A guitarmaker’s shop is a bit like a kitchen. A multitude of simmering pots, clanging of utensils and dishes, grinding, chopping, sauteing…. Guitars being finished, new ones started, repairs large and small under way. It is a beautiful thing, and I like the pace as well as the ever-changing scenery.
Currently, I am working on two guitars. Both will have European spruce soundboards. Here is a bit of history about the one with a German spruce top. While attending one of the Guild of American Luthiers conventions, I had chance to participate in an auction (a fundraiser for the Guild). I bid on a set of German Spruce, donated for the cause by a well-known luthier Robert Ruck. The top had obviously been around for a while, judging by the oxidized surfaces. A pencil mark noted a year going back to early ’70s. Another pencil mark mentioned Hart Huttig, who was a luthier himself, as well as a wood merchant. This old spruce set will be paired with an equally (actually, more so) old set of Brazilian Rosewood to produce a new flamenca negra. After the top is joined at the center seam, it is time to move on to the rosette.
The channel, or the trough for the rosette is ready. Traditional Spanish rosettes consist of lines, as well as mosaic tiles. When making this type of rosette, I begin by gluing in the lines first. The middle section of the rosette is where the mosaic tiles usually are. several waxed place-holder veneers are glued-in along with the other, permanent lines. Once the glue is dry, the “dummy” veneers are removed.
In the photo on the right, you can see the placeholder veneers after they have been removed. The wax layer on these lines prevented them from permanently adhering to the adjacent lines, or to the bottom of the rosette channel. Once these lines are evicted, new tenants–the tiles of the rosette move in. This is a new set of rosette tiles which I’ve created. In the end, each handmade rosette ends up containing several thousand minute bits of wood.
While the rosette work is happening, a neck is taking shape as well. In the traditional Spanish style, the neck and the soundboard are the first to be joined together. I leave the neck square, and finish-carve it when the rest of the instrument is completed. The headstock is easier to carve while the neck is still separate. Since I take a low-tech approach to guitar construction, there is no need to make shapes “router-friendly”. The guitar head shape is cut out with a coping saw. Chisel, file and a knife finish the rest. The color of this head shape looks a bit dull at the moment, but will deepen and darken considerably, once French-polishing commences.
Since both, the spruce soundboard, as well as the old growth Brazilian Rosewood tonewoods were cut and decades ago, it seemed wrong to utilize recent spruces for the soundboard bracing. A couple of months ago, I was re-doing my shop space, and had to remove an old wooden wall in my studio. The house is about 100 years old, and the wood in those wall boards was gorgeous, old growth Douglas Fir. I decided to recycle some of the wood into guitar bracing.
Putting a froe to use, I rived (split) a bunch of pieces. The upside of splitting the brace stock, as opposed to sawing it, is that any runout becomes immediately obvious. Twisted and crooked pieces become kindling, while the straightest, lightest, and stiffest pieces become premium bracing stock.
Hand-splitting bracing may seem like an esoteric distinction, until timber structural properties and load bearing tolerances are brought into picture. Sawn bracing, at least theoretically, can be every bit as good as split stock, provided the wood had absolutely no runout. In practice, however, avoiding runout on sawn stock is very difficult. So, the froe comes to the rescue. Speaking of the froe, I found mine at an antique store, and it is an oldie. It appears to be forged by hand. I rather like the idea of a blacksmith pounding away on the glowing hunk of heated steel, working it into a blade against the massive anvil.
Here is a shot of the bracing glued into place. Notice how parallel the growth rings are to the braces. Light, one-hundred years dry, and beautiful!
Time for a brief squeeze, as the sound box is assembled. In this photo, using some hide glue and rope, the back is attached to the sides of the guitar, as well as to the little “Spanish slipper” or the foot of the neck. This process locks the neck-set of the guitar, and is a critical step that can make or break the guitar’s playability.