smooth surface; one that looks and feels polished.  Bravo to whoever it was that pioneered the scraper.  Unlike sandpaper, you can use the scraper all day long and all it costs is the time it takes to re-sharpen it.  Cool!

At this point, the “box” was basically finished.   Good thing too because we were ready for some time apart.  So, I moved on to the neck.  The first thing to do was to redesign the headstock shape.  The neck from the “kit” came with a pre-shaped headstock.  It was nothing special and as I've mentioned before, my plan was to customize every possible aspect of the build.  So, a new headstock shape is required.  I looked to my original “acoustic headstock design” from back in my school days for inspiration. 
I scored a 9/10 on this drawing.  Ostensibly because tuning machines do not look like my depiction of them.  Everyone knows that the gear sits below the tuner post, not above.  Thanks, Mr. Vincent. At any rate...

After a few test drawerings, I determined a size-appropriate layout for the shape and the logo inlay. The logo is based on the Fibonacci spiral and fashioned out of abalone and mother-of-pearl.  
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Cutting these pieces requires patience and finesse.  The blades for the jewelers saw are super tiny and easy to snap, so it’s always a good idea to buy more before you run out.  I got through it ok.  Some fitting and filing yields a good looking piece with accurate lines.
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After laying out some guide lines on the head plate, I used some double stick tape to adhere the inlay onto its future location.  Using the back edge of a #11 X-acto blade, I carefully scribed around the piece making sure to create well-defined corners.  Pulling off the tape reveals a minutely oversized outline of the inlay.  

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I set up a Dremel tool to make a cut that is just slightly shallower than the inlay piece is thick.  A bit of chalk dust scraped into the outline helps me see what I’m up to.  After cutting, a little chisel work helps square up the corners.  Guess what?  It fits.  Some ebony dust and super glue and a little filing completes the job.  Very special thanks to my friends Leo and Lisa for the loan of their tools and helping me do this the right way.

 photo IMG_1867.jpg This shows the piece after gluing and before it was filed down flush with the headstock overlay.

Going back to my headstock design, I created a template from the drawering.  The template is created with center lines to accurately locate it on the headstock.  A quick trace around the perimeter transfers the shape onto the headstock.   

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 Since I don’t have a band saw, I called on the jewelers saw to do some work it was not really meant for.  It took a bloody long time to finish the cuts but they came out really nicely and required only a little cleanup. 

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I'd installed the frets into the fingerboard weeks before any of this went down.  Except for setting the neck and finishing, most of the heavy lifting was finished at this point.  I couldn't resist aligning all the pieces for an early peek at the finished product.  This is what I saw...

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This view is only a tenuous balancing act.  In the next post we'll get this all wrapped up and move onward and upward.  Thanks for reading.