Choosing the “right” tonewood for your guitar can feel overwhelming. In our google age, it isn’t all that difficult to reach an information overload threshold. Seemingly profuse search results, however, are not guaranteed to satisfy our curiosity. Too many options and conflicting accounts! You can select among the traditional or alternative tonewoods. Outrageously figured and exotic, or plain and subdued offerings. Not to mention all the inherently elusive tonal and sonic considerations.
And yet, tonewood selection process can sometimes be elegantly direct and simple. Jerom, a fellow who commissioned this guitar, grew up in coastal California. As a young boy, he remembers playing among Monterey Cypress trees. So, he chose Monterey Cypress as the tonewood for his blanca. And why not?! I find beauty in an opportunity to weave in a guitar that special memory, a sensation, an emotional connection to a particular event or a place. Such guitars seem to be laced with the aroma of music from the very beginning. Plus, Monterey Cypress is a lovely wood, and a close cousin of the Mediterranean cypress.
At the outset of this project, Jerom requested that the guitar possess a certain vintage feel, including the rosette, as supplied in a photograph of a guitar by Hermann Hauser I. Herringbone type motif was used in the center of the rosette. The whole arrangement is actually three different rosette rings separated by a bit of undisturbed spruce in-between each circle. Sections of multi-line veneers are cut into sliver-sized pairs, to be glued into the channel.
My rosettes are built individually, directly into the soundboard. While this approach is not optimized for speed, it certainly offers nearly endless flexibility and creativity.
From time to time, I question my insistence on doing everything from scratch. It would certainly be faster and cheaper to have specialists manufacture my rosettes, bindings, purflings, etc. My dilemma with such approach is this: How would one know where to stop? Why not outsource necks also? Come to think of it, finishing can too, be done by someone else. While at it, should I also order a batch of bridges made to my spec? Perhaps fingerboards should all be pre-slotted, backs and soundboards joined….etc. etc. By this stage, it would seem strange to call oneself a luthier. Guitar Assembly Coordinator might be more appropriate, I would think. My current perspective is to learn to love the journey, not only the destination. To imbue each, even seemingly mundane process, with meaning and purpose. I hope the embodied presence of the guitars shows it. Perhaps with luck, even the rosettes (whose contribution to musicality is close to nil) would encourage the guitars to sing more sweetly.
One of the many benefits of working simply, without over-reliance on specialized jigging, is the ability to utilize remnants of various bindings, purflings, etc. in the rosette and other decorative embelishments. In addition to frugality, another important benefit is achieved in the guitar’s overall visual language. Reusing existing hues and textures throughout the guitar provides for a better flow, and a sense of continuity and unity in the finished piece.
Maybe it is just selfish me, but I feel that a hand plane and a bunch of shavings look a lot better in my shop than a drum sander, dust collector with its requisite hoses, wires, and the abundant decibels of noise. Oh, but they say it is a lot of work to plane by hand. Yes. Do you know anyone who drives to a gym in order to walk on a treadmill? I am spared from such luxury, in part thanks to my manual (some say inefficient) tooling. There are many other advantages to planing by hand, and if you are curious as to why, please don’t hesitate to ask. Also, there is no such thing as unusable shavings. I have a woodstove in my shop, and they are superb for starting fires!
In case you noticed the different hand planes in the photos, you might be wondering why so many? I confess, it is not necessary for a luthier to have more than about three planes. I am a bit of a hand plane junkie, and over the years, collected a few wooden (European and Japanese) planes, as well as the brass and metal-bodied type. All planes essentially perform the same basic task of removing controlled amounts of material from wooden surfaces. There are, however, good reasons for having different sizes, as well as types of planes, as they have been designed to excel in specific applications.
In concept, woodworking (and guitarmaking to an extent) is not really all that complicated. A clean, crisp pencil line needs to be placed in the right place, and the woodworker be able to work up to that line in a predictable, clean fashion. The rest is details ;)
Technology brings along new solutions, opening up new vistas and possibilities. With the gains, come also the drawbacks. Routers, in particular, gained a broad acceptance in the woodworking and lutherie shops. A router can save a lot of time and labor, creating ledges for bindings, shaping neck profiles, etc. One of its major trade-offs, however, is its inability to handle tight inside corners. Since routers make life easier, lazy human natures begins to devise ways to avoid sharp inside corners. Take a peak at many contemporary headstock designs. No inside corners. I’ll let you guess why that may be the case. And yet our eyes, even if only subconsciously, notice their absence. After all, intricate, and often delicate nature of corners and terminating points has been a part of our visual vocabulary for a long, long time. I carve headstock shapes by hand, placing an emphasis on the flow and harmony of lines. Why settle for a router-friendly headstock design when greater possibilities exist with a simpler tool?!
Basking in late afternoon sunshine, pouring through the shop window. This guitar back is ready to be attached to the body. I heard that Spanish luthiers counted the moment of guitar’s birth when the box was sealed. It is spring time outside, and even though I typically take snapshots of my guitar building process indoors, at the bench, the pull to sneak outside for a photo or two is too irresistible! I think I will have to do that before the box is sealed! Portlanders await spring time with eagerness, as our winter is rather drawn-out. Available light is low, and drizzling rain is all too common. I’m sure that on a sunny day, the guitars must feel the same eagerness to get outside!
Time to prepare an ebony fingerboard and make a bridge. The guitar will soon be ready to receive strings, and go through final tuning and tweaking before French polishing commences.
Completed guitar photos will be posted here when ready. If you’d like to hear from me with updates, I invite you to share you email contact info here